Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English author and journalist. His work is marked by keen intelligence and wit, a profound awareness of social injustice, an intense opposition to totalitarianism, a passion for clarity in language and a belief in democratic socialism.
Considered perhaps the 20th century’s best chronicler of English culture, Orwell wrote literary criticism, poetry, fiction and polemical journalism. He is best known for the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and the allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945), which together have sold more copies than any two books by any other 20th-century author. His book Homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, is widely acclaimed, as are his numerous essays on politics, literature, language and culture. In 2008, The Times ranked him second on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945″.
Orwell’s influence on popular and political culture endures, and several of his neologisms, along with the term Orwellian — a byword for totalitarian or manipulative social practices — have entered the vernacular.
Early life and education
Eric Arthur Blair was born on 25 June 1903, in Motihari, Bihar, in India. His great-grandfather Charles Blair had been a wealthy country gentleman in Dorset who had married Lady Mary Fane, daughter of Thomas Fane, 8th Earl of Westmorland, and had income as an absentee landlord of slave plantations in Jamaica. His grandfather, Thomas Richard Arthur Blair, was a clergyman. Although the gentility was passed down the generations, the prosperity was not; Eric Blair described his family as “lower-upper-middle class”. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. His mother, Ida Mabel Blair (née Limouzin), grew up in Moulmein, Burma where her French father was involved in speculative ventures. Eric had two sisters: Marjorie, five years older, and Avril, five years younger. When Eric was one year old, his mother took him to England.
In 1904, Blair’s mother settled at Henley-on-Thames. Thereafter, Eric was brought up in the company of his mother and sisters, and apart from a brief visit, in the summer of 1907, he did not see his father again until 1912. His mother’s diary from 1905 indicates a lively round of social activity and artistic interests. The family moved to Shiplake before the First World War, and Eric became friendly with the Buddicom family, especially Jacintha Buddicom. When they first met, he was standing on his head in a field, and on being asked why, he said, “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are right way up.” Jacintha and Eric read and wrote poetry and dreamed of becoming famous writers. He told her that he might write a book in similar style to that of H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. During this period, he enjoyed shooting, fishing and birdwatching with Jacintha’s brother and sister.
At the age of five, Eric Blair was sent as a day-boy to the convent school in Henley-on-Thames which Marjorie attended (a Roman Catholic convent run by French Ursulines, exiled from France after religious education was banned there in 1903). His mother wanted him to have a public school education, but his family was not wealthy enough to afford the fees, making it necessary for him to obtain a scholarship. Ida Blair’s brother Charles Limouzin, who lived on the South Coast of England, was asked to find the best possible school to prepare Eric for public school entrance, and he recommended St Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne, East Sussex. Limouzin, who was a proficient golfer, came into contact with the school and its headmaster at the Royal Eastbourne Golf Club where he won several competitions in 1903 and 1904. The headmaster undertook to help Blair to win the scholarship, and made a private financial arrangement which allowed Blair’s parents to pay only half the normal fees. In September 1911 Eric arrived at St Cyprian’s. He boarded at the school until he left going home only for school holidays. He knew nothing of the reduced-fee arrangement until his third year at the school, though he ‘soon recognised that he was from a poorer home’. Blair hated the school and many years later based his posthumously published essay Such, Such Were the Joys on his time there. At St. Cyprian’s, Blair first met Cyril Connolly, who himself became a noted writer and who, as the editor of Horizon, published many of Orwell’s essays. As part of his school work, Blair wrote two poems that were published in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard. He came second to Connolly in the Harrow History Prize, had his work praised by the school’s external examiner, and earned scholarships to Wellington College and Eton College. He left St Cyprian’s in December 1916.
After Blair spent a term at Wellington in May 1917, a place became available for him as a King’s Scholar at Eton which he took up, and he remained at Eton until December 1921 when he left aged eighteen and a half. Wellington, Orwell told his childhood friend Jacintha Buddicom, was ‘beastly’, but at Eton he said he was ‘interested and happy’. His principal tutor was A. S. F. Gow, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge who remained a source of advice later in his career. Blair was briefly taught French by Aldous Huxley who spent a short interlude teaching at Eton. Stephen Runciman, who was at Eton with Blair, noted that he and his contemporaries appreciated Huxley’s use of words and phrases, but there is no evidence of contact between Orwell and Huxley at Eton outside the classroom. Cyril Connolly followed Blair to Eton, but because they were in separate years they did not associate with each other. Blair’s academic performance reports suggest that he neglected his academic studies, but during his time at Eton, he worked with Roger Mynors to produce a college magazine, The Election Times, joined in the production of other publications—College Days and Bubble and Squeak—and participated in the Eton Wall Game. His parents could not afford to send him to university without another scholarship, and they concluded from his poor results that he would not be able to obtain one. However, Runciman noted that he had a romantic idea about the East and it was decided that Blair should join the Indian Police Service. To do this, it was necessary to pass an entrance examination. His father had retired to Southwold, Suffolk by this time and Blair was enrolled at a “crammer” there called Craighurst where he brushed up on his classics, English and History. Blair passed the exam, coming seventh out of the twenty-six candidates who exceeded the set pass mark.
Policing in Burma
Blair’s grandmother lived at Moulmein, and with family connections in the area, his choice of posting was Burma. In October 1922 he sailed on board S.S. Herefordshire via the Suez Canal and Ceylon to join the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. A month later, he arrived at Rangoon and made the journey to Mandalay, the site of the police training school. After a short posting at Maymyo, Burma’s principal hill station, he was posted to the frontier outpost of Myaungmya in the Irrawaddy Delta at the beginning of 1924.
His imperial policeman’s life gave him considerable responsibilities for a young man, while his contemporaries were still at university in England. When he was posted farther east in the Delta to Twante as a sub-divisional officer, he was responsible for the security of some 200,000 people. At the end of 1924 he was promoted to Assistant District Superintendent and posted to Syriam, which was closer to Rangoon. Syriam was the site of the refinery of the Burmah Oil Company, “the surrounding land a barren waste, all vegetation killed off by the fumes of sulphur dioxide pouring out day and night from the stacks of the refinery.” Its proximity to Rangoon however, a cosmopolitan seaport, had its rewards: Blair went into the city as often as he could,” to browse in a bookshop; to eat well-cooked food; to get away from the boring routine of police life.” In September 1925 he went to Insein, the home of Insein Prison the second largest jail in Burma. In Insein, he had “long talks on every conceivable subject” with a woman named Elisa Maria Langford-Rae (later the wife of Kazi Lhendup Dorjee), who noted his “sense of utter fairness in minutest details”.
In April 1926 he moved to Moulmein, where his grandmother lived. At the end of that year, he went to Katha, in Upper Burma, where he contracted Dengue fever in 1927. He was entitled to a leave in England that year, and in view of his illness, was allowed to go home in July. While on leave in England and on holiday with his family in Cornwall in September 1927, he reappraised his life, decided not to return to Burma, and resigned from the Indian Imperial Police with the intention of becoming a writer. His Burma police experience yielded the novel Burmese Days (1934) and the essays A Hanging (1931) and Shooting an Elephant (1936). In Burma, Orwell had acquired a reputation as someone who didn’t fit in – he spent much of his time alone, reading or pursuing non-pukka activities such as attending the churches of the ethnic Karen group. A colleague, Roger Beadon, recalled (in a 1969 recording for the BBC) that Orwell was adept at learning the language and that before he left Burma, “was able to speak fluently with Burmese priests in ‘very high-flown Burmese.’” Orwell wrote later that he felt guilty for his role in the machine of empire and he “began to look more closely at his own country and saw that England also had its oppressed…” Physical marks left by Burma remained with Orwell throughout his life. “While in Burma, he acquired a moustache similar to those worn by officers of the British regiments stationed there. [He] also acquired some tattoos; on each knuckle he had a small untidy blue circle. Many Burmese living in rural areas still sport tattoos like this – they are believed to protect against bullets and snake bites.”
London and Paris
In England, he settled back in the family home at Southwold, renewing acquaintance with local friends and attending an Old Etonian dinner. He visited his old tutor Gow at Cambridge for advice on becoming a writer. Early in the autumn of 1927 he moved to London. Ruth Pitter, a family acquaintance, helped him find lodgings, and by the end of 1927 he had moved into rooms in Portobello Road;(a blue plaque commemorates his residence there.) Pitter’s association with the move “would have lent it a reassuring respectability in Mrs Blair’s eyes.” Pitter had a sympathetic interest in Blair’s writing, pointed out weaknesses in his poetry, and advised him to write about what he knew. In fact he decided to write of “certain aspects of the present that he set out to know” and “ventured into the East End of London – the first of the occasional sorties he would make to discover for himself the world of poverty and the down-and-outers who inhabit it. He had found a subject. These sorties, explorations, expeditions, tours or immersions were made intermittently over a period of five years.”
