The British author George
Orwell, pen name of Eric Blair, achieved prominence in
the late 1940s as the author of two brilliant satires. He wrote
documentaries, essays, and criticism during the
1930s and later established himself as one of the most
important and influential voices of the century.
Eric Arthur Blair
(later George Orwell) was born in 1903 in the Indian village of Motihari, which lies
near the border of Nepal. At that time India was a part of the British Empire,
and Blair's father, Richard, held a post as an agent in the Opium Department of the
Indian Civil Service. Blair's paternal grandfather, too, had been part of the British
Raj and had served in the Indian Army. Eric's mother, Ida Mabel Blair, the daughter
of a French tradesman, was about eighteen years younger than her husband Richard. Eric had a elder sister called Marjorie. The Blairs led a relatively
privileged and fairly pleasant life, helping to administer the Empire.
The Blair family was not very wealthy - Orwell later described them
ironically as "lower-upper-middle class". They owned no property, had no
extensive investments; they were like many middle-class English families of the time,
totally dependent on the British Empire for their livelihood and prospects. In 1907,
when Eric was about eight years old, the family returned to England and lived at Henley,
though the father continued to work in India until he retired in 1912. With some
difficulty, Blair's parents sent their son to a private preparatory school in Sussex
at the age of eight. At the age of thirteen he won a scholarship to Wellington, and
soon after, another to Eton, the famous public school.
His parents had forced him to work hard at a dreary preparatory school, and now after
winning the scholarship, he was not interested any more in further mental exertion
unrelated to his private ambition. At the beginning of Why I
Write, he explains that from the age of five or six he had known that he would be -
must be-a writer. But in order to become a writer one had to read literature. But English
literature was not a major subject at Eton, where most boys came from backgrounds
either irremediably unliterary or so literary that to teach them 'English Literature'
would be absurd. One of Eric's tutors later declared that his famous pupil had
done absolutely no work for five years. This was of course untrue: Eric has apprenticed
himself to the masters of English prose who most appealed to him - including Swift,
Sterne and Jack London.
However, he had finished the final examinations at Eton as number 138 of 167. He neglected
to win a university scholarship, and in 1922 Eric Blair joined the Indian Imperial
Police. In doing so he was already breaking away from the path most of his
school-fellows would take, for Eton often led to either Oxford or Cambridge.
Instead, he was drawn to a life of travel and action. He trained in Burma, and served there
in the police force for five years. In 1927, while home on leave, he resigned.
There had been at least two reasons for this: firstly, his life as a policeman was a distraction
from the life he really wanted, which was to be a writer; and secondly, he had
come to feel that, as a policeman in Burma, he was supporting a political system in
which he could no longer believe. Even as early as this, his ideas about writing and
his political ideas were closely linked. It was not simply that he wished to break
away from British Imperialism in India: he wished to "escape from ... every
form of man's dominion over man", as he said in The Road to
Wigan Pier (1937), and the social structure from which he came, depended, as he
saw it, on just that "dominion over others" - not just over the Burmese, but
over the English working class.
Back in London he settled down in a grotty bedroom in Portobello Road. There, at
the age of twenty-four, he started to teach himself how to write. His neighbours were
impressed by his determination . Week after week he remained in his unheated bedroom, thawing his hands over a candle when they became too numb to write. In spring of 1928,
he turned his back on his own inherited values by taking a drastic step. For more than
one year he lived among the poor, first in London, then in Paris. For him the
poor were victims of injustice, playing the same part as the Burmese played in their
country. One reason for going to live among the poor was to overcome a repulsion
which he considered typical of his own class. In Paris he lived and worked in a
working-class quarter. At that time, he tells us, Paris was full of artists and
would-be artists. There Orwell led a life that was far from bohemian; when he eventually
got a job, he worked as a dishwasher. Once again his journey was downward into the life
to which he felt he should expose himself, the life of poverty-stricken, or of those who
barely scraped a living.
When he returned to London, he lived for a couple of months among the tramps and poor
people there. In December 1929, Eric spent Christmas with his family. At his visit he announced that
he was going to write a book about his time in Paris. The original version of Down and Out in Paris and London
entitled A Scullion's Diary was completed in October 1930 and came to only 35,000 words
for Orwell had used only a part of his material. After two rejections from publishers Orwell
wrote Burmese Days (published in 1934), a book based on his experiences in the colonial service.
We owe the rescue of Down and Out to Mabel Firez: She was
asked to destroy the script, but save the paper clips. Instead she took the manuscript and brought
it to Leonard Monroe, literary agent at the house of Gollancz, and bullied him to read it.
Soon it was accepted - on condition that all swearwords were deleted and certain names
changed. Having completed this last revision Eric wrote to Victor Gollancz: '...I would
prefer the book to be published pseudonymously. I have no reputation that is lost by
doing this and if the book has any kind of success I can always use this pseudonym again.'
