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George Orwell Biography And Visits


Henley - where Orwell's family lived during his childhood.

From his school days onwards the man who became known as George Orwell was preoccupied with how to match up a personal sense of worth, with whatever society was demanding at a particular time. He was a bit of a rebel, even rebelling within the ranks of rebels, who of course can be even more authoritarian than the ruling establishment. Oscar Wilde, seemingly a very different man and writer, made points relevant to the story of George Orwell. Wilde served two years hard labour for the offence of homosexuality, something which he did not consider a crime. Wilde wrote "Personality is a very mysterious thing. A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law and yet be worthless. He may break the law and yet be fine. He may be bad, without ever doing anything bad. He may commit a sin against society, and yet realise through that sin his own perfection" (quoted in Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann). In many ways Oscar Wilde describes the kind of thoughts which dominated the life and work of Eric Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell. He is hard to pin down, as a good or less good man or writer, but in the end we might find that this confusion actually made for his best work.



Eton College Chapel

Eric Arthur Blair was born in Motihaior, Bengal on 25th June 1903. His father Richard Walmesley Blair was an official in the Indian government's Opium Department. Eric's mother, Ida Mabel Limouzin, came from a commercial family in Moulmein, Burma. There was a certain gentility about this family, but they were not wealthy. Eric's great great grandfather Charles Blair had been a successful plantation and slave owner in Jamaica, but by the early twentieth century the family fortune was fading. Money was relatively tight when Ida took Eric and his older sister Marjorie back to England some time in 1904. They settled in Henley-on-Thames, first in Vicarage Road, then in Western Road. Eric went to a local convent school, and then, with the help of a scholarship, to a highly regarded new preparatory school called St Cyprian's, close to Beachy Head. It was here, at least in retrospect, that young Eric began to experience the sort of confusion Oscar Wilde wrote about. At St Cyprian's he was later to claim he wet the bed and was beaten for it. In his memoirs of school life Such Such Were The Joys, there is a sense that real bitterness resulted from knowing what the rules were, but finding it impossible to keep them: "Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you... this was the great abiding lesson of my boyhood, that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good" (quoted in George Orwell by Bernard Crick P71).


However, contemporaries of Blair have challenged his portrayal of life at St Cyprian's. Colin Kirkpatrick, an exact contemporary claims that the supposedly formative bed wetting episode did not happen, and it was another boy who was beaten for this "crime". This confusion is also reflected in memories of Eton, where Blair went following St Cyprian's. He was one of seventy promising students who attended Eton thanks to a scholarship. But inspite of entering Eton on academic merit, Blair stopped working and became something of a petty rule breaker. In his own view he continued to see his school career as one of resistance to a totalitarian regime. According to his biographer Bernard Crick this could actually have been a romanticised view of a rather unattractive awkwardness, which was actually a long way from heroic resistance. So the picture here is hardly clear. Heroic rebel, or less than honest, self dramatising irritant - on which side would the future Eric Blair fall?

After an undistinguished career at Eton, Blair left in December 1921. His family had meanwhile moved to Southwold in Suffolk, and in January of 1922 Blair was sent to a Southwold crammer to prepare for entry to the Imperial Indian Police. A taste for opposing authority continued here, which led to expulsion when two dead rats were sent through the post to the Borough Surveyor on his birthday. Fortunately for Blair he had already sat and passed his examination before being expelled, and the sorry episode was overlooked. Five increasingly unhappy years were then spent as a policeman in Burma. In 1927 an application was made for early leave on medical grounds, and five months leave was duly granted. But Blair never went back. According to the dust jacket of his memoir of this period, Burmese Days: "He resigned... chiefly because he disliked putting people in prison for doing the same things which he would have done in the circumstances". As at school he seemed to feel that sin was not always something that people chose to do, but something that happened to them.


