George Orwell Biography
George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair's pen name) was a socialist who wrote some of the greatest criticisms of totalitarianism published in the 20th century. How did he do it? The answer: honesty and direct personal experience. Orwell is best known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984. The first is a fable written in simple language; the second is a dystopian novel full of brutal descriptions and dense theoretical discussions of politics. Both novels methodically expose the dangers of the totalitarian state. Orwell is also known as one of the greatest essayists of the twentieth century. “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” are still widely read today and still offer powerful statements on the nature of ethics, responsibility, politics, and writing.
Facts and Trivia
- Orwell was born in Bengal, India (which was still part of the British Empire at the time), but he was sent to England when he was a year old. Orwell’s father stayed in India, and Orwell didn’t see him again for years.
- One nice thing about Orwell is that you don’t have to guess what he thinks about a subject; he usually left written records. In his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Orwell describes in detail his unhappy experience at English boarding schools. The essay starts with him wetting the bed and moves quickly to him getting beaten for it.
- Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, which gave him a chance to see imperial and racial politics first-hand.
- In his nonfiction work Down and Out in London and Paris, Orwell describes his experience tramping around England and France. He took low-paying jobs requiring very long hours, was unemployed at other times, and once slept on the beach to dodge a landlord.
- While fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell was shot through the neck and nearly killed.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3627
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 audience. He was still unable to live on his writing alone, since first printings were small and his essays and reviews poorly paid, so beginning in late April, 1932, and for the next several years, Orwell taught school, first at The Hawthorns in Middlesex. Fourteen to sixteen boys between the ages of ten and sixteen were in his charge each term. Former students recall that he was an enthusiastic teacher, and they remember long nature walks through the Middlesex countryside as part of the curriculum. Evidently, Orwell was determined that his boys would not have to face an ordeal similar to his own at St. Cyprian’s.
During these years, Orwell wrote A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). These works, ultimately repudiated and not reprinted during the author’s lifetime, at his request, develop themes of clashes between the social orders that would find deeper expression and broader public acceptance in his nonfictional work The Road to Wigan Pier and the novel Coming Up for Air (1939). Orwell increasingly realized, in these works particularly, a deepening concern with social questions: unfulfilled lives, rife commercialism, poverty among the working class, and the instinctual but futile attempt to find meaning in a simpler life. His themes were those of a twentieth century Jonathan Swift, and though Orwell’s self-effacing personality would never have allowed him to make the comparison himself, it would have pleased him.
By no means wealthy but with at least the assurances of a small income and a loyal and growing audience, Orwell left a job as bookshop clerk and with an advance of five hundred pounds on his The Road to Wigan Pier began planning his marriage to Eileen Maud O’Shaughnessy, then a student at University College, London. The two were married on June 9, 1936, in a simple Anglican ceremony and moved soon after to Wallington, Herfordshire, two miles off the main London road to Cambridge. Known as the Blairs by villagers, the two supplemented Orwell’s small income by converting a room of their nonelectrified, corrugated iron-roofed cottage to a general store.
The Independent Labour Party (ILP), Socialist in its general outlook, held summer meetings in nearby Letchworth, and Orwell attended several of these, lending his name to the group for fund-raising. As all these changes were occurring in Orwell’s personal life, he came to take great interest in the Republican cause in Spain. Not waiting for the ILP to raise its own contingent, Orwell left on his own and arrived as a volunteer in late December, 1936. He joined the United Marxist Workers Party’s contingent known as POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista) and served with distinction until a throat wound nearly cost him his life. He returned to England in late spring, 1937, to recuperate, and he immediately began his memoir Homage to Catalonia (1938), detailing the factionalism between Communist and Marxist elements which ultimately destroyed the Republican cause. Orwell remained committed to socialism until his death (contrary to what particularly American critics of the 1950’s have written), but the intrigues of the Communist faction in Spain, backed by Stalin’s Russia, made him firmly anti-Communist as early as 1937. As a result, all of his political works, including his masterpiece, Animal Farm (1945), and his much-acclaimed final work, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), were soundly attacked in the Communist press. It was a bitter irony that some rightists in the Cold War period which followed World War II made Orwell their champion. This role is one he adamantly refused to accept.
