Jeffrey Meyers delves into the inner life of a tormented literary icon
Samuel Johnson defined biography as an attempt to understand the lives of others - "an act of the imagination". Ideally, the modern biographer - an investigative reporter of the spirit - should have Johnson's sympathy and intuition, critical judgement and healthy scepticism. These new books by D.
J. Taylor and Gordon Bowker - the fifth and sixth biographies of Orwell - attempt to explore the inner man.
Orwell helped construct his personal myth, has been claimed by extremists on both the left and the right, and is still a "mentor, guide, motivating spirit and conscience", as Taylor remarks. His achievements were considerable: "an Eton scholarship, first book published before he was 30, friendships with the great minds of his age, authorship of at least two novels that literally changed the way people thought".
But, like Somerset Maugham, the writer he said had influenced him most, Orwell had a negative world view. Both men were miserable at school, refused to go to university and had their early novels rejected. They were committed to clear prose, had socialist sympathies and a desire to improve the lives of the working class. They were disenchanted with the Orient, nostalgic for Edwardian England and disgusted by modern pollution. Most importantly, both felt profound guilt and self-hatred.
Orwell's great themes are longing and loss: for his Thames Valley childhood, his intellectual freedom at Eton, the haunting landscapes of Burma, the idealism and comradeship of Spain, the neglected wife who died in her 30s, the child he was unable to raise, his brief years of good health and chance to serve in the war. Like the tubercular Robert Louis Stevenson and D. H. Lawrence, Orwell knew he was destined for an early death. Just before his tragic end he remarked: "I've made all this money and now I'm going to die." Both these biographies increase one's admiration for Orwell who, one friend observed, "in earlier days would have been either canonised or burnt at the stake".
Taylor mentions the vats of ink expended on Orwell's ghastly prep school and the shelfful of memoirs by his contemporaries at Eton. He concedes that Orwell's life is a "well-trodden path, and the scenery can be distressingly familiar". He uses Peter Davison's 20-volume edition of Orwell's Complete Works and the unpublished memoirs of Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit and David Holbrook - just as I did in my recent life story of Orwell. He asks, but does not answer, the crucial question: what more is there to be said?
There are a number of minor flaws. Taylor's doubts about Orwell's elusive life and character, although commendably honest, are tactically unwise and undermine his credibility as a biographer. He insists that there are "few verifiable facts" and "no hard evidence", Orwell "is impossible to pin down" and his motives "are unfathomable". Repeating the epigraphs to the chapters in the text blunts their effect, and there are several other pointless repetitions.
Taylor did not go to Burma, where Orwell spent five years as a policeman in the 1920s, and he gets lost in the geography: for example, Maymyo is inland, not on a peninsula; Katha is northeast (not west) of Mandalay; and the governor in Orwell's time was Sir Harcourt Butler (not Harcourt Brace, his American publisher). Other errors have also crept into the text. For instance, the van that Georges Kopp sold Orwell was not just "in poor condition" but had to be pushed off the Jura ferry and was permanently abandoned on the dock.
There are also some unresolved contradictions. Was Orwell unable to get the northern miners to treat him "as an equal" or were they "willing to take (him) for granted"? Did Henry Miller give him, when he was on the way to the Spanish civil war, a corduroy jacket or a more useful pigskin jacket? Did he leave Spain with only a tiny oil-lamp as a souvenir or did he also have a goatskin water-bottle? Did he "probably" or "certainly" make his first trip to Jura in the autumn of 1944? Was the climate of Jura "temperate", or was the remote Scottish island lashed by ferocious storms, with endless icy rain "blowing east from the Atlantic"?
Finally, Taylor does not always extract the maximum meaning from the events he describes. He asks, if Orwell was not proud of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London , "why try to get it published in the first place?"
Clearly Orwell was aware of its faults but believed in its merits. He wanted to justify his years as a dishwasher and tramp, get into print and make some money. Taylor does not fully explain the bond forged between Orwell and his devoted wife Eileen, both of whom risked their lives in Spain, or Orwell's guilt about exposing her to this risk both in Barcelona and when she visited him during an artillery bombardment on the Aragon front.
