Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 21 January 1950), better known by the pen name George Orwell, was an English author and journalist. Noted as a novelist, as a critic and as a political and cultural commentator, Orwell is among the most widely admired English-language essayists of the 20th century. He is best known for two novels written and published towards the end of his life: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Blair was born on June 25, 1903 in Motihari, Bengal (modern Bihar), in India, when it was part of the British Empire under the British Raj. There, Blair's father, Richard Walmesley Blair, worked for the opium department of the Civil Service. His mother, Ida Mabel Blair (née Limouzin), brought him to England at the age of one. He did not see his father again until 1907, when Richard visited England for three months before leaving again. Eric had an older sister named Marjorie, and a younger sister named Avril. He would later describe his family's background as "lower-upper-middle class".
At the age of five, Blair was sent to a small Anglican parish school in Henley-on-Thames, which his sister had attended before him. He never wrote of his recollections of it, but he must have impressed the teachers very favourably, for two years later, he was recommended to the headmaster of one of the most successful preparatory schools in England at the time: St. Cyprian's School, in Eastbourne, Sussex. Blair attended St Cyprian's on a scholarship that allowed his parents to pay only half of the usual fees. Many years later, he would recall his time at St Cyprian's with biting resentment in the essay Such, Such Were the Joys. However, in his time at St. Cyprian's, the young Blair successfully earned scholarships to both Wellington and Eton.
After a year at Wellington, Blair moved to Eton, where he was a King's Scholar from 1917 to 1921. Later in life he wrote that he had been "relatively happy" at Eton, which allowed its students considerable independence, but also that he ceased doing serious work after arriving there. Reports of his academic performance at Eton vary; some assert that he was a poor student, while others claim the contrary. He was clearly disliked by some of his teachers, who resented what they perceived as disrespect for their authority. During his time at the school, Blair made lifetime friendships with a number of future British intellectuals such as Cyril Connolly, the future editor of the Horizon magazine, in which many of Orwell's most famous essays were originally released.
Burma and the early novels
After Blair finished his studies at Eton, his family could not pay for university and he had no prospect of winning a scholarship, so in 1922 he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He came to hate imperialism, and when he returned to England on leave in 1927 he decided to resign and become a writer. He later used his Burmese experiences for the novel Burmese Days (1934) and in such essays as A Hanging (1931), and Shooting an Elephant (1936).
In 1928, he moved to Paris, where his aunt lived, hoping to make a living as a freelance writer. But his lack of success forced him into menial jobs which he later described in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), although there is no indication that he had the book in mind at the time.
Ill and broke, he moved back to England in 1929, using his parents' house in Southwold, Suffolk, as a base. Writing what became Burmese Days, he made frequent forays into tramping as part of what had by now become a book project on the life of the underclass. Meanwhile, he became a regular contributor to John Middleton Murry's New Adelphi magazine.
Blair completed Down and Out in 1932, and it was published early the next year while he was working briefly as a schoolteacher at a private school in Hayes, Middlesex. Blair adopted the pen-name George Orwell just before Down and Out was published. It is unknown exactly why he chose this name. He knew and liked the River Orwell in Suffolk and apparently found the plainness of the first name George attractive. He rejected three other possible pen-names: Kenneth Miles, H Lewis Allways, and PS Burton.
Orwell drew on his teaching experiences for the novel A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), which he wrote at his parents' house in 1934 after ill-health forced him to give up teaching. From late 1934 to early 1936 he worked part-time as an assistant in a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead, an experience later partially recounted in the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).
The Road to Wigan Pier
In early 1936, Orwell was commissioned by Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club to write an account of poverty among the working class in the depressed areas of northern England, which appeared in 1937 as The Road to Wigan Pier. The first half of the book is a social documentary of his investigative touring in Lancashire and Yorkshire, beginning with an evocative description of work in the coal mines. The second half of the book, a long essay in which Orwell recounts his personal upbringing and development of political conscience, has a very strong denunciation of what he saw as irresponsible elements of the left. Gollancz feared that the second half would offend Left Book Club readers, and inserted a mollifying preface to the book while Orwell was in Spain.
Soon after completing his research for the book, Orwell married Eileen O'Shaughnessy.
