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. George, 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 under which he would become famous. Accounts of why he 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, a gathering place 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 campaign 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, revolutionary 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’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 fame began to grow. 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. Orwell’s friend, David Astor, saw to it that he was buried 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.
Frenchman: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.
Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.
Italian: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.
Swede, Dane, etc.: Kind-hearted, stupid.
Negro: Comic, very faithful.
How one longs for him to have lived long enough to be let loose on the lads' mags culture of the early twenty-first century.
Because something paradoxical has happened to us. The abundance of the mass media offers a greater choice than ever. We are adrift in a sea of newspapers, magazines, radio, television and limitless cyberspace. It is not merely that the more there is, the less any individual part of it matters. It is that so little seems intended to have any meaning.
You will find nothing much here about fashion, Westminster politics, gossip, relationships, must-have gadgets and holidays, not a mention of the hints dropped by payroll propagandists, nor a word from anonymous ''sources close to'' some soon-to-be forgotten minister, and nothing about television, pop music, or most of the other subjects which enable our increasingly feeble newspapers to trail their ink across page after page.
What you will find, instead, is an abundance of everything from the life of a book reviewer to how it is to watch a man hanged. The impeccable style is one thing. But if I had to sum up what makes Orwell's essays so remarkable it is that they always surprise you. Sometimes it is the choice of subject matter: how many journalists can write with any authority on what is like to queue to be let into an overnight shelter for the homeless?
More often, it's the unexpected insight. He can write a 60-page essay on Charles Dickens which frequently seems to be tending to a conclusion that he was a sentimental old fool, but then come to an unexpectedly affectionate final judgment. You have travelled with him on his journey and are rather startled, and pleased, to discover where you have ended up.
The Dickens essay was an attempt to worry away at why he was such a successful writer and is the longest in this collection. But it is infused with the same spirit of personal engagement as everything else. It is that amazing ability to make you believe that you would have felt as he felt that is his genius.
Take Shooting an Elephant, which recounts an incident during his time as a policeman in Burma. It is a remarkable piece. There is, firstly, the language. When he first sees the elephant, which is said to have run amok, it is standing, beating a bunch of grass against its knees, ''with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have". In the seconds after pulling the trigger the beast remains standing, but ''a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant... every line of his body altered... He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old". Then the elephant sags to its knees, its mouth slobbering. And, the utterly perfect sentence: ''An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him.''
Being Orwell, of course, the event is put to political purpose, demonstrating the futility of the imperial project. He has already told us that ''every white man's life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at''. Then he reveals in the last sentence that he had killed the elephant ''solely to avoid looking a fool". Yes, you think, that makes perfect sense.
It is hard to imagine many people less suited to the job of an imperial policeman than Orwell. Yet, while he hated imperialism, he could still remark that the British empire was ''a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it". In another essay, My Country Right or Left, he admits to finding it childish that he feels it faintly sacrilegious not to stand to attention during ''God Save the King", but that he would sooner have that instinct "than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so 'enlightened' that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions".
There is something very striking about his patriotism. It was laid out most obviously in his manifesto for a post-war revolution, The Lion and The Unicorn, but his love of England informs just about everything he wrote. It is there like a defiant bugle call rallying us to appreciate kippers, crumpets, marmalade and stilton cheese in In Defence of English Cooking. It is there like a comforting cup of tea in Decline of the English Murder. Both belong to a time when – seen from this distance – English life appears to have been more settled, less commercial, more neighbourly and less racked by uncertainty of purpose. You cannot read a piece like Bookshop Memories without immediately conjuring up the bad suits and rank smell of dead cigarettes. They could not have been written about any other country on earth.
It is, of course, as a ''political'' writer that he is now best-known. Sixty years after publication, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the greatest fictional demolition of totalitarianism, and any decently educated 12-year-old can explain what Animal Farm is about. But, in truth, there is almost none of his successful work, either fiction or non-fiction, that is not political. His work is always about that basic question – why do we live like this?
What marks it out from other political writing is not merely the quality of the prose, but its moral authority. Where does this come from? Would he have produced such luminescent work had he not had his first unsuitable job? If he had not suffered at the hands of oafs at his ghastly prep school? If he had not had the years of failure? I think the answer to all these questions is ''no".
George Orwell BBC
But he also had the paradoxical good fortune to live in evil times. There could be no accommodation with fascism – it was either resistance or capitulation, and everything he wrote from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War until his death was infused with the same urgent imperative to resist totalitarianism. Of course, some of it is absurdly overstated. Can he really have believed that "only revolution can save England, that has been obvious for years... I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood," in 1940? But evil times force harsh judgments.
Orwell could toss off sentences like that with greater authority than most because of the quality not merely of his writing but of his experience. When he spoke of life at the bottom of the heap he did so as someone who had lived as a scullion and a tramp. When he talked of war and death he did so as someone who had fought in war and seen people die. The experiences had translated a natural hatred of authority into a political manifesto of sorts.
What Orwell's experiences – both as figure of authority and as scullion – had given him was a lived understanding of the human condition. It was this grounding in reality that bestowed a more profound political instinct than would be available to some sloganeering zealot. He had acquired a capacity to empathise with the foot-soldiers of history, the put-upon people generally taken for granted, ignored or squashed by the great isms of one sort or another. It conferred upon him the remarkable ability to achieve what every journalist and essayist seeks.
He could tell the truth.
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell with a new introduction by Jeremy Paxman, Penguin Classics, £9.99. This article was first published in 2009