GEORGE ORWELL -- BIOGRAPHY
by The Chestnut Tree Cafe
Eric Arthur Blair was born in Motihari in Bengal, India, on 25th June, 1903. His father, Richard, was a minor official in the Opium Department of the Government of India. The Blairs had a tradition running through the 19th Century of career employment both in the Church of England and the Colonial Civil Service, and Orwell later humorously characterized their social standing as 'Lower-Upper-Middle-Class' - that is, with all the pretensions of the well-brought-up bourgeoisie and none of the finances to match. (Satirical sketches of the extended Blair family pervade Orwell's early novels). In 1907 the family returned to England and in 1911 Blair was sent to St. Cyprian's preparatory school in Sussex. His damning portrayal of life as a St. Cyprianite in a long essay, Such, Such Were the Joys, written in 1947, drew both praise and criticism from his former classmates, and there is evidence to suggest that Orwell had exaggerated his childhood misery at the hands of the school's staff. In 1917 he became a King's Scholar at Eton, of which he retained fond memories, partly because of his involvement with the various school magazines and papers.
In 1921 he left without matriculating for University and instead chose to follow the family tradition of life East of Suez by joining the Indian Imperial Police. Stationed in Burma for the next seven years, Blair became restless in his job partly for reasons of climate and health, but also by a growing personal awareness of the iniquities of the British presence in the Subcontinent. He resigned his post at the beginning of 1928 and returned to Europe with a desire both to explore writing as a serious profession, and to investigate the lives of the urban poor - the tramps, destitutes and assorted lumpenproletariat that he naively assumed made up the entire working classes.
The next three years were often spent in the association of down-and-outs in London and the rural South East, with occasional 'surfacing' back into family life due to dwindling resources. Blair also spent some time in Paris writing what he himself later described as unreadable experimental novels (partly under the influence of James Joyce, whose style, while abandoned as a template, Orwell continued to greatly admire). His first published work appeared in Le Monde during the Paris months and Blair managed to achieve some limited success as a journalist and poet in English magazines and newspapers. By 1932 poverty forced him to abandon his tramping and bohemian adventures and he became a schoolteacher at a small private dormitory in Middlesex. This was followed a year later with the acceptance of Blair's first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, by the noted left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz (with whom he was in association for the next twelve years). Down and Out chronicled in first-person reportage style many of Blair's experiences during his years in the urban underworld, although the book is not as straightforwardly autobiographical as it was perhaps first thought to be. The alias 'George Orwell' was also born at this time, mainly because Blair feared a poor reception of Down and Out would damage his further literary ambitions.
Two novels followed; the first, Burmese Days (1934), was a scathing portrayal of British colonial decadence in the Far East, clearly based on Orwell's policing years, and considered so potentially libelous that its publication was delayed in the UK until editorial changes were made; while the second, A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), probably the least successful of Orwell's fiction, was a compilation of stories and styles woven around the strange experiences of a Kentish vicarage spinster. By this time Orwell had become a bookshop assistant in Hampstead and was contributing regularly to the New English Weekly as a book review columnist. His interest in politics was beginning to grow through association with several members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), although this had not as yet distilled into a firm belief in socialism and tended instead towards an murkier distaste for machine-age capitalist society. The somewhat inarticulate 'angry young man' that Orwell was at this time was self-parodied in the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, in the shape of the renegade poet Gordon Comstock.
1936 proved to be a pivotal year for Orwell. He was asked by Gollancz to travel to the depressed areas of the industrial North of England in order to research a long essay for the publisher's Left Book Club. The trip, Orwell's first real encounter with ordinary working class people, turned him into a committed believer in Socialism, although the resulting work, The Road to Wigan Pier, was seen by some as more disdainful of the socialist movement than of the capitalist classes and created Orwell's reputation (which he was to maintain for the rest of his life) as an awkward and critical fellow-traveler of the Left Wing. After his Northern expedition Orwell moved into a small farm in the village of Wallington in Hertfordshire and shortly afterwards married Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a former psychology student and secretary. At the end of the year, prompted by the outbreak of civil war in Spain, both Orwells traveled to Barcelona and he (through his association with the ILP) joined an anarchist militia, the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM).
