The last job for Orwell biographers is to examine his faults and catalogue his enemies. But it only serves to confirm his virtuesby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / June 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
His shadow still lengthens. Writing in Prospect on the 50th anniversary of Orwell’s death, I noted how eerily he had dominated the 20th century, the first half of which was his lifetime, the second half still more the “age of Orwell,” overshadowed by his memory. This June’s centenary of his birth finds him as much with us as ever. His collected works—every scrap of them—were published several years ago in a 20-volume edition; he is endlessly invoked, not least by those for and against recent military actions; he was apostrophised in Christopher Hitchens’s polemic Orwell’s Victory; he was chosen by Simon Schama, along with Churchill, as one of two men personifying the past century of English history; he already has been the subject of numerous biographies; and now he receives two more-one from DJ Taylor (Orwell: The Life) another from Gordon Bowker (George Orwell).
With almost any other writer—maybe even with Orwell—this would begin to sound dangerously like too much of a good thing. Might not his memory finally have become unbearable? Isn’t there something stifling about the cult surrounding him? Is his work, all of it, actually as good as his devotees insist? Didn’t he exaggerate the difficulties and reverses he had suffered during his lifetime-and wasn’t his friend Malcolm Muggeridge near the mark in saying that self-pity was Orwell’s most salient characteristic? Couldn’t he be called in some ways objectionable, didn’t his personality exhibit neurotic symptoms, and wasn’t he touchy and suspicious to the point of persecution mania? And does he really justify any more books about him?
That last is answered quite easily, since Taylor’s and Bowker’s books are very well worth reading, for different reasons. If I prefer Taylor, that is partly because I have always admired the way he writes, as much as ever in this clever and subtle book. (I have never met either biographer, incidentally; something worth mentioning in view of Orwell’s persistent belief—another side of his prickly cantankerousness—that literary London is an iniquitous den of mutual backscratchers.) Bowker sometimes seems to have rather little affinity with Orwell, and his scolding tone can be a little wearing, but the great strength of his book is its original research and revelations.
Even now, however much of his work we read, and however much is written about him, we still don’t quite know what Orwell was like. Taylor remarks on how elusive he remains, not…