Following the precedent of Jack London (and particularly The People of the Abyss), a writer he admired, he started his exploratory expeditions slumming in the poorer parts of London. On his first outing he set out to Limehouse Causeway spending his first night in a common lodging house, possibly George Levy’s ‘kip’. For a while he “went native” in his own country, dressing like a tramp and making no concessions to middle class mores and expectations; he recorded his experiences of the low life for later use in The Spike, his first published essay, and the latter half of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).
In the spring of 1928, he moved to Paris, where the comparatively low cost of living and bohemian lifestyle offered an attraction for many aspiring writers, and he lived in the Rue du Pot de Fer, a working class district in the Fifth Arrondissement. His Aunt Nellie Limouzin also lived in Paris and gave him social and, if necessary, financial support. He worked on novels, including an early version of Burmese Days but nothing else survives from that activity. More successful as a journalist, he published articles in Monde, a political/literary journal edited by Henri Barbusse, – his first article as a professional writer, La Censure en Angleterre, appeared in this paper on 6 October 1928 – G. K.’s Weekly – where his first article to appear in England, A Farthing Newspaper, was printed on 29 December 1928 – and Le Progrès Civique (founded by the left-wing coalition Le Cartel des Gauches). Three pieces appeared in successive weeks in Progrès Civique, the first looked at unemployment, the next, a day in the life of a tramp, and the third, the beggars of London. “In one or another of its destructive forms, poverty was to become his obsessive subject – at the heart of almost everything he wrote until Homage to Catalonia.”
He fell seriously ill in February 1929 and was taken to the Hôpital Cochin in the Fifteenth arrondissement, a free hospital maintained for the teaching of medical students (the basis of his essay How the Poor Die, published in 1946), and shortly afterwards had all his money stolen from the lodging house. Whether through necessity or simply to collect material, he undertook menial jobs like dishwashing in a fashionable hotel on the rue de Rivoli, providing experiences to be used in Down and Out in Paris and London. In August 1929 he sent a copy of “The Spike” to New Adelphi magazine in London. This was owned by John Middleton Murry who had released editorial control to Max Plowman and Sir Richard Rees. Plowman accepted the work for publication.
In December 1929, after a year and three quarters in Paris, Blair returned to England and went directly to his parents’ house in Southwold, which was to remain his base for the next five years. The family was well established in the local community, and his sister Avril was running a tea house in the town. He became acquainted with many local people including a gym teacher at St Felix Girls’ School, Southwold, Brenda Salkeld, the daughter of a clergyman. Although Salkeld rejected his offer of marriage she was to remain a friend and regular correspondent about his work for many years. He also renewed friendships with older friends such as Dennis Collings, whose girlfriend Eleanor Jacques was also to play a part in his life.
In the spring he had a short stay in Bramley, Leeds with his sister Marjorie and her husband Humphrey Dakin, who was as unappreciative of Blair as when they knew each other as children. Blair was undertaking some review work for Adelphi and acting as a private tutor to a disabled child at Southwold. He followed this up by tutoring a family of three boys one of whom, Richard Peters, later became a distinguished academic. “His history in these years is marked by dualities and contrasts. There is Blair leading a respectable, outwardly eventless life at his parents’ house in Southwold, writing; then in contrast, there is Blair as Burton (the name he used in his down-and-out episodes) in search of experience in the kips and spikes, in the East End, on the road, and in the hop fields of Kent.” He went painting and bathing on the beach, and there he met Mabel and Francis Fierz who were later to influence his career. Over the next year he visited them in London often meeting their friend Max Plowman. Other homes available to him were those of Ruth Pitter and Richard Rees. These acted as places for him to “change” for his sporadic tramping expeditions where one of his jobs was to do domestic work at a lodgings for half a crown a day.
Meanwhile, Blair now contributed regularly to Adelphi, with “A Hanging” appearing in August 1931. From August to September 1931 his explorations of the lower depths continued, and extended to following the East End tradition of working in the Kent hop fields (an activity which his lead character in A Clergyman’s Daughter also engages in), and he kept a diary covering the entire experience. At the end of this, he ended up in the Tooley Street kip, but could not stand it for long and with a financial contribution from his parents moved to Windsor Street where he stayed until Christmas. Hop-Picking, by Eric Blair, appeared in the October 1931 issue of New Statesman, where Cyril Connolly was on the staff. Mabel Fierz put him in contact with Leonard Moore who was to become his literary agent.
At this time Jonathan Cape rejected A Scullion’s Diary, the first version of Down and Out. On the advice of Richard Rees he offered it to Faber & Faber, whose editorial director, T. S. Eliot, also rejected it. To conclude the year Blair attempted another exploratory venture of getting himself arrested so that he could spend Christmas in prison, but the relevant authorities did not cooperate and he returned home to Southwold after two days in a police cell.
In April 1932 Blair took a job teaching at The Hawthorns High School, a prep school for boys in Hayes, West London. This was a small school that provided private schooling for children of local tradesmen and shopkeepers and comprised only 20 boys and one other master. While at the school he became friendly with the curate of the local parish church and became involved with it. Mabel Fierz had pursued matters with Moore, and at the end of June 1932, Moore told Blair that Victor Gollancz was prepared to publish A Scullion’s Diary for a £40 advance, for his recently founded publishing house, Victor Gollancz Ltd, which was an outlet for radical and socialist works.
At the end of the school summer term in 1932 Blair returned to Southwold, where his parents had been able to buy their own home as a result of a legacy. Blair and his sister Avril spent the summer holidays making the house habitable while he also worked on Burmese Days. He was also spending time with Eleanor Jacques but her attachment to Dennis Collings remained an obstacle to his hopes of a more serious relationship.
“Clink”, an essay describing his failed attempt to get sent to prison, appeared in the August 1932 number of Adelphi. He returned to teaching at Hayes and prepared for the publication of his work now known as Down and Out in Paris and London which he wished to publish under an assumed name in order to avoid potential embarrassment to his family for having been a tramp. In a letter to Moore (dated 15 November 1932) he left the choice of pseudonym to him and to Gollancz. Four days later, he wrote to Moore, suggesting the pseudonyms P. S. Burton (a name he used when tramping), Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, and H. Lewis Allways. He finally adopted the nom de plume George Orwell because, as he told Eleanor Jacques, “It is a good round English name.” Down and Out in Paris and London was published on 9 January 1933. He had little free time and was still working on Burmese Days. Down and Out was successful and it was published by Harper and Brothers in New York.
In the summer of 1933 Blair finished at Hawthorns to take up a teaching job at Frays College, in Uxbridge, West London. This was a much larger establishment with 200 pupils and a full complement of staff. He acquired a motorcycle and took trips through the surrounding countryside. On one of these expeditions he became soaked and caught a chill which developed into pneumonia. He was taken to Uxbridge Cottage Hospital where for a time his life was believed to be in danger. When he was discharged in January 1934, he returned to Southwold to convalesce and, supported by his parents, never returned to teaching.
He was disappointed when Gollancz turned down Burmese Days, mainly on the grounds of potential libel actions but Harpers were prepared to publish it in the United States. Meanwhile back at home Blair started work on the novel A Clergyman’s Daughter drawing upon his life as a teacher and on life in Southwold. Eleanor Jacques was now married and had gone to Singapore and Brenda Salkield had left for Ireland, so Blair was relatively lonely in Southwold — pottering on the allotments, walking alone and spending time with his father. Eventually in October, after sending A Clergyman’s Daughter to Moore, he left for London to take a job that had been found for him by his Aunt Nellie Limouzin.
This job was as a part-time assistant in “Booklovers’ Corner”, a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead run by Francis and Myfanwy Westrope who were friends of Nellie Limouzin in the Esperanto movement. The Westropes had an easy-going outlook and provided him with comfortable accommodation at Warwick Mansions, Pond Street. He was job sharing with Jon Kimche who also lived with the Westropes. Blair worked at the shop in the afternoons, having the mornings free to write and the evenings to socialise. These experiences provided background for the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). As well as the various guests of the Westropes, he was able to enjoy the company of Richard Rees and the Adelphi writers and Mabel Fierz. The Westropes and Kimche were members of the Independent Labour Party although at this time Blair was not seriously politically aligned. He was writing for the Adelphi and dealing with pre-publication issues with A Clergymans Daughter and Burmese Days.
