Sunday, October 31, 2010

George Orwell: A Biographical Sketch

His Connection with the East
George Orwell's real name was Eric Arthur Blair. He was the second of three children of his parents. Both sides of his family had been connected with the East. His paternal grandfather was an Anglican priest in Australia and India; and his maternal grandfather, who was French, was a teak merchant in Moulmein, Burma. His father, Richard Blair, was a deputy agent in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, which supervised the legalized opium trade with China. Orwell's family belonged to the English upper-middle class.

His Attitude to His Parents
Orwell was born in 1903 in Motihari (Bengal) situated on the bank of a lake in the State of Bihar. He spent the first three or four years of his life in India before he was sent to England in 1907 to begin his schooling. The years of childhood spent in India, the heat, the colour, and the social atmosphere had deeply affected his childish imagination. In England Orwell attended a primary school at Henley-on-Thames. In an essay which Orwell wrote in 1947, he recorded that his early childhood at home had not been altogether happy. In 1911, at the age of eight, Orwell joined a preparatory school called St. Cyprian's. Orwell's memories of his parents were not very pleasant. In the essay referred to above, for instance, Orwell wrote:
One ought to love one's father, but I know very well that I merely disliked my father, whom I had barely seen before I was eight and who appeared to me simply as a gruff-voiced elderly gentleman forever saying: "Don’t.
Orwell's mother, who was eighteen years younger than her husband, was a charming woman, a bit exotic and gypsy-looking. About her Orwell wrote: "I never felt love for any mature person except my mother, and even her I did not trust."
Miserable and Lonely at St. Cyprian's School
Orwell afterwards wrote that at the age of eight he was suddenly separated from his family and "flung into a world of force and fraud and secrecy." He did not have a happy life at St. Cyprian's school which was situated in Eastbourne. In his reminiscences, he later emphasized what he regarded as the hellish aspect of this school where he spent the crucial years from the age of eight to the age of fourteen. He wrote later that he was miserable at school and lonely, and that he "soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my school-days." He stated that one of the school codes was "an almost neurotic dread of poverty and, above all, the assumption that money and privilege are the things that matter." In school Orwell felt guilty because he was not the son of rich parents and because he did not have much money. Orwell's feeling about St. Cyprian's school were so intense and painful that the essay, Such, Such Were the Joys, in which he recorded these feelings could not be published during his life-time, because the essay could have been regarded as defamatory and libellous and could have provoked the school authorities to prosecute Orwell on the basis of what he had written about that school. A school-fellow by the name of Cyril Connolly, gave a different and more pleasant picture of St. Cyprian's school in one of his books. When Connolly's book was published in 1938, Orwell said to him: "I wonder how you can write about St. Cyprian's. It is all like an awful nightmare to me." Recalling his experiences at St. Cyprian's, Orwell   in   his essay wrote:  "Soon after I arrived at St. Cyprian's I began wetting my bed." The result of this shameful weakness was that he received two beatings which created in him
a sense of desolate loneliness and hopelessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them. I had a conviction of sin and folly and weakness, such as I do not remember to have felt before. This acceptance of guilt lay unnoticed in my memory for twenty or thirty years.
His Painful Memories of School Life
The bed-wetting was only the first of numerous episodes which made Orwell feel guilty. He was poor; he was lazy; he was a failure; he was ungrateful and unhealthy; he was weak, ugly, cowardly, and smelly. His teachers beat him and humiliated him throughout the six years of his stay at St. Cyprian's. As a consequence he developed the profound conviction that he was no good, that he was wasting his time, and that he was behaving foolishly and wickedly. Orwell's experiences at school and the feelings of guilt and sinfulness which he developed there are vital to the understanding of his character and the nature of the books which he afterwards wrote. The most moving passages in the essay Such, Such Were the Joys, come from Orwell's realization of his own disloyalty, untruthfulness, and hypocrisy, and a major theme in that essay is his retrospective horror at the kind of person he was. Of course, in his view, the entire responsibility for his being what he was is attributed by him to the environment at the school, the atmosphere in which the students were educated, and the treatment he received from the school authorities. The themes of authority, guilt, cruelty, helplessness, isolation, and misery are quite prominent in this essay. Orwell compares St. Cyprian's school with that infamous school in Dickens's novel Nicholas Nickleby where lasting agonies and disfigurements were inflicted upon children by the treatment of the teachers. In short, Orwell depicts St. Cyprian's school as a reactionary and barbaric Victorian institution.
