Homage to Stansky and Abrahams: Orwell’s first biographers*

“I request that no memorial service be held for me after my death and that no biography of me shall be written.”  (Eric Blair, 18 January 1950)

“Perhaps Orwell was right to resist the idea of a biography and one might regret helping to start the onslaught. But it was bound to happen.” (Peter Stansky, 2003)

George Orwell’s last book review, of Dickens: His Character, Comedy and Career, has a characteristically authoritative opening sentence: “Literary men are apt to make poor subjects for biography, especially when, as in the case of Dickens, their careers are successful from the start” (CWGO Vol. XX: 113). Orwell thought autobiography even more problematic, suggesting it should only be trusted when revealing something disgraceful as a “man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats” (CWGO Vol. XVI: 223-4). Friends and acquaintances (Atkins, Brander, Heppenstall, Hollis, Hopkinson, Potts, Rees and Woodcock) sidestepped the thorny issue of Orwell’s request for no biography, written three days before his death, by restricting their publications to literary criticism and memoirs. Ironically, by his own definition, Orwell was not a “poor subject” for biographers and had unwittingly created a heavy burden for his widow, Sonia Brownell, until her own death in the year the first full biography was finally published (CWGO Vol. XX: 308).

The first biographies into print, The Unknown Orwell (1972) and Orwell: The Transformation (1979) by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, covered the period 1903-1937 and arguably shaped the scholarly discourse more than is generally acknowledged. Their thesis, to understand George Orwell one must know Eric Blair, explored early influences on the writer’s literary and intellectual development. Brownell, who used the pseudonym Orwell rather than Blair, even after re-marrying, had previously failed to convince Richard Ellmann (who had written biographies of Yeats, Joyce and Wilde) to take on the task and Malcolm Muggeridge, who agreed, failed to produce one (ibid. 308). The unauthorized publication of The Unknown Orwell led to Bernard Crick being granted unrestricted access to the Orwell Archive and commissioned to produce an official biography. Brownell was to become bitterly disappointed with the dry, overly political and unsympathetic representation of her late husband that Crick, a political theorist and democratic socialist, eventually published in 1980 (Meyers 2000: 317). More than a decade elapsed before Michael Shelden’s, Orwell: The Authorized Biography (1991) was released. This was followed by Jeffrey Meyers (2000) with Gordon Bowker and DJ Taylor both publishing biographies during the centenary of Orwell’s birth in 2003.


Stansky and Abrahams were not granted the authority to quote from the standard published works or materials stored in the Orwell Archive at University College, London. Stansky believes that Sonia Brownell, with whom he and Abrahams had a boozy lunch with in London during the summer of 1963, was originally very receptive to their research interests suggesting several interviewees, including Orwell’s youngest sister, Avril Dunn (Cushman and Rodden 2004: 191-2). However, this was in the context of their research being into Julian Bell, Stephen Spender and John Cornford, who along with Orwell were in Spain during the civil war. This relaxed attitude, together with copyright law, had certainly changed by 1967. Stansky explains that Brownell would permit the use of “the archive only if we would show her the manuscript” and seek “total approval” (ibid. 192). They refused.

There was, however, no compelling legal reason not to write a biography and Richard Rees, Orwell’s friend and co-literary executor, encouraged them to do so (Rodden 2009: 149). Understandably, one of the major criticisms levelled at the two biographies, even by sympathetic commentators, is that the legal reality of not being able to use quotations meant the two volumes lacked “Orwell’s voice” (Shelden 1991: 6; Rodden 2009: 150). This impacted less on the biographers than one would imagine due to the quality of both the writing and original research. They interviewed many whom had known Orwell intimately and Stansky felt “it didn’t hurt us with others that we were on bad terms with Sonia” as she was disliked by many relatives and friends (Cushman and Rodden 2004: 192).


Ironically, as The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell was published in 1968, it made Orwell’s written legacy available to the researchers while they worked on their manuscript (ibid. 187). It is important to note this ground-breaking collection, four weighty volumes of carefully selected and edited non-fiction, could reveal very little of the period prior to the publication of Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Orwell himself had written, “I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development” (CWGO Vol. XVIII: 318). Stansky and Abrahams had amassed, in their pioneering work, “a wealth of information to support the little-known fact that Blair was quite a literary man with no political orientation before he became George Orwell” when readers, more than two decades after his death, were “at last fully introduced to Eric Blair” (Rodden 2009: 149-50). 