At the beginning of 1935 he had to move out of Warwick Mansions, and Mabel Fierz found him a flat in Parliament Hill. A Clergyman’s Daughter was published on 11 March 1935. In the spring of 1935 Blair met his future wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy when his landlady, Rosalind Obermeyer, who was studying for a masters degree in psychology at University College London, invited some of her fellow students to a party. One of these students, the future translator of Chekhov and author of memoirs Elizaveta Fen, later recalled Orwell and his friend Richard Rees ‘draped’ at the fireplace, looking, she thought, ‘moth-eaten and prematurely aged.’ Around this time, Blair had started to write reviews for the New English Weekly.
In June, Burmese Days was published and following Connolly’s review of it in the New Statesman, the two re-established contact. In August Blair moved into a flat in Kentish Town which he shared with Michael Sayers and Rayner Heppenstall. The relationship was sometimes awkward, Orwell and Heppenstall even coming to blows, though they remained friends and later worked together on BBC broadcasts. He was working on Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and also tried to write a serial for the News Chronicle, which was an unsuccessful venture. By October 1935 his flat-mates had moved out, and he was struggling to pay the rent on his own. He remained until the end of January 1936 when he stopped working at Booklovers’ Corner.
The Road to Wigan Pier
At this time, Victor Gollancz suggested Orwell spend a short time investigating social conditions in economically depressed northern England. Two years earlier J. B. Priestley had written of England north of the Trent and this had stimulated an interest in reportage. Furthermore the depression had introduced a number of working-class writers from the North of England to the reading public.
On 31 January 1936, Orwell set out by public transport and on foot via Coventry, Stafford, the Potteries and Macclesfield, reaching Manchester. Arriving after the banks had closed, he had to stay in a common lodging house. Next day he picked up a list of contact addresses sent by Richard Rees. One of these, trade union official Frank Meade, suggested Wigan, where Orwell spent February staying in dirty lodgings over a tripe shop. At Wigan, he gained entry to many houses to see how people lived, took systematic notes of housing conditions and wages earned, went down a coal mine, and spent days at the local public library consulting public health records and reports on working conditions in mines.
During this time he was distracted by dealing with libel and stylistic issues relating to Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He made a quick visit to Liverpool and spent March in south Yorkshire, spending time in Sheffield and Barnsley. As well as visiting mines, including Grimethorpe, and observing social conditions, he attended meetings of the Communist Party and of Oswald Mosley – “his speech the usual claptrap—The blame for everything was put upon mysterious international gangs of Jews” – where he saw the tactics of the Blackshirts – “one is liable to get both a hammering and a fine for asking a question which Mosley finds it difficult to answer.” He punctuated his stay with visits to his sister at Headingley, during which he visited the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth, where he was “chiefly impressed by a pair of Charlotte Brontë’s cloth-topped boots, very small, with square toes and lacing up at the sides.”
His investigations gave rise to The Road to Wigan Pier, published by Gollancz for the Left Book Club in 1937. The first half of this work documents his social investigations of Lancashire and Yorkshire. It begins with an evocative description of working life in the coal mines. The second half is a long essay on his upbringing and the development of his political conscience, which includes criticism of some of the groups on the left. Gollancz feared the second half would offend readers and inserted a mollifying preface to the book while Orwell was in Spain.
Orwell needed somewhere where he could concentrate on writing his book, and once again help was provided by Aunt Nellie who was living in a cottage at Wallington, Hertfordshire. It was a very small cottage which had been built in the sixteenth century called the “Stores”, with almost no modern facilities, in a tiny village some thirty-five miles north of London. Orwell took over the tenancy and moved in on 2 April 1936. He started work on Wigan Pier by the end of April and, as well as writing, spent hours working on the garden and investigated the possibility of reopening the Stores as a village shop. Keep the Aspidistra Flying was published by Gollancz on 20 April 1936. On 4 August Orwell gave a talk at the Adelphi Summer School held at Langham, entitled An Outsider Sees the Distressed Areas; others who spoke at the School included John Strachey, Max Plowman, Karl Polanyi and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Orwell’s research for The Road to Wigan Pier led to him being placed under surveillance by the Special Branch in 1936, for 12 years, until 1 year before the publication of 1984.
Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy on 9 June 1936. Shortly afterwards, the political crisis began in Spain and Orwell followed developments there closely. At the end of the year, concerned by Francisco Franco’s Falangist uprising, (supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), Orwell decided to go to Spain to take part in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. Under the erroneous impression that he needed papers from some left-wing organisation to cross the frontier, on John Strachey’s recommendation he applied unsuccessfully to Harry Pollitt, leader of the British Communist Party. Pollitt was suspicious of Orwell’s political reliability; he asked him whether he would undertake to join the International Brigade and advised him to get a safe-conduct from the Spanish Embassy in Paris. Not wishing to commit himself until he’d seen the situation in situ, Orwell instead used his Independent Labour Party contacts to get a letter of introduction to John McNair in Barcelona.
The Spanish Civil War and Catalonia
Orwell set out for Spain on about 23 December, dining with Henry Miller in Paris on the way. A few days later at Barcelona, he met John McNair of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) Office who quoted him: “I’ve come to fight against Fascism”. Orwell stepped into a complex political situation in Catalonia. The Republican government was supported by a number of factions with conflicting aims, including the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM — Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo and the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (a wing of the Spanish Communist Party, which was backed by Soviet arms and aid). The ILP was linked to the POUM and so Orwell joined the POUM.
After a time at the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona he was sent to the relatively quiet Aragon Front under Georges Kopp. By January 1937 he was at Alcubierre 1,500 feet (460 m) above sea level in the depth of winter. There was very little military action, and the lack of equipment and other deprivations made it uncomfortable. Orwell, with his Cadet Corps and police training was quickly made a corporal. On the arrival of a British ILP Contingent about three weeks later, Orwell and the other English militiaman, Williams, were sent with them to Monte Oscuro. The newly-arrived ILP contingent included Bob Smillie, Bob Edwards, Stafford Cottman and Jack Branthwaite. The unit was then sent on to Huesca.
Meanwhile, back in England, Eileen had been handling the issues relating to the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier before setting out for Spain herself, leaving Aunt Nellie Limouzin to look after The Stores. Eileen volunteered for a post in John McNair’s office and with the help of Georges Kopp paid visits to her husband, bringing him English tea, chocolate and cigars. Orwell had to spend some days in hospital with a poisoned hand and had most of his possessions stolen by the staff. He returned to the front and saw some action in night attack on the Nationalist trenches where he chased an enemy soldier with a bayonet and bombed an enemy rifle position.
In April, Orwell returned to Barcelona. Wanting to be sent to the Madrid front, which meant he “must join the International Column”, he approached a Communist friend attached to the Spanish Medical Aid and explained his case. “Although he did not think much of the Communists, Orwell was still ready to treat them as friends and allies. That would soon change.” This was the time of the Barcelona May Days and Orwell was caught up in the factional fighting. He spent much of the time on a roof, with a stack of novels, but encountered Jon Kimche from his Hampstead days during the stay. The subsequent campaign of lies and distortion carried out by the Communist press, in which the POUM was accused of collaborating with the fascists, had a dramatic effect on Orwell. Instead of joining the International Brigades as he had intended, he decided to return to the Aragon Front. Once the May fighting was over, he was approached by a Communist friend who asked if he still intended transferring to the International Brigades. Orwell expressed surprise that they should still want him, because according to the Communist press he was a fascist. “No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.”
After his return to the front, he was wounded in the throat by a sniper’s bullet. Orwell was considerably taller than the Spanish fighters and had been warned against standing against the trench parapet. Unable to speak, and with blood pouring from his mouth, Orwell was carried on a stretcher to Siétamo, loaded on an ambulance and after a bumpy journey via Barbastro arrived at the hospital at Lleida. He recovered sufficiently to get up and on 27 May 1937 was sent on to Tarragona and two days later to a POUM sanatorium in the suburbs of Barcelona. The bullet had missed his main artery by the barest margin and his voice was barely audible. He received electrotherapy treatment and was declared medically unfit for service.
By the middle of June the political situation in Barcelona had deteriorated and the POUM — painted by the pro-Soviet Communists as a Trotskyist organisation — was outlawed and under attack. The Communist line was that the POUM were ‘objectively’ Fascist, hindering the Republican cause. “A particularly nasty poster appeared, showing a head with a POUM mask being ripped off to reveal a Swastika-covered face beneath.” Members, including Kopp, were arrested and others were in hiding. Orwell and his wife were under threat and had to lie low,although they broke cover to try to help Kopp.