At Eton
In spite of his depression of spirits and his feelings of misery at St. Cyprian's school, Orwell was able to win a scholarship which enabled him to proceed to the public school at Eton where he was the contemporary of Cyril Connolly (who had been with him at St. Cyprian's also) and Steven Runciman (who was afterwards knighted). One of Orwell's teachers at Eton was Aldous Huxley who taught English and French there from 1917 to 1919. But Huxley's influence on Orwell was very limited. Orwell studied very little at Eton, learnt very little, and got very low marks. There was nothing very unusual about the young Orwell, no promise of genius, nothing to suggest that in course of time he was to become one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. At Eton he soon developed a kind of aloofness which left him on good terms with everyone without his being the close friend of anybody. He was poor at games, but he edited a humorous magazine called College Days and served in the Officer Training Corps. As these were the years of World War I, Orwell's father joined the army as a subaltern at the age of sixty, and from 1917 to 1919 looked after the mules in an army camp near Marsailles (in France).
His Rejection of the Aristocratic Values at Eton
Eton did not constitute a formative influence in Orwell's life. He spent five years at this school but never felt enthusiastic about it. The aristocratic values which reigned at the school were distasteful to him. He rejected the snobbery which was the most prominent feature of the life of this school. After completing his education at Eton, Orwell should have proceeded to a university (Cambridge or Oxford), but he was not rich enough to meet the expenses of university education, and he failed to win a scholarship which could have taken him there. His inability to win a scholarship deepened his feeling that he was a failure in life. His father now suggested that he should try to join the British police force in Burma. His father was confident that he would get Orwell selected for the Burmese Police Service because of the personal connections which his family had with Burma for over three generations.
Selected For the Burmese Police Force
Orwell left Eton in December 1921 and got admitted to a tutorial establishment in order to prepare for his competitive examination. Two of the teachers at Eton gave him the required testimonials of good character which Orwell had to send with his application for being allowed to appear in the examination. In the summer of 1922, he was examined in several subjects. He got his highest marks in Latin and his lowest in history and geography. He got the seventh position in a class of twenty-nine, and he was one of the three men; selected for the Police Service in the East. On the 1st September, 1922 he was certified as physically fit. He selected Burma because his father had spent several years there. He could have selected the Punjab or the U.P., and even Bengal; but he expressed a preference for Burma.
Service as a Police Officer in Burma;
and His Resignation
Arriving in Rangoon in the same year (1922) Orwell took courses in Burmese, Hindustani, Law, and Police Procedure. Then he served as a police officer in various Burmese towns including Moulmein where he shot an elephant. He worked as assistant to the District Superintendent of Police in the capital of Upper Burma, where he was expected to run the office, supervise the stores of clothing and ammunition, look after the training school for locally recruited constables, and  so on.  He had also to check the night patrols in the city, and he had to assume general charge when the Superintendent was away. At his house he kept a large number of birds and animals—geese, ducks, goats, etc. He thus maintained what could be called an "animal farm".  There were a number of servants at his house to attend upon him.  He allowed himself to be dressed and undressed by his Burmese servants whom he sometimes kicked and beat. In August 1927 Orwell went on leave to England, after five years of service in Burma. In spite of the strong tradition of imperialist sentiment in his family, he disliked the job which he had undertaken to do in Burma. He had developed a bitter hatred of imperialism, and he felt that he could not go on with his public duties, which involved a lot of cruelty towards the Burmese. Furthermore, the District Superintendent of Police under whom he had been serving had not been treating him well. So he made up his mind to resign his job in Burma. He submitted his resignation and, though his superiors were annoyed because he gave no reason for leaving, they accepted the resignation.
Sick in a Paris Hospital
Orwell now bought a tramp's clothing in a pawn-shop and made the first of his many expeditions among the poor and outcast of London. In the spring of 1928 he went to France where he rented a shabby room in a working-class quarter of Paris, and published his first article in a weekly magazine called Monde. In February 1929 Orwell fell ill with pneumonia and had to spend several weeks in a Paris hospital as a charity patient. In one of his essays written afterwards, he thus records his feelings:
When I entered the ward at the hospital, I was conscious of a strange feeling of familiarity. What the scene reminded me of, of course, was the reeking, pain-filled hospitals of the 19th century.
As a non-paying patient, Orwell had to endure the depressing conditions in the hospital and the bad treatment which he received. His whole experience in the hospital was disgusting.
His First Publication, 'Down and Out in Paris and London"; and the Use of a Pseudonym
In the summer of 1929, Orwell wrote several short stories and two novels, none of which could be published. The little money that he had in his possession having been stolen, he felt compelled to pawn all his clothes. He then worked for ten weeks as a dish-washer (or a plongeur) in a luxurious but filthy hotel. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London is a record of his experiences among the poor of the two capital cities. This book was rejected by the publishers Cape and Faber, but was accepted by Gollancz. It was published in 1933 under the pseudonym of George Orwell. (As has already been pointed out, his real name was Eric Arthur Blair. He did not publish the book under his real name because he had begun to hate his name and therefore felt it necessary to have a pseudonym. It was by his pseudonym that he eventually became famous and by which he is now known). Orwell left Paris at the end of 1929 and went back to London where he gave lessons to a retarded boy in a town on the Suffolk coast. Subsequently, he picked hops in Kent, and taught in small private schools in two different towns. In the first school he thrashed a boy who was trying to blow up a frog with a bicycle pump.