The Unknown Orwell was widely and mostly positively reviewed on publication, as was Orwell: The Transformation (Jellinek, Connolly, Beadle, Milton and Winegarten). There were some dissenters, mostly they recognised the “impossibility” of writing a biography without the support of those who managed the subject’s literary estate (Sedgwick, Spender and Hynes). Sonia Orwell took the unusual step of writing a letter expressing dismay at what she felt was a misinterpretation of Orwell’s “character” and literary figures, who had known her late husband, waded into the debate. Stephen Spender, described as a poet of the “pansy Left” by Orwell in the 1930s (he later apologised) wrote:

“Just as I sat down to write this article, a letter appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (October 13) from Orwell’s widow, Sonia Orwell, stating that The Unknown Orwell by Peter Stansky and William Abrahams contains ‘mistakes and inaccuracies’ and misinterprets Orwell’s character, and that it was written without her cooperation (with the result that the authors were not permitted to see important documents at University College, London, which are in her trust).”

Spender’s review gives the impression of being written with Orwell’s widow peering over his shoulder. He struggled with the “Blair-Orwell dichotomy” believing they “drive the thesis too hard” making “the reader think that Orwell was a kind of split personality divided into a Jekyll-and-Hyde of Blair-and-Orwell”. However, Spender acknowledged that The Unknown Orwell was “neither gossipy nor malicious” and “it is difficult to think that seeing the withheld material would have substantially altered their views” (Spender 1972).

Cyril Connolly, Orwell’s lifelong friend, in a lengthy and positive review felt differently:

“Where I think these two collaborators have succeeded is in facing up to the difficult problem of not only “how” but “why” Eric Blair with his shabby‐genteel background and Establishment education just right for the higher branches of the civil service threw it all up to become the proletarian champion, George Orwell. ‘But it was not the name that mattered, it was the self, the essential second self which had been set free.’” (Connolly 1972)

Stansky and Abrahams interviewed Connolly several times for their Orwell biographies and while researching an earlier book, Journey to the Frontier: Two Roads to the Spanish Civil War (1966). Connolly was uniquely placed intellectually, historically and socially to understand Blair, the man who was to become Orwell. He knew most of Orwell’s literary friends and significantly, was schooled with Eric Blair at St Cyprian’s and later, Eton. Coincidentally, Connolly had been in Paris at the same time as Blair in the late 1920s, just a few streets from each other, without ever knowing it (Lewis 2012). Orwell and he corresponded about their experience in Spain during the civil war and the challenges of publishing reportage, like Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had been introduced to Sonia Brownell by Connolly, while she worked as his assistant on Horizon, a journal that published many of Orwell’s finest essays during the 1940s. Connolly’s Enemies of Promise (1938) is unique among the memoirs that refer to Orwell in that it was written prior to the fame generated by the publication of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Stansky and Abrahams must have greatly enjoyed reading his review.

Another friend, Arthur Koestler, who was very positive about Stansky and Abrahams’s work, expressed his disappointment with Crick’s biography of Orwell, believing it to be a “blurred portrait” (Koestler 1980). Raymond Heppenstall, in agreement with Koestler, employed the same adjective, “blurred”, in his review (Heppenstall 1981). Bernard Crick, in a lecture “On the Difficulties of Writing Biography in General and of Orwell’s in Particular” unconvincingly addresses the criticisms made of his work, especially by Koestler and other friends, who he felt failed to understand why he was so “explicitly sceptical of the concept of character” (Crick 1989: 125). In the same lecture, Crick manages to not mention Stansky and Abrahams – which is strange considering the topic and how many biographies were published at the time – except to say they “found a lady whom Orwell had told that he never saw a hanging” (ibid. 132) and that by their second volume “dropped” the “Eric Blair/George Orwell disjunction” (ibid. 127). Crick appears careless in making such a judgement as the textual evidence reveals this is incorrect. Part One is titled, “Beginning as Orwell” and Part Three, “The End of Blair” (Stansky and Abrahams 1979: 1, 147). On the opening page, “the difference between being Blair and being Orwell” is slight and the concluding page tells the reader that Blair was able to “find his way as an artist…he became George Orwell” (ibid. 3, 285).