Portobello Road, London

In Southwold the now unemployed Blair announced to his dismayed parents that he wanted to be a writer. No evidence of ability in writing had ever been demonstrated, but that didn't seem to matter. A move followed to lodgings just off Portobello Road in London, arranged by a family friend named Ruth Pitter. Blair had a small room with no heat. Living conditions through the winter of 1927 must have been very difficult. But this didn't matter because Blair was seeking discomfort. In The Road to Wigan Pier he was later to write:

"I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrant" (Road to Wigan Pier P149 -150).

Great efforts were made to turn discomfort into good writing, with Ruth Pitter and her friends having a good laugh at the stuff that resulted. Even though this strange young man didn't seem to be getting anywhere, his determination remained undimmed. And this was demonstrated in finding ever tougher ways to live. A cold room off Portobello Road soon failed to represent enough suffering. So one night during the winter of 1927 he left his flat and went to Limehouse in east London, checking into a Good Beds for Single Men lodging house. Then he went on the road as a tramp. A move to Paris followed in early 1928. Blair lived in cheap hotels, and worked as a dishwasher at a hotel in the Rue de Rivoli for a few weeks when his money ran out. A draft memoir of this time, eventually called Down And Out In Paris And London, was finished by October 1930, but two more years would pass before a publisher showed interest. This time was spent living at 77 Parliament Hill, Hampstead, tramping, hop picking, and tutoring at a Middlesex private school called The Hawthorns. He also started a relationship with Eileen O'Shaughnessey, a psychology student at London University, a friend of his Hampstead landlady. Meanwhile publisher Victor Gollancz had finally agreed to publish Down And Out In Paris And London. Even with the decision to publish made, worries remained that some of the book's material might cause offense. So it was decided that the new author should hide behind a pseudonym. From a short list which included the names Kenneth Miles, H. Lewis Allways, P.S. Burton and George Orwell, George Orwell was chosen. Publication of Down And Out In Paris And London followed on 9th January 1933, and was a moderate success.

Living in Hampstead, the still little known George Orwell supplemented his writing income with work in a Hampstead bookshop and tutoring at Fray's College, Uxbridge. Then came 1936, which in many ways was a breakthrough year for Orwell. A second book was published in April 1936, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, about a man making an unsuccessful attempt to live a life away from the pursuit of money and status. Early 1936 also saw Victor Gollancz and the newly founded Left Book Club commission Orwell to make a journey to report on conditions experienced by British industrial workers living in poverty. So from 31st January to 30th March 1936 Orwell lived with working people in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield. He was offered lodging in good, clean working class homes, which even in times of unemployment were generally kept spotless through a resilient sense of pride. But as ever Orwell sought out the very worst living conditions. In Wigan this meant lodging in dirty rooms above a tripe shop. I'm reminded of a line from a Comic Strip production where a posh young television producer arrives in a Welsh mining town to make a film. He looks around at the ordinary looking street and sniffs: "This doesn't say mining town to me."

Many people in Wigan were not pleased that their town was portrayed in a bad light. According to Bernard Crick, Jim Hammond of the National Union of Mine Workers was suspicious of Orwell's motives in seeking the worst picture to portray of life in the north. Perhaps this would better fit with middle class prejudice, and frankly make for a better selling book. Hammond regarded the second half of the book that resulted from Orwell's researches, The Road to Wigan Pier, as "offensive and ignorant" (quoted Crick P282). When I was writing this article in 2011 I did a search of the Museum of Wigan Life web site, and could find no mention of George Orwell. I don't know whether this ommission was the result of a residual resentment, but it might indicate that Orwell's inclination to exaggeration and even fabrication has caused annoyance in Wigan long after his visit. Unfortunately a less than rigorous attitude to the truth was not confined to portrayals of life in Wigan. Mark Benney, a friend of Orwell wrote: "...he scrutinised his world with the eye of a Savonarola for evidence of... corruption, and when he could not find it he sometimes invented it. In one of his Letters From London for Partisan Review for example, he reported the tearing down of railings in the drive for scrap metal, and alleged that while working class parks and squares were being enthusiastically derailed by the authorities, upper-class squares were being left with their iron privacies untouched. This was patently untrue, but he waved aside objections with the defence that 'anyway, it was essentially true' " (Mark Benney Almost a Gentleman P167 - 168, quoted Crick P 432). This kind of thing had the potential to cause a lot of unnecessary resentment and trouble.