Finally with their passports in order, they escaped from Spain by train, diverting to Banyuls-sur-Mer for a short stay before returning to England. In the first week of July 1937 Orwell arrived back at Wallington; on 13 July 1937 a deposition was presented to the Tribunal for Espionage & High Treason, Valencia, charging the Orwells with ‘rabid Trotskyism’, and being agents of the POUM. The trial of the leaders of the POUM and of Orwell (in his absence) took place in Barcelona in October and November 1938. Observing events from French Morocco Orwell wrote that they were ” – only a by-product of the Russian Trotskyist trials and from the start every kind of lie, including flagrant absurdities, has been circulated in the Communist press.” Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War gave rise to Homage to Catalonia (1938).
Rest and recuperation
Orwell returned to England in June 1937, and stayed at the O’Shaughnessy home at Greenwich. He found his views on the Spanish Civil War out of favour. Kingsley Martin rejected two of his works and Gollancz was equally cautious. At the same time, the communist Daily Worker was running an attack on The Road to Wigan Pier, misquoting Orwell as saying “the working classes smell”; a letter to Gollancz from Orwell threatening libel action brought a stop to this. Orwell was also able to find a more sympathetic publisher for his views in Frederic Warburg of Secker & Warburg. Orwell returned to Wallington, which he found in disarray after his absence. He acquired goats, a rooster he called “Henry Ford”, and a poodle puppy he called “Marx” and settled down to animal husbandry and writing Homage to Catalonia.
There were thoughts of going to India to work on the Pioneer, a newspaper in Lucknow, but by March 1938 Orwell’s health had deteriorated. He was admitted to Preston Hall Sanatorium at Aylesford, Kent, a British Legion hospital for ex-servicemen to which his brother-in-law Laurence O’Shaughnessy was attached. He was thought initially to be suffering from tuberculosis and stayed in the sanatorium until September. A stream of visitors came to see him including Common, Heppenstall, Plowman and Cyril Connolly. Connolly brought with him Stephen Spender, a cause of some embarrassment as Orwell had referred to Spender as a “pansy friend” some time earlier. Homage to Catalonia was published by Secker & Warburg and was a commercial flop. In the latter part of his stay at the clinic Orwell was able to go for walks in the countryside and study nature.
The novelist L.H. Myers secretly funded a trip to French Morocco for half a year for Orwell to avoid the English winter and recover his health. The Orwells set out in September 1938 via Gibraltar and Tangier to avoid Spanish Morocco and arrived at Marrakech. They rented a villa on the road to Casablanca and during that time Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air. They arrived back in England on 30 March 1939 and Coming Up for Air was published in June. Orwell spent time in Wallington and Southwold working on a Dickens essay and it was in July 1939 that Orwell’s father, Richard Blair, died.
World War II and Animal Farm
On the outbreak of World War II, Orwell’s wife Eileen started work in the Censorship Department in London, staying during the week with her family in Greenwich. Orwell also submitted his name to the Central Register for war effort but nothing transpired. He returned to Wallington, and in the autumn of 1939 he wrote material for Inside the Whale and Other Essays. For the next year he was occupied writing reviews for plays, films and books for The Listener, Time and Tide and New Adelphi. At the beginning of 1940, the first edition of Connolly’s Horizon appeared, and this provided a new outlet for Orwell’s work as well as new literary contacts. In May the Orwells took lease of a flat in London at Dorset Chambers, Chagford Street, Marylebone. It was the time of the Dunkirk evacuation and the death in France of Eileen’s brother Lawrence caused her considerable grief and long-term depression.
Orwell was declared “unfit for any kind of military service” by the Medical Board in June, but soon afterwards found an opportunity to become involved in war activities by joining the Home Guard. He shared Tom Wintringham’s socialist vision for the Home Guard as a revolutionary People’s Militia. Sergeant Orwell managed to recruit Frederic Warburg to his unit. During the Battle of Britain he used to spend weekends with Warburg and his new friend Zionist Tosco Fyvel at Twyford, Berkshire. At Wallington he worked on “England Your England” and in London wrote reviews for various periodicals. Visiting Eileen’s family in Greenwich brought him face-to-face with the effects of the blitz on East London.
Early in 1941 he started writing for the American Partisan Review and contributed to Gollancz’ anthology The Betrayal of the Left, written in the light of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (although Orwell referred to it as the Russo-German Pact and the Hitler-Stalin Pact). He also applied unsuccessfully for a job at the Air Ministry. In the Home Guard his mishandling of a mortar put two of his unit in hospital. Meanwhile he was still writing reviews of books and plays and at this time met the novelist Anthony Powell. He also took part in a few radio broadcasts for the Eastern Service of the BBC. In March the Orwells moved to St John’s Wood in a 7th floor flat at Langford Court, while at Wallington Orwell was “digging for victory” by planting potatoes.
In August 1941, Orwell finally obtained “war work” when he was taken on full time by the BBC’s Eastern Service. He supervised cultural broadcasts to India to counter propaganda from Nazi Germany designed to undermine Imperial links. This was Orwell’s first experience of the rigid conformity of life in an office. However it gave him an opportunity to create cultural programmes with contributions from T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, E. M. Forster, Ahmed Ali, Mulk Raj Anand, and William Empson among others.
At the end of August he had a dinner with H. G. Wells which degenerated into a row because Wells had taken offence at observations Orwell made about him in a Horizon article. In October Orwell had a bout of bronchitis and the illness recurred frequently. David Astor was looking for a provocative contributor for The Observer and invited Orwell to write for him — the first article appearing in March 1942. In spring of 1942 Eileen changed jobs to work at the Ministry of Food and Orwell’s mother and sister Avril took war work in London and came to stay with the Orwells. In the summer, they all moved to a basement at Mortimer Crescent in Kilburn.
At the BBC, Orwell introduced Voice, a literary programme for his Indian broadcasts, and by now was leading an active social life with literary friends, particularly on the political left. Late in 1942, he started writing for the left-wing weekly Tribune directed by Labour MPs Aneurin Bevan and George Strauss. In March 1943 Orwell’s mother died and around the same time he told Moore he was starting work on a new book, which would turn out to be Animal Farm.
In September 1943, Orwell resigned from the BBC post that he had occupied for two years. His resignation followed a report confirming his fears that few Indians listened to the broadcasts,but he was also keen to concentrate on writing Animal Farm. At this time he was also discharged from the Home Guard.
In November 1943, Orwell was appointed literary editor at Tribune, where his assistant was his old friend Jon Kimche. On 24 December 1943, Tribune published, under the authorship of “John Freeman” – possibly in reference to the British politician – the short essay Can Socialists Be Happy?, which has since been widely attributed to Orwell. Orwell was on staff until early 1945, writing over 80 book reviews as well as the regular column “As I Please”. He was still writing reviews for other magazines, and becoming a respected pundit among left-wing circles but also close friends with people on the right like Powell, Astor and Malcolm Muggeridge. By April 1944 Animal Farm was ready for publication. Gollancz refused to publish it, considering it an attack on the Soviet regime which was a crucial ally in the war. A similar fate was met from other publishers (including T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber) until Jonathan Cape agreed to take it.
In May the Orwells had the opportunity to adopt a child, thanks to the contacts of Eileen’s sister Gwen O’Shaughnassy, then a doctor in Newcastle upon Tyne. In June a V-1 flying bomb landed on Mortimer Crescent and the Orwells had to find somewhere else to live. Orwell had to scrabble around in the rubble for his collection of books, which he had finally managed to transfer from Wallington, carting them away in a wheelbarrow.
Another bombshell was Cape’s reversal of his plan to publish Animal Farm. The decision followed his personal visit to Peter Smollett, an official at the Ministry of Information. Smollett was later identified as a Soviet agent.
The Orwells spent some time in the North East, near Carlton in County Durham, dealing with matters in the adoption of a boy whom they named Richard Horatio. In October 1944 they had set up home in Islington in a flat on the 7th floor of a block. Baby Richard joined them there, and Eileen gave up work to look after her family. Secker and Warburg had agreed to publish Animal Farm, planned for the following March, although it did not appear in print until August 1945. By February 1945 David Astor had invited Orwell to become a war correspondent for the Observer. Orwell had been looking for the opportunity throughout the war, but his failed medical reports prevented him from being allowed anywhere near action. He went to Paris after the liberation of France and to Cologne once it had been occupied by the Allies.
