George Orwell Biography


To find material for his writing and learn about the lives of the lower classes, Eric began "tramping" through London and Paris. Fascinated by the lives of the poor and by the fact that a nation as powerful as England could fail to address such shocking poverty, Eric lived among the lower classes, although he could have stayed in his parents' comfortable home. Dressed in shoddy clothes, Eric would sit on street corners, converse with tramps, and spend time in the various "spikes" (men's shelters provided by factories) around London. In Paris, he took a job as a plongeur (a dishwasher) and learned more about the suffering of the poor in another European capital. While in Paris, he contracted pneumonia and spent three weeks in the public ward of the Hopital Cochin — a depressing but enlightening experience that he later recorded in the essay, "How the Poor Die." (Problems with his lungs plagued him his entire life.)

His experiences were shaped into his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, a work of non-fiction that Orwell asked a friend to destroy (convinced that it had no merit) but which the same friend took to an agent, who in turn took it to a publisher. Down and Out was published in 1933 to good reviews — reviews that spoke of the author not as "Eric Blair," but as "George Orwell," a pseudonym Eric chose in case the book was a total failure. For the remainder of his career, he remained Orwell to his readers but Eric to his family and friends.

Novelist and Soldier

During the early and mid-1930s, Orwell dabbled in teaching while trying to sustain himself as a writer. His novels Burmese Days (1934), A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) all met with decent reviews but modest sales. In 1936, Orwell employed the same method he had used to write Down and Out and visited Wigan, a mining town in Northern England, to see how the miners and their families lived. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), a non-fictional account of the miners' struggles that was chosen by the Left Book Club and sold over 44,000 copies. Orwell was now regarded as an important political writer, much more so than as a novelist. This same year also saw Orwell become a husband: On June 9, 1936, he married Eileen O'Shaughnessy.

Orwell and his new wife did not begin a peaceful married life; rather, they both traveled to Spain to serve in the fight against fascism which would become the Spanish Civil War. Orwell left England in December of 1936 and served in the P. O. U. M. (The Worker's Party of Marxist Unification) — a socialist party allied with England's Independent Labour Party (I. L. P.). Orwell was responsible for training a band of Catalonian soldiers fighting General Franco on the Aragon front. Eileen arrived in Barcelona in February of 1937 to serve as a typist for the I. L. P.'s Spanish offices. That May, Orwell was hit by a sniper in the throat but miraculously lived and only lost the use of his voice for a few weeks. Eventually, the P. O. U. M. was outlawed by the more powerful communist forces that arose as a result of the conflict, and Orwell escaped (with Eileen) to France after serving more than three months in combat. Homage to Catalonia (1938), another non-fiction work, describes Orwell's time on the front and his disillusionment with the very revolution he thought would win freedom for Spain. This idea of a revolution betraying its supposed aims is a chief issue of Animal Farm.

Napoleon and Big Brother

After returning from France, Orwell's lungs began troubling him again; he was showing signs of tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanatorium in Kent, where he convalesced for four months before leaving for Marrakech, Morocco — a spot chosen because of the supposed recuperative effects of its climate. In Marrakech, he wrote another novel, Coming Up for Air (1939) and then returned, in 1939, to London. World War II erupted and Orwell continued writing reviews, essays, and broadcasts to India from the BBC. Non-fiction works from this period include Inside the Whale (1940) and The Lion and the Unicorn (1941).

In 1943, Orwell finished writing the book that would seal his reputation as an insightful and cautious political thinker: Animal Farm. Dubbed "A Fairy Story," Orwell's short but powerful novel examines the ways in which a farm of oppressed and exploited animals rebel against their human master, only to eventually replace the system they initially wanted to supplant. The book is also a thinly disguised retelling of the 1917 Russian Revolution from Orwell's point-of-view. Because of this, the book was rejected by several publishers on the grounds that it was too controversial to publish at a time when the Soviets were at war with Germany — the wartime enemy of England. While negotiations on Animal Farm were still pending, Orwell and Eileen adopted a son, Richard Horatio, in 1944. Animal Farm was finally published on August 17, 1945, sold more than 250,000 copies, and received tremendously flattering reviews. However, with this great success came sorrow, when Eileen died during a hysterectomy this same year.

In 1947, Orwell moved to Jura, an island off the coast of Scotland. Here he composed the novel which proved to be his most enduring work: Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, the novel evokes a nightmarish future where the citizens of "Oceania" are totally controlled by the Party, a political machine symbolized by the mythical figure Big Brother. Orwell's lungs, however, were getting worse. Just before his death, he married the young editorial assistant Sonia Brownwell in a University Hospital bedside ceremony on October 13, 1949. Orwell died of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950, but his contributions to political literature — best seen in the fact that the adjective "Orwellian" has come into the language — remain.

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