The word 'biography' can create as many different expectations as the word 'Orwell'. It can mean a memorial or a panegyric, it can mean a hatchet job, it can simply mean a good read (Wyndham Lewis once said that good biographies are like novels); or it can mean something scholarly, academic, definitive: a dull attempt to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - as far as that is possible. I have no wish to say that popular biography cannot be truthful. I merely point to the paradox that the popular biographer himself does not know if he is being truthful, unless somebody else has, not sketched a character, but done the hard graft of long and patient factual investigation into the circumstances and events of a life. Strictly speaking, a truthful popular biography can only be a simplified and shortened version of an existing scholarly biography, just as all school history books are taken from academic monographs. I am proud that my life of Orwell is already being recycled and usefully plagiarised in this way, especially by people who seem to have a greater intuitive grasp of his 'essential character' than I have, though they are civil enough to praise my capacity for hard work.
LRB 7 October 1982 | PDF Download