It was while he was there that Eileen went into hospital for a hysterectomy and died under anaesthetic on 29 March 1945. She had not given Orwell much notice about this operation because of worries about the cost and because she expected to make a speedy recovery. Orwell returned home for a while and then went back to Europe. He returned finally to London to cover the 1945 UK General Election at the beginning of July. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story was published in Britain on 17 August 1945, and a year later in the U.S., on 26 August 1946.
Jura and Nineteen Eighty-Four
Animal Farm struck a particular resonance in the post-war climate and its worldwide success made Orwell a sought-after figure.
For the next four years Orwell mixed journalistic work — mainly for Tribune, The Observer and the Manchester Evening News, though he also contributed to many small-circulation political and literary magazines — with writing his best-known work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949.
In the year following Eileen’s death he published around 130 articles and was active in various political lobbying campaigns. He employed a housekeeper, Susan Watson, to look after his adopted son at the Islington flat, which visitors now described as “bleak”. In September he spent a fortnight on the island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides and saw it as a place to escape from the hassle of London literary life. David Astor was instrumental in arranging a place for Orwell on Jura. Astor’s family owned Scottish estates in the area and a fellow Old Etonian Robert Fletcher had a property on the island. During the winter of 1945 to 1946 Orwell made several hopeless and unwelcome marriage proposals to younger women, including Celia Kirwan (who was later to become Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law), Ann Popham who happened to live in the same block of flats and Sonia Brownell, one of Connolly’s coterie at the Horizon office. Orwell suffered a tubercular haemorrhage in February 1946 but disguised his illness. In 1945 or early 1946, while still living at Canonbury Square, Orwell wrote an article on “British Cookery”, complete with recipes, commissioned by the British Council. Given the post-war shortages, both parties agreed not to publish it. His sister Marjorie died of kidney disease in May and shortly after, on 22 May 1946, Orwell set off to live on the Isle of Jura.
Barnhill was an abandoned farmhouse with outbuildings near the northern end of the island, situated at the end of a five-mile (8 km), heavily rutted track from Ardlussa, where the owners lived. Conditions at the farmhouse were primitive but the natural history and the challenge of improving the place appealed to Orwell. His sister Avril accompanied him there and young novelist Paul Potts made up the party. In July Susan Watson arrived with Orwell’s son Richard. Tensions developed and Potts departed after one of his manuscripts was used to light the fire. Orwell meanwhile set to work on Nineteen Eighty-Four. Later Susan Watson’s boyfriend David Holbrook arrived. A fan of Orwell since school days, he found the reality very different, with Orwell hostile and disagreeable probably because of Holbrook’s membership of the Communist Party. Susan Watson could no longer stand being with Avril and she and her boyfriend left.
Orwell returned to London in late 1946 and picked up his literary journalism again. Now a well-known writer, he was swamped with work. Apart from a visit to Jura in the new year he stayed in London for one of the coldest British winters on record and with such a national shortage of fuel that he burnt his furniture and his child’s toys. The heavy smog in the days before the Clean Air Act 1956 did little to help his health about which he was reticent, keeping clear of medical attention. Meanwhile he had to cope with rival claims of publishers Gollancz and Warburg for publishing rights. About this time he co-edited a collection titled British Pamphleteers with Reginald Reynolds. As a result of the success of Animal Farm, Orwell was expecting a large bill from the Inland Revenue and he contacted a firm of accountants of which the senior partner was Jack Harrison. The firm advised Orwell to establish a company to own his copyright and to receive his royalties and set up a “service agreement” so that he could draw a salary. Such a company “George Orwell Productions Ltd” (GOP Ltd) was set up on 12 September 1947 although the service agreement was not then put into effect. Jack Harrison left the details at this stage to junior colleagues.
In April 1947 Orwell left London for good, ending the leases on the Islington flat and Wallington cottage. Back on Jura in gales and rainstorms he struggled to get on with Nineteen Eighty-Four but through the summer and autumn made good progress. During that time his sister’s family visited, and Orwell led a disastrous boating expedition which nearly led to loss of life whilst trying to cross the notorious gulf of Corryvreckan and gave him a soaking which was not good for his health. In December a chest specialist was summoned from Glasgow who pronounced Orwell seriously ill and a week before Christmas 1947 he was in Hairmyres hospital in East Kilbride, then a small village in the countryside, on the outskirts of Glasgow. Tuberculosis was diagnosed and the request for permission to import streptomycin to treat Orwell went as far as Aneurin Bevan, now Minister of Health. By the end of July 1948 Orwell was able to return to Jura and by December he had finished the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In January 1949, in a very weak condition, he set off for a sanatorium in Gloucestershire, escorted by Richard Rees.
The sanatorium at Cranham consisted of a series of small wooden chalets or huts in a remote part of the Cotswolds near Stroud. Visitors were shocked by Orwell’s appearance and concerned by the short-comings and ineffectiveness of the treatment. Friends were worried about his finances, but by now he was comparatively well-off. He was writing to many of his friends, including Jacintha Buddicom, who had “rediscovered” him, and in March 1949, was visited by Celia Kirwan. Kirwan had just started working for a Foreign Office unit, the Information Research Department, set up by the Labour government to publish anti-communist propaganda, and Orwell gave her a list of people he considered to be unsuitable as IRD authors because of their pro-communist leanings. Orwell’s list, not published until 2003, consisted mainly of writers but also included actors and Labour MPs. Orwell received more streptomycin treatment and improved slightly. In June 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four was published to immediate critical and popular acclaim.
Final months and death
Orwell courted Sonia Brownell a second time during the summer, and they announced their marriage in September, shortly before he was removed to University College Hospital in London. Sonia took charge of Orwell’s affairs and attended diligently in the hospital, causing concern to some old friends such as Muggeridge. In September 1949 Orwell invited his accountant Harrison to visit him in hospital, and Harrison claimed that Orwell then asked him to become director of GOP Ltd and to manage the company but there was no independent witness. Orwell’s wedding took place in the hospital room on 13 October 1949, with David Astor as best man. Orwell was in decline and visited by an assortment of visitors including Muggeridge, Connolly, Lucian Freud, Stephen Spender, Evelyn Waugh, Paul Potts, Anthony Powell and his Eton tutor Anthony Gow. Plans to go to the Swiss Alps were mooted. Further meetings were held with his accountant at which Harrison and Mr and Mrs Blair were confirmed as directors of the company and at which Harrison claimed that the “service agreement” was executed, giving copyright to the company. Orwell’s health was in decline again by Christmas. On the evening of 20 January 1950, Potts visited Orwell and slipped away on finding him asleep. However a later visit was made by Jack Harrison who claimed that Orwell gave him 25% of the company. Early on the morning of 21 January, an artery burst in his lungs, killing him at age 46.
Orwell had requested to be buried in accordance with the Anglican rite in the graveyard of the closest church to wherever he happened to die. The graveyards in central London had no space, and fearing that he might have to be cremated, against his wishes, his widow appealed to his friends to see whether any of them knew of a church with space in its graveyard.
David Astor lived in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire and negotiated with the vicar for Orwell to be interred in All Saints’ churchyard there, although he had no connection with the village. His gravestone bore the simple epitaph: “Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born 25 June 1903, died 21 January 1950″; no mention is made on the gravestone of his more famous pen-name.
Orwell’s son, Richard Blair, was raised by an aunt after his father’s death. He maintains a low public profile, though he has occasionally given interviews about the few memories he has of his father. Richard Blair worked for many years as an agricultural agent for the British government.
In 1979 Sonia brought a High Court action against Harrison who had in the meantime transferred 75% of the company’s voting stock to himself and had dissipated much of the value of the company. She was considered to have a strong case, but was becoming increasingly ill and eventually was persuaded to settle out of court on 2 November 1980. She died on 11 December 1980, aged 62.
During most of his career, Orwell was best known for his journalism, in essays, reviews, columns in newspapers and magazines and in his books of reportage: Down and Out in Paris and London (describing a period of poverty in these cities), The Road to Wigan Pier (describing the living conditions of the poor in northern England, and the class divide generally) and Homage to Catalonia. According to Irving Howe, Orwell was “the best English essayist since Hazlitt, perhaps since Dr Johnson.”
Modern readers are more often introduced to Orwell as a novelist, particularly through his enormously successful titles Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The former is often thought to reflect degeneration in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism; the latter, life under totalitarian rule. Nineteen Eighty-Four is often compared to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; both are powerful dystopian novels warning of a future world where the state machine exerts complete control over social life. In 1984, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 were honoured with the Prometheus Award for their contributions to dystopian literature. In 2011 he received it again for Animal Farm.
