George Orwell commented in his Confessions of a Book Reviewer that reviewing was a thankless task. Jeffrey Meyers reports in Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation that Orwell learned to skip expertly through these worthless texts. Had Orwell been given Meyers’s biography to review, he would have read it conscientiously and thoroughly. Meyers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and author of several other literary biographies, has written a compelling and disturbing biography of Orwell. Where previous assessments of Orwell’s life and work have either vilified or canonized, depending on the author’s politics, Meyers has recounted the difficult life and complex personality of George Orwell with sympathy and balance. Meyers sought unpublished archival materials, interviews and a new edition of Complete Works to read the psychology of this fascinating literary figure. Orwell emerges as a man of enormous integrity, whose troubled personality and the literary corpus it produced seem to embody the political schizophrenia of the 20th century.
Orwell’s complexity of character is illustrated in his ambivalence toward Scotland that perhaps resulted from his childhood experience with the Wilkeses, the owners of St. Cyprian’s School (where Orwell spent miserable years and about which he wrote so masterfully in Such, Such Were the Joys), who themselves loved Scotland. Scotland bespoke wealth and prestige to the Wilkeses, a place of summer retreats for the wealthy. To Orwell it represented class privilege. He viewed Scotsmen as violent, ill-tempered and harddrinking. Yet he chose to reside in isolated Jura through harsh and ruthless winters, to the detriment of his precarious health. Meyers further emphasizes Orwell’s ambiguity toward class, reflected in the essay Shooting an Elephant, and in his choice to enter the Burmese police force instead of going to university or into a more compatible professional situation.
Perhaps Orwell’s prejudices were related to class consciousness as well. Meyers, by omission, implies that while Anglican chapel attendance was part of Orwell’s school life, his family participation in religion was casual and a matter of social position. Class consciousness does seem to have dictated attitudes toward Catholics and Jews. Rayner Heppenstall, Orwell’s flatmate for a short time, described Orwell in his prejudices as traditionally English. While Orwell’s hostility toward Jews disappeared and his Anti-Semitism in Britain warned of the rise of anti-Semitism, his animosity toward Catholics intensified as a result of his experience in the Spanish Civil War.
Occasionally Meyers is too aggressive in his psychological assertions, as when he says in reference to Orwell’s mother, Ida’s plight [the family’s being separated from George’s father while he served in India] influenced Orwell’s pursuit of attractive, solitary women. Or that George learned from them [his parents] how to disguise his feelings and distrust intimacy. These simplistic statements occur very early in Meyers’s work and are jarring because this biography in its entirety is much more subtle. Orwell’s parents were rigidly class conscious within their home, as Meyers observes, even while young Orwell, as a scholarship student at St. Cyprian’s, was looked down on by Mrs. Wilkes. Surely this social paradox and myriad others must have contributed to young Orwell’s isolation and inability to reveal his feelings. Perhaps guilt over his father’s involvement in imperialistic exploitation as an opium agent who collected the export revenues on the crop grown in India, where its sale was outlawed, played a part as well. Orwell himself certainly seemed aware of his isolation in Shooting an Elephant and Such, Such Were the Joys.
Generally, however, Meyers very carefully reads Orwell’s texts within the larger contexts of his life, the geo-politics of a collapsing empire and of World War II. A writer of Orwell’s ilk, who said he wanted to make political writing into an art, probably cannot be read otherwise. To his credit, Meyers does so definitively. Especially compelling are the description and analysis of Orwell’s Spanish Civil War experience. The conflicts among the Communist leaders in Catalonia are described with great clarity. The struggle between the Communists and POUM, which Stalin declared a Trotskyist party and into whose unit Orwell had enlisted, defined many of Orwell’s subsequent positions on fascism. The detail that Meyers brings to his analysis of these six months of Orwell’s life help to explain the poor reception of Homage to Catalonia and Orwell’s seemingly paranoid comment in Why I WriteI happened to know what very few people in England had been allowed to know, that innocent people were being accused. These months in Spain would shape his subsequent works and attitudes toward the Soviet Union and World War II. Meyers observes that Orwell, unlike many others in England in 1940, understood that revolutionary idealism was inevitably destroyed by the corrupting effects of power. Orwell in 1940, whether he realized it or not, even as he slogged through his time at the very conservative BBC (he was required to dress formally while he made his radio broadcasts) as a propagandist to encourage India to support the Allied Forces, was well on his way to Animal Farm and 1984.
The finesse of the analysis of literary output and its integration into the life of the artist is the best thing about this biography, and it is very good indeed. What emerges is a portrait of a very complex man, neither saint nor sinner. He was sometimes careless of other peoplehis wife and friends, not to mention himself. Orwell often seems to have been determined to destroy himself. By choosing to live in unnecessarily harsh conditions he was abusing a chronically frail body. Yet a man of unflagging courage and artistic integrity emerges from these pages. Ironically, Orwell’s moments of greatest professional achievement came simultaneously with his greatest personal losses. All of this Jeffrey Meyers recounts cogently and judiciously.
One of the several appendices explaining Meyers’s own misgivings about the reliability, or lack thereof, of interviews; the elaborate and very clearly presented end notes; and the photographs of Orwell and his contemporaries all attest to this biographer’s goal, elusive as it may be to achieve, to present the life of a man whose temperament was more often than not described even by those closest to him as reserved. Meyers has also recreated in rich detail the public and private forces that shaped that life. In the final chapter, which deals with Orwell’s legacy, Meyers concludes, and his rich biography has confirmed, that Orwell has taken his place with Johnson, Blake, and Lawrence in the English tradition of prophetic moralists.