“It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”
Originally titled Last Man in Europe it was renamed Nineteen Eighty-Four for unknown reasons, possibly a mere reversal of the last two digits of the year it was written. It was first met with conflicting criticisms and acclaim; some reviewers disliked its dystopian satire of totalitarian regimes, nationalism, the class system, bureaucracy, and world leaders’ power struggles, while others panned it as nihilistic prophesy on the downfall of humankind. Some still see it as anti-Catholic with Big Brother replacing God and church. From it the term Orwellian has evolved, in reference to an idea or action that is hostile to a free society. Yet, Nineteen Eighty-Four has proven to be a profoundly meaningful work and continues to be one of the world’s most widely read and quoted novels into the twenty-first century. Inspired by Yevgeny Zamyatin’s (1884-1937) We, Blair worked intensely, often writing ten hours a day and even when bedridden with tuberculosis in his last days continued to labour over it. From his essay “Why I Write”;
“First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.”
He goes on to say;
“The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. 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.”
Education and Early Years 1903-1921
Eric Arthur Blair was born on 25 June 1903 in Motihari, Bengal (now Bihar) India, into a family of the “lower-upper middle class” as he wryly puts it in The Road to Wigan Pier (1933). He was the son of Ida Mabel née Limouzin (1875–1943) and Richard Walmesley Blair (1857–1938), who worked as a sub-deputy opium agent for the Indian Civil Service under the British Raj. Eric rarely saw his father until he had retired in 1912. Eric’s grandfather had been a wealthy plantation and slave owner but the fortunes dwindled by the time he was born. He had two sisters, Marjorie and Avril.
At the age of one Eric and his mother settled in England; his father joined them in 1912. At the age of five, Blair entered the Anglican parish school of Henley-on-Thames which he attended for two years before entering the prestigious St. Cyprian’s school in Sussex. Corporal punishment was common in the day and possibly a source of his initial resentment towards authority. While there, Blair wrote his first published work, the poem “Awake! Young Men of England”; “Oh! think of the War Lord’s mailed fist, That is striking at England today.” With pressures to excel, Eric earned a scholarship to “the most costly and snobbish of the English Public Schools” Eton College where he attended between 1917 and 1921, and where Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World (1932) taught him French.
Indian Civil Service 1922-1927
Following in his father’s footsteps, Blair went to Burma (now Myanmar) to join the Indian Imperial Police, much like author H. H. Munro or ‘Saki’ had done in 1893. During the next five years he grew to love the Burmese and resent the oppression of imperialism and decided to become a writer instead. Works he wrote influenced by this period of his life are his essay “A Hanging” (1931); “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man.” and “Shooting an Elephant” (1936); “It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.”. His novel Burmese Days was first published in the United States in 1934 and then London in 1935, also based on his days in service.
Paris and London 1928-1936
After Orwell resigned, he moved to Paris to try his hand at short stories, writing freelance for various periodicals though he ended up destroying them because nobody would publish them. He had to resort to menial jobs including one at the pseudononymous ‘Hotel X’ that barely provided him enough to eat as a plongeur;
“[A] plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack… trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.” —Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
After a bout of pneumonia in 1929 Blair moved back to England to live in East London and adopted his pseudonym George Orwell, partly to avoid embarrassing his family. Down and Out in Paris and London, similarly to Emile Zola’s The Fat and the Thin (1873) famously exposes the seedy underbelly of Paris and accounts his days of living hand to mouth;
“At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.”
A proponent for socialism, Blair now wanted to write for the ‘common man’ and purposefully lived as a tramp in London and the Home Counties and stayed with miners in the north. Blair learned of the disparity between the classes and came to know a life of poverty and hardship amongst beggars and thieves. His study of the under-classes in general would provide the theme for many of his works to follow. We read of his ‘urban rides’ and experience with the unemployed in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), written for the Left Book Club.