Crick felt strongly that it was not possible to make a “proper assessment of Orwell until the so-called Collected Essays Journalism and Letters of 1968 appeared” which of course, Stansky and Abrahams were not permitted to quote from in their work but were able use for their research. Crick does not mention that these four volumes only include one personal letter that predates 1930 (CEJL Vol. 1 1968) which meant that the interviews conducted with those who knew Blair, before his pseudonym was born, were invaluable to understanding the first half of his life. Crick makes an important point that those who knew Orwell had their memories “contaminated” by his posthumous fame. He cites Avril Dunn, Orwell’s youngest sister, as an example, valuing her earliest interviews with the BBC in the 1950s highly compared to later ones (Crick 1989: 131). It is worth noting that Stansky and Abrahams had the advantage of interviewing many of those who knew Orwell best before a procession of biographers made their rounds (Crick, Wadhams, Shelden, Meyers, Bowker, Taylor et al).

Other Orwell biographers criticised Stansky and Abrahams’s two volumes, sometimes perceptively but occasionally misunderstanding what the vast majority of readers found satisfying in a biography. Meyers (the first biographer to publish after the release of the comprehensive twenty-volume, The Complete Works of George Orwell (1998) edited by Peter Davison) was particularly scathing in his analysis. His main charge being the Blair-Orwell dichotomy is too simplistic and not even original. This theme, he says, suggested to the authors by Richard Rees had already been explored by Tosco Fyvel, in his 1959 essay, “George Orwell and Eric Blair” and in Keith Aldritt’s book, The Making of George Orwell, a decade later (Meyers 2010: 203). Stansky and Abrahams, in their foreword, clearly outlined how this first volume came to be written and quoted Rees’s offhand remark, from 1967: “If you want to understand Orwell, you have to understand Blair …and to understand Blair – well there’s your book” (Stansky and Abrahams 1972: xiv). Considering that the first chapter of Raymond Williams’s Orwell is titled, “Blair into Orwell” (Williams 1971: 7) it is unlikely that Stansky and Abrahams were under any illusion that this had not yet been considered as a sensible approach to framing their subject’s literary and artistic development.

Meyers, with a backhanded compliment, says the most “interesting” section of the biography is on Burma, “although the authors have not found any new letters…and did not visit” the country (Meyers 2010: 204). Crick also notes that Stansky and Abrhams are “excellent” on Burma having the advantage of being able to “interview or correspond with several of Orwell’s contemporaries who were dead by the time I started work” (Crick 1992: 616). Stansky was fortunate in that he discovered a close friend’s father had worked for Burmah Oil and was a member of the Rangoon Club. Mr Cargill Thompson was able to assist with identifying members of the club who were police officers at the same time as Orwell. Many replied to letters Stansky wrote to them care of the India Office in London which greatly assisted with writing this section of the book (Stansky 2019). Due to the lack of primary sources for this period of Orwell’s life (1922-27), Crick, Shelden, Bowker and Taylor make considerable use of this information in their own biographies. Meyers’s section on Burma makes no reference to The Unknown Orwell in the chapter notes, perhaps as he visited the country (Meyer 2000: 342-344). My own research experience confirms how seminal The Unknown Orwell is for understanding Eric Blair’s experience of Burma (Moore 2018).

Of course, biographers have always castigated the works that preceded (or followed) their own. Shelden (1991: 7) and Crick (1992: 582-606) traded blows. Stansky described Bowker (2003) as having a “rather cavalier attitude to facts” and along with Taylor (2003) having “too much emphasis” on Orwell as a “philanderer” (Stansky 2003). Stansky relates an anecdote from an Orwell conference he attended, at the Library of Congress in 1984, where Jeffrey Meyers and Bernard Crick were also scheduled to speak. Considering both had made negative comments on his work, Stansky decided not to initiate conversation with either.  Bernard Crick came up to him though, and broke the ice rather wickedly: “Shall we bury our hatchets (dramatic pause) in Jeffrey Meyers’s skull?” (Stansky 2019)


The first biography of Orwell I read, in the year it was published, was by Michael Shelden (1991). Biographies by Crick, Bowker, Taylor and Colls followed. I even worked my way through Davison’s magisterial Complete Works before finally getting around to reading Stansky and Abrahams’s two volumes of biography. I had assumed their early diptych would be outdated, especially as the authors had limited archival access and were not authorised to employ quotations but I did not find this to be the case at all. In fact, they were captivating!  The thrust of their argument – to know Orwell one must understand Blair – was not only convincing, it just seemed obviously correct. Not all reviewers, scholars or other biographers agreed with this sentiment, but the criticisms of these early biographies seem overblown when reading them today (Crick, Meyers, Rodden and Spender).


