George Orwell was the pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair, born in Motihari, Bengal, India, in 1903, to a family which he described in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) as ‘lower-upper middle class’: ‘upper-middle class without money’. According to his biographer Bernard Crick, Orwell used a pseudonym ‘partly to avoid embarrassing his parents, partly as a hedge against failure, and partly because he disliked the name Eric, which reminded him of a prig in a Victorian boys’ story’.
He worked hard and won a place at Eton but while there dedicated himself more to reading widely than passing exams. Rather than going on to University, he took the Indian Civil Service exams and became a policeman in Burma in 1921 – he was probably the first and only old Etonian to attend the Burmese police training academy. His experiences inspired his first novel, Burmese Days, which was published in New York in 1934 (British publishers feared libel cases). His first book, however, was the non-fictional Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and was based on his experiences after he left the police. The critic Bernard Crick tells us that during this time, he took to making journeys among tramps, and spent time living amongst the poor and homeless in London and around the hop fields of Kent, writing that he wanted to see if the English poor were treated in their country in the same way as the Burmese were in theirs. Orwell then moved to Paris in 1928, where in his own words, he lived for about a year and a half in Paris, writing novels and short stories which no one would publish. After my money came to an end I had several years of fairly severe poverty during which I was, among other things, a dishwasher, a private tutor and a teacher in cheap private schools.
Four years later in his essay ‘Why I write’, he explained that ‘what I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art’. His political convictions, which have been described as democratic socialism, inform books such as The Road to Wigan Pier, a documentary account of poverty in Britain. Its second half, critical of Socialist intellectuals who supported Stalin, was enormously controversial, as was his account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938), which criticises leftist infighting in the context of a broader struggle against Fascism.
His novel Animal Farm (1945) also expresses his hatred of totalitarianism, satirising the developments of the Russian revolution in the style of a fable based on the eponymous farm. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) deals with similar subject matter by describing a dystopian future overseen by the all-powerful Big Brother. Both books have been translated all around the world, and were read differently by conflicting parties during the Cold War. Having adopted a son, Orwell died of tuberculosis in 1950.
Further information about the life of George Orwell can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- John Sutherland
- Power and conflict, Literature 1900–1950
George Orwell’s Animal Farm combines animal fable with political satire targeting Stalinist Russia. John Sutherland describes the novel’s genesis, its struggle to find a publisher, and its eventual success.
- Article by:
- Mike Ashley
- Visions of the future, Power and conflict
Mike Ashley considers how British, Russian and American writers created repressive imaginary worlds and totalitarian regimes in order to explore 20th-century political concerns.
- Article by:
- Matthew Taunton
- European influence, Power and conflict, Capturing and creating the modern
Russian art, dance and music influenced many modernist writers in the first half of the 20th century, while the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 heightened both communist and anti-communist feeling in Britain. Matthew Taunton explores the influence of Russia on British modernism.
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