Orwell and the shooting-stick


OrwellMichael Shelden, Heinemann, pp 536, 1991

SEVEN YEARS AGO a young American professor stumbled upon a treasure-trove of almost a hundred unpublished letters. The letters, from George Orwell to his agent Leonard Moore, had lain for many years in a forgotten corner of the Indiana University library. Excited by the discovery, the unknown academic, who was already researching a book about Cyril Connolly, wrote an article about his find and sent it to the Times Literary Supplement. His article was published and a few months later he found a publisher on his doorstep bearing  the literary equivalent of a glass slipper: he was invited to write the new authorised biography of George Orwell.           

Michael Shelden has clearly been a great deal luckier than most would-be biographers, and during the time he was researching his book he made more finds. He has prised out several new facts on Orwell’s early life and he has done a good deal of research in order to build up a fuller picture of Orwell’s time in Burma. He quotes a suppressed passage from one of Orwell’s letters in order to bring to life his affair with Eleanor Jacques in Southwold, and uses it to link their secretive outdoor love-making to the love-affair in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He has also turned up new facts on Orwell’s difficult relationship with his publishers, on his first wife Eileen, and on his time at the BBC. He appears to be well-informed on Sonia, whom Orwell married quite literally on his death-bed in 1949, and on whom he based Julia, the redemptive sexual ‘angel’ of his last and most famous novel.

But although some of Shelden’s discoveries are interesting they do not in themselves add up to a justification for a book, let alone a full-scale life. For facts do not make a biography. Biographers do.

One of the problems with Shelden’s approach is that at times he seems less like a biographer than a defence attorney whose concern to uphold his client’s good name has become tied up with anxieties about his own professional respectability. There is, for example, the question of Orwell’s dirty postcards. Orwell himself was not ashamed of his affection for the vulgar seaside postcards of Donald McGill and he made them the subject of one of his most interesting essays. This essay is a defence – almost a celebration – both of cultural ‘lowness’ and of what Orwell describes as ‘the outstanding, all-important feature of comic post cards – their obscenity’. Strangely, however, Shelden’s discussion makes no mention either of sex or of obscenity, entering instead the bland plea that the essay is ‘an argument in favour of those claims on our attention which we are tempted to dismiss as useless, trivial, and even faintly absurd’. It is almost as though Shelden feels that since rude postcards and sexual vulgarity are politically suspect, it will be better for Orwell’s reputation if the full facts are kept from the jury.

Even worse than the problem of sex is the problem of violence. Shelden is particularly troubled by Rayner Heppenstall’s account of how Orwell, with a look of ‘sadistic exultation’, attacked him with a shooting-stick when he returned home drunk one night to the flat they were sharing in London. ‘This story has sometimes been used,’ says Shelden solemnly, ‘to demonstrate that Orwell was a repressed sadist whose fame as a “decent man” is unfounded.’

He then goes on to present the case for the defence. Instead of quoting Heppenstall’s account, Shelden tells the story in his own words, changing active verbs to passives and tidying away details. Heppenstall writes: ‘There stood Orwell, armed with his shooting-stick. With this he pushed me back, poking the aluminium point into my stomach.’ Shelden writes that ‘Orwell was standing before him with a shooting-stick which was used to push him back into the room.’ Heppenstall’s ‘He fetched me a dreadful crack across the legs’ becomes ‘He was hit across the legs with the stick’. Heppenstall goes on to describe how, after Orwell raised the shooting-stick over his head, he seized a chair and held it up ‘to receive on it the first crash of the descending metal-fitted stick.’ In Shelden’s version this becomes ‘He looked up to see another blow on its way. He managed to block it with a chair.’

Inadvertently Michael Shelden has managed to produce an exercise in practical criticism which should be taught in every sixth-form in England. By smoothing away the details of the ‘metal-fitted’ shooting-stick with its ‘aluminium point’, he comes close to converting a potentially lethal weapon into an innocuous wooden stick. Far more importantly, by switching from the active to the passive voice he makes Heppenstall’s assailant virtually disappear. In the last two sentences Orwell becomes completely invisible as, in a minor syntactic miracle, the final blow becomes the author of its own violence.

