This biography of George Orwell draws on a range of sources including letters concerning his romantic attachments to other boys at Eton, records which alter the conventional view of his military service, a detailed set of medical records and 200 letters and scripts discovered in 1984. Also included are sections from a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London with handwritten annotations by Orwell indicating how much of the book is based on real events. Michael Shelden is the author of Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon.
WAIT, WHAT’S THIS? YOU JUST READ AN ORWELL BIOGRAPHY
Yes, this is a different one. This is the Authorised Biography.
ARE YOU SERIOUSLY ASKING US TO BELIEVE THAT AFTER 600 PAGES OF ONE ORWELL BIOGRAPHY YOU HAVE NOW READ 500 PAGES OF ANOTHER ONE?
No… I only read some parts of this one.
Well when I read the Bernard Crick one he added a chapter at the end where he gets into this big smackdown cage fight with the other guy, Michael Shelden. Harsh words are said and I became intrigued. With these hoity-toity literary nobs you usually don’t find them slagging each other off.
I SEE THAT SHELDEN’S ONE IS CALLED “THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY”
Yes – that’s the kiss of death for me. Why do they call biographies “authorised”? Isn’t it like saying “the widow and the family have okayed this snow job, everything embarrassing has been removed”? I always avoid authorised biographies.
WHAT’S THIS FIGHT ALL ABOUT THEN?
Well when Sonia Orwell decided there should be a biography she picked Crick to do it, in the late 70s. So he was the authorised guy. But when she read his book she hated it (“too political, too dry and too unsympathetic”) so she de-authorised him! And tried to stop him publishing it! But she had lost the contract she had with him! Literally! Couldn’t find it! So he went right ahead. Then she died. 11 years later Shelden popped up with his authorised one in which he trashed Crick, then Crick republished his book in which he trashed Selden. Pistols at dawn.
WHAT DID CRICK SAY?
He moans that Shelden engaged in “aggressive commercial rivalry”. “He acts as if scholarship is a boxing ring”. But more to the point this whole fight is between two incompatible ideas of what biography should be. Crick says
I grew to be sceptical of much of the fine writing, balanced appraisal and psychological insight that is the hallmark of the English tradition of biography
and more :
readers should realise that they are often being led by the nose or that the biographer is fooling himself by an affable pretence of being able to enter into another person’s mind.
I realise that the externality of my method runs the risk that I appear unsympathetic to Orwell
Crick thinks you should report what the person did and wrote and what happened to them. Psychology is out. This is why Sonia thought it was “dry”. Having read it I kinda see her point. There are juicy bits of Orwell’s life that Crick scuttles away from. For instance the embarrassing period after his first wife’s death when he went round proposing marriage to no less than four women, one time using the come-on “would you like to be the widow of a literary man?” and on more than one occasion physically grabbing and pawing them. This sexual harrassment is in Sheldon and not in Crick.
WHY DID SONIA SCREAM AT CRICK “OF COURSE HE SHOT A FUCKING ELEPHANT”?
Crick hemmed and hawed about whether you should take some of the essays Orwell wrote to be the literal truth – his memoir of his prep school was one he doubted, and “Shooting an Elephant” was another.
Sonia Orwell once screamed across the table at Bertorelli’s (to the delight of other clients) “Of course he shot a fucking elephant!” I said that none of the old hands could remember such a remarkable incident and I’d searched the Rangoon Gazette in vain. “Bloody fact-grubber!”
AH YES, SONIA
She is included in the amusing memoir by David Plante called Difficult Women. He says
Sonia was naturally ill-tempered, as if just having to live, day after day, were reason enough .
Crick gives a great example
She drank a great deal and was either shouting at me “Can’t we have lunch like two friends without your talking bloody notes all the time like a policeman?” or demanding “Why am I wasting my bloody time giving you all this when you are not taking a single fucking note!”
There are ten or so pages just about Sonia in Shelden’s book – they’re fun but Crick is quite right to say that a biography of Orwell shouldn’t be about what his widow did after he died, should it? (Sonia was married to Orwell for a whole three months.) There’s something funny here though – Sonia thought Crick was too dry and unemotional; his replacement Selden takes his time to pretty much trash her as an obnoxious gold digger and that the marriage was a fairly cold blooded deal between the two of them (“He needed someone to take care of him and help him stay alive and the reward would be the income from his books”). Sheldon later says
In the meantime Sonia tried to make a new life for herself, with the help of Orwell’s money. Her period of mourning was short.
