George Orwell (1903-1950)
George Orwell is best known by his pen name, but his real name was Eric Arthur Blair. He was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. His work is marked by inventive prose dissecting the political upheavals of the first half of the 20th century and satirising the social and political powers and the people who created them. He was very aware of social injustice, strongly opposed to totalitarianism and dictatorships and an outspoken supporter of democratic socialism.
Orwell wrote literary criticism, poetry, fiction, and polemical journalism. He is best known for the allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). His non-fiction works, including The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), documenting his experience of working class life in the north of England, and Homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, are widely acclaimed, as are his 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 work continues to influence popular and political culture, and the term Orwellian – descriptive of totalitarian or authoritarian social practices – has entered the language together with many of his neologisms, including Big Brother, Thought Police, Room 101, memory hole, newspeak, doublethink, proles, unperson, and thoughtcrime.
Eric Arthur Blair was born on 25 June 1903, to Richard and Ida Blair, in Motihari, Bihar, in British India .His father, worked in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. Eric had two sisters: Marjorie, five years older, and Avril, five years younger. When Eric was one year old, his mother took him and his sister back to England. His birthplace and ancestral house in Motihari has been declared a protected monument of historical importance.
In 1904, Ida Blair settled with her children at Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Eric was brought up in the company of his mother and sisters, and apart from a brief visit in mid-1907, they did not see Richard Blair until 1912 but the family was highly socially active locally.
Before the First World War, the family moved to Shiplake, Oxfordshire where Eric became friendly with the Buddicom family, especially their daughter Jacintha. When they first met, he was standing on his head in a field. 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 said that he might write a book in the style of H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. During this period, he also enjoyed shooting, fishing and birdwatching with Jacintha’s brother and sister.
At the age of five, Eric was sent as a day-boy to a Roman Catholic convent school in Henley-on-Thames, His mother wanted him to have a public school education, but his family could not afford the fees, and he needed to earn a scholarship. He was aided in this by Ida’s brother and the headmaster of St Cyprian’s school in and in September 1911, Eric arrived and boarded at the school for the next five years, returning home only for school holidays. Blair hated the school and many years later wrote an essay “Such, Such Were the Joys”, published posthumously, based on his time there.
While at St Cyprian’s, Blair wrote two poems that were published in a local newspaper and he came second in the Harrow History Prize, had his work praised by the school’s external examiner, and earned scholarships to Wellington and Eton. In January, Blair took up the place at Wellington, but in May 1917 a scholarship place became available as a King’s Scholar at Eton and he remained at there until December 1921, when he was eighteen. He had neglected his academic studies and his parents could not afford to send him to a university without another scholarship so the family decided that Blair should join the Imperial Police, the precursor of the Indian Police Service, for which he had to pass an entrance examination. For his first posting he chose Burma. In October 1922, he landed in Rangoon and over the next five years Blair had numerous postings all over the country, working as an imperial police officer which gave him considerable responsibility. At the end of 1924, he was promoted to Assistant District Superintendent and posted nearer to the more civilised delights of Rangoon again. In Burma, Blair acquired a reputation as an outsider. He spent much of his time alone, reading or pursuing non-pukka activities, such as attending the churches of the Karen ethnic group. Blair was fast to learn the language and was able to speak fluently with Burmese priests. In April 1926 he moved to Moulmein, where his maternal grandmother lived but at the end of that year, he was assigned to Katha in Upper Burma, where he contracted dengue fever in 1927 and he returned home return in July due to his illness. While on leave in England and on holiday with his family in Cornwall in September 1927, he reappraised his life. Deciding against returning to Burma, he resigned from the Indian Imperial Police to become a writer.
He settled back in the family home at Southwold, renewing old acquaintances but by the end of 1927 he had moved into rooms in Portobello Road; Blair started to explore the poorer parts of London.,. For a while he “went native” in his own country, dressing like a tramp, adopting the name P. S. Burton and making no concessions to middle-class mores and expectations; he recorded his experiences of the low life for use in “The Spike”, his first published essay in English, and in the second half of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).