Having blurred and softened the incident by retelling it, Shelden points out, correctly, that Heppenstall had attempted to hit Orwell first. He then suggests that, since Heppenstall was drunk, he may not have seen a sadistic expression on Orwell’s face at all. The whole tendency of Shelden’s account is to shift the responsibility for Orwell’s violence onto Heppenstall.

It is difficult to avoid recalling Orwell’s own advice in ‘Politics and the English Language’: ‘Never use a passive when you can use the active’. It is doubly difficult because, in discussing Orwell’s essay, Michael Shelden himself has this to say: ‘The cold, impersonal passive voice does wonders for anyone inclined to write bad English … the passive helps to obscure the troublesome question of responsibility.’

Shelden’s attempts to dismiss Heppenstall as an unreliable witness might be plausible if Heppenstall had portrayed Orwell acting out of character. The difficulty is that Orwell acts in character. This never becomes apparent in Shelden’s book because of the way he deals with the many examples of Orwell’s ‘sadistic streak’ which were related somewhat reluctantly in Bernard Crick’s biography of 1980.

One of the great strengths of Crick’s book comes from his willingness to trust the perceptions of others, and to multiply perspectives by listening carefully both to Orwell’s contemporaries and to his critics. In almost all the significant cases Crick does not muffle their voices by standing in front of them. He allows them to speak in their own person and in their own words. He adopts the same attitude to Orwell himself and quotes from his writings frequently and generously.

One of the results of Crick’s interest in multiple perspectives is that a particular riddle of Orwell’s personality comes slowly into focus. For while he was an implacable opponent of tyranny and had an uncanny ability to understand the reality of political cruelty which others denied, Orwell was frequently violent himself. In Burma, according to his own account, he hit servants and coolies with his fist. When he was teaching at Hayes he kept a large stick by his desk and hit one pupil so hard that he had bad bruises for a week. On one occasion he slit open a live adder with a pen-knife. On another he violently thrashed a boy whom he caught blowing up a frog with a bicycle pump.

Defending frogs against bullies is itself almost a form of politics and Orwell’s savagery in the cause of the oppressed points to one of the great ironies of twentieth century history. For while most people have, with Orwell’s help, recognised that violence was intrinsic to Stalinism, very few have been able to bring themselves to believe that it was also a part of Orwell’s own political vision.

But it was not revolutions that Orwell opposed; it was their betrayal. ‘There will be a bitter political struggle,’ he prophesied in 1941 in The Lion and the Unicorn, ‘and at some point or other it may be necessary to use violence.’ After the revolution the Socialist government would preserve freedom of speech. But it would ‘shoot traitors’ after a trial and it would ‘crush any open revolt promptly and cruelly’. In a polemical poem Orwell wrote that he would himself gladly shoot Churchill after the war was won, ‘or now if there were someone to replace him’.

All these details are faithfully recorded in Crick’s richly documented and comprehensive biography. Each of the crucial pieces of evidence, however, disappears from Shelden’s version of the life. Most of them disappear without leaving any trace at all. But Shelden does write at some length about The Lion and The Unicorn. Although he omits to mention Orwell’s endorsement of violent revolution and shooting traitors, he does observe that ‘some of Orwell's ideas may be unappealing’. Shelden also took the trouble to re-interview the pupil whom Orwell hit so hard that he had bad bruises for a week. In the account of the interview he gives in the book he does not mention the violent incident specifically. But he does write that Orwell ‘could be unnecessarily strict in the classroom’. Once again it is difficult not to recall Orwell’s discussion  in ‘Politics and the English Language’ of how much political language consists in ‘euphemism … and sheer cloudy vagueness’, of how a mass of words ‘falls upon the facts like snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details’.

