by Michael O'Connor
About.com, September 2003
It's odd to note that the most Orwellian tale that the great British author George Orwell ever took part in was the one that made up his own life. Today, for most readers, Orwell's legacy brings to mind paranoid tales where governments run amok impinging on the rights of their citizens under the guise that it is for their own good. This comes from his two most familiar pieces of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984, both tales of power gone awry, where individual rights are taken away for the good of the state.
But even a supremely paranoid mind like Orwell's couldn't have dreamed up the story that was his own life. A socialist, Orwell found his literature often grossly misinterpreted by the public, and in the cases of both "1984" and "Animal Farm", manipulated and pitched by the Right (aided by Orwell's own publisher) as propaganda against Britain's Labour Government, which Orwell actually supported. Could Orwell's life have ended up any differently? His stories are tales of woebegotten souls who achieve freedom at great personal risk and sacrifice only to see that freedom stripped away through deception and cheating. Orwell's life as it turns out was just that. He struggled his whole life to come to a point where he could make a career out of his writing only to find that writing used as propaganda by the very individuals whom it had meant to criticize.
Gordon Bowker's extensively researched new biography Inside George Orwell tells the author's own story in great detail. Though there have been several biographies of Orwell published in the past few years (including this years Whitbread Prize winner Orwell: The Life by D.J. Taylor), this reader can't imagine one more replete with information about Orwell than "Inside George Orwell." Bowker has done the work of a team of researchers in uncovering one of the most misunderstood and misread author's of the Twentieth Century.
Bowker positions Orwell as a lifelong outsider, whose status, consciousness, and beliefs were constantly at odds with those around him. Born Eric Blair, the son of well-to-do Anglo-Indian parents, from an early age, Orwell developed a keen sense of the class system, and one's designated place within it. Both parents instilled in young Eric the expectation to know his class and play the part, making him painfully aware of the often thin line between classes.
Adding to this awareness was Eric's tenure at St. Cyprian's school for boys and later Eton College, two of England's most elite institutions of learning. Though the Blair's were well off, Eric was not of the same heritage of many of his classmates, who came from some of the most prestigious families in the country. Eric found himself one of the poorer students in his class, a fact often held over his head by the other boys. Compounding this was his constant ill-health (a life-long battle with respiratory problem) which forced him out of many of the activities that could have helped him fit in with the other boys, relegating him to the role of class rebel and cynic.
Bowker does well to illuminate how these formative years influenced the transition from young Eric Blair, the social misfit whose interests in nature, politics, and black magic didn't mesh with the football-frenzied, Oxford-bound set at Eton, to his later personae, the writer George Orwell, whose keen eye and confidence to criticize fellow writers would again put him at odds with his peers. Extracting specific events from Blair's youth, particularly his relationships with friends and female companions, Bowker explains the groundwork that led to the creation of Orwell.
Following graduation, Blair chose not to attend university, rather enrolling with the British police force in Burma. As Orwell would later describe in Burmese Days, his awareness of the hierarchy of colonial life would intensify during his stay in Burma. Bowker describes one poignant moment where Blair witnesses a fellow officer beating a native without cause and to no objection from the surrounding public. Witnessing the brutal oppression of the natives by his fellow officers, Blair would begin to take a sincere interest in how this other half lived, becoming particularly intrigued with the lives of prostitutes, drug-abusers, and derelicts.
While Blair was developing this sense of social awareness, Bowker is keen to note, as many of Orwell's critics, both past and present have already done, that he was also a man of tremendous contradictions. A self-proclaimed socialist, the young Blair would often complain about the repugnant condition in which the lower classes lived, particularly deriding them for their odor. Bowker also points out Blair's misogynistic attitude towards women, a criticism often levied against Orwell as showing through into his work. These contradictions were not invisible to Orwell himself, who while in Burma described how his own feelings were often at odds: "With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeclorum, upon the will of prostrate people; with another I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts." Perhaps the greatest criticism of Orwell would come late in his career when he produced a list of "crypto-communists"-a blacklist of sorts of individuals whom Orwell thought could prove harmful should they be allowed in positions of influence. The toughest job of any biographer of Orwell is to explain these contradictions, and Bowker does a fine job of describing where Orwell's contradictions stemmed from while at the same time not becoming an apologist for the author's often repulsive behavior.
On returning home from Burma, Blair would find his countryman celebrating the recent executions of the Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. The injustice of the case would tell Blair that what he had witnessed in Burma was not relegated to the colonies. Oppression of the lower-classes, particularly political dissenters like Sacco and Vanzetti, was occurring throughout the world, even in supposedly free lands like the U.S. which Blair himself had praised as a bastion of democracy.