Having read obsessively widely about Orwell, I recognised factual errors, made almost fifty years ago in this pioneering work but these did not detract from the literary pleasure both volumes provided. Indeed, it was amazing just how many insights and how much information both books, castigated for their “thinness” (Meyers 2010: 2003) contained. I re-read them by listening to the dulcet tones of Tim Dalgleish narrate the audiobook, now available at audible.com.au, the Amazon-owned website where both volumes are combined into one audio download. My only real criticism of the production was some basic errors had not been corrected, for example, Eric Blair did not return to England with his mother aged 4 (apparently the source of the misinformation was Avril Dunn’s faulty memory). I searched for the other biographies – by Bowker, Taylor, Shelden, Meyers and Crick – but they were not available for digital download (although there is an excellent reading of Shelden’s biography available on compact disc). A new generation of readers will continue to enjoy the work of Orwell’s first biographers via a different medium which will likely extend the reach and life of the original print publications.

Particularly memorable sections in the two volumes (for this reader) included Eton, Burma and Eileen as the narrative drew me closer to Blair’s experience of these times. It felt like history read forward rather than the constant obsession with reading it backwards from the publication of his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in an effort to explain how the great literary figure conjured Oceania, Newspeak, Big Brother etc. into existence. The exploration of Orwell’s Eton revealed biographers who understood their subject brilliantly well, explaining that “however sardonic his tone … however aloof in spirit … he did not not enjoy himself” in his years at the school (Stansky and Abrahams 1972: 119).  The portrayal of Orwell’s marriage to Eileen is sound as it is recognised that “one cannot emphasise too strongly the importance of Eileen O’Shaughnessy in the life of Eric Blair” (Stansky and Abrahams 1979: 110). The pages spent outlining O’Shaughnessy’s life, before meeting Blair, is an indication of the significance of their relationship for the authors. As is their recognition of the importance of her brother, Laurence, in Eileen’s life.

Every reader (and every biographer) brings their personal context to a text and biographies, of any literary figure, may impress or dissatisfy for any number of reasons. The great biographers and historians often bring an inimitable style to their (mis)representation of the facts. Orwell certainly had mixed feelings about the writing of biography but clearly read widely in the genre. He felt there had never been “a completely satisfactory life of Dickens” and that Forster’s official biography was unreadable. Other biographers, he said, “present Dickens in too rosy a light” (CWGO Vol. XVI: 116). Orwell is portrayed variously as a secular saint, rebel, patriot, socialist and much more besides but what is worth remembering is that he is primarily studied for his literary output. He is no political theorist (Rees 1961: 49). Of course, many rightly look to Orwell for his political and sociological insights but from the time he was six years of age his ambition was to be a “FAMOUS AUTHOR” (Buddicom 2006: 38).

Orwell’s quality as a writer was curiously poised between politics (which attracted as much as it repelled) and literature, his lifelong passion (Bowker 2003: 361). Orwell famously listed why he wrote: (i) sheer egoism; (ii) aesthetic enthusiasm; (iii) historical impulse; and (iv) political purpose stating that “the first three motives would outweigh the fourth” (CWGO Vol. XVIII 1998: 318-19). Orwell believed he could not work:

“… writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style…” (ibid. 320)

On reading Stansky and Abrahams today, it is evident these biographers privileged understanding the forces that shaped Orwell’s primary identity – as a writer. However, they understood that the “complexities, ambiguities, compromises and betrayals of politics” experienced during the Spanish Civil War ended his political naivete and was fundamental to his personal development intellectually as a writer (Stansky and Abrahams 1979: 285). Orwell believed, regardless of his motives, it was his writing that improved when he had a “political purpose” (CWGO Vol. XVIII 1998: 320). He had little choice in an age where the looming imposition of the political, in the form of the totalitarian state, endangered literary imagination which “like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity” (CWGO Vol. XVII: 380). 