Orwell himself had not simply described the violence of the coming revolution in abstract terms. ‘I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood,’ he mused in 1940, and looked forward to the time when ‘red militias’ would be ‘billeted in the Ritz’. Bernard Crick carefully records these words. In the perestroika version of George Orwell, however, the blood of fallen capitalists has been sluiced away, and the pavements carefully washed. For in this new biography, which is advertised by its publishers under the slogan ‘No Newspeak. No Doublethink. No Big Brother. Just the truth,’ the evidence of Orwell’s personal and political cruelty has disappeared.

Shelden’s inability to face up to this side of Orwell is crucial. For Orwell’s violence, which will surprise only those who believe that cruelty is unusual in human beings, was not incidental to his achievement. ‘The people who have shown the best understanding of Fascism,’ he wrote in 1941, ‘are either those who have suffered under it or those who have a fascist streak in themselves.’

As these words hint, Orwell  made his own fascist streak into an imaginative almanac. Where others turned their sadistic fantasies inwards, closing them into civility, conformity, success-worship, power-worship and submission to the god of money, Orwell rebelliously opened his outwards, interleaving them with history until he could read, or almost read, the fate of twentieth-century Europe. In this same intimate almanac he glimpsed, or thought he glimpsed, the revolution which would restore to all the dignity and the riches of which they had been robbed. The great danger in Orwell’s chiliastic dream, as in all similar dreams, was that the cruelty of the instruments of liberation would cut through and destroy the sensitivity and the human wealth they sought to release.

Michael Shelden’s biography does not register this danger partly because, in his role as defence attorney, he has silently suppressed much of the evidence which gives depth, darkness and tension to Orwell’s character. The result is a moderately easy digest of Orwell’s life and work which offends precisely because of its inoffensiveness. Shelden has certainly discovered a large number of new facts, which he sticks into his narrative whenever he is able to. But the book’s texture is still excessively smooth. This is partly because Shelden’s prose is as flat and grey as the X-rays of Orwell’s lungs he examined during the course of his researches. But it is also because he quotes infrequently and ungenerously, robbing both Orwell himself and his contemporaries of their distinctive voices.

One thing which Shelden does not lack, however, is confidence. At one point he tells the story of how the young George Orwell told his American editor that he would like to write a short life of Mark Twain. ‘He seemed to have no awareness,’ writes Shelden, ‘of how unrealistic such a proposal might sound … He was asking a major American publishing house to commission him to write a biography of a major American writer even though he was an obscure English writer who had never attempted a biography and had never written anything of significance about Twain.’ By far the most remarkable thing about this story is that Shelden – a little-known American academic who has been commissioned by an English publisher to write the official biography of one of the greatest political writers there has ever been – does not seem to understand the ironies it contains. He may well be right to suggest that the book Orwell did not write would have been a masterpiece. But it seems never to have occurred to him that his own book might not be.

Interestingly, Shelden spends part of his introduction discussing what he believes to be wrong with Bernard Crick’s biography of Orwell. His assessment of Crick is so unjust that it destroys the confidence it is designed to build. But since he invites the comparison it should be made.

Crick’s politics are ultimately indivisible from his biographical method. For his book never seems to be an attempt to define or to glorify an individual in order to win fame or literary distinction or money for himself. It is a cooperative effort whose purpose is to establish and to distribute a common wealth. Shelden, however, appears to have very little understanding of the history of twentieth century politics and virtually no insight into political psychology; it is difficult to understand the motivation which lies behind his biography other than to see in it an attempt to promote its author rather than to illuminate its subject.

Crick’s book has its shortcomings. But, set alongside this new biography, these rapidly fade. Michael Shelden’s book is diligent, dutiful and dull. Crick’s is rugged, noble, generous and, above all, truthful.

A shorter version of this review appeared in The Tablet, October 1991


© Richard Webster, 2002



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