It’s quite possible that Sheldon’s biography is way more amusing than the one I read.
It is a credit to this biography that I almost started crying on the bus when he died. While Shelden occasionally fawns over his subject, the book is full to bursting with anecdotes and quotations from Orwell and those who knew him. Highly recommended for casual fans of Orwell -- you might, like me, become devoted.
George Orwell (Eric Blair) was an amazing writer and reading about his personal life was incredibly inspiring. I thoroughly enjoy reading autobiographies about people like George Orwell because they remind me how productive a person can be if they discover their true passion in life and go after it. While some of his early works were less successful, all of Orwell's have given me great pleasure over the years. This autobiography was the perfect ending to reading his collection. Sheldon paints such a wonderful picture of Orwell's life that it's as if you are reading a novel and not an autobiography. If you're and Orwell fan I highly suggest that you read this book in order to get to know him better and see that his life was truly full of adventures and hard work.
This comes across as a fair and balanced view of the life of George Orwell (though the writer does struggle to hide his dislike of Sonia, Orwell's second wife). I suppose the trouble any Orwell biographer faces is that Orwell put so much of himself into both his fiction and non-fiction works that a separate account of his life is almost superfluous.
This was a slow start for me and about 1/3 the way through the book I didn't think I'd rate it so highly. While some of the details on Orwell's life feel overdone, they culminate to show the development of Orwell's character. From his beginnings as a fairly uninteresting writer he becomes someone rich in life experience to the point where his thoughts and opinions are still pertinent 70 years after his death. I especially liked how Shelden weaves Orwell's personal life in with his books and offers a deeper insight on their interpretation, all without offering spoilers. This book has certainly inspired me to read and reread more of Orwell's novels.
A thorough and quite readable literary biography for non-academic readers, but including just enough academic apparatus to verify the content and to lead ambitious readers more deeply into the subject, which is fascinating.
This particular biography came at just the right time to include many interviews with people who had known Orwell in life. Those first-person experiences now are generally no longer available, so kudos to Michael Sheldon for getting them on paper before they were lost.
Great book. I had no idea about Eric Blair life before Animal Farm. good to read if you are interested in Great Brittan between WW1 and WW2. and all of the interesting social reform Eric wanted to happen using the Pen name, George Orwell. I love the parts about Tramping (living off the street) and all of the articles and reviews Eric Blair wrote from the mid-'30s until the end of his life in 1950.
A wonderful read. Yes, as others have noted, this is a long book, but so varied and curious were the stages of Orwell's life that, if anything, I found myself wanting more not less. That Sheldon is himself a writer of unusual clarity makes him a perfect match for someone like Orwell who seemed especially to love precision and provocation. Now that I've turned the last page, I'm torn between reading more Sheldon or reading more Orwell.
Such a thorough and, mostly, dispassionate view of an amazing life. It really gave the reader a dense amount of fact from varied sources and presented it in a very clear and engaging way. I, like another reviewer, was moved at his death and the loss to the literary world.
But also rethinking 1984 as a novel written by someone dying and in pain makes a lot of sense. I also would love to read an account of his "death dreams" he'd been having for the last two years of his life. Where are these?
Subtitled ‘The Authorised Biography’ this very thick and comprehensive study is an essential tool for anyone studying the life, times and obsessions of one of Britain’s finest novelists. After reading Homage to Catalonia I knew I needed to find out more about this man who fought for the Republican cause in Spain and who then fought in words against Communism and its final solution, which involved bowing down to authority even at the cost of surrendering one’s right to disagree. Orwell is a strange British author who takes nothing on trust and journeys from Burma, to Spain, to Paris, to Marrakech, to the island of Jura and almost to India in search of human nature in all its idiosyncracies. In searching out ordinary people Orwell tested his leftish principles in the slums of London, dishwashing in Paris, and down the mine in Wigan. Orwell needed to see how people lived and what they felt about it.
He seems to have sacrificed his personal life in a quest for freedom. Beginning as a reporter he is soon drawn into political issues, writing for all the major English journals, until Gollancz eventually published his Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Homage to Catalonia (1938) was in its criticism of Communism too controversial for Gollancz, but he returned to safety with The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and was finally released from Gollancz for his finest work: Animal Farm (1946) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948).
This is a very entertaining, enlightening and thought-provoking biography of the writer who contributed two of the most important books to the world's literary canon - "Animal Farm" and "1984".