The years of World War II were personally frustrating for Orwell. He was repeatedly refused for military service because of his recurring lung ailment, and the throat wound inflicted in Spain made his voice rasping and difficult to control. Even civilian war work was denied him at first, probably because his political affiliations were considered suspect. Ironically, Orwell had resigned from the ILP because of its refusal to support the war. He was willing to fight for Great Britain, both because he saw its imperialism as less malignant than Fascism and because he realized that the British Empire could not survive the war unaltered. Eventually, Orwell was given the opportunity to host a program of commentaries and interviews for the Eastern Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), but the signals of these broadcasts (primarily to India) were weak, and they were offered at bad times to gather an audience. During the London blitz, when Great Britain expected an imminent German invasion, Orwell organized a squadron of the Home Guard among residents of his London neighborhood. His experience in Burma and Spain made him especially fit for this task.
In March, 1945, Orwell was offered a chance to become war correspondent for The Observer. Despite his own health, which was never good, and although he and Eileen had just adopted a son, Richard, even though Eileen was about to have what he believed was minor surgery, Orwell could not resist the opportunity to see the last phase of the war. Eileen, realizing how much an active life meant to him, encouraged him to go. Having weighed these considerations, he set out on March 15 for Paris, writing all along the way; he even met Ernest Hemingway in a Paris hotel room and had with him an amiable discussion about the works of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. On March 29, however, he received a wire from The Observer reporting that Eileen had died under anaesthesia while undergoing surgery for a malignant tumor. Clearly she had suspected the worst, even before entering the hospital; this explains her reluctance to adopt a child the year before.
Orwell lived a lonely life in the years following the war. There were governesses for Richard, ultimately Orwell’s sister Avril. He divided his time in the final years of his life between London and an isolated retreat on the island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides. It was consummate irony that Animal Farm, just published and already a widely translated best-seller, now provided him the financial security he had sought throughout his career. It is equally ironic, perhaps even an indication of Orwell’s hubris, that with his own health declining he decided to move to a place without doctor, telephone, or regular boat service to the mainland.
By the summer of 1946, Orwell was established on Jura, in a neglected farmhouse called Barnhill on the north of the island, and was hard at work on what would be his last and most widely read work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. He completed this project in the following year in great pain from his steadily worsening lung ailment, and by Christmas Eve, 1947, he found himself in Hairmyres Hospital near Glasgow, Scotland. Tuberculosis had done extensive damage to his left lung and had affected the right as well. After seven months of convalescence in Hairmyres and various nursing homes, he was finally transferred to University College Hospital, London, on September 3, 1949. He was forbidden and unable to do any serious writing in these final months, but two events cheered him: the immediate international success of Nineteen Eighty-Four and his marriage to Sonia Brownell, performed in the hospital on October 13. Marriage in these circumstances was a practical as well as a romantic consideration. Orwell needed a literary executor as well as a guardian for his son, and Sonia, in her mid-twenties at the time of their marriage and with extensive experience in editing and publishing, was a fortunate choice. The two had known each other for several years through Horizon magazine, where she worked and to which he had contributed. They had, since that time, felt a deep mutual affection.
Orwell’s death occurred suddenly and quietly on the night of January 21, 1950, just before he was to be transferred to a treatment center in Switzerland. Until the end, he was hoping for a remission of his disease.