Spanish Civil War and Homage to Catalonia
In December 1936, Orwell went to Spain to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War against Francisco Franco's Nationalist uprising. Although he travelled alone to Spain, he became part of the Independent Labour Party contingent, a group of some 25 Britons who joined the militia of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), a revolutionary socialist party with which the ILP was allied. The POUM, along with the radical wing of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT (the dominant force on the left in Catalonia), believed that Franco could be defeated only if the working class in the Republic overthrew capitalism a position fundamentally at odds with that of the Spanish Communist Party and its allies, which (backed by Soviet arms and aid) argued for a coalition with bourgeois parties to defeat the Nationalists. In the months after July 1936 there was a profound social revolution in Catalonia, Aragon and other areas where the CNT was particularly strong. Orwell sympathetically describes the egalitarian spirit of revolutionary Barcelona when he arrived in Homage to Catalonia.
By his own admission, Orwell joined the POUM rather than the communist-run International Brigades by chance but his experiences, in particular his narrow escape from the communist suppression of the POUM in June 1937, made him sympathetic towards the POUM and turned him into a lifelong anti-Stalinist.
During his military service, Orwell was shot through the neck and nearly killed. He wrote in Homage to Catalonia that people frequently told him he was lucky to survive, but that he personally thought "it would be even luckier not to be hit at all."
Second World War and Animal Farm
Back in the United Kingdom, Orwell supported himself by writing freelance reviews, mainly for the New English Weekly (until he broke with it over its pacifism in 1940) and then mostly for Time and Tide and the New Statesman. He joined the Home Guard soon after the war began (and was later awarded the Defence medal).
In 1941 Orwell took a job at the BBC Eastern Service, mostly working on programmes to gain Indian and East Asian support for the United Kingdom's war efforts. He was well aware that he was engaged in propaganda, and wrote that he felt like "an orange that's been trodden on by a very dirty boot". The wartime Ministry of Information, based at Senate House (University of London), was the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nonetheless, Orwell devoted a good deal of effort to his BBC work, which gave him an opportunity to work closely with such figures as T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Mulk Raj Anand, and William Empson. Orwell's decision to resign from the BBC followed shortly upon a report confirming his fears about the broadcasts: there were very few Indians tuning in to listen. He also seems to have been impatient to begin work on the book which would become Animal Farm.
Despite the good pay, he resigned in 1943 to become literary editor of Tribune, the left-wing weekly then edited by Aneurin Bevan and Jon Kimche. Orwell was on the staff until early 1945, contributing a regular column titled As I Please.
In 1944, Orwell finished his anti-Stalinist allegory Animal Farm, which was published the following year with great critical and popular success. The royalties from Animal Farm were to provide Orwell with a comfortable income for the first time in his adult life. While Animal Farm was at the printer, Orwell left Tribune to become (briefly) a war correspondent for The Observer. He was a close friend of the Observer's editor/owner, David Astor, and his ideas had a strong influence on Astor's editorial policies (Astor, who died in 2001, is buried in the grave next to Orwell).
Orwell returned from Europe in spring 1945, shortly after his wife died during an operation (they had recently adopted a baby boy, Richard Horatio Blair, who was born in May 1944).
For the next three years Orwell mixed journalistic work mainly for Tribune, the Observer and the Manchester Evening News, though he also contributed to many small-circulation political and literary magazines with writing his best-known work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was published in 1949. The title is believed to derive from the year in which it was finished, 1948, with the last two digits transposed. However, there are several alternate thoughts on this belief and claim. Originally, Orwell titled the book The Last Man in Europe, but his publisher, Fredric Warburg, suggested the change. (Crick, Bernard. "Introduction," to George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984)).
He wrote much of the novel while living in a remote farmhouse on the island of Jura, off the coast of Scotland, to which he moved in 1946 despite increasingly bad health.
