George Orwell

The British novelist and essayist George Orwell (1903-1950) is best known for his satirical novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair at Motihari, Bengal, India. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was a minor customs official in the opium department of the Indian Civil Service. When Orwell was 4 years old, his family returned to England, where they settled at Henley, a village near London. His father soon returned to India. When Orwell was 8 years old, he was sent to a private preparatory school in Sussex. He later claimed that his experiences there determined his views on the English class system. From there he went by scholarship to two private secondary schools: Wellington for one term and Eton for 4 1/2 years.

Orwell then joined the Indian Imperial Police, receiving his training in Burma, where he served from 1922 to 1927. While home on leave in England, Orwell made the important decision not to return to Burma. His resignation from the Indian Imperial Police became effective on Jan. 1, 1928. He had wanted to become a writer since his adolescence, and he had come to believe that the Imperial Police was in this respect an unsuitable profession. Later evidence also suggests that he had come to understand the imperialism which he was serving and had rejected it.


Establishment as a Writer

In the first 6 months after his decision, Orwell went on what he thought of as an expedition to the East End of London to become acquainted with the poor people of England. As a base, he rented a room in Notting Hill. In the spring he rented a room in a working-class district of Paris. It seems clear that his main objective was to establish himself as a writer, and the choice of Paris was characteristic of the period. Orwell wrote two novels, both lost, during his stay in Paris, and he published a few articles in French and English. After stints as a kitchen porter and dishwasher and a bout with pneumonia, he returned to England toward the end of 1929.

Orwell used his parents' home in Suffolk as a base, still attempting to establish himself as a writer. He earned his living by teaching and by writing occasional articles, while he completed several versions of his first book, Down and Out in London and Paris. This novel recorded his experiences in the East End and in Paris, and as he was earning his living as a teacher when it was scheduled for publication, he preferred to publish it under a pseudonym. From a list of four possible names submitted to his publisher, he chose "George Orwell." The Orwell is a Suffolk river.


First Novels

Orwell's Down and Out was issued in 1933. During the next 3 years he supported himself by teaching, reviewing, and clerking in a bookshop and began spending longer periods away from his parents' Suffolk home. In 1934 he published Burmese Days. The plot of this novel concerns personal intrigue among an isolated group of Europeans in an Eastern station. Two more novels followed: A Clergyman's Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).

In the spring of 1936 Orwell moved to Wallington, Hertfordshire, and several months later married Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a teacher and journalist. His reputation up to this time, as writer and journalist, was based mainly on his accounts of poverty and hard times. His next book was a commission in this direction. The Left Book Club authorized him to write an inquiry into the life of the poor and unemployed. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) was divided into two parts. The first was typical reporting, but the second part was an essay on class and socialism. It marked Orwell's birth as a political writer, an identity that lasted for the rest of his life.


Political Commitments and Essays

In July 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out. By the end of that autumn, Orwell was readying himself to go to Spain to gather material for articles and perhaps to take part in the war. After his arrival in Barcelona, he joined the militia of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista) and served with them in action in January 1937. Transferring to the British Independent Labour party contingent serving with the POUM militia, Orwell was promoted first to corporal and then to lieutenant before being wounded in the middle of May. During his convalescence, the POUM was declared illegal, and he fled into France in June. His experiences in Spain had made him into a revolutionary socialist.

After his return to England, Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia (1938), which completed his disengagement from the orthodox left. He then wished to return to India to write a book, but he became ill with tuberculosis. He entered a sanatorium where he remained until late in the summer of 1938. Orwell spent the following winter in Morocco, where he wrote Coming Up for Air (1939). After he returned to England, Orwell authored several of his best-known essays. These include the essays on Dickens and on boys' weeklies and "Inside the Whale."

After World War II began, Orwell believed that "now we are in this bloody war we have got to win it and I would like to lend a hand." The army, however, rejected him as physically unfit, but later he served for a period in the home guard and as a fire watcher. The Orwells moved to London in May 1940. In early 1941 he commenced writing "London Letters" for Partisan Review, and in August he joined the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a producer in the Indian section. He remained in this position until 1943.


First Masterpiece

The year 1943 was an important one in Orwell's life for several reasons. His mother died in March; he left the BBC to become literary editor of the Tribune; and he began book reviewing on a more regular basis. But the most important event occurred late that year, when he commenced the writing of Animal Farm. Orwell had completed this satire by February 1944, but several publishers rejected it on political grounds. It finally appeared in August 1945. This fantasy relates what happens to animals who free themselves and then are again enslaved through violence and fraud.

Toward the end of World War II, Orwell traveled to France, Germany, and Austria as a reporter. His wife died in March 1945. The next year he settled on Jura off the coast of Scotland, with his youngest sister as his housekeeper.


Crowning Achievement

By now, Orwell's health was steadily deteriorating. Renewed tuberculosis early in 1947 did not prevent the composition of the first draft of his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-four. The second draft was written in 1948 during several attacks of the disease. By the end of 1948 Orwell was seriously ill. Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) is an elaborate satire on modern politics, prophesying a world perpetually laid waste by warring dictators.

Orwell entered a London hospital in September 1949 and the next month married Sonia Brownell. He died in London on Jan. 21, 1950.

Orwell's singleness of purpose in pursuit of his material and the uncompromising honesty that defined him both as a man and as a writer made him critical of intellectuals whose political viewpoints struck him as dilettante. Thus, though a writer of the left, he wrote the most savage criticism of his generation against left-wing authors, and his strong stand against communism resulted from his experience of its methods gained as a fighter in the Spanish Civil War.

Further Reading on George Orwell

Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (1968), is an invaluable addition to Orwell studies. Probably the most significant work on Orwell is George Woodcock, The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (1966). Other useful studies of Orwell as man and artist include Tom Hopkinson, George Orwell (1953); John Atkins, George Orwell (1954); Laurence Brander, George Orwell (1954); Christopher Hollis, A Study of George Orwell (1956); Richard J. Vorhees, The Paradox of George Orwell (1961); Richard Rees, George Orwell: Fugitive from the Camp of Victory (1962); Edward M. Thomas, Orwell (1965); Ruth Ann Lief, Home to Oceania: The Prophetic Vision of George Orwell (1969), particularly for students already familiar with Orwell's writing; and Raymond Williams, George Orwell (1971).