An outstanding, if somewhat superfluous, account of “one of the great misfits of his generation.”
With Jeffrey Meyers’s recent Orwell (2000) on most library shelves, it’s hard to see the need for yet another comprehensive biography. But English literary biographer Bowker (Through the Dark Labyrinth, 1997, etc.) is determined to leave no stone unturned in flushing out the artful political writer’s emotional life, especially the distressing contradiction between his public honesty and his private furtiveness. The avid Orwellian will soon be won over by Bowker’s amiable prose and thorough familiarity with his subject’s milieu. While the text is long, it moves swiftly from Eric Blair’s “golden age” growing up in Edwardian Oxfordshire through the dreadful St. Cyprian’s boarding school (immortalized in the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”) to Orwell’s puzzling yet life-defining five-year service as a policeman in colonial Burma. (Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma, p. 403, offers superb treatment of this period.) The author authoritatively traces the evolution of “George Orwell” through Blair’s repudiation of his colonial bourgeois roots (Down and Out in Paris and London), the forging of his socialist conscience (The Road to Wigan Pier) and his deep suspicion of Soviet communism (Homage to Catalonia) toward the prophetic clarity of his political perception (Animal Farm, 1984). As well, Bowker provides excellent historical context and a nice sense of the personalities involved. He does not attempt to gloss over Orwell’s less savory qualities, acknowledging the writer’s misogyny and recently exposed tendency to “pounce” on undefended women. The final chapter takes an intriguing look at how Orwell’s work was posthumously co-opted to serve the right-wing Cold War cause due to the naiveté of Sonia Brownell, the bride he took virtually on his deathbed in 1949.
No matter how many incursions are made into his life, the compelling fascination of this politically and morally crucial author always comes through.