Despite these criticisms, Taylor's is a highly competent book, which reinforces rather than changes the traditional view and which has several merits. His style is clear and lively: "Orwell's novels reveal a fondness for plein air frolics"; and he sympathises with his subject. His inter-chapters on Orwell's face, voice, obsession with rats, attitude toward Jews, paranoia and possessions are useful and interesting. He has been industrious and turned up some new bits of information: Orwell being chased on Southwold common by a romantic rival on a motorcycle; Orwell working as a "male charwoman, cleaning the house for half a crown a day". He suggests that Rayner Heppenstall's description of Orwell's "sadistic exaltation" during their fight in the 1930s was retrospectively influenced by the sadistic torture scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four . He is sound (like Bowker, and in contrast to Hilary Spurling's absurd whitewash) on the self-serving character of Sonia Brownell, who married Orwell on his deathbed, and on Orwell's now-notorious but quite innocuous "list" of well-known Communist sympathisers.
However, Bowker's biography - which attempts to explore the roots of Orwell's emotional life and illuminate his shadowy self - is better than Taylor's: more lively, dramatic and penetrating. He reveals the French influence on Orwell, the dominant patterns in the life and work, the paradoxical elements of "one of the great misfits of his generation", the romantic and tragic aspects of his character. Bowker has also discovered much more new material: Eurasian relatives in Burma, letters to the unattainable girlfriend Brenda Salkeld (source not cited) suggesting a ménage à trois (Orwell said that Eileen unselfishly wished he could sleep with Brenda "about twice a year"); a letter from another girlfriend, Celia Kirwan, to her twin sister about Orwell's marriage proposal; an interview with Orwell's sometime roommate Michael Sayers; the diary of his publisher Roger Senhouse at Eton; material in the Archive de Paris, the Marx Memorial Library in London and the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam; and the Spanish political poster that probably inspired O'Brien's picture of the future in Nineteen Eighty-Four : "a boot stamping on a human face - forever".
But Bowker is more careless than Taylor. In addition to misspelling 20 proper names, he misstates the first names of John Aubrey and Heinrich Mann, and confuses a duck with a goose and Herbert Read with Harold Acton. Many of his factual statements are inaccurate.
To take only a few, Orwell's father did not remain in the same grade of the Indian Opium Department for 22 years, and his service in the Great War was reflected in the fictional George Bowling's; Orwell did not blow up toads, but punished boys who did; Rangoon is not in the mouth of the Irrawaddy Delta; Orwell's Clink (1932) was published; M laga was not captured "without a shot being fired": the city fell after a naval bombardment and a three-pronged land attack; Orwell was not "paranoid" about being murdered by the Communists: they tried to kill him in Spain and his name "was on a Moscow hit list"; V. S. Pritchett was not "always appreciative" of Orwell, but wrote a harsh and unjust review of Homage to Catalonia ; T. S. Eliot did not "resist" Orwell's invitations, but stayed overnight in his flat during the Blitz.
Bowker could also have extracted more meaning from several passages. He misses Orwell's quotation of Sir Walter Scott's Marmion in "what tangled webs we weave" and an allusion to Maugham's story "The Hairless Mexican" in his unpublished story "The Hairless Ape". It is not "astonishing" that during his wife's mourning for her dead brother, Orwell lusted after Brenda Salkeld: when Eileen rejected him and withdrew into prolonged depression, he naturally sought the consolation of other women.
Bowker fails to comment on Orwell's weirdly self-denigrating proposal to Anne Popham (which recalls Kafka's tortured letters to Felice Bauer). He also fails to note that Sonia's futile wish to save the moribund Orwell by taking him to Switzerland was an attempt to compensate for the lifelong guilt she felt about her inability to save a friend who had drowned in that country.
Bowker exaggerates Orwell's superstitious schoolboy dabbling in black magic and the negative influence of his early education at a Catholic school, for there is no evidence that he disliked the nuns or was unhappy there. He mistakenly asserts that Orwell - who did his job well and could have returned after home leave - had "failed" in the Burmese Police. In the 1920s Harold Acton had got ahead in the literary race and published several volumes of poetry, but Orwell's precious years in Burma were worth infinitely more than those now-forgotten poems. Besides a knowledge of Asian languages, Oriental people and colonial society, he gained valuable legal and quasi-military experience. While still in his teens he had tremendous responsibility. Burma was a crucial experience that provided material for his best early novel, Burmese Days . As a young recruit on the voyage out he was horrified to see a white policeman kicking a coolie, but soon compromised his values and began to beat his servants. When he left Burma he abandoned his casual brutality and taught himself compassion for the oppressed. He also gave up the purple passages in his exotic, jungly novel and cultivated a prose that became as transparent as a window pane.
Jeffrey Meyers is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has published four books on Orwell.
Orwell: The Life By D. J. Taylor
Author - D. J. Taylor
ISBN - 0 7011 6919 2
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 446