Not only does it weave in very intimate details of Eric Blair/George Orwell's life, it also examines how his experiences with the institutions he belonged to (e.g. student at private academies, policeman in colonial Burma, volunteer Leftist soldier fighting against Franco during the Spanish Civil War, journalist in the BBC, etc.) finally coalesced in his magnum opus "1984."
I loved every minute of this book, especially since it provides the deliciously funny irony that while Orwell is regarded as a metaphorical brick in the intellectual ramparts of civilization, the man himself was thoroughly anti-establishment.
Highly recommend. It will give you, as it did me, a greater appreciation of Orwell's work.
I enjoyed meeting Mr. Orwell so much I'll give author Michael Shelden a qualified five stars. I almost quit before it began when the introduction referenced details I didn't understand (because I hadn't read the book yet, Mr. Shelden) but the chronicles of Orwell née Blair were such a beautiful blend of chronology, personal reflections from letters, journals and interviews, and the informed, subjective interpretations by the author that I went back and re-read the intro as an epilogue and delighted in its original intent.
Orwell was a genius, a boob, a loving father and a man whose actions mirrored his values. His work meant everything to him, even above his mortality and his wife Eileen. Call him thoughtless or a purist of integrity, he followed his gift and his heart.
This biography does a fantastic job articulating Orwell's life, love and work. The great part about Shelden's analysis of Orwell's work is that he praises what Orwell does right, but doesn't let Orwell get away with anything. Some biographies are books that gush over their subject; books that don't have anything negative to say at all. Shelden isn't negative, but he recognizes that Orwell's earlier works aren't his best, and that his writing was a work in progress. The biography does a beautiful job blending Orwell's personal life with his work, and the book is very through and very well done. It's really great when a biography about a fantastic author is written by a fantastic author. The book can be a bit slow at times, but Michael Shelden knows his stuff, and it's worth reading by any lover of Orwell.
I savored this book, reading a little at a time. The style is a bit dry, but Orwell's early life and the things that influenced him made this an interesting read. Thick and comprehensive, some the facts felt like facts-- dry and a bit slow reading,but the number of things Orwell did in the the short time he was alive is inspiring. 1984 remains one of my favorite novels, and having read it again recently I was intrigued by the similarity of the world we live in today with our own computers spying on us. Power always corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely in Orwell's world. Some might see it as dark but look deeper at the reflection of life itself in Orwell's writing. This book offers lot of anecdotes and even those not as familiar with Orwell's work, might become fans after reading this biography.
Nearly 30 years ago I read many of Orwell's essays and Animal Farm. They are some of my favorite writings. I had never read much about Eric Blair's life. Shelden does a masterful job of weaving Orwell's writings (books, essays, and letters) with letters and interviews of people who knew him. Blair/Orwell comes to life such that I dreaded the completion of 1984 and his death that quickly followed. This is an excellent biography of an insightful man. I highly recommend this book.
A well researched and engaging biography. My knowledge of Orwell going in was much thinner than I had anticipated; for example, I had no idea he had spent five years in Burma and had written about it. What the author did particularly well is link Blair's life experiences and acquaintances to scenes and characters in his books. What I might have liked a bit more of was the development of Orwell's voice and style. He spends a fair amount of of time asserting how distinctive they are but does little to substantiate or describe their evolution over Orwell's lifetime of writing. That may have strayed into literary criticism so perhaps that is why this topic received less attention. But this is a quibble in the context of a very good read.
Some biographers get too involved with the work of their subjects and not enough with the person themselves. This is not the case with this book. Shelden gives a full picture of the man that created Animal Farm and 1984, without getting shackled to those two books (the first isn’t mentioned until around page 360). Shelden’s has an easily read writing style, and doesn’t assume that the reader is familiar with the subject matter already. All around a very good biography.
Orwell was a fascinating figure and this biography does him justice. He was anything but a doctrinaire anti-Communist as one might suppose from Animal Farm and 1984. To the contrary, he was a committed democratic socialist, who was probably happiest puncturing the pretensions of his political compatriots. He was also a true English patriot, who saw happiness and freedom in small things, rather than large ideas.
This is the first full length biography I've ever read about a writer just because I was interested in them. Its fascinating to fill in all the holes after reading all of Orwell's nonfiction, and also to get a sense of the kind of person he really was. This is only for pretty dedicated fans, but I enjoyed it a lot, and also thought it was a great piece of writing.