Orwell Among the Academics

Orwell Among the Academics

ORWELL: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY, by Michael Sheldon. HarperCollins, 497 pp., 1992. $15.00, paper.

Reading George Orwell tends to leave most people with an impression of knowing Orwell personally, even intimately. This is something that happens with a very few writers. It is curious that Orwell achieves this effect while disclosing very little of his intimate or personal life. For example, in his personal writings there is almost nothing about Richard Blair, his father, a minor retired colonial administrator, who all of Orwell’s adult life lived on his pension in a sort of prolonged Edwardian twilight in Southwold. Orwell tells us next to nothing about his early literary ambitions, and nothing at all about his passional life. As all his biographers have noted, he was an unusually reticent man. Yet readers feel they know him and that he is, in Lionel Trilling’s words,” a figure in our lives.” Why?

One could argue that it is the gravity of Orwell’s subject matter, chiefly his deep insight into totalitarianism, that made him into such a figure. But there have been other witnesses to the crimes of communism, and other exposers of communist lies, who cannot be so described. What is it that we know when we say we know Orwell, and know him well?