In 1932 Blair was a teacher for a time before moving to Hampstead, London to work in a bookstore. In the sardonically comical Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936) Gordon Comstock spurns the ‘Money God’, materialism, and status, though that which he hates becomes an obsession. Comstock’s political creed soon proves a cover-up for deep seated emotional issues;
“The money clinked in his trouser pocket as he got up. He knew the precise sum that was there. Fivepence halfpenny—twopence halfpenny and a Joey. He paused, took out the miserable little threepenny-bit, and looked at it. Beastly, useless thing! And bloody fool to have taken it! It had happened yesterday, when he was buying cigarettes. ‘Don’t mind a threepenny-bit, do you, sir?’ the little bitch of a shop-girl had chirped. And of course he had let her give it him. ‘Oh no, not at all!’ he had said—fool, bloody fool!”
In 1936 Blair and once student of J.R.R. Tolkien student Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905-1945) married. In 1944 they would adopt a son, Richard Horatio. Based on his teaching days, A Clergyman’s Daughter was published in 1935.
Spanish Civil War
When civil war broke out, Blair and his wife both wanted to fight for the Spanish government against Francisco Franco’s Nationalist uprising. While on the front at Huesca in Aragon Blair was shot in the throat by “a Fascist sniper”. In Barcelona he joined the anti-Stalinist Spanish Trotskyist ‘Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista’ or POUM, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification. When the communists partly gained control and tried to purge the POUM, many of Blair’s friends were arrested, shot, or disappeared. He and Eileen barely escaped with their lives in 1937. His autobiographical Homage to Catalonia is written in the first person, mere months after the events.
“Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later—some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years. That was the real issue of the Spanish war, and of the last war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come.”—from his essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War”
WW II, the Home War Effort, and Fame 1939-1950
Back in England, Blair set to freelance writing again for such publications as New English Weekly, The Tribune and New Statesman. His essay subjects include fellow authors Charles Dickens, William Butler Yeats, Arthur Koestler, and P.G. Wodehouse. Essay titles include “Inside the Whale” (1940), “The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941), “Notes on Nationalism” (1945), “How the Poor Die” (1946), and “Reflections on Gandhi” (1949). Coming Up For Air was published in 1939. Blair joined the Home Guards and also worked in broadcasting with the BBC in propaganda efforts to garner support from Indians and East Asians. He was also literary editor for the left wing The Tribune, writing his column “As I Please” until 1945, the same year he became a war correspondent for The Observer. Eileen O’Shaughnessy died on 29 March 1945 while undergoing surgery in Newcastle upon Tyne.
In 1946 Blair lived for a year at Barnhill on the Isle of Jura. For years he had been developing his favourite novel that would cinch his literary legacy, Animal Farm (1944). “On my return from Spain I thought of exposing the Soviet myth in a story that could be easily understood.” Publishers did not want to touch his anti-Stalinist allegory while war was still raging so it was held for publishing until after the war had ended. From Chapter One of Animal Farm;
“Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever. Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.”
Back in England, in 1949 Blair was admitted to the Cotswolds Sanitorium, Gloucestershire for tuberculosis, the same year he married Sonia Bronwell (1918-1980). Eric Arthur Blair died suddenly in London on 21 January 1950 at the age of forty-six, succumbing to the tuberculosis that had plagued him for the last three years of his life. He lies buried in the All Saint’s Churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England.
George Orwell’s life and works have been the source of inspiration for many other authors’ works. Keep The Aspidistra Flying, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four have inspired numerous television and film adaptations. He has also contributed numerous concepts, words, and phrases to present day language including Newspeak; doublethink “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”; thoughtcrime; four legs good, two legs bad; all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others; He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past; and War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. Among the ranks of other such acclaimed literary giants as Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley, George Orwell is a master of wit and satire, critically observing the politics of his time and prophetically envisioning the future. He devoted much of his life to various causes critical of capitalism, imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism, but in the end what he “most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art.”
“Liberty is telling people what they do not want to hear.”—from a preface to Animal Farm