Biography of George Orwell (1903-1950)
George Orwell is the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair: essayist, novelist, literary critic, advocate and fighter for political change, and man of contradictions. Blair was born on June 25, 1903, in the Bengal region of Eastern India, which was a British territory. He was the son of Richard Walmesley Blair, a civil servant, and Ida Mabel Blair. Their only son was the middle child. He moved to England with his mother and sisters at the age of one. He displayed academic talent from a young age, so his mother took pains to ensure his attendance at a well-known boarding school called St. Cyprian’s. His family was neither poor nor wealthy, and Blair attended St. Cyprian’s on a scholarship.
Blair excelled academically there but faced many hardships in its puritanical, cutthroat environment. In the autobiographical essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Blair/Orwell describes the social challenges he endured as a scholarship student among England’s wealthy elite. (These challenges would inform his satires of social stratification in his literary works, including Animal Farm.) In the essay, he describes his child self with much sympathy and feeling for the child's perspective. Such experiments in empathy prepared him to create Animal Farm's brilliantly naive narrator.
Blair’s academic prowess continued in secondary school at Eton, a renowned secondary school (more recently famous for Prince William's attendance there). Blair graduated from Eton in 1921. Despite his intelligence, he could not afford to attend college. In 1922, he joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He had spent the first year of his life in a British colony, and this time, he got a thorough experience of British colonial life and despised what he saw. His experiences made him a champion of the poor and downtrodden, a role in which he would continue for the rest of his life. Moreover, he could not stand the fact that his job put him directly in the position of privileged oppressor. He resigned from the Indian Imperial Police five years later while on leave in England.
Blair/Orwell thus became devoted to the problems of class and government power long before he wrote Animal Farm. As Louis Menand writes, "He turned his life into an experiment in classlessness, and the intensity of his commitment to that experiment was the main reason that his friends and colleagues found him a perverse and sometimes exasperating man." To complete his rejection of elitism, Blair lived after the fashion of the poorest Englanders. This included refusing to wear warm clothing in winter or to display table manners. It is questionable whether his destitute lifestyle contributed to his frequent illnesses, but such choices indubitably influenced his written works.
Blair tried his luck in Paris briefly but found he could not make a living there as a writer. He returned to England in 1929, where he published essays and continued his fascination with and incorporation into the dregs of society. He began to slip into poverty in earnest, so he took a job as a teacher at Frays College. He also secured himself a literary agent. Blair/Orwell published Down and Out in Paris in 1932. Before the book’s publication, Blair assumed the pen name by which he would become famous. Accounts of why the writer chose the pen name “George Orwell” vary. Some say the name is deeply symbolic while others state that it was merely one of a list of names from which he allowed his publishers to choose.
From 1934 on, Orwell thrust himself fully into the writer’s arena. He quit his teaching job and moved to Hempstead, an epicenter for young writers at the time, where he worked in a used-book store. He published his first fictional work, Burmese Days, in 1934, and followed with A Clergyman’s Daughter in 1935. Orwell’s presence in Hempstead and his interest in the lower class did not go unnoticed. In 1936, the Left Book Club commissioned him to write an account of the destitute state of Northern England. Orwell threw himself into the project, conducting firsthand research in his quest for authenticity. In his travels, he met and married Eileen O’Shaughnessy. The controversial account was published in 1936 under the name The Road to Wigan Pier. He published Aspidistra Flying in the same year.
Around the time The Road to Wigan Pier was published, Orwell took his offensive against elitism and tyranny a step further, volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans. He joined POUM, a Trotskyist socialist party that emphasized the need for a working-class uprising and opposed the Spanish Communist Party’s belief in collaborating with the middle class (Orwell was a revolutionary socialist). Orwell’s experiences in the war, including being shot almost fatally, cemented his hatred of totalitarianism in its many guises. This included Stalinism, against which he held a lifetime grudge. Ironically, Orwell’s neck injury very nearly—and literally—robbed the outspoken writer of his voice. However, he did recover, and while doing so Orwell completed a novel, Coming Up for Air. Orwell described his social observations of Spain in Homage to Catalonia.
In 1940, Orwell and his wife moved to central London, where he worked as a reviewer. When World War II began, he rose to fight for the cause of freedom again, this time for England. He joined the Home Guard and worked for the BBC to compose and disseminate wartime propaganda. Orwell knew of what he spoke when he skewered propaganda in Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell based his satires not just on hearsay and research but also on personal experience; writing propaganda is said to have made him feel corrupt.
He was also a war correspondent. During wartime, Orwell and his wife adopted a son, but his wife died shortly afterwards. Also during this time, Orwell completed Animal Farm, which was published in England in 1945. It was at this point, just when Orwell’s personal life was in shambles, that his legend took flight. The book met with immediate and far-reaching public success, especially since it was so topical.
Orwell continued to write for periodicals while completing his second renowned novel, 1984. He remarried, in 1949, to Sonia Brownell.
Orwell, who was prone to illness, had his career and his life cut short when he died of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950. His friend, David Astor, arranged for Orwell’s burial in a small county churchyard. Orwell is buried under his birth name. He left a strong literary and political legacy, being one of those artists who influenced not only the literary universe, but also the real world in which he lived. As he wrote in "Politics and the English Language": "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia." This statement also illustrates the pessimism for which Orwell was known. Like some other disillusioned people of his generation, Orwell believed that totalitarian governments would inevitably take over the West.