EVERYMAN CLASSICS GEORGE ORWELL Biography
George Orwell, 1903--1950
The writer famous as ‘George Orwell’ was born Eric Blair in Bengal, the only son of a 'sub-deputy opium agent, 4th grade' close to retirement. Richard Blair was remembered by his son as a remote 'elderly man forever saying "don't"'. Orwell calibrated his family's social standing, with contemptuous exactitude, as ‘lower-upper middle class’.
Eric was bright and went on scholarship to a good 'prep' school, St Cyprians. Late in life he wrote a scathing account of those schooldays, 'Such, such were the Joys'. He hated the place. None the less he won a full scholarship to Eton. In his five years at the public school, 1917-21, he resolutely 'slacked'. But he read voraciously and made friendships which proved useful in his later literary career. University was not an option. His academic record was now too undistinguished and his family too poor. In a momentary spasm of loyalty to the crown he was duly gazetted an officer in the Indian Imperial Police, Burma branch.
He would spend five years in the tropics, waited on hand and foot by servants, his sexual needs supplied by concubines, buoyed up by the Empire's indelible sense of racial superiority over the Burmese 'niggers'. He himself professed to hate the Empire which he saw as a 'racket'. But he had as little time for the Burmese---'evil spirited little beasts'---whom he was paid to beat, hang, or shoot if they got out of line.
He resigned and returned to lodge with his retired parents in Southwold while he meditated his next step in life. It would appal them. He resolved to become a tramp. Why? It may have been self-punitive. It could have been political, inspired by the 1932 Jarrow 'National Hunger March'. It could have been an act of literary homage to Jack London's People of the Abyss and W. H. Davies' Autobiography of a Super-tramp.
Orwell spent two years slumming it. His tale of two cities was published in 1933 as Down and Out in Paris and London. He 'kipped' in workhouses and shared hostels with cockneys in the summer hopfields of Kent. In Paris he worked as a 'plongeur': a dish-washer.
Down and Out was taken by the newly established Victor Gollancz---a socialist publisher. It got good reviews but poor sales. For a while he worked in a Hampstead bookshop, doing the odd bit of journalism on the side and writing drafts of what would be his first novel. English publishers (a 'gutless' crew, Orwell always thought) were nervous about the libels in his self-hating Burmese Days. It was published, belatedly, in the US. Meanwhile his second novel, A Clergyman's Daughter, was published as his debut work in England, in 1933. A dried up spinster, approaching the horrors of middle age 'on the shelf', Dorothy Hare suffers a bout of amnesia, escapes from her Suffolk parsonage to find emotional fulfilment in the hopfields of Kent and the meaning of life in London's streets. Orwell's later verdict on the novel was pungent: 'bollocks'.
He was prouder of his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). Gordon Comstock's miseries, catering for philistine know-nothings in a Hampstead bookshop draw on Orwell's own servitude. Gordon dumps the epic poem he is writing, grows up and sells out. He becomes an ad-man and embraces aspidistra, emblem of the ‘lower-upper middle class’.
Gollancz advanced him £500 to write about unemployment in the coalmining north. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)---wholly displeasing to Gollancz for its critique of party hacks. Orwell was by now able to move into his own house, in Hertfordshire, and to marry. His wife, Eileen, was an Oxford graduate whom he had met in bookish Hampstead. Virtually nothing is known about the marriage. There would be no children. Orwell claimed to be sterile.
Orwell, whose life never moved in straight lines, resolved---having just married---to fight for the Republic in Spain. He joined the anarchist-leaning POUM and saw service on the Aragon Front. It was a quiet sector, but a Nationalist sniper got him in the throat. On his return to Barcelona, he found himself at even greater risk of death from the Stalinists, who were 'purging' the city. Orwell's disillusion with 'movements' crystallised in Homage to Catalonia. Gollancz refused it, on the grounds of apostasy. It was taken by Frederic Warburg, and sold miserably.
Orwell's next novel, Coming up for Air, is his best. For it he took on the voice and personality of George Bowling, a shrewd, tubby middle-aged insurance salesman, recently possessed of a set of gleaming false teeth. Having come into a seventeen-quid windfall George resolves to visit that foreign country, his childhood past in Little Binfield---a place where the sun always shone and the fish always bit. It proves a disaster. The novel signals a deepening pessimism in Orwell. It would reach its climax in O'Brien's forecasting the future to Winston---'a boot stamping on a human face---forever'. The pigs will always own the farm.
When war broke out Orwell was still primarily a hack journalist. He was, for the moment, patriotic ('my country, right or left') but too old and too sick to carry a rifle any more. He eventually landed a job in a sub-section of the BBC's World Service. After a couple of years he moved on to a more comfortable berth as literary editor of the socialist paper, Tribune, for whom he produced his finest essays, under the proclamation 'As I Please'. He and his wife (who was dangerously ill) adopted a child in 1944.
As the war drew to a close he tried every major publisher with his Swiftian satire on totalitarianism, Animal Farm. It was turned down on the ground that it would offend the country’s Russian allies. When the Iron Curtain descended in 1945, Orwell's fable would become a text book for the 'free world'.
Eileen died as the war ended. Now, at last, in the £1,000 a year class, Orwell moved to his own animal farm, on the island of Jura, with his younger sister as housekeeper.
The western island was one of the few places which might survive the atomic war he confidently expected. In this outpost, and terminally ill, he worked on his last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The new antibiotics arrived months too late to save him. He ended his days in University College London hospital where he married Sonia Brownell (popularly believed to be depicted as Julia in his last novel). He died three months later. A professed atheist, but contrarian to the end, he decreed he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England.
John Sutherland, 2012.