In 1949, Orwell was approached by a friend, Celia Kirwan, who had just started working for a Foreign Office unit, the Information Research Department, which had been set up by the Labour government to publish pro-democratic and anti-communist propaganda. He gave her a list of 37 writers and artists he considered to be unsuitable as IRD authors because of their pro-communist leanings. The list, not published until 2003, consists mainly of journalists (among them the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin) but also includes the actors Michael Redgrave and Charlie Chaplin. Orwell's motives for handing over the list are unclear, but the most likely explanation is the simplest: that he was helping out a friend in a cause anti-Stalinism that they both supported. There is no indication that Orwell ever abandoned the democratic socialism that he consistently promoted in his later writings or that he believed the writers he named should be suppressed. Orwell's list was also accurate: the people on it had all, at one time or another, made pro-Soviet or pro-communist public pronouncements. In October 1949, shortly before his death, he married Sonia Brownell. Orwell died in London at the age of 46 from tuberculosis, which he had probably contracted during the period described in Down and Out in Paris and London. He was in and out of hospitals for the last three years of his life. Having requested burial in accordance with the Anglican rite, he was interred in All Saints' Churchyard, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire with the simple epitaph: Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born June 25th, 1903, died January 21st, 1950.
Orwell's adopted son, Richard Horatio Blair, was raised by an aunt after his father's death. He maintains a low public profile, though he has occasionally given interviews about the few memories he has of his father. Blair worked for many years as an agricultural agent for the British government.
Throughout his life Orwell continually supported himself as a book reviewer, writing works so long and sophisticated they have had an influence on literary criticism. In the celebrated conclusion to his 1940 essay on Dickens one seems to see Orwell himself:
"When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens's photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls."
Orwell's political views changed over time, but there is no doubting he was a man of the political left throughout his life as a writer. His time in Burma made him a staunch opponent of imperialism, and his experience of poverty while researching Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier turned him into a socialist. "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it," he wrote in 1946.
It was Spain, however, that played the most important part in defining his socialism. Having witnessed at first hand the suppression of the anarcho-syndicalists and other revolutionaries by the Soviet-backed Communists, Orwell returned from Catalonia a staunch anti-Stalinist and joined the Independent Labour Party.
At the time, like most other left-wingers in the United Kingdom, he was still opposed to rearmament against Hitlerite Germany but after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the outbreak of the Second World War, he changed his mind. He left the ILP over its pacifism and adopted a political position of "revolutionary patriotism". He supported the war effort but detected (wrongly as it turned out) a mood that would lead to a revolutionary socialist movement among the British people. "We are in a strange period of history in which a revolutionary has to be a patriot and a patriot has to be a revolutionary," he wrote in Tribune, the Labour left's weekly, in December 1940.
By 1943, his thinking had moved on. He joined the staff of Tribune as literary editor, and from then until his death was a left-wing (though hardly orthodox) Labour-supporting democratic socialist. He canvassed for the Labour Party in the 1945 general election and was broadly supportive of its actions in office, though he was sharply critical of its timidity on certain key questions and despised the pro-Soviet stance of many Labour left-wingers.
Although he was never either a Trotskyist or an anarchist, he was strongly influenced by the Trotskyist and anarchist critiques of the Soviet regime and by the anarchists' emphasis on individual freedom. Many of his closest friends in the mid-1940s were part of the small anarchist scene in London.
He was also open to arguments from the free-market libertarian right. In a review published in the Observer in 1944, he accepted some of the criticisms of the tyranny of collectivism put forward in Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. While arguing Hayek failed to recognise that "a return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state", he added that "in the negative part of Professor Hayek's thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often--at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough--that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of".
In his last years, unlike several of his comrades around Tribune, Orwell had little sympathy with Zionism and opposed the creation of the state of Israel, as attested by his friend and Tribune colleague Tosco Fyvel in his book George Orwell: A Personal Memoir. In 1945, Orwell wrote that "few English people realise that the Palestine issue is partly a colour issue and that an Indian nationalist, for example, would probably side with the Arabs". He and Fyvel argued repeatedly on the issue, and he complained to other friends repeatedly about Tribune's line. He told Julian Symons wrongly that Fyvel, the paper's literary editor, was responsible for Tribune's 'over-emphasis on Zionism', complaining that Richard Crossman had been 'the evil genius of the paper', influencing it through Michael Foot and Fyvel. In fact, the paper's enthusiastic Zionism was very much the responsibility of its editor, Jon Kimche.
