Article abstract: Orwell’s uncompromising ideals, reflected consistently in the enormous and diverse body of his works, entitle him to be considered among the most personally courageous writers in the history of British letters, one whose social concern and distinctive style can be compared only to those of the eighteenth century political and social satirist Jonathan Swift.
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, at Motihari, Bengal, in India. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was a relatively minor official in the Opium Department, the British civil service agency which regulated legalized opium trade with China as a government monopoly. Orwell’s mother, born Ida Mabel Limouzin, was of English-French background. She had lived in Moulmein, Burma, where her French father was a teak trader and boat builder and was eighteen years younger than her husband, whom she had married in 1896. Their first child, Marjorie, was born at Tehta, Bihar, India, in 1898. After Eric was born, the elder Blair’s almost annual changes in posting, often to remote towns within India, coupled with possibilities of better schooling, caused Ida Blair’s return to England with the children. Richard Blair did not see his family again until 1907 on a three-month leave; their last child, Avril, would be born as a result of this visit.
Orwell’s early childhood was, consequently, essentially a fatherless one. This was not a particularly unusual situation among overseas service families, but the need to maintain two residences on a meager civil service stipend meant that finances always remained tight and luxuries few. Though Orwell was born to what he refers to in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) as the “lower-upper-middle” class, he appears to have become aware of his “shabby gentility” only upon attending St. Cyprian’s, a new but successful preparatory school, at age eight. St. Cyprian’s was considered “successful” because of its boys’ record of gaining admission to the “great” public schools, such as Eton and Harrow. “Such, Such Were the Joys,” an essay of uncertain date (internal features allow arguments for as early as 1938, though it was not submitted for publication until 1947), is a polemic on the ruthless class distinctions and favoritism in such privately founded schools.
Clearly, Orwell was never happy at St. Cyprian’s. Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan Wilkes, its founders (who also taught at the school), gauged its curriculum toward a successful outcome on the public school examinations. (In Great Britain, “public” schools are what in the United States are called “private” schools.) There was, accordingly, next to no instruction in authors after John Milton and precious little in history beyond dates of the British monarchs. In addition, Mr. Wilkes told Orwell when prepping him for the Eton exam that he had been given a half-scholarship to St. Cyprian’s because of his family’s financial circumstances, and that the now thirteen-year-old boy therefore had a special obligation to the school as well as to his parents to win his scholarship. The pressures on him were certainly unremitting, and two concerns which would dominate his works, money and the politics of the British class structure, have their origins in this period of Orwell’s life.
Orwell placed fourteenth on the King’s Scholars examination; this was not high enough to ensure a place at Eton for the fall, 1916, election, though it would mean acceptance by as early as Christmas of that year if a place became available. (The King’s Scholars could number no more than seventy, with between ten and thirteen in each “election,” or year; thus, availability depended upon how many boys left Eton during a given year.) Wilkes was pleased at the boy’s performance, nevertheless, and Orwell finished the year at St. Cyprian’s and spent nine miserable weeks of the winter, 1917, term at Wellington, a military school, waiting to hear from Eton.
By May, 1917, Orwell was at Eton, a member of the school’s intellectual elite, known as “College.” The boys of this group were marked to fill the most important positions in the intellectual and political life of Great Britain; nevertheless, Orwell’s resentment of class distinctions coupled with Eton’s rigid curriculum and his own free spirit led him to elect a large number of courses outside College among the regular students known as “Oppidans.” His mediocre performance even in these made a first-class diploma impossible and a scholarship to one of the Oxford colleges unobtainable. Thus, Orwell was graduated from Eton in December, 1921, with relatively poor prospects, despite what, by contemporary American standards, was an astoundingly deep knowledge of British literature and history for a young man only eighteen years old.
It was partly because of his father’s refusal (or inability) to finance an Oxford education and in part because of his lackluster record that Orwell went to a “crammer” for six months starting in January, 1922, to prepare for the India Office’s examinations. Class distinctions dogged Orwell’s steps whether he liked it or not, and the foreign civil service was the only realistic career option for him given his family background. Even Eton did not guarantee him a place in the civil service. He was still required to sit for a week of two-hour examinations in English, English history, mathematics, and French, plus three options (in Orwell’s case, Latin, Greek, and drawing). The exams were equivalent to “O” (“ordinary” as opposed to advanced) level college entrance tests. Thus it was that Orwell, in late October, 1922, came to be posted in Burma as an officer in the provincial police.
Even in Burma, Orwell’s limited finances as well as his own inclination to solitariness led him to remain by himself, reading as usual and spending what money he could on books and subscriptions, mostly on history and politics. He wrote some poetry during his five years in Burma, but Orwell was still Eric Blair and had no pretensions toward a career as a writer until recurring bronchitis, a complaint which had appeared as early as his school days, forced his return to England in 1927. It was at this time that he resigned from the service, much to his family’s dismay, not so much for health reasons as from a distaste for the nature of his work. He could not see himself as a preserver of the British Empire. This theme would ultimately emerge in his novel Burmese Days (1934) and essays such as “Shooting an Elephant.”
August, 1927, found Orwell unemployed with few prospects, twenty-four years old, with an undistinguished school record, ill but with the announced intention of becoming a writer. One can imagine his family’s exasperation, particularly that of his father, who had viewed the Burma service as his son’s last chance to salvage some sort of future. Still, Orwell began to write that winter, not with the style and ease of his mature years and not about Burma or the British Empire as one might expect, but about poverty and degradation. The old Etonian lived among, dressed as, and associated with the poorest element of the British and French working class in 1928 and 1929, gathering material for what would eventually be published as Down and Out in London and Paris (1933). Meanwhile, Orwell wrote sketches and “potboilers,” with only indifferent success. Even Down and Out in London and Paris caused problems of publication, for its disjointed incidents fell somewhere between autobiography and the novel. The essay “How the Poor Die” was written as a result of his stay in a charity ward in a Paris hospital as he was felled again by the bronchitic condition which would afflict him throughout his life. It was published late in 1929 in Max Plowman’s magazine The Adelphi, and Orwell began a long though never lucrative association with that publication.
The pseudonym “George Orwell” was chosen to conceal the author’s identity and avoid embarrassment for his family upon publication of Down and Out in London and Paris. It came from a list of names which included P. S. Burton (the name Orwell actually used when tramping), Kenneth Miles, and H. Lewis Allways, and was mutually agreed upon by the author and Victor Gollancz, the book’s publisher. The Orwell was a river the author liked and knew well, and he believed that the whole name had a solid working-class ring to it. Even after he became an established author, however, Orwell never formally changed his name, and he continued to be called Eric Blair by those who had known him before his success.
By the mid-1930’s, Orwell’s works, among them numerous essays and reviews, began to find a small but faithful...
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