Coming Up for Air, his last novel before World War II is the most ‘English’ of his novels; alarms of war mingle with images of idyllic Thames-side Edwardian childhood of protagonist George Bowling. The novel is pessimistic; industrialism and capitalism have killed the best of Old England, and there were great, new external threats. In homely terms, Bowling posits the totalitarian hypotheses of Borkenau, Orwell, Silone and Koestler: “Old Hitler’s something different. So’s Joe Stalin. They aren’t like these chaps in the old days who crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for the fun of it … They’re something quite new — something that’s never been heard of before”.
In an autobiographical piece that Orwell sent to the editors of Twentieth Century Authors in 1940, he wrote: “The writers I care about most and never grow tired of are: Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Flaubert and, among modern writers, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. But I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.” Elsewhere, Orwell strongly praised the works of Jack London, especially his book The Road. Orwell’s investigation of poverty in The Road to Wigan Pier strongly resembles that of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, in which the American journalist disguises himself as an out-of-work sailor in order to investigate the lives of the poor in London. In his essay Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels (1946) Orwell wrote: “If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver’s Travels among them.”.
Other writers admired by Orwell included: Ralph Waldo Emerson, G. K. Chesterton, George Gissing, Graham Greene, Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Tobias Smollett, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and Yevgeny Zamyatin. He was both an admirer and a critic of Rudyard Kipling, praising Kipling as a gifted writer and a “good bad poet” whose work is “spurious” and “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting,” but undeniably seductive and able to speak to certain aspects of reality more effectively than more enlightened authors.
Orwell as literary critic
Throughout his life Orwell continually supported himself as a book reviewer, writing works so long and sophisticated they have had an influence on literary criticism. He wrote in the conclusion to his 1940 essay on Charles Dickens:
When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
George Woodcock suggested that the last two sentences characterised Orwell as much as his subject.
Reactions to Orwell’s works
Arthur Koestler mentioned Orwell’s “uncompromising intellectual honesty [which] made him appear almost inhuman at times.” Ben Wattenberg stated: “Orwell’s writing pierced intellectual hypocrisy wherever he found it.” According to historian Piers Brendon, “Orwell was the saint of common decency who would in earlier days, said his BBC boss Rushbrook Williams, ‘have been either canonised – or burnt at the stake’”. However, Raymond Williams in Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review describes Orwell as a “successful impersonation of a plain man who bumps into experience in an unmediated way and tells the truth about it.” Christopher Norris declared that Orwell’s “homespun empiricist outlook – his assumption that the truth was just there to be told in a straightforward common-sense way – now seems not merely naive but culpably self-deluding”.
Orwell’s work has taken a prominent place in the school literature curriculum in England, with Animal Farm a regular examination topic at the end of secondary education (GCSE), and Nineteen Eighty-Four a topic for subsequent examinations below university level (A Levels). Alan Brown noted that this brings to the forefront questions about the political content of teaching practices. Study aids, in particular with potted biographies, might be seen to help propagate the Orwell myth so that as an embodiment of human values he is presented as a “trustworthy guide”, while examination questions sometimes suggest a “right ways of answering” in line with the myth.
Historian John Rodden stated: “John Podhoretz did claim that if Orwell were alive today, he’d be standing with the neo-conservatives and against the Left. And the question arises, to what extent can you even begin to predict the political positions of somebody who’s been dead three decades and more by that time?”
In Orwell’s Victory, Christopher Hitchens argues, “In answer to the accusation of inconsistency Orwell as a writer was forever taking his own temperature. In other words, here was someone who never stopped testing and adjusting his intelligence”.
John Rodden points out the “undeniable conservative features in the Orwell physiognomy” and remarks on how “to some extent Orwell facilitated the kinds of uses and abuses by the Right that his name has been put to. In other ways there has been the politics of selective quotation.” Rodden refers to the essay Why I Write, in which Orwell refers to the Spanish Civil War as being his “watershed political experience”, saying “The Spanish War and other events in 1936–37, turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism as I understand it.” (emphasis in original) Rodden goes on to explain how, during the McCarthy era, the introduction to the Signet edition of Animal Farm, which sold more than 20 million copies, makes use of “the politics of ellipsis”:
If the book itself, Animal Farm, had left any doubt of the matter, Orwell dispelled it in his essay Why I Write: ‘Every line of serious work that I’ve written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against Totalitarianism … dot, dot, dot, dot.’ “For Democratic Socialism” is vaporised, just like Winston Smith did it at the Ministry of Truth, and that’s very much what happened beginning of the McCarthy era and just continued, Orwell being selectively quoted.
T.R. Fyvel wrote about Orwell: “His crucial experience … was his struggle to turn himself into a writer, one which led through long periods of poverty, failure and humiliation, and about which he has written almost nothing directly. The sweat and agony was less in the slum-life than in the effort to turn the experience into literature.”
Influence on language and writing
In his essay Politics and the English Language (1946), Orwell wrote about the importance of precise and clear language, arguing that vague writing can be used as a powerful tool of political manipulation because it shapes the way we think. In that essay, Orwell provides six rules for writers:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Andrew N. Rubin argues, “Orwell claimed that we should be attentive to how the use of language has limited our capacity for critical thought just as we should be equally concerned with the ways in which dominant modes of thinking have reshaped the very language that we use.”
The adjective Orwellian connotes an attitude and a policy of control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell described a totalitarian government that controlled thought by controlling language, making certain ideas literally unthinkable. Several words and phrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four have entered popular language. Newspeak is a simplified and obfuscatory language designed to make independent thought impossible. Doublethink means holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. The Thought Police are those who suppress all dissenting opinion. Prolefeed is homogenised, manufactured superficial literature, film and music, used to control and indoctrinate the populace through docility. Big Brother is a supreme dictator who watches everyone.
Orwell may have been the first to use the term cold war, in his essay, You and the Atom Bomb, published in Tribune, 19 October 1945. He wrote:
We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications;— this is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a State which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbours.
Jacintha Buddicom’s account Eric & Us provides an insight into Blair’s childhood. She quoted his sister Avril that “he was essentially an aloof, undemonstrative person” and said herself of his friendship with the Buddicoms “I do not think he needed any other friends beyond the schoolfriend he occasionally and appreciatively referred to as ‘CC’”. Cyril Connolly provides an account of Blair as a child in Enemies of Promise. Years later, Blair mordantly recalled his prep school in the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”, claiming among other things that he “was made to study like a dog” to earn a scholarship, which he alleged was solely to enhance the school’s prestige with parents. Jacintha Buddicom repudiated Orwell’s schoolboy misery described in the essay, stating that “he was a specially happy child”.
Connolly remarked of him as a schoolboy, “The remarkable thing about Orwell was that alone among the boys he was an intellectual and not a parrot for he thought for himself”. At Eton, John Vaughan Wilkes, his former headmaster’s son recalled, “…he was extremely argumentative — about anything — and criticising the masters and criticising the other boys…. We enjoyed arguing with him. He would generally win the arguments — or think he had anyhow.” Roger Mynors concurs: “Endless arguments about all sorts of things, in which he was one of the great leaders. He was one of those boys who thought for himself….”
Blair liked to carry out practical jokes. Buddicom recalls him swinging from the luggage rack in a railway carriage like an orangutan to frighten a woman passenger out of the compartment. At Eton he played tricks on John Crace, his Master in College, among which was to enter a spoof advertisement in a College magazine implying pederasty. Gow, his tutor, said he “made himself as big a nuisance as he could” and “was a very unattractive boy”. Later Blair was expelled from the crammer at Southwold for sending a dead rat as a birthday present to the town surveyor. In one of his As I Please essays he refers to a protracted joke when he answered an advertisement for a woman who claimed a cure for obesity.
Blair had an enduring interest in natural history which stemmed from his childhood. In letters from school he wrote about caterpillars and butterflies, and Buddicom recalls his keen interest in ornithology. He also enjoyed fishing and shooting rabbits, and conducting experiments as in cooking a hedgehogor shooting down a jackdaw from the Eton roof to dissect it. His zeal for scientific experiments extended to explosives — again Buddicom recalls a cook giving notice because of the noise. Later in Southwold his sister Avril recalled him blowing up the garden. When teaching he enthused his students with his nature-rambles both at Southwold and Hayes.His adult diaries are permeated with his observations on nature.
