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ORWELL by Michael Shelden

ORWELL

A Biography

By Michael Shelden

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-06-016709-2
Publisher: HarperCollins

 Believing that Bernard Crick's authorized biography, George Orwell (1981), neglected the writer's inner life, Shelden (Friends of Promise, 1989) set out to discover the secret life that would help to elucidate Animal Farm and 1984. What he offers here is a biography of an eccentric, decent, sickly man, intensely private and self-deprecating, who believed that his life had nothing to do with his writing or that his life was his writing. Orwell (1903-50), born Eric Blair, educated at Eton, spent five years in Burma before becoming a ``tramp,'' an experience he described in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). He worked as a tutor, a bookshop clerk, a grocer, a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and a BBC commentator and journalist, but mostly as a writer who turned out reams of personal and literary essays and, to avoid libel, disguised his political commentary in fiction such as Animal Farm. Prematurely aged from the London Blitz, repeated bouts with TB, and the loss of his wife, he moved to the isolated Scottish island of Jura with his sister and his adopted infant son; there, he completed 1984. Orwell died in a London hospital three months after a bedside marriage to his second wife, ending a life spent mostly away from the high-living, hard-drinking writers of his generation: ``I cannot honestly say that I have done anything except write books and raise hens and vegetables,'' he wrote, taking ``pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.'' Despite his aim, then, Shelden may have proved that Orwell had no secret life, that the only pitiful thing about him was his failure to inspire love in women, that the only scandalous one was his collection of crudely captioned seaside postcards depicting voluptuous women--an expression of what Orwell called the ``unofficial self'' everyone has. Occasional glimpses of that unofficial self are, disappointingly, all that Shelden offers. (Sixteen pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)