Dual biographies are quite the thing now, tracing the intersecting lives of two people who were partners, friends, enemies, rivals, maybe all of these at once. “Churchill & Orwell” breaks the mold by linking two men whose relationship was basically nonexistent. Although they expressed admiration for each other, it was at a distance: Their paths never crossed.
The linkage that author Thomas E. Ricks finds between these “most unlikely of allies” is intellectual clarity and moral courage. Although George Orwell (born Eric Blair) was a committed leftist and Winston Churchill an equally committed conservative, both were driven “to see things as they are,” and both arrived, though from opposing ideological views, at the conclusion that “the key question of their century” was “how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age in which the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life.”
Although the two men never met, their paths ran parallel in odd ways. Significantly, both were estranged from their fathers. Orwell remembered his as “a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying ‘Don’t’ ” (the source, Ricks contends, of his lifelong skepticism of authority). Churchill’s father continually and publicly expressed his disappointment in him. “A son who could survive such an upbringing would either be thoroughly damaged or, with some luck, enormously self-confident,” Ricks asserts. “Churchill was very lucky.”
Neither went to university; instead, both went off in service of the Empire. For reasons that remain obscure, the anti-authoritarian Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police, serving in Burma; Churchill served as a cavalry officer in India. After their service (and during, in Churchill’s case), both became war correspondents. And both almost died well before they rose to greatness — a term Ricks unabashedly applies to both, although he is not unmindful of their failings and blind spots.
But Ricks wisely skims lightly over the early years of his subjects and, with Churchill, his ineffectual later years, as well, focusing instead on the “fulcrum point,” the 1930s and 1940s, when both men were frequently lonely voices in the wilderness. As authoritarianism rose across the globe, faith in democracy wavered, particularly among the intelligentsia in Britain (and the U.S.): Striking a deal with Hitler struck many as the only pragmatic possibility. On the left, many were willing to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s death squads in the service of the Revolution. Orwell and Churchill “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin threats of fascism and communism.”
Thus both men spoke out eloquently against abuse of power; both refused to bend the facts in service of ideology; both insisted on “the need to assert that high officials might be in error — most especially when those in power believe strongly they are not.” In Orwell’s words, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
“Churchill & Orwell” is an eminently readable, frankly inspirational and exceptionally timely tribute to the two men Simon Schama called “the architects of their time.” It is to be hoped that their counterparts in intellectual clarity and moral courage are among us today.
Patricia L. Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom
By: Thomas E. Ricks.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 339 pages, $28.