Buddicom and Blair lost touch shortly after he went to Burma, and she became unsympathetic towards him. She wrote that it was because of the letters he wrote complaining about his life, but an addendum to Eric & Us by Venables reveals that he may have lost sympathy through an incident which was at best a clumsy seduction.
Mabel Fierz, who later became his confidante, said “He used to say the one thing he wished in this world was that he’d been attractive to women. He liked women and had many girlfriends I think in Burma. He had a girl in Southwold and another girl in London. He was rather a womaniser, yet he was afraid he wasn’t attractive.”
Brenda Salkield (Southwold) preferred friendship to any deeper relationship and maintained a correspondence with Blair for many years, particularly as a sounding board for his ideas. She wrote “He was a great letter writer. Endless letters, And I mean when he wrote you a letter he wrote pages.” His correspondence with Eleanor Jacques (London) was more prosaic, dwelling on a closer relationship and referring to past rendezvous or planning future ones in London and Burnham Beeches.
When Orwell was in the sanatorium in Kent his wife’s friend Lydia Jackson visited. He invited her for a walk and out of sight “an awkward situation arose.” Jackson was to be the most critical of Orwell’s marriage to Eileen O’Shaughnessy but their later correspondence hints a complicity. Eileen at the time was more concerned about Orwell’s closeness to Brenda Salkield. Orwell was to have an affair with his secretary at Tribune which caused Eileen much distress, and others have been mooted. In a letter to Ann Popham he wrote: ‘I was sometimes unfaithful to Eileen, and I also treated her badly, and I think she treated me badly, too, at times, but it was a real marriage, in the sense that we had been through awful struggles together and she understood all about my work, etc.’, Similarly he suggested to Celia Kirwan that they had both been unfaithful. There are several testaments that it was a well-matched and happy marriage.
Orwell was very lonely after Eileen’s death, and desperate for a wife, both as companion for himself and as mother for Richard. He proposed marriage to four women, and eventually Sonia Brownell accepted.
Orwell was a communicant member of the Church of England, he attended holy communion regularly,and allusions to Anglican life are made in his book A Clergyman’s Daughter. At the same time he found the church to be a “selfish…church of the landed gentry” with its establishment “out of touch” with the majority of its communicants and altogether a pernicious influence on public life. Yet, he was married according to the rites of the Church of England in both his first marriage at the church at Wallington, and in his second marriage on his deathbed in University College Hospital, and he left instructions that he was to receive an Anglican funeral. In their 1972 study, The Unknown Orwell, the writers Peter Stansky and William Abrahams note that at Eton Blair displayed a “sceptical attitude” to Christian belief, and that: “Shaw’s preface to his recently published Androcles and the Lion in which an account of the gospels is set forth, very different in tone from what one would be likely to hear from an Anglican clergyman” was “much more to Blair’s own taste.” Crick observed that Orwell displayed “a pronounced anti-Catholicism”.
The ambiguity in his belief in religion mirrored the dichotomies between his public and private lives: Stephen Ingle wrote that it was as if the writer George Orwell “vaunted” his atheism while Eric Blair the individual retained “a deeply ingrained religiosity”. Ingle later noted that Orwell did not accept the existence of an afterlife, believing in the finality of death while living and advocating a moral code based on Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Orwell liked to provoke argument by challenging the status quo, but he was also a traditionalist with a love of old English values. He criticised and satirised, from the inside, the various social milieus in which he found himself – provincial town life in A Clergyman’s Daughter; middle-class pretention in Keep the Aspidistra Flying; preparatory schools in Such Such were the Joys; colonialism in Burmese Days, and some socialist groups in The Road to Wigan Pier. In his Adelphi days he described himself as a “Tory-anarchist”.
In 1928, Orwell began his career as a professional writer in Paris. His first article, Censorship in England, was an attempt to account for the ‘extraordinary and illogical’ suppression of plays and novels on the grounds of public decency, then practised in Britain. His own explanation was that the rise of the ‘puritan middle class’, who had stricter morals than the aristocracy, tightened the rules of censorship in the 19th century. Orwell’s first article to be published in his home country, A Farthing Newspaper, was a critique of the new French daily, the Ami de Peuple. This paper was sold much more cheaply than most others, and was intended for ordinary people to read. However, Orwell pointed out that its proprietor François Coty also owned the right-wing dailies Le Figaro and Le Gaulois, which the Ami de Peuple was supposedly competing against. Orwell suggested that cheap newspapers were no more than a vehicle for advertising and anti-leftist propaganda, and predicted that like India, France might soon see ‘free newspapers’ which would drive many legitimate dailies out of business.
The Spanish Civil War played the most important part in defining Orwell’s socialism. He wrote to Cyril Connolly from Barcelona on 8 June 1937: “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before”. Having witnessed the success of the anarcho-syndicalist communities, for example in Anarchist Catalonia, and the subsequent brutal suppression of the anarcho-syndicalists, anti-Stalin communist parties and revolutionaries by the Soviet Union-backed Communists, Orwell returned from Catalonia a staunch anti-Stalinist and joined the Independent Labour Party, his card being issued on 13 June 1938. Although he was never a Trotskyist, he was strongly influenced by the Trotskyist and anarchist critiques of the Soviet regime, and by the anarchists’ emphasis on individual freedom. In Part 2 of The Road to Wigan Pier, published by the Left Book Club, Orwell stated: “a real Socialist is one who wishes – not merely conceives it as desirable, but actively wishes – to see tyranny overthrown”. Orwell stated in “Why I Write” (1946): “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Orwell was a proponent of a federal socialist Europe, a position outlined in his 1947 essay “Toward European Unity”, which first appeared in Partisan Review. According to biographer John Newsinger,
the other crucial dimension to Orwell’s socialism was his recognition that the Soviet Union was not socialist. Unlike many on the left, instead of abandoning socialism once he discovered the full horror of Stalinist rule in the Soviet Union, Orwell abandoned the Soviet Union and instead remained a socialist — indeed he became more committed to the socialist cause than ever.”
In his 1938 essay “Why I joined the Independent Labour Party”, published in the ILP-affiliated New Leader, Orwell wrote:
For some years past I have managed to make the capitalist class pay me several pounds a week for writing books against capitalism. But I do not delude myself that this state of affairs is going to last forever … the only régime which, in the long run, will dare to permit freedom of speech is a Socialist régime. If Fascism triumphs I am finished as a writer – that is to say, finished in my only effective capacity. That of itself would be a sufficient reason for joining a Socialist party.
Towards the end of the essay, he wrote: “I do not mean I have lost all faith in the Labour Party. My most earnest hope is that the Labour Party will win a clear majority in the next General Election.”
Orwell was opposed to rearmament against Nazi Germany — but he changed his view after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the outbreak of the war. He left the ILP because of its opposition to the war and adopted a political position of “revolutionary patriotism”. In December 1940 he wrote in Tribune (the Labour left’s weekly): “We are in a strange period of history in which a revolutionary has to be a patriot and a patriot has to be a revolutionary.” During the war, Orwell was highly critical of the popular idea that an Anglo-Soviet alliance would be the basis of a post-war world of peace and prosperity. In 1942, commenting on journalist E. H. Carr’s pro-Soviet views, Orwell stated: “all the appeasers, e.g. Professor E. H. Carr, have switched their allegiance from Hitler to Stalin.”
On anarchism, Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier: “I worked out an anarchistic theory that all government is evil, that the punishment always does more harm than the crime and the people can be trusted to behave decently if you will only let them alone.” He continued however and argued that “it is always necessary to protect peaceful people from violence. In any state of society where crime can be profitable you have got to have a harsh criminal law and administer it ruthlessly.”
In his reply (dated 15 November 1943) to an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak for the British League for European Freedom, he stated that he didn’t agree with their objectives. He admitted that what they said was “more truthful than the lying propaganda found in most of the press” but added that he could not “associate himself with an essentially Conservative body” that claimed to “defend democracy in Europe” but had “nothing to say about British imperialism”. His closing paragraph stated: “I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country.”
Orwell joined the staff of Tribune as literary editor, and from then until his death, was a left-wing (though hardly orthodox) Labour-supporting democratic socialist. On 1 September 1944, about the Warsaw Uprising, Orwell expressed in Tribune his hostility against the influence of the alliance with the USSR over the allies: “Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Do not imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the sovietic regime, or any other regime, and then suddenly return to honesty and reason. Once a whore, always a whore.” According to Newsinger, although Orwell “was always critical of the 1945–51 Labour government’s moderation, his support for it began to pull him to the right politically. This did not lead him to embrace conservatism, imperialism or reaction, but to defend, albeit critically, Labour reformism.” Between 1945 and 1947, with A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell, he contributed a series of articles and essays to Polemic, a short-lived British “Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology, and Aesthetics” edited by the ex-Communist Humphrey Slater.
