Thursday, August 28, 2014

George Orwell: A Life

At one time I worshipped George Orwell. I had read all his books, and on long winter trips near the Arctic Circle I took with me a volume of his letters, essays and journalism. When I read at night, his lucid prose resonated with the endless miles of snowy immaculate scenery beyond the tent’s canvas walls.

Later when I became a bureaucrat, I placed his picture in a dimestore frame and sat it on my desk. I wrote a poem about him and sent it to a literary magazine, but the response I got was odd. One of the editors referred to Orwell as "sometimes a badtempered narrow sonovabitch." The comment bothered me more than the poem’s rejection. The editor in question was not old enough to have met Orwell, so his opinion was based solely on hearsay, or something he read.

His comment was at the back of my mind as I read this bio of Orwell. It's a rather intimidating book, 400 pages of eye-watering 10-pt type, not counting the 60 pages of footnotes and index. The author, Bernard Crick, was the first to have access to Orwell's papers, and sifted many other sources, including unpublished correspondence and such farflung sources as the files of the Rangoon Gazette, the Burma Police Manual for 1899, and the Civil Pension Books in India.

He corrects an error of fact repeated in a number of books about the date of Orwell's arrival in England (1904 not 1907), and about the school where he taught. These are relatively minor matters, but illustrate the degree of scholarship involved.


The picture of Orwell I now have in my mind is that of a man whose life was shaped by oppression. He experienced it at St. Cyprian's, a prep school he was sent to at the age of eight, and he inflicted it on others in Burma, where he spent five years as a policeman. The guilt he felt after Burma made him seek the company of the downtrodden, as described in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

In the Spanish Civil War he was shot through the neck by a fascist sniper, and narrowly escaped imprisonment or worse due to falsehoods spread by pro-Soviet communists.

When WW2 broke out he tried repeatedly to enlist but due to his health was only able to join the Home Guard. His wife Eileen worked (ironically) in the Censorship department, and her brother (a doctor who had treated Orwell) was killed at Dunkirk. Their London home was wrecked by a bomb. In the final months of the war Orwell got the chance to go to Europe as a war correspondent.

A Melancholy End

He was in Germany when he learned of his wife's death during a "routine operation" in England. His own health, which had been undermined by numerous bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, grew steadily worse until he was hospitalized for seven months in 1948. Treatment included collapsing one of his lungs and he was not allowed to type.

Even when allowed out of hospital he was in such a weakened condition that he had to spend half the day in bed. Unable to find a typist, he resumed smoking as he typed the revised manuscript of Nineteen Eight-Four himself. As a result he suffered a relapse at the end of 1948 and was taken to a sanatorium.

It was clear that he was destined to be a permanent invalid, but he thought he might live longer if he were married. He proposed to several women, and finally succeeded in marrying Sonia Brownell. The ceremony took place in a hospital in October of 1949. Plans were made for him to be relocated to a sanatorium in Switzerland in January of 1950, but about a week before departure his lung haemorrhaged for a final time. He was 46.

His Legacy

Animal Farm was finished in 1944, but refused by several publishers due to its political content. It finally came out in 1945 just after WW2 ended. It made Orwell famous, although in America it was widely misinterpreted as being anti-socialist. Tyranny and oppression were what he hated, and he found it in imperialism, fascism, communism, capitalism, and Catholicism. He was also against pacifism.

He wrote that "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."

His fame was solidified by another political book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, once again misunderstood in America, where it was seen as anti-Soviet when in fact it was a warning about totalitarian tendencies in modern states.

However, Bernard Crick, the author of this biography and founder of the Orwell Prize for political writing, says that "much critical opinion now locates his genius in his essays."

This is because what Orwell is most famous for is "that colloquial easy plain style that became his genius." He made a "connection between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language." His writings are often used in teaching ESL.

In his will he asked that no biography of him be written. He also wished two of his novels, A Clergyman's Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, not to be reprinted.

The Man

Orwell was six foot three inches in height and wore size twelve shoes, which he had difficulty in finding. His clothes were "famously casual." His voice was weak and monotonous due to the wound he'd received in Spain.

A friend said there was "something very innocent and terribly simple about him. He wasn’t a very good judge of character... But he tolerated in others faults he did not possess himself."

He "made a virtue of ordinariness and common decency." He was tenacious, and hard-working, but he was also prickly, had a morbid streak, and was "aggressively anti-hypochondriac."

A comrade in Spain described him as "a slightly comic figure," yet "absolutely fearless."

He loved cats and birds, nature and fishing, but had a phobia about rats, and nightmares from which he'd awaken screaming.

E.M. Forster remarked on his "peculiar mixture of gaiety and grimness."

There was "his strange mixture of personal gentleness and ferocious writing."


Other pseudonyms that Orwell considered: Kenneth Miles, H. Lewis Allways, and P.S Burton (a name he’d used whilst tramping).

Alternate titles for Down and Out in Paris and London: Lady Poverty, Confessions of a Dishwasher.

Nineteen Eighty-Four: alternate title, The Last Man in Europe. The hero Winston was named after Churchill, and Julia was modelled on Sonia.

He had a dog named Marx.