In early 1928 he moved to Paris. He lived in the rue du Pot de Fer, a working class district in the 5th Arrondissement. His aunt Nellie Limouzin also lived in Paris and gave him social and, when necessary, financial support. He began to write novels,but was more successful as a journalist and published articles in Monde, a political/literary journal discussing unemployment, a day in the life of a tramp, and the beggars of London, respectively. In one or another of its destructive forms, poverty was to become his obsessive subject – at the heart of almost everything he wrote at the time . He fell seriously ill in February 1929 and was taken to the Hôpital Cochin in the 14th arrondissement, a free hospital where medical students were trained. His experiences there were the basis of his essay “How the Poor Die”, published in 1946. H then had all his money stolen from his lodging house. So through necessity and to collect material, he undertook menial jobs such as dishwashing in a fashionable hotel on the rue de Rivoli, which he later described in Down and Out in Paris and London.
After nearly two years in Paris, Blair returned to England and went directly to his parents’ house in Southwold, a coastal town in Suffolk, which remained his base for the next five year.
His life in these years is marked by contrasts. He is leading a respectable, outwardly eventless life at his parents’ house in Southwold, writing; then in contrast, there is Blair as down and out Burton , in search of experience in the kips and spikes, in the East End, on the road, and in the hop fields of Kent. Blair now contributed regularly to Adelphi, with “A Hanging” appearing in August 1931. From August to September 1931 his explorations of poverty continued, and, like, he followed the East End tradition of working in the Kent hop fields. He kept a diary about his experiences there. Afterwards, he lodged in the Tooley Street kip, but could not stand it for long, and with financial help 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,
In April 1932 Blair became a teacher at The Hawthorns High School, a school for boys in Hayes, West London. This was a small school offering private schooling for children of local tradesmen and shopkeepers, and had only 14 or 16 boys aged between ten and sixteen, and one other master. He returned to teaching at Hayes and prepared for the publication of his book, now known as Down and Out in Paris and London. He wished to publish under a different name to avoid any embarrassment to his family over his time as a tramp.He finally adopted the nom de plume George Orwell because “It is a good round English name.” and was partly inspired by the River Orwell in Suffolk Down and Out in Paris and London was published on 9 January 1933, and was a moderate success as Orwell continued to work on Burmese Days.
He left for a much larger school but after a bad bout of pneumonia he returned to Southwold to convalesce and, supported by his parents, never returned to teaching. Blair was relatively isolated in Southwold so through his aunt’s friends , took a job in job was as a part-time assistant in Booklovers’ Corner, a second-hand bookshop in Hampstea. the owners were friendly and provided him with comfortable accommodation at Warwick Mansions, Pond Street. Blair worked at the shop in the afternoons and had his mornings free to write and his evenings free to socialise. These experiences provided background for the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) He was writing for the Adelphi and preparing A Clergyman’s Daughter and Burmese Days for publication. In early 1935 Blair met his future wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, In early 1936, At this time, Victor Gollancz suggested Orwell spend a short time investigating social conditions in economically depressed northern England. On 31 January 1936, Orwell set out by public transport and on foot, reaching Manchester and later Wigan where he visited many homes to see how people lived, took detailed notes of housing conditions and wages earned, went down Bryn Hall coal mine, and used the local public library to consult public health records and reports on working conditions in mines. He made a quick visit to Liverpool and during March, stayed in south Yorkshire, spending time in Sheffieldand Barnsley. As well as visiting mines, including Grimethorpe, and observing social conditions, he attended meetings of the Communist Party and of Oswald Mosley.
The result of his journeys through the north was The Road to Wigan Pier, published by Gollancz for the Left Book Club in 1937. The first half of the book documents his social investigations of Lancashire and Yorkshire, including 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 an argument for Socialism (although he goes to lengths to balance the concerns and goals of Socialism with the barriers it faced from the movement’s own advocates at the time.