BBC's Broadcasting House at Portland Place, London. Orwell worked here during the war, and used it as a model for his Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four


In 1936 Orwell married Eileen O'Shaughnessey, the psychology student he had met through his landlady in Hampstead. But there was no sense of settling down. In fact it was decided that living in difficult conditions was no longer enough. Now Orwell wanted to live in difficult conditions while people shot at him. Early in 1936 a left wing government had been elected in Spain. Prominent right wing figures in Spain's military, led by General Franco, staged an armed rebellion, aiming to bring the elected government down. Government supporters fought back, and civil war resulted. Late in 1936 Orwell joined large numbers of people heading to Spain to help in the struggle against Franco. He was in Barcelona by 26th December, and quickly gravitated to a position of leadership. But his career as partisan fighter was cut short at 5am on 20th May 1937, when Orwell was hit in the throat by a sniper's bullet, while he talked to colleagues in a dug out near Huesca. Though the wound, amazingly, did not turn out to be fatal, or cause serious long term damage, it marked the end of the Spanish adventure. Orwell returned to England in early July 1937, and got down to writing about his experiences, which would be published as Homage to Catalonia on 25th April 1938. This would be his last major work before World War Two began.


The war years would then bring experiences that led to the works for which George Orwell would be most famous. There was a period in the Home Guard, which involved attending the secret Osterley Park school for guerilla warfare. From August 1941 there was employment at the BBC making cultural programmes to be broadcast abroad. From March 1945 Orwell was a war correspondent for The Observer newspaper. In his personal life Orwell became a father when he and Eileen adopted a young boy called Richard. But then in March 1945 Eileen died unexpectedly during a routine surgical procedure. Following this tragedy Orwell continued to care for Richard, and moved with him to a house called Barnhill on the Scottish Island of Jura. Out of all this came a story called Animal Farm, published 17th August 1945, and then Nineteen Eighty Four, the first draft of which was finished by late 1947. With these books the conflicts which had all started with painful childhood incidents, exaggerated perhaps in memory, came together. Both books present a nightmare vision of state control, where it is almost impossible for individuals to be "good" without ruining themselves. Ironically, however, both of these books also cast doubt on rebellion, since they both satirize socialism, which in the mid 1940s was the western world's main force of rebellion. This really gets at the heart of Orwell's dilemma. If we don't accept society's morals, whose morals do we accept? If society's morals are wrong, then there is no guarantee that personal morals of rebels are any better. In many ways George Orwell's own moral posturing could be suspect, as we have seen. He did make things up, and did make life much harder than it need be. He did have rather trite ideas about industrial society leaving people with poorer lives, when industrial society could produce well made goods more cheaply, which meant that more people had access to a better quality of life. Orwell would not want to admit this. He wanted to find darkness and despair, and when he couldn't find it he made it up. In his two most famous books Orwell accepts this moral murkiness, and shows that righteous rebels can be just as wrong as everyone else.

It was while writing Nineteen Eighty Four that Orwell's fragile heath finally failed. He had first been hospitalised with a pulmonary haemorrhage caused by tuberculosis in March 1938, at Preston Hall Hospital in Kent, where Eileen's brother had been a consultant. Chest problems were a constant feature of life after this. Heavy smoking did not help. Writing Nineteen Eighty Four seemed to bring on the final stage of illness. Falling ill at Barnhill on the island of Jura, he went into hospital in Glasgow on Christmas Eve 1947. In July 1948 he was treated with the new antibiotic streptomycin, which inspite of violent side effects helped enough to allow a short stay back at Barnhill. But July 1949 saw a move to a sanatorium in the Cotswolds, followed by a transfer to University College Hospital, London, on 3rd September 1949. Here he married Sonia Brownell, an assistant to Orwell's life long friend Cyril Connolly. The marriage service was conducted at Orwell's bedside on 13th October 1949. Orwell finally died of a lung haemorrhage on the night of 21st January 1950.