Photographs of George Orwell taken at various stages of his life testify to the cumulative effects on this artist of ill health and turbulent times, from which Orwell never shied away. Early photographs show a round-faced Orwell in Edwardian ruffles, sailor suit, and, in his teens, country tweeds. He was, in his own words, a chubby boy. Eton photos reveal a thinner but by no means slight young man in rugby jersey or bathing suit, tall and with deep-set features. A photograph taken while he was training in Burma shows Orwell at his full height (six feet, two inches) but without his distinctive mustache, which appears only in photographs of the mid-1930’s. His police uniform is ill-fitting compared to those of other trainees, and badly tailored clothes are the first thing one notices in all the later photographs. His face is deeply lined in all pictures taken after 1933. Orwell is much thinner in the photos taken after his tramping experiences and looks at least ten years beyond his true age. A famous series of photographs taken in London in the last year of the war shows him at work and leisure, always with a self-rolled cigarette of black-shag tobacco and wearing the dark-blue shirts he always preferred in the war years. He was forty-two when these pictures were taken; he looks at least past fifty.
Orwell’s is a prime example of a short and difficult but well-lived life. He set his ideals high: social justice with freedom of opportunity for every human being. He was willing, furthermore, to sacrifice his life for what he believed. Orwell came to realize, especially after his experiences in Spain, that the best chances for reform lay neither in ideology nor in anarchy, and he incurred the lasting enmity of Stalinists as well as the undesired and repudiated adulation of the political right wing. Even on his deathbed, Orwell denounced those who misinterpreted Nineteen Eighty-Four as a tract on Stalinist Russia or an unalterable prophecy.
It is amazing how far Orwell traveled and how much he accomplished in his forty-six years. Born into a solidly middle-class Anglo-Indian family, reared and educated as a young man destined for privilege, he refused to become either a tool of British imperialism or a dupe of communism. His socialism was ethical rather than ideological, and he held to it consistently at the cost of friendships and potential supporters who could have smoothed the path of his career.
Orwell was not, however, so solitary as to be friendless. His first wife, Eileen, consistently supported him, even placing herself in jeopardy by traveling to Spain to return him to England after he had been seriously wounded. Cyril Connolly, the eminent man of British letters and a fellow student of Orwell at Eton, remained Orwell’s friend throughout his life and introduced him to Sonia Brownell, the young woman who would brighten Orwell’s last months and become his second wife and capable literary executor.
As great as many of Orwell’s works are, one cannot help but sense that the life of the man was even greater. It would not be incorrect to say that his art combined with his personal courage to create a truly distinctive writer comparable only to Swift.
Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. Boston: Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1980. This first complete biography remains the classic study of Orwell’s life and times. It is scholarly with full notes, index, and photographs but is completely readable and rewarding for both scholars and general readers.
Gross, Miriam, ed. The World of George Orwell. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971. A collection of essays by those who knew Orwell, covering each phase of his life. Essentially, these are unscholarly appreciations illustrated with photographs. The collection is interesting, nevertheless, even if sentimental and highly subjective.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “George Orwell: A Bibliography.” Bulletin of Bibliography 31 (July-September, 1974): 117-121.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “George Orwell: A Selected Checklist.” Modern Fiction Studies 21 (Spring, 1975): 133-136. These two bibliographies list nearly every important article and book written to the mid-seventies and include non-English Orwell criticism as well.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. A well-researched biography that provides a balanced look at Orwell’s life and work.
Meyers, Jeffrey. A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975. Analyzes Orwell’s books and major essays in context of his period and considers his position in English and French letters.
Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. George Orwell: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975. Contains a broad survey of reviews, most contemporary with the works they discuss, by a number of celebrated critics. The collection is chronologically arranged and includes translations of foreign-language reviews as well.
Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. 4 vols. London: Secker and Warburg, 1968. Supplements the uniform edition (1948-1965) of the novels and is distinct from the Penguin one-volume Collected Essays (1970). Harcourt Brace Jovanovich published the American edition.
Zwerdling, Alex. Orwell and the Left. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. Discusses Orwell’s works in the context of his political involvements, arguing that Orwell tried to reform the Left from within and illustrating how he often managed to blend political writing with high art.
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