While Orwell was concerned that the Palestinian Arabs be treated fairly, he was -- characteristically -- equally concerned with fairness to Jews in general: writing in the spring of 1945 a long essay titled Anti-Semitism in Britain, for the Contemporary Jewish Record, no less. Anti-semitism, Orwell warned, was "on the increase," and was "quite irrational and will not yield to arguments." He thought "the only useful approach" would be a psychological one, to discover "why" anti-semites could "swallow such absurdities on one particular subject while remaining sane on others." In his magnum opus, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he showed the Party enlisting anti-semitic passions in the Two Minute Hates for Goldstein, their archetypal traitor.
Orwell was also an early proponent of a federal socialist Europe, a position most fully outlined in his 1947 essay Toward European Unity, which first appeared in Partisan Review.
During most of his career, Orwell was best known for his journalism, in essays, reviews, columns in newspapers and magazines and in his books of reportage: Down and Out in Paris and London (describing a period of poverty in these cities), The Road to Wigan Pier (describing the living conditions of the poor in northern England, and the class divide generally) and Homage to Catalonia (describing his experiences during the Spanish Civil War). According to Newsweek, Orwell "was the finest journalist of his day and the foremost architect of the English essay since Hazlitt."
Contemporary readers are more often introduced to Orwell as a novelist, particularly through his enormously successful titles Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both of them are primarily allegories of the Soviet Union, the former of the history of the Russian Revolution, and the latter of life under Stalinist totalitarianism- although there are elements in Nineteen Eighty-Four which stand as critiques of consumer capitalism as much as Soviet Communism (witness the newspapers filled with "sex, sport, and astrology" which the Ministry of Truth peddles to the stupified masses). Nineteen Eighty-Four is often compared to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; both are powerful dystopian novels of an "imaginary" future of state control, the former bleak and the latter superficially happy.
Influence on the English language
Some of Nineteen Eighty-Four's lexicon has entered into the English language. One such word, or word phrase is 'Big Brother', or 'Big Brother is watching you'. Today, security cameras are often thought to be modern society's big brother. In fact, the TV series Big Brother carries that title because of 1984. The same novel spawned the title of another TV series, Room 101.
The phrase 'thought police' is also derived from Nineteen Eighty-Four, and might be used to refer to any alleged violation of the right to the free expression of opinion. It is particularly used in contexts where free expression is proclaimed and expected to exist. For example a conservative may claim to be the victim of 'politically-correct thought police', but would be less likely to describe the KGB as 'thought police', even though they may believe that the KGB in fact engaged in more severe repression of opinion.
The adjective Orwellian is mainly derived from the system depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It can refer to any form of government oppression, but it is particularly used to refer to euphemistic and misleading language originating from government bodies with a political purpose, for example "Ministry of Defence", "collateral damage", "pacification" and "affirmative action".
Orwell expounded on the importance of honest and clear language (and, conversely, on how misleading and vague language can be a tool of political manipulation) in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. The language of 1984 was Newspeak, an abbreviated language that made dissenting thought impossible by limiting acceptable word choices.
Variations of the slogan "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others", from Animal Farm, are sometimes used to satirise situations where equality exists in theory and rhetoric but not in practice. For example, an allegation that rich people are treated more leniently by the courts despite legal equality before the law might be summarised as "all criminals are equal, but some are more equal than others".
Although the origins of the term are debatable, Orwell may have been the first to use the term cold war. He used it in an essay titled You and the Atomic Bomb on October 19, 1945 in Tribune, he wrote:
"We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity. James Burnham's theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications this is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a State which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of 'cold war' with its neighbours."
In an autobiographical sketch Orwell sent to the editors of Twentieth Century Authors in 1940, he wrote:
The writers I care about most and never grow tired of are: Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Flaubert and, among modern writers, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. But I believe the modern writer who has influenced me most is Somerset Maugham, whom I admire immensely for his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.
Elsewhere, Orwell strongly praised the works of Jack London, especially his book The Road. Orwell's investigation of poverty in The Road to Wigan Pier strongly resembles that of Jack London's The People of the Abyss, in which the American journalist disguises himself as an out-of-work sailor in order to investigate the lives of the poor in London.