Throughout the Spring of 1937 Orwell served in a relatively quiet sector of the front line in Alcubierre. During the beginning of May, while on leave in Barcelona, he became confronted for the first time with the viciousness of the Republican internal struggle for power when the Stalinist-controlled Government forces unsuccessfully attempted to suppress their unruly anarchist comrades-in-arms, and there was some confused street fighting in which Orwell played a part. Upon returning to the front he was wounded in the throat by a sniper's bullet which left him unable to speak and partly paralyzed in one arm, and it was during his convalescence behind the lines that the POUM was formally accused of being a pro-fascist organization and many of its members thrown into jail and shot. Both Orwells escaped into France and returned to England, where they were shocked by the extent to which the Left Wing press had swallowed the Communist anti-POUM line so indiscriminately. Orwell began work on Homage to Catalonia (1938), a description of his time in Spain which was intended to reveal the truth about the situation there. His experiences during the Civil War convinced him more than ever of the need for radical socialist upheaval in England, while creating a longstanding appalled fascination with the methods of totalitarian rule and a disgust for Stalinist Communism.
Orwell now became ill with pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease with which he would battle for the rest of his life and which was responsible for greatly reducing his ability to write and work. He divided his time between Wallington, a series of convalescent homes and, for six months, a stay in Marrakech, Morocco, where he wrote what would be his last novel for six years, Coming Up For Air (1939). The book explored Orwell's views about the need for the unpolitical middle class to be converted into the vanguard of a revolutionary reform movement, although it also admitted considerable nostalgia for the pre-modern world - a possible contradiction which Orwell attempted to resolve throughout his later works, not always convincingly. Spurred by the threat of war (which at this time he opposed), Orwell returned to Wallington and worked on a series of important essays that were later published as a collection called Inside the Whale.
At the outbreak of war Orwell, now convinced of the need to fight Nazi aggression, attempted to enlist but was turned down for health reasons. The war years (spent mostly in London) were to be a period of considerable frustration for Orwell; unable to write more novels due to the inconveniences of wartime life and restrictions on publication, he was forced for financial reasons to spend more and more time working on newspaper and magazine articles which he considered potboiling journalism. He joined the Home Guard in 1940 (a force he had hopes at the time of becoming an English peoples' militia on POUM lines) and, later that year, was recruited by the BBC Eastern Service to work as a broadcaster to India. The time at the BBC later made its way through a satirical filter into much of Nineteen Eighty Four, and Orwell became more and more depressed by what he considered the futility and dishonesty of his work there. He resigned in 1943 and began more acceptable employment as Literary Editor of Tribune magazine, a fringe publication of the Labour Party.
Towards the end of the war Orwell completed a short fantasy novelette about a revolution on an English farm by the animals, making obvious allusions to the recent history of the Soviet Union. His usual publisher Gollancz, who had long had difficulty swallowing some of Orwell's more heretical opinions, refused to accept the book and it took eighteen months to find an alternative firm, Secker and Warburg. While the negotiations were continuing Orwell became a war correspondent for the Observer and spent some time in Paris, Germany and Austria. In 1945, while Orwell was abroad, Eileen died under anaesthetic during what was supposed to be a routine operation. After his return to England the controversial story, Animal Farm, was finally published and became the first of Orwell's books to achieve really widespread success both at home and in Europe and the United States. The royalties from the book freed Orwell at last from the necessities of book reviewing and other pedestrian writing, and he used part of the proceeds to move himself and his young son Richard (whom he and Eileen had adopted during the war) to a remote farmhouse on the island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides.
Alternating between Jura, his flat in London, and the ever-necessary visits to hospitals and TB sanitoriums, Orwell now began work on his final and most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty Four. The book, a futuristic description of life in England after a totalitarian revolution, brought together ideas and theories that Orwell had been discussing for some years, most notably the corruption of political discourse through the destruction of language and the tendency for the growth of world superpowers engaged in a continual (but consciously fruitless) global war. It was published in 1949 to acclaim similar to that of Animal Farm, although the early use of the novel as a source of crude anti-communist propaganda alarmed Orwell and he tried (without much success) to distance himself from such Right Wing jingoism. But his health was visibly failing and, despite hospitalization in the South of England, he deteriorated rapidly. In the Autumn of 1949 he married Sonia Brownwell, an old girlfriend from the staff of Horizon magazine, partly because of his need for a permanent secretary during his incapacitation and (looking to the future) as a guardian for Richard. On January 21st 1950, while planning to visit a Swiss sanatorium and working on a series of articles on Joseph Conrad, George Gissing and Evelyn Waugh, Orwell died of complications arising from his chronic tuberculosis. He was buried in the village churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire.
"What I have most wanted to do during the past ten years is to turn political writing into an art".
George Orwell, Why I Write, 1946.