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George Orwell, individual and writer

literature

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George Orwell, individual and writer

George Orwell was born as Eric Arthur Blair. Under his pen name he became well known for his essays and mostly for two of his novels “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. He was a novelist, a critic and a political and cultural commentator, a fact which is reflected in his works.

Eric Blair was born in India during the period it was part of the British Empire on June 25, 1903 in Motihari, Bengal (modern Bihar). Richard Walmesley Blair, his father was a civil servant working for the opium department of the Civil Service. His mother was Ida Mabel Blair (née Limouzin), and he also had two sisters: one older named Marjorie, and one younger named Avril. At the age of one he was brought by his mother to England and did not see his father again until the age of five, in 1907, when Richard visited England for three months before leaving again.



 At the age of five Blair was admitted to a small Anglican parish school in Henley-on-Thames, which his sister had also attended before him. The time he spent there is not recollected by the writer but he probably made a good impression since two years later he was recommended to the headmaster of one of the most successful preparatory schools in England at the time: St. Cyprian's School, in Eastbourne, Sussex. Because he got accepted to St. Cyprian's on a scholarship, his parents only had to pay half of the usual fees. His time there he would be recalled with biting resentment in the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys “(May 1947):

  ‘Report yourself to the headmaster after breakfast!’

I do not know how many times I heard that phrase during my early years at Crossgates. It was only very rarely that it did not mean a beating. The words always had a portentous sound in my ears, like muffled drums or the words of the death sentence.”[1]   In the same essay, he describes his feeling while there as:” a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.”[2] 

The time he spent at this school helped his get a scholarship to both Wellington and Eton, choosing Eton to continue his studies. At Eton he was a King's Scholar from 1917 to 1921. Here students enjoyed considerable independence and it was also the place where he would make lifetime friendships with a number of future British intellectuals such as Cyril Connolly. Connolly was to become the editor of the Horizon magazine, a magazine where many of Orwell’s most successful essays were originally published. After he graduated from Eton, Blair’s parents could not afford to send him to the university and so, in 1922 he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. The experience was not a pleasant one since at his return, five years later, he decided to resign and become a writer having come to hate and loath imperialism and colonialism. The years he spent there provided him with the row/rough material that inspired the novel “Burmese Days” (1934) and such essays as “A Hanging” (1931), and “Shooting an Elephant “(1936).

In 1928 he went to Paris, where his aunt lived, and he tried to make a living as a writer, but ended up doing all kind of tedious jobs. He lived in the working class district of Paris, writing and later on he worked as a dishwasher most likely at the Crillon. From 7-22 March 1929 he was also hospitalized with pneumonia at Hopital Cochin in Paris.

This period of his life is described in his first novel “Down and Out in Paris and London” (1933). Published by Victor Gollancz, this book was a vivid comment on the reality of deprivation. Although his experience of social injustice led him to social criticism, he never gave his allegiance to a political party.

After 18 months, nearly starved he made his way back to England. In 1929, using his parents' house in Southwold, Suffolk, as a base, he wrote what became “Burmese Days” and became a regular contributor to John Middleton Murry's New Adelphi magazine (The Spike and A Hanging), under his own name, until 1935. Leonard Moore becomes his literary agent in 1932.

Blair adopted the pen name George Orwell before the publishing of “Down and Out in Paris and London”, after rejecting three other possible pen-names: Kenneth Miles, H Lewis Allways, and PS Burton. It is unknown exactly why he chose this name.

The publishing of “Burmese Days” made it possible for him to leave London and became a modest shopkeeper in the country.

 “A Clergyman's Daughter” (1935) drown from his experience as a schoolteacher at a private school in Hayes, Middlesex. He had to leave this position because of health problems. After that he worked part-time as an assistant in a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead, from late 1934 to early 1936, an experience which was later partially recounted in the novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” (1936).

“The Road to Wigan Pier” (1937) was written by Orwell as a commission for the Left Book Club at the request of Victor Gollancz. It was supposed to be an account of poverty among the working class in the depressed areas of northern England. The first part of the book presents in the form of a social documentary the investigative tour Orwell took in Lancashire and Yorkshire. It begins with an evocative description of work in the coal mines.  However the book did not please its sponsors, for the second part of the novel is in the form of an essay in which Orwell using his personal upbringing and political believes criticizes what he considered to be the irresponsible elements of the left.



Gollancz inserted a pacifying preface to the book during the time Orwell spent in Spain, because he feared that the second half would be found offensive by the Left Book Club readers.

Orwell married Eileen O'Shaughnessy shortly after he completed his research for the book, on the 9th of June 1936.

In December 1936 Orwell went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, along side the Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista (POUM), a group of Communist worker-democrats, against Francisco Franco's Nationalist uprising. There he became part of the Independent Labour Party contingent, a group of some 25 Britons who joined the militia of the POUM. Orwell’s rank in the militia was corporal and before being honorably discharged he participated in the street fighting between government and anarchist troops in Barcelona. In order to return to England he barely evaded arrest during the anti-P.O.U.M. purge in Barcelona. 

The POUM along with the radical wing of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (the dominant force on the left in Catalonia) believed that Franco’s defeat would only be possible if the working class in the Republic overthrew capitalism. This position was at opposite ends with the strategy of the Spanish Communist Party and its allies who wanted a coalition with the bourgeois parties in order to defeat the Nationalists.