Earlier this year, feeling rather pleased with myself, I published some ‘original research’ about Orwell’s Scottish ancestry. I posited that John Blair (1668-1728) was a survivor of the failed Darien Scheme (Dobson 2011) who washed ashore in Jamaica, subsequently becoming a slave-owner and the genesis of the family’s wealth (Moore 2019b). While reviewing the biographies for information about Orwell’s ancestors, I had neglected to consult The Unknown Orwell (1972). Stansky and Abrahams had hypothesised, nearly half-a-century ago, the Blairs “might also have been associated with the abortive Scottish Darien scheme in Panama of 1698” (p.6). There were no supporting references or footnotes; the information was likely gleaned from interviews conducted by the authors with family, friends and acquaintances and could not be verified.

The contemporary ease of access to Orwell’s total literary and journalistic output makes research a fundamentally different proposition for scholars compared with what confronted Stansky and Abrahams half-a-century ago. Reflecting on the nature of the written versus spoken word, one can see that Stansky and Abrahams’s experience of interviewing Orwell’s friends, acquaintances, colleagues and family was instrumental to the success of the biographies they published. Although it does not have the same impact as participating in dialogue, personally listening to twenty-six hours of the unedited, unpublished conversations recorded for a CBC Radio series (Wadhams 1983) provided a richer understanding then the published excerpts I had already read in print (Wadhams 1984). A greater sense of the person emerged while listening, consciously and unconsciously evaluating the impact of dialect, diction, tone and confidence with which individuals answered, or avoided, questions from the interviewer. Some were clearly more informed and their points of view worth privileging. Social class, so fundamental to understanding Orwell (and Britain) was much more translatable when listening to the interviewees. As Americans, Stansky believed that their outsider status was useful in having their interviewees speak freely (Stansky 2019).

Despite the challenges faced in publishing these biographies, or perhaps due to them, Stansky and Abrahams produced pioneering work on George Orwell. Many of those I asked about their impressions of these first biographies employed synonyms for “well-written”, “intelligent”, “pioneering”, “concise” and “illuminating”. Professor Richard Keeble, editor of George Orwell Studies, feels “Stansky and Abrahams’s seminal texts, with their wealth of psychological insights and original research, remain crucial resources for all Orwellian researchers” and Dennis Glover, author of The Last Man in Europe (2018) notes “a ring of freshness about them that comes from original research and making connections, rather than reassembling other peoples’ findings, which can become a tedious exercise” (email correspondence 2019). Quite ironically, there was a general consensus that the challenging context in which the biographies were written have partly helped keep them relevant for scholars and the more general reader.

However, it is more than just the context in which The Unknown Orwell and Orwell: The Transformation were written that give ongoing relevance to new generations of readers and Orwell scholars. There is an intelligence, a lightness of touch eschewing prescriptive or theoretical approaches to writing history, which resulted in a highly readable, journalistic yet scholarly biography. Stansky, a highly-credentialed and accomplished historian, had skills and aptitudes that helped make the two volumes of biography distinctive. The New York Times’s obituary (5th June 1998) for William “Billy” Abrahams celebrated a poet, as well as a novelist, and credited the “distinguished book editor … with almost single-handedly preserving the short story as a viable genre … presid(ing) over the annual O. Henry short story awards for more than three decades”. Stansky’s expertise in British intellectual and political history, Abrahams’s editorial skill crafting a narrative and perhaps, their outsiders’ eyes, helped the Americans to effectively portray George Orwell more successfully than many expected.

Orwell, in his essay, ‘Why I Write’, originally published in the short-lived journal Gangrel in 1946, said:

I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject-matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own – but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape (CWGO Vol. XVIII: 318).

Stansky and Abrahams’s pioneering biographies emphasized the seminal importance of Orwell’s early life to understanding his literary development. They concisely and contextually illuminated their subject’s early development in the age in which he lived. Their thesis – to know Orwell, one must understand Blair – further developed, popularised and unified a framework for understanding the inconsistent attitudes and behaviours of this important, paradoxical and perennially fascinating literary figure. 

*This essay was originally published in the exhibition catalogue for George Orwell: His Enduring Legacy. I would like to thank Professor Russ Davidson for his encouragement and generosity.


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