E.B. White described Henry David Thoreau, that thorny individualist, as a regular hair shirt of a man; and no matter how much we may like the Thoreau of Walden and his other writing, few of us could bear having him as a neighbor. Such, too, is the case of Eric Blair, who would become George Orwell; but who, regardless of his name, was from boyhood a difficult and complicated human being, one probably far more likable on paper than in person.

When we learn something like the whole story of Blair’s passage through St. Cyprian’s School in southwest England, we are much more inclined to see the side of the embattled headmaster and his aggressive wife than we are in reading Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys,” an essay that may turn any of us against all boarding schools. Orwell, in looking back, viewed his as a microcosm of the totalitarian state. However imperfect most of them are, the worst seldom rival, say, the Third Reich or the Soviet Union for exquisite brutality levied against minorities and protesters and all others out of step with phalanx of jackboots marching down the main thoroughfare of the state.

George Orwell, as Samuel Hynes has observed, was not a great writer in the sense that he forged an overmastering book or permanently affected any literary mode, even the essay, of which he was the most brilliant practitioner in English in our century. But Orwell made a greater impact on general culture and the common man than any other English writer in our century except Winston Churchill and perhaps H.G. Wells. He did so by a gritty and unflinching pursuit of the truth as a writer and political thinker that makes even megalomaniacs and monomaniacs seem laggards by comparison.

This compulsiveness sometimes diverted Orwell from a reasonable course in his public and private life, shunting him more nearly toward madness than sainthood. He was not simply courageous but fearless in a way that often seems insane, as Michael Shelden makes plain in several sequences. Orwell took absurd chances in the front lines during the Spanish Civil War and was shot in the throat in consequence; later, not long before his death, he endangered the lives of a boating party by being oblivious to the perils of the situation—being at sea in an open boat that had lost its motor and that was being drawn into a whirlpool. At such moments Orwell seems a caricature drawn from a boy’s adventure yarn—a figure he would have immediately recognized in another person or within the covers of a book. He was also so set on seeing the aftermath of the war in Europe that he, although seriously ill himself, was abroad when his first wife underwent surgery (and did not survive it). And, although he was devoted to her in some ways, he was not faithful to her—odd behavior for the man often called the conscience of his generation. Orwell wrecked his health for reasons that seem more nearly frivolous and whimsical than anything else.

So you may emerge from reading Mr. Shelden’s strong biography feeling dashed about the person who, against very considerable odds, made himself into a fair to middling novelist, a good broadcaster for the BBC, a superb satirist, and a great essayist. Not a man for all seasons but a writer for all seasons. A writer who could stand up for common humanity and for the common toad; a writer who could celebrate the joys of ordinary life; a writer who could attack political stupidity and savagery of all stripes, whether in England or elsewhere; a writer who did more than any other in our time to uphold human decency through the medium of the written and spoken word.

The author of Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of “Horizon,” Shelden came well equipped to write a new biography of Orwell. This book, however, was not authorized by Sonia Brownell, Orwell’s second wife and late widow, who did her best to prevent a biography from being written and thus carry out her husband’s quixotic wishes. Shelden does add new material to the earlier accounts of Orwell’s life by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams and, more recently, Bernard Crick. Stansky and Abrahams have written two volumes that take us only to 1938; Crick’s life of Orwell is more detailed but more laborious than Shelden’s. I am glad to have this faster paced and more readable life but think that the flag under which it sails—Authorized Biography—is closer to being the Jolly Roger than anything else. Anyone seriously interested in Orwell will want to read Shelden and will be well repaid, but the serious reader should remember that much of the writing about Orwell, from George Woodcock’s The Crystal Spirit onward, remains permanently valuable.

During the last year of his life, when he was failing rapidly from tuberculosis, Orwell pondered the meaning of Gandhi’s life and reflected on ordinary human existence versus sainthood. “Sainthood is . . . a thing that human beings must avoid,” he observed. He reached this conclusion after presenting the heart of the matter about our frail nature: “The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push ascetism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other individuals.” This, as Samuel Hynes has pointed out, is a good description of what Orwell himself did as a member of weltering humanity and not as a saint, which he was not.

At the same time this remarkable passage reveals why George Orwell, like E.B. White, was always the member of a party of one who lived in a time of fear but who was not too cowed to speak out. For that unfaltering courage we owe him a continuing and unpayable debt, but Michael Shelden has made a handsome payment toward that account.


[Orwell: The Authorized Biography, by Michael Shelden (New York: HarperCollins) 497 pp., $25.00]