Writing in the spring of 1945 a long essay titled Antisemitism in Britain, for the Contemporary Jewish Record, Orwell stated that anti-Semitism was on the increase in Britain, and that it was “irrational and will not yield to arguments”. He argued that it would be useful to discover why anti-Semites could “swallow such absurdities on one particular subject while remaining sane on others”. He wrote: “For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. … Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own anti-Semitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, written shortly after the war, Orwell portrayed the Party as enlisting anti-Semitic passions against their enemy, Goldstein.
Orwell publicly defended P.G. Wodehouse against charges of being a Nazi sympathiser, a defence based on Wodehouse’s lack of interest in and ignorance of politics.
The British intelligence group Special Branch maintained a file on Orwell for more than 20 years of his life. The dossier, published by The National Archives, mentions that according to one investigator, Orwell had “advanced Communist views and several of his Indian friends say that they have often seen him at Communist meetings”. MI5, the intelligence department of the Home Office, noted: “It is evident from his recent writings – ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ – and his contribution to Gollancz’s symposium The Betrayal of the Left that he does not hold with the Communist Party nor they with him.”
Orwell was noted for very close and enduring friendships with a few friends, but these were generally people with a similar background or with a similar level of literary ability. Ungregarious, he was out of place in a crowd and his discomfort was exacerbated when he was outside his own class. Though representing himself as a spokesman for the common man, he often appeared out of place with real working people. His brother-in-law Humphrey Dakin, a “Hail fellow, well met” type, who took him to a local pub in Leeds, said that he was told by the landlord: “Don’t bring that bugger in here again”. Adrian Fierz commented “He wasn’t interested in racing or greyhounds or pub crawling or shove ha’penny. He just did not have much in common with people who did not share his intellectual interests”. Awkwardness attended many of his encounters with working-class representatives but his courtesy and good manners were often commented on. Jack Common observed on meeting him for the first time, “Right away manners, and more than manners — breeding — showed through”.
In his tramping days, he did domestic work for a time. His extreme politeness was recalled by a member of the family he worked for; she declared that the family referred to him as “Laurel” after the film comedian.With his gangling figure and awkwardness, Orwell’s friends often saw him as a figure of fun. Geoffrey Gorer commented “He was awfully likely to knock things off tables, trip over things. I mean, he was a gangling, physically badly co-ordinated young man. I think his feelings that even the inanimate world was against him…” When he shared a flat with Heppenstall and Sayer, he was treated in a patronising manner by the younger men. At the BBC, in the 1940s, “everybody would pull his leg”, and Spender described him as having real entertainment value “like, as I say, watching a Charlie Chaplin movie”. A friend of Eileen’s reminisced about her tolerance and humour, often at Orwell’s expense.
One biography of Orwell accused him of having had an authoritarian streak. In Burma, he struck out at a Burmese boy who while “fooling around” with his friends had “accidentally bumped into him” at a station, with the result that Orwell “fell heavily” down some stairs. One of his former pupils recalled being beaten so hard he could not sit down for a week. When sharing a flat with Orwell, Heppenstall came home late one night in an advanced stage of loud inebriation. The upshot was that Heppenstall ended up with a bloody nose and was locked in a room. When he complained, Orwell hit him a crack across the legs with a shooting stick and Heppenstall then had to defend himself with a chair. Years later, after Orwell’s death, Heppenstall wrote a dramatic account of the incident called “The Shooting Stick” and Mabel Fierz confirmed that Heppenstall came to her in a sorry state the following day.
However, Orwell got on well with young people. The pupil he beat considered him the best of teachers, and the young recruits in Barcelona tried to drink him under the table — though without success. His nephew recalled Uncle Eric laughing louder than anyone in the cinema at a Charlie Chaplin film.
In the wake of his most famous works, he attracted many uncritical hangers-on, but many others who sought him found him aloof and even dull. With his soft voice, he was sometimes shouted down or excluded from discussions. At this time, he was severely ill; it was wartime or the austerity period after it; during the war his wife suffered from depression; and after her death he was lonely and unhappy. In addition to that, he always lived frugally and seemed unable to care for himself properly. As a result of all this, people found his circumstances bleak. Some, like Michael Ayrton, called him “Gloomy George”, but others developed the idea that he was a “secular saint”.
Orwell was a heavy smoker, rolling his own cigarettes from strong shag tobacco, in spite of his bronchial condition. He undermined his health with a penchant for the rugged life which often put him in cold and damp situations both in the long term as in Catalonia and Jura, and short term, for example in motorcycling in the rain and a shipwreck of his own creation. His love of strong tea was legendary — he had Fortnum & Mason’s tea brought to him in Catalonia and in 1946 published A Nice Cup of Tea on how to make it. He appreciated English beer, taken regularly and moderately, despised drinkers of lagerand wrote about an imagined, ideal pub in his 1946 newspaper article The Moon Under Water. Not being particular about food, he enjoyed the wartime “Victory Pie” extolled canteen food at the BBC and once ate the cat’s dinner by mistake. However he preferred traditional English dishes such as roast beef and kippers and reports of his Islington days refer to the cosy afternoon tea table.
His dress sense was unpredictable and usually casual.In Southwold he had the best cloth from the local tailor, but was equally happy in his tramping outfit. His attire in the Spanish Civil War, along with his size 12 boots was a source of amusement. David Astor described him as looking like a prep school master,while according to the Special Branch dossier, Orwell’s tendency of clothing himself “in Bohemian fashion” revealed that the author was “a Communist”.
Orwell’s confusing approach to matters of social decorum—on the one hand expecting a working class guest to dress for dinner, and on the other hand slurping tea out of a saucer at the BBC canteen—helped stoke his reputation as an English eccentric.
Orwell’s will requested that no biography of him be written, and his wife Sonia Brownell repelled every attempt by those who tried to persuade her to let them write about him. Various recollections and interpretations were published in the 1950s and 1960s but Sonia saw the 1968 Collected Works as the record of his life. She did appoint Muggeridge as official biographer, but later biographers have seen this as deliberate spoiling as Muggeridge eventually gave up the work. In 1973 American authors Stansky and Williams produced an unauthorised account of his early years which inevitably lacked Sonia Brownell’s input. She then commissioned Bernard Crick, a left-wing professor of politics at the University of London to complete a biography and asked all Orwell’s friends to co-operate. Crick collated a considerable amount of material in his work which was published in 1980, but his questioning of the literal truth of Orwell’s first-person writings led to conflict with Sonia who tried unsuccessfully to suppress the book. Crick concentrated on the facts of Orwell’s life rather than his character, and as a professor of politics presented primarily a political perspective on Orwell’s life and work.
After Sonia Brownell’s death many more works were produced in the 1980s with 1984 being a particularly fruitful year for Orwelliana. These included collections of reminiscences by Coppard and Crick and Stephen Wadhams.
In 1991 a biography was produced by Michael Shelden, an American Professor of Literature. Shelden was more concerned with the literary nature of Orwell’s work, seeking explanations for Orwell’s character and treating his first person writings as autobiographical. Shelden introduced several new pieces of information correcting some of the errors and omissions in Crick’s earlier work. Shelden attributed to Orwell an obsessive belief in his failure and inadequacy.
Peter Davison’s production of the Complete Works of George Orwell, completed in 1998 put most of the Orwell Archive in the public domain. Jeffrey Meyers, a prolific American biographer, was first to take advantage of this and produced a work that was more willing to investigate the darker side of Orwell and question the saintly image. Why Orwell Matters was published by Christopher Hitchens in 2002.
In 2003, the centenary of Orwell’s birth resulted in the two most up-to-date biographies by Gordon Bowker and D. J. Taylor, both academics and writers in the United Kingdom. Taylor notes the stage management which surrounds much of Orwell’s behaviour, and Bowker highlights the essential sense of decency which he considers to have been Orwell’s main driver.
- 1934 – Burmese Days
- 1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
- 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
- 1939 – Coming Up for Air
- 1945 – Animal Farm
- 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
Books based on personal experiences
While the substance of many of Orwell’s novels, particularly Burmese Days, is drawn from his personal experiences, the following are works presented as narrative documentaries, rather than being fictionalised.
- 1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
- 1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
- 1938 – Homage to Catalonia
Click here for complete online editions of George Orwell’s books and novels.
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