"The best guesser is the best prophet."
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in Motihari, India, where his father worked for the Indian Civil Service as a sub-deputy opium agent in charge of manufacturing the narcotic for transport to China. His mother, the daughter of a French teak merchant and boatbuilder, had grown up in a lavish colonial household in Burma. Ancestors on both sides had made small fortunes in India and Jamaica by virtue of cheap (and slave) labor.
In short, the man who became George Orwell entered the world a beneficiary of a corrupt and often ruthless imperialism. His parents never questioned the morality of this exploitation of the less fortunate. Neither did Blair as a young man, when he still considered "Mandalay," Rudyard Kipling's sentimental ode to the exotic Orient, the best poem in the language. After graduating from Eton, rather than continuing his education at Oxford or Cambridge with his peers, he followed in his father's footsteps, serving the British Empire's interests as an assistant superintendent of police in Burma from 1922 to 1927.
From this morally compromised background, Blair emerged as the "wintry conscience of a generation," the epitaph V.S. Pritchett bestowed on him—and which Jeffrey Meyers has aptly chosen for the subtitle of his new...