In the essay Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels (1946) he wrote: "If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver's Travels among them."
Other writers admired by Orwell included G. K. Chesterton, George Gissing, Graham Greene, Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Tobias Smollett, Mark Twain, Evelyn Waugh, H. G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin.
He also publicly defended P.G. Wodehouse against charges of being a Nazi sympathizer.
* Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
* Burmese Days (1934)
* A Clergyman's Daughter (1935)
* Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)
* The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)
* Homage to Catalonia (1938)
* Coming Up for Air (1939)
* Animal Farm (1945)
* Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
* The English People (1947)
* A Nice Cup of Tea (1946)
* A Hanging (1931)
* Shooting an Elephant (1936)
* Charles Dickens (1939)
* Boys' Weeklies (1940)
* Inside the Whale (1940)
* The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941)
* "Wells, Hitler and the World State" (1941)
* The Art of Donald McGill (1941)
* Looking Back on the Spanish War (1943)
* "W. B. Yeats" (1943)
* Benefit of Clergy: Some notes on Salvador Dali (1944)
* Arthur Koestler (1944)
* Notes on Nationalism (1945)
* How the Poor Die (1946)
* Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver's Travels (1946)
* Politics and the English Language (1946)
* Second Thoughts on James Burnham (1946)
* Decline of the English Murder (1946)
* "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad" (1946)
* "A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray" (1946)
* In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse (1946)
* Why I Write (1946)
* The Prevention of Literature (1946)
* Such, Such Were the Joys (1946)
* Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool (1947)
* Reflections on Gandhi (1949)
* Bookshop Memories (1936)
* The Moon Under Water (1946)
* A Little Poem
* Awake! Young Men of England
* Our Minds are Married, But we are Too Young
* The Pagan
* The Lesser Evil
* Poem From Burma
* Aldous Huxley was Orwell's French teacher for a term early in his Eton career.
* His first wife, Eileen, was once a student of J.R.R. Tolkien.
* Despite being remembered for his radio broadcasts for the BBC during the war, no recording of Orwell speaking was known until 2002. The only known film footage of Orwell is from him at Eton playing the Eton Wall Game.
* Orwell had an NKVD file partly due to his anti-Stalinist Animal Farm.
* While working on Nineteen Eighty-Four, although suffering from tuberculosis as a result of service in the Spanish Civil War, he regularly used a Royal Enfield 350 motorcycle.
* There has been speculation about Orwell's links to the secret services in the UK and some have even gone so far to claim that he was in the employ of MI5. The evidence for this claim is contested.
* The George Orwell School was located in the London Borough of Islington.
* Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose novel We, which Orwell reviewed, provided a model for Nineteen Eighty-Four.
* Frays College, Uxbridge, at which Orwell taught briefly after his time in Hayes. The college was demolished in July 2006.
Books about George Orwell
* Bowker, Gordon. George Orwell. Little Brown. 2003.
* Buddicom, Jacintha. Eric & Us. Finlay Publisher. 2006.
* Caute, David. Dr. Orwell and Mr. Blair, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
* Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life. Penguin. 1982.
* Flynn, Nigel. George Orwell. The Rourke Corporation, Inc. 1990.
* Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. Basic Books. 2003.
* Hollis, Christopher. A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. 1956.
* Larkin, Emma. Finding George Orwell in Burma. Penguin. 2005.
* Meyers, Jeffery. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. W.W.Norton. 2000.
* Newsinger, John. Orwell's Politics. Macmillan. 1999.
* Shelden, Michael. Orwell: The Authorized Biography. HarperCollins. 1991.
* Smith, D. & Mosher, M. Orwell for Beginners. 1984. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.
* Taylor, D. J. Orwell: The Life. Henry Holt and Company. 2003.
* West, W. J. The Larger Evils. Edinburgh: Canongate Press. 1992. Nineteen Eighty-Four: The truth behind the satire.)
* West, W. J. (ed.) George Orwell: The Lost Writings. New York: Arbor House. 1984.
* Williams, Raymond, Orwell, Fontana/Collins, 1971.
* Woodcock, George. The Crystal Spirit. Little Brown. 1966.
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