"Animal Farm" and "1984" are so much a part of the educated person's life that it's hard to imagine a world without them. Yet without Eric Blair's struggle to become writer George Orwell and without his political baptism in the fires of the Spanish Civil War his satirical attacks on totalitarianism would not have been written. Both were products of an imagination in which art and politics were subtly and unshakably fused.
Bernard Crick's painstaking biography makes the point, as no previous book has. Until now, in fact, there has been no biography based on Orwell's private papers. That "George Orwell" is authorized by Orwell's widow, however, does not diminish in the slightest its claims to our attention. Indeed, the rich correspondence at Professor Crick's disposal only enhances our appreciation of a writer whose lasting fame did not come until very near the end of his life. This is an arresting, even inspiring, book about an important figure in English literature.
How important? Crick, professor of politics at the University of London, places Orwell in the exalted company of Hobbes and Swift. His Orwell was a man for all seasons -- incorruptible, egalitarian, outspoken, devoted to his craft. And, Crick reminds us, he was committed to democratic sociallism. All the same, his wartime attacks on pacifists were not always fair, and his rhetoric (he referred to some English radicals as "the pansy left") could be embarrassing. Though happily married, notes Professor Crick, Orwell was not above an occasional infidelity.
In becoming George Orwell, Eric Blair had to outgrow a conventional English youth and young manhood. Born in India to a British civil servant father and a lively, well-read mother, Blair was educated at St. Cyprian's and Eton. He was a bright, argumentative lad who learned more from his own reading than from the rote instruction of those institutions. Afterward, he followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Imperial Police in Burma. But a taste of imperialism was enough to set him forever against it.
He returned to England determined to be a writer. "George Orwell" portrays young Blair as curiously apolitical, though perhaps not to the degree that last year's "Orwell: The Transformation" by Peter Stansky and William abrahams did. Orwell's first book, "Down and Out in London and Paris" (in which the pseudonym Orwell was first used), showed deep sympathy for the poor, but its author regarded it as mere prelude to a career in fiction. Several mediocre novels followed. But with "The Road to Wigan Pier," a study of unemployment in the North of England, and the shock of Communist tyranny in Spain, his future course as political writer and foe of totalitarianism was sealed.
Thereafter Orwell could make a living, though only a modest one, as a writer. His sense of style and political purpose were maturing to the last. Surprisingly, his greatest work was not readily publishable. By World War II, with Britain and Russia linked as allies, he had trouble finding a publisher for "Animal Farm." Orwell enthusiasts may have known that T. S. Eliot turned down the manuscript for Faber & Faber, but it is appalling and not a little sad to read his tormented letter of rejection. Both "Animal Farm" and "1984," Crick points out, were often misunderstood as specifically anti-Soviet instead of generally anti-totalitarian.
Orwell grew to be a master of clean, crisp prose. Crick, However, is a biographer of the conscientious sort who sometimes bogs down in an abundance of evidence. Too often he uses three examples, quoted at length, when one or two would do the job much better. Excess baggage certainly could have been shed in the first few chapters. And since each of Orwell's books was a blend of fact and fiction, Professor Crick spends far too much time, to my taste, sorting out what actually happened.
In the long run these cavils hardly matter. For Orwell's classics will live as long as men love freedom and the English language. And Bernard Crick's biography should survive as an indispensable guide to the man who made the classics. In our age of antiheroes, it's heartening to reflect on the real thing, an indomitable spirit.