Blair maintained his interest in the lower classes upon his return, writing several sociological treatises on tramps and slum life even spending stretches of time living on the streets, posing as a derelict to get the real scoop. Although never quite believable in the role (his Etonian speech and upper-class mannerisms gave him away) he did gain the trust of some of the hobos. Several critics, particularly from the Left, would jab at Orwell for exploiting the street-folk, calling him a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing upper class intellectual posing as a revolutionary. But, as Bowker notes, the young author was always sincere in his research, and was only looking to tell their story.
Blair's adventures with the downtrodden would lead to the publication of his first manuscript, Down and Out in London and Paris. Not wanting his Etonian past to skew the perception of his research, Orwell would sign the work using a pen name-George Orwell. Bowker describes the creation of the Orwell personae in almost ceremonial terms signifying the end of Blair's pilgrimage towards becoming a real author. Combined with his next work, "The Road to Wigan Pier," a treatise on the lives of a group of people in a small mining town, Orwell was becoming known up-and-coming chronicler of the downtrodden.
As civil war raged in Spain, it was time for Orwell to put his beliefs into practice. Joining the ranks of anti-Fascists from across the globe, Orwell enlisted to fight in the war as a member of the United Marxist Worker's Party (POUM). It would be during the war that Orwell would become increasingly disillusioned with the Left, particularly concerning it's divisiven tendencies and inability to unite. As a member of POUM, Orwell found himself at odds with the communists, who thought his group to be supporters of Franco's regime. This would cause Orwell to develop an intense paranoia, as he believed that he and his wife Eileen were becoming the targets of communist spies. Orwell's fears would be confirmed when charges of treason were brought against he and Eileen on the accusation that they were Trotskyists. Nothing would come of the charges, but Orwell was shaken enough by the experience that he began to carry a handgun with him at all times.
Following his return from the front, Orwell would set to write the true story of the revolution, but found it difficult to find a publisher willing to take on the work. Left-wing publishers wouldn't touch it because of Orwell's criticism of Communism and Right-wing publishers found Orwell to be a dangerous revolutionary. After much difficulty, Orwell would find a publisher brave enough to release Homage to Catalonia.
Orwell would again attempt to fight the fascists at the onset of WWII, but still battling ill-health, would be turned away. As a second option, Orwell took a position as program director for the BBC's Indian bureau. This job would prove crucial to Orwell's later work as it gave him the opportunity to see the inner-workings of propaganda and learn how it is disseminated to the public, in particular concerning what information is announced, and what kept hidden. His time at the BBC would give him many of the ideas that appear later in "1984".
Battling his own ill-health, Orwell would be hit with another major tragedy during the war when his wife Eileen died of complications from surgery. While many critics accuse Orwell of misogyny, Eileen had a major impact on his life and writing, particularly on the early stages of "Animal Farm". Eileen's loss would have a tremendous effect on Orwell , delivering a devastating blow to an already weakened man.
Good news would follow shortly as "Animal Farm" was released to wide praise, putting Orwell at the forefront of the literary world, and allowing him the opportunity to live off the earnings from his writing for the first time. But as with any Orwell story, the good was always accompanied by the bad, as the book was widely misinterpreted as an unabashed attack on Communism, rather than the critique on Stalinism and totalitarianism, which it was intended to be. Orwell was disheartened by the misreading, particularly so when he learned that the book was being used by the Right as propaganda.
With his health on a continuing decline, and an increasing paranoia that he was going to become the victim of communist enemies, Orwell retired to the Scottish island of Jura to concentrate on what would be his final manuscript - "1984". Despite being diagnosed with tuberculosis, and strict orders from his doctor that he should remain inactive, Orwell attempted to continue his life undeterred, working full time on the manuscript. This would take its toll on Orwell who would find himself constantly lapsing into serious bouts with the disease leaving him bedridden and immobile. This sense of helplessness certainly had a major influence on Winston Smith, the sickly protagonist in "1984", whom Orwell would pit against what he saw as humanity's greatest foe, a government who had complete control over the past, present, and future.
If any reader wonders why decades after Orwell's final work had been published, and with several Orwell biographies already in print, authors like Bowker continue to research George Orwell, they need look no further than "1984". Orwell's tale of a government grown too-strong, is more poignant today than ever. In an era where we find ourselves increasingly at the liberty of governments that are willing to impinge on personal rights under the guise that control equals safety, and more control means more safety, "1984" offers a wonderful insight as to why this can be a dangerous road to travel.
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