Orwell: Champion of Underdogs

PERHAPS no writer in this century succeeded so well as George Orwell in portraying the dark confusions of totalitarianism in such crystallizing phrases and images as "Big Brother," the "Thought Police,Doublespeak," and "Hate Week." His prophetic, dystopian novel, "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949), and his Swiftian fable, "Animal Farm" (1946), were acclaimed in his lifetime and have gone on to become classics.

Many of his earlier works Down and Out in Paris and London,The Road to Wigan Pier," and his riveting eyewitness account of the Spanish Civil War, "Homage to Catalonia are models of political and social reportage. The posthumous publication of his collected essays in 1968 afforded still more proof that journalism could aspire to the title of literature in the highest sense.

But for much of his life (1903-1950), Eric Blair, who took the pen name George Orwell on publishing his first book in 1933, tended to think of himself as a failure. Born in India to a father who served the British Empire in the morally dubious, officially sanctioned role of supervising its profitable opium exports to China, the infant Eric Blair and his older sister, Marjorie, were taken back to England by their mother, a spirited woman with artistic leanings.

Orwell's recollections of the tyrannies of his first boarding school, St. Cyprian's, would become the subject of his famous, ironically titled essay, "Such, Such Were the Joys."

Shelden draws on interviews with people who knew Orwell at various stages of his life to cast fresh light on Orwell's rather gloomy view of himself. Weighing the evidence for and against the school, Shelden begins by casting doubt on Orwell's version, but concludes that there may have been truth in his charges after all.

Despite his probably justified hatred of their teaching methods, Orwell did well enough at St. Cyprian's to be accepted as a King's Scholar at Eton, which he later praised for offering its students a sense of freedom. But he did not distinguish himself academically there, and, instead of going on to a university, decided to become an officer in the Indian Imperial Police.

He spent the next five years in Burma, where he came to feel that imperialism was not only an insult to the dignity of the subject peoples but also an injury to the self-respect of "rulers" like himself, placed in the false position of having to pretend they knew best. Shelden takes issue with the widely held notion (based largely on Orwell's own account of his police career) that he was shunted from post to post because his superiors felt he didn't fit in. Shelden presents evidence that such moves were standard practice, and that, despite his distaste for the job, Orwell was successful in his work.

Orwell's decision to become a writer entailed considerable financial sacrifice. And it took him some years before he decided to concentrate on political writing. Shelden demonstrates the surprising degree to which the writer who became famous for his plain-spoken prose and profound political convictions had once cherished a hope of following in the more "aesthetic" footsteps of men like A. E. Housman and James Joyce.

From boarding school to Burma to the Spanish Civil War, where he fought as part of an anarchist unit that caught more flak from its Communist Party allies than from the fascist enemy, Orwell's experiences seemed to reinforce his deeply held belief that failure was somehow more honorable than success. He was determined to lead his life in opposition to what he felt were the prevailing values of his first school: that Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserve d to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly. Yet his talent and fighter's instinct ensured him of some measure of success as a champion of the underdog and the enemy of all who believed that might makes right.

This is the Orwell that Shelden presents in his crisply written, well-organized biography.

There is a clear, daylight quality about his narrative that brightens what was often a rather sad story. Orwell lost his first, much-loved wife, Eileen, when she was only 39, and died himself at the age of 46 after many years of ill health. Neither got to watch their young adopted son grow up. Orwell's hastily acquired second wife, Sonia, whom he married, literally, on his deathbed, allowed the boy to be brought up by Orwell's devoted younger sister, Avril.

Shelden is able to call his "the authorized biography" because he is the first of Orwell's biographers who did not have to cope with Sonia Orwell as literary executrix. Before her death in 1980, Sonia (one of the three "Difficult Women" profiled by David Plante in his book, and the model for the forthright but testy Elvira in Angus Wilson's novel "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes") had denied Peter Stansky and William Abrahams permission to quote from Orwell's writings in their biography. She had subsequently withd rawn her approval from Bernard Crick, whom she herself had chosen to write the "authorized" work. (His book was published despite her objections.)

Discussing his predecessors, Shelden is kind about Stansky and Abrahams (he can afford to be); more critical of Crick, whom he considers dry and unimaginative. Shelden's life of Orwell is lively enough. "Authorized" in this case does not mean stiffly official: Orwell's current literary executor allowed Shelden a free hand. The new information Shelden provides about Sonia's girlhood and Eileen's distinguished academic background helps flesh out their characters.

Sheldon does not spend much time on literary criticism. Nor does he indulge in psychoanalysis of Orwell's life. There's something to be said for avoiding both these areas, especially the latter, although some readers may find his approach a little too light and his neatly encapsulated, easy-to-digest chapters a little too thin.

But Shelden provides a lucid and sensible introduction to the man and his work.

For all the additional details and shadings his research contributes, Shelden's final portrait of Orwell still bears a strong resemblance to the Orwell most readers feel they know: a courageous, self-effacing man, socially awkward, intellectually independent, committed to writing the truth, whether or not it happened to be "politically correct" or financially inconvenient.

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