But Orwell's reasons for taking the name Orwell are much more complicated than those that
writers usually have when adopting a pen-name. In effect, it meant that Eric Blair
would somehow have to shed his old identity and take on a new. This is exactly what
he tried to do: he tried to change himself from Eric Blair, old Etonian and English
colonial policemen, into George Orwell, classless anti-authoritarian.
Down and Out in Paris and London is not a novel; it is a
kind of documentary account of life unknown to most of its readers. And this was the point of it: he wished to
bring the English middle class, of which he was a member, to an understanding that the
life they led and enjoyed, was founded upon the life under their very noses. Here we
see two typical aspects of Orwell as a writer: his idea of himself as the exposer of
painful truth, which people for various reasons do not wish to see; and his idea
of himself as a representative of the English moral conscience. (Winston Smith -
1984 - last representative of moral values).
His next book was A Clergyman's Daughter (1935)
and Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936). In 1936 he opened a village shop in
Wallington, Hertfordshire where he did business in the mornings and wrote
in the afternoons. The same year he married Eileen O 'Shaughnessy and also
received a commission from the Left Book Club to examine the conditions of the poor
and unemployed. This resulted in The Road to Wigan Pier.
He went on living among the poor about whom he was to write his book. Once again it
was a journey away from the comparative comfort of middle-class life. His account
of mining communities in the north of England in this book is full of detail and
conveys to the reader what it was like to go down a mine.
When the Left Book Club read what he had written about the English class system and
English socialism in the The Road to Wigan Pier they were not
pleased, and when the book was published it contained a preface by Victor Gollancz
taking issue with many of Orwell's main points. The Left Book Club wasn't pleased
because in the second half of the book Orwell criticised English socialism,
because it in his eyes was mostly unrealistic, and another fact criticised by
Orwell was that most of the socialists tended to be members of the middle class.
The kind of socialist Orwell makes fun of is the sort who spouts phrases like
"proletarian solidarity", and who puts off decent people, the people
for whom Orwell wants to write.
Having completed The Road to Wigan Pier he went to Spain
at the end of 1936, with the idea of writing newspaper articles on the Civil War,
which had broken out there. The conflict in Spain was between the communist,
socialist Republic, and General Franco's Fascist military rebellion. When Orwell
arrived in Barcelona he was astonished by the atmosphere he found there: what had
seemed impossible in England seemed a fact of daily life in Spain. Class distinctions
seemed to have vanished. There was a shortage of everything, but there was equality.
Orwell joined in the struggle by enlisting in the militia of the POUM
(Partido Obrero de Unificación de
Marxista), which was associated with the British Labour Party
For the first time in his life socialism seemed a reality, something for which it
was worth fighting for. Orwell received a basic military training and was sent to the front in
Aragon, near Zaragoza. He spent a couple of dull months there, and he was wounded in the throat.
Three and a half months later, when he returned to Barcelona, he found it a changed city. No longer a place where
the socialist word “comrade” was really felt to mean something, it was a city returning
to "normal". Even worse, he was to find that the group he was with, the POUM,
was now accused of being a Fascist militia, secretly helping Franco. Orwell had to
sleep in the open to avoid showing his papers, and eventually managed to escape into
France with his wife. His account of his time in Spain was published in
Homage to Catalonia (1938). His experiences in Spain left two impressions on
Orwell's mind: firstly, they showed him that socialism in action was a human
possibility, if only a temporary one. He never forgot the exhilaration of those
first days in Barcelona, when a new society seemed possible, where
"comradeship", instead of being just a socialist abuse of language, was
reality. But secondly he saw the experience of the city returning to normal as a
gloomy confirmation of the fact that there will always be different classes, that there
is something in the human nature that seeks violence, conflict, power over others.
It is clear that these two impressions, of hope on the one hand, and despair
on the other are entirely contradictory. Nevertheless, despite the despair and
confusion of his return to Barcelona (there were street fights between different
groups of socialists), Orwell left Spain with a hopeful impression.
In 1938, Orwell became ill with tuberculosis and spent the winter in Morocco.
While being there, he wrote his next book, a novel entitled Coming up for Air,
published in 1939, the year the long-threatened war between England and Germany
broke out. Orwell wanted to fight, as he has done in Spain, against the fascist
enemy, but he was declared physically unfit. In 1941 he joined the British Broadcasting
Corporation as talks producer in the Indian section of the eastern service.
He served in the Home Guard, a wartime civilian body for local defence.
In 1943 he left the BBC to become literary editor of the Tribune and began
writing Animal Farm. In 1944 the Orwells adopted a
son, but in 1945 his wife died during an operation. Towards the end of the war,
Orwell went to Europe as a reporter. Late in 1945 he went to the island of
Jura off the Scottish coast, and settled there in 1946. He wrote
Nineteen Eighty-Four there. The island’s climate was
unsuitable for someone suffering from tuberculosis and
Nineteen Eighty-Four reflects the bleakness of human
suffering, the indignity of pain. Indeed, he said that the book wouldn't have
been so gloomy had he not been so ill. Later that year he married Sonia Brownell.
He died in January 1950.