Getting Orwell straight is a challenge. Readers value different elements of biography: adventure and love, psyche explained, character displayed, history made vivid, ideas elucidated. No one account need best serve all purposes, and a reconstructed life is so much created, not simply observed, that another effort is always justified. Shelden's commendable study of Orwell is marked by intelligence, dogged research, fine literary analysis. It serves both a serious general reader and those who must know "everything" about Orwell, yet it is not my favorite.
The author claims two accomplishments: new information and a new interpretation. The new information is clear, often identified as such. Examples are Blair's (Orwell's) attraction to certain boys at Eton; clarification of what was autobiography and what fiction in Down and Out; propagandistic use by POUM of Blair's enlistment in their militia unit; Spanish Civil War colleague Georges Kopp's real background and his love for (possibly with) Orwell's wife, Eileen; the importance of Eileen's brother's to medicine and to Orwell (had he lived, he might have saved Orwell's life); an actual Manor Farm; prison-visits; his second wife's sexuality (difficult, because repressed by nuns at convent school).
New as these facts may be, substantial agreement still exists on the basics with other Orwell biographies. That Shelden interprets the life or thought in a significantly new way is not apparent. A familiar Orwell emerges.
Orwell's life deserves to be told, Shelden writes, because his work matters. Because he "created a literary voice that is one of the most compelling in the history of English prose." The more we know of a writer's character and personal history, "the better we are able to appreciate his work." The "inner life" counts as much as exterior events, and he seeks to fill in the unobservable gaps.
Bernard Crick, whose fine Orwell biography is sharply dismissed by Shelden, is more reluctant to claim a view from inside Orwell's head. He takes the political writing and deeds to be central, sees Orwell as essentially a political thinker. Crick accepts a core of mystery, while Shelden more daringly tries to explain Orwell's (and others') …