As a Contributor to "Adelphi", and a Part-Time
Job at a Bookshop
From 1930 to 1935, Orwell contributed book reviews to a magazine called Adelphi which was being edited by Orwell's close friend, Sir Richard Rees. He earned an income of three to four pounds a week from doing this work which he afterwards described as an "exceptionally thankless, irritating, and exhausting job". Orwell's journalistic output was enormous, and in about twenty years he produced more than seven hundred articles, besides writing his books. In October 1934 he took up a part-time job in a bookshop where he worked for a year and a half and later wrote about this experience in his novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
Visit to Wigan. Marriage
In January 1936, Orwell was commissioned by the Left Book Club to study the economic and social conditions in the industrial region of northern England and to write a book describing those conditions. He gave up his job at the bookshop and went to the industrial county borough of Wigan in order to make a first-hand study of the conditions of working-class life. He recorded his impressions of this life in his book, The Road to Wigan Pier. In June 1936 Orwell married Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a rather frail but attractive graduate student in psychology at the University of London. She was three years younger than he. She was sophisticated, fastidious, highly intelligent and intellectual. She was tall and slender, with blue eyes, and dark-brown, naturally wavy hair.
Participation in the Spanish Civil War
In December 1936 Orwell went to Spain to write about the Civil War which had broken out in that country five months before. But, instead of getting busy observing the conditions there and writing about them, he joined the militia known as P.O.U.M. at the Lenin barracks in Barcelona in order to fight on the side of the democratic forces against Fascism. His wife also went to Spain two months later to work at the office of the I.L.P. (Independent Labour Party) in Barcelona. After a week of cursory military training, Orwell was sent to the battle-front at Aragon in north-east Spain. He suffered the boredom and hunger of static trench warfare in an extremely cold climate until one day, on the 10th May, 1937, he was hit by a bullet fired by a Fascist sniper and received a serious wound in his neck. After recovering from his wound in the following month, he again offered to go to the battle-front but P.O.U.M. was suddenly declared illegal, and Orwell and his wife, now suspects in the eyes of the Communist police, somehow managed to cross the French frontier into safety. All these events became the subject of Orwell's book, Homage to Catalonia which contained a severe attack on Stalin's Communists.
In Quest of Health in French Morocco
In March 1938 Orwell fell ill with tuberculosis. This was a disease from which he had already suffered as a child. He had been offered a job by the newspaper Pioneer at Lucknow in India, but he could not accept the assignment on account of this illness. With a gift of three hundred pounds from L.H. Myers, the novelist, Orwell and his wife were able to spend the winter in Marrakech (in French Morocco). It was there that he wrote his novel, Coming Up For Air. Unfortunately, their stay in Marrakech did not improve the health of either Orwell or his wife, and they were not much stronger on their return to England in the spring of 1939. In June that year, Orwell's father died of cancer at the age of eighty-two.
As a Talks Producer for the B.B.C.
World War II broke out in September 1939. It was an event which Orwell had been apprehending for a long time. He offered himself as a volunteer for the army, but was rejected on medical grounds. In August, 1941 he took up a job as Talks Producer for the Indian Section of the B.B.C. (British Broadcasting Corporation) and carried on war propaganda, for the cause of the Allies, addressed to the people in Asia. Others who contributed talks to this programme included E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot, and Herbert Read. In November 1943, Orwell left the B.B.C. and became the literary editor of The Tribune for which he also wrote a column under the heading "As I Please". His subjects in this column, which he continued for the next four years, covered a very wide range. The Tribune was a weekly newspaper which was both progressive and humane, and which tried to combine a radical socialist policy with a respect for freedom of speech and a civilized attitude towards literature and the arts.
Financial Gain Through "Animal Farm"
In February 1944, Orwell completed Animal Farm, a satire on the Russian revolution and its betrayal. He received a big shock when several publishers refused to publish this book on the ground that it contained a severe condemnation of Russian Communism. Russia was at that time an ally of the western democracies against Hitler's Nazism, and no English publisher felt inclined to give offence to an ally in the war against Hitler. Eventually this book was published by Seeker and Warburg in August 1945, at a crucial moment in world history. In the previous four months, Roosevelt, Mussolini, and Hitler had died; Churchill had been voted out of office, Germany had surrendered to the Allies; and the first atomic bomb had exploded over Hiroshima (in Japan). That month was also a turning-point in Orwell's life, because half a million copies of Animal Farm were sold through the American Book-of-the-Month Club and he became financially prosperous for the first time in his life.
The Tragic