Your guide to George Orwell and his visions of dystopia
The author made a host of terms ubiquitous, from Big Brother to Room 101, and his very name now evokes images of totalitarian regimes. But how was George Orwell’s work shaped by his own experiences of war and oppression?
Anyone wishing to know George Orwell better need only leaf through the masterpieces of literature he left behind. The plight of poverty exposed in Down and Out in Paris and London was his own; his contempt for communism saw the Russian Revolution turned into a barnyard drama in Animal Farm; and the haunting pictures of a dystopian future in Nineteen Eighty-Four had been painted as his warning of totalitarianism. Orwell loathed imperialism, rejected a bourgeois lifestyle, and longed – even fought – for socialist revolution. And that is all there in painfully personal detail on the pages of his works.
What was George Orwell's real name?
Born Eric Arthur Blair on 25 June 1903, he lived first in Bengal, India, where his father worked as a colonial civil servant, then England with his mother and two sisters. His family, as he put it, was “upper-middle class without money”. While clearly intelligent, Blair didn’t enjoy boarding school and, despite winning a scholarship to Eton, neglected his education. Although, one of his teachers may have had an undue influence: Aldous Huxley, author of the seminal dystopian novel, Brave New World.
Instead of university, Blair bucked the trend for graduating Etonians and headed, in 1922, to the colony of Burma (now Myanmar) to join the Indian Imperial Police. While he liked the place and people, he grew ashamed of colonial oppression there. The inequality meted out by the British fuelled the flames of his socialist politics and by 1927, had driven him away. He returned to England and ultimately resigned his commission.
George Orwell: a brief biography
When was he born?
Eric Arthur Blair was born in Motihari, north-east India on 25 June 1903, and grew up in England.
After graduating from Eton College, he spent five years in the Imperial Police in Burma (now Myanmar), which left him with a keen sense of political outrage and personal guilt.
Career wise, George Orwell drifted between journalism, tramping and menial jobs, which informed his first book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), published under the pseudonym George Orwell. During the 1930s, he published four novels and two more works of nonfiction. The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) examined working-class life in the north of England, while Homage to Catalonia (1938) described his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.
Animal Farm and 1984
Classified unfit for military service in the Second World War, Orwell worked for the BBC’s Indian Section for two years. Upon leaving the BBC in 1943, he joined the left-wing magazine Tribune, wrote Animal Farm (1945) and adopted a son, Richard Blair. In 1945, while Orwell was working as a war reporter in Europe, his wife Eileen died suddenly. The following year, Orwell moved to Jura in the Inner Hebrides, and began writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. Delayed because of Orwell’s journalism commitments and hospitalisation for tuberculosis, the book was published on 8 June 1949. This dystopian novel is set in a year (which may or may not be 1984) in what was then the future in Airstrip One (Britain), now part of Oceania, one of three warring superstates. The totalitarian ruling Party – whose leader, Big Brother, is the centre of a powerful personality cult, even though he may not exist – exerts total control over both actions and thoughts, constantly monitoring Oceania’s people and rewriting history to match present political requirements.
Marriage and death
Orwell married Sonia Brownell in October 1949 in hospital in London, where he died on 21 January 1950.
Instead, what Blair really wanted to do was be a writer. He would ultimately go on to pour out his disdain at his experiences in Burma several times, in the novel Burmese Days and essays A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant, but first he turned his attention to the poorest closer to home. To explore this world, and perhaps assuage his own guilt, Blair lived in a rough area of London’s East End and the slums of Paris, working menial jobs and journeying with vagrants. The record of these experiences became Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933.
For his pen name, he chose George Orwell, after the River Orwell in Suffolk and Britain’s King George V for a splash of patriotism
For his pen name, he chose George Orwell, after the River Orwell in Suffolk and Britain’s King George V for a splash of patriotism. From then on, he became known as Eric Blair far less with each publication, even among friends, and more as George Orwell. He simultaneously grew more political. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), he recorded his time among poor miners in the north of England and dedicated the whole second half of the book to stress how a socialist system could improve their lot.
By the time that was in print Orwell was already fighting his next cause. In late 1936, six months after getting married, he travelled to Spain to take up arms against Franco’s Nationalists. It did not go as hoped: he almost died after being shot in the neck and was forced to flee the country when the Soviet- backed communists turned on their Republican comrades. As expounded in his account Homage to Catalonia (1938), the experience gave Orwell a lifelong dread of communism. And this would only intensify as World War II broke out.
Poor health denied Orwell the chance to sign up, but he joined the Home Guard and got a job for the BBC working on propaganda pieces to be broadcast in India. He also started writing regularly for the weekly socialist paper, Tribune – directed by MP and eventual NHS founder Aneurin Bevan – and penned reviews and essays, reported on the war, and began work on a new book. It was while in Paris as a war correspondent in the aftermath of the city’s liberation that Orwell heard that his beloved wife, Eileen, had died, not long after the pair had adopted a young child, Richard.
Rounding off an emotionally turbulent period for Orwell, which also saw the end of the war, his new book came out. It was Animal Farm, a fable mirroring the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and it quickly became a commercial success. Orwell, long a political and prolific writer, was now a profitable one, too.
When did Orwell write Nineteen Eighty-Four?
His next book, however, would be Orwell’s last. In 1946, he wrote: “What I have most wanted to do... is to make political writing into an art,” and he did so, but at a cost. With the Animal Farm money, he took a remote house on the island of Jura, in the Inner Hebrides, to work on his dystopian novel filled with terrifying concepts like the Thought Police, doublethink, Room 101 and Big Brother. His health failing due to tuberculosis, exacerbated by horror side effects caused by an experimental treatment drug, Orwell worked himself to death, succumbing on 21 January 1950, aged 46 – just months after marrying his second wife, Sonia.
But he had finished the book: Nineteen Eighty-Four. An instant classic, it has managed to maintain a near-unrivalled influence on popular culture and remains a searingly relevant work that has changed how we view, and speak about, the future.
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
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