Participating in the Spanish war  and witnessing the actions of the Comintern had two major consequences: one was that it turned him into a lifelong anti-Stalinist, a fact which will later one show in his work, specifically “Animal Farm”, but it also served as the material from which the action of “Homage to Catalonia” are drawn.

Orwell was injured during his military service, a shot through the neck nearly killing him. In the novel “Homage to Catalonia” he tells how people frequently told him he was lucky to survive though he thought “it would be even luckier not to be hit at all”.

After his return to England Orwell contributed to publications such as the “New English Weekly”, “Time and Tide” and the “New Statesman”. Soon after the Second World War began he joined the Home Guard and was later awarded the Defence medal.

In March 1938 Orwell is hospitalized for six months in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent because of a tubercular hemorrhage in his lung. And in September that same year he goes to Morocco for his health. The following year in March he moves back to England and not long after his father dies.

In 1940 he published his first collection of essays “Inside the Whale”. A year later he took a job at the BBC Eastern Service where he tried to get support for the United Kingdom's war efforts. His work there placed him in the company of T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Mulk Raj Anand, and William Empson. Well aware he was doing propaganda he resigned from this job to become a literary editor for the “Tribune”, were he wrote the column titled “As I Please”. The time spent there whoever, was used in one of his novels, like many other of Orwell’s first hand experiences. The inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was the wartime Ministry of Information, based at Senate House.

From 1943 to 1946 he also contributed to several other publications such as: “the Observer”, “The Manchester Evening News”, “The Lion and the Unicorn” and he wrote the foreword to Joyce Cary’s “The Case for African Freedom”.

Orwell’s anti-Stalinist allegory “Animal Farm” was finished in 1944 and was published a year later. Even if it was viewed with great hesitation by publishers it made Orwell world famous. T.S. Eliot rejected the book saying:” We have no conviction… that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation”. Another publisher, Gollancz rejected the manuscript also telling Orwell that: “I could not possibly publish… a general attack of this nature”. Bernard Crick, as Orwell’s biographer points out that the novel “was widely reviewed… and nearly all praised the style”[3]. “Animal Farm” is a book where he describes the defeat of a revolution and the crushing of hope (Boxer’s sacrifice, the pigs starting to act like the masters they had overthrown). The last precept that the pigs govern by “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” can be seen as a devastating comment on left-wing totalitarianism.




In 1945, on the 29th of March Orwell’s wife died during a minor operation after they had recently adopted a baby boy, Richard Horatio Blair, who had been born in May 1944. The cause of her death might be attributed to a low physical resistance determined by the fact that both she and Orwell would consistently give up a part of their wartime food rations to feed children.

On the Christmas Eve of 1947 he had to enter Hairmyres Hospital situated in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, with tuberculosis of the left lung.

In 1947 he published the essays “The English People”, “Politics and the English Language” and in 1949 he published his last novel- “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. This novel also has an interesting story. It is widely considered that the name of the book was inspired by the year when it was completed 1948, with the last two digits transposed.  Orwell’s original title for the book was “The Last Man in Europe” but from Bernard Crick’s “Introduction” to the Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984 edition of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, we find out that the publisher, Fredric Warburg, was the one who suggested the change of title.

During the writing of this book Orwell lived in a remote farmhouse on the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland, where he moved in 1946, although his health had been weakened by years of deprivation and his experiences in Spain. Because of the way affair evolved at home and abroad Orwell had become more and more pessimistic, attitude which will clearly be reflected in the novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The book describes a totalitarian future. Although Orwell was condemning totalitarianism of every kind the book was well received by the Right that saw it as a criticism of the Left. The theme of an English public at the mercy of a computerized bureaucracy which gathered information about every citizen was a new one.

In 1949 Orwell made up a list of 37 writers and artists who had pro-communist leanings at the request of friend Celia Kirwan, who worked for the Information Research Department, a Foreign Office unit, set up by the Labour government to publish pro-democratic and anti-communist propaganda. The list was made up mostly of journalists, but it also included the actors Michael Redgrave and Charlie Chaplin.

In January 1949 Orwell becomes a patient of the sanatorium in Cranham, Gloucestershire. In October 1949, just a few months before his death, Orwell married Sonia Brownell. He died on the 21st of January 1950, at the age of 46 from tuberculosis at University College Hospital, after having spent the last three years of his life in and out of hospitals. He was buried in All Saints' Churchyard, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, according to the Anglican rite as he requested. His epitaph is simple: “Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25th, 1903, died January 21st, 1950”.

Richard Horatio Blair, Orwell’s adopted son, was raised after his father’s death by an aunt.  Although he has given a few interviews about the memories he has of his father he maintains a low public profile.

In 1950, the year of Orwell’s death, the book of essays “Shooting an Elephant” was published, and in 1953, was posthumously published the book “England, Your England”.

A vast book, of four volumes containing over 200 pieces of uncollected journalism; four diaries and notebooks was edited by Sonia Orwell and I. Angus in 1968 under the title “The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell”.



[1] Quotation from: http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/essays/suchwerethejoys.htm

[2] ibidem

[3] www.orwell.ru/library/novels/Animal-Farm/gallery/html/001; “George Orwell,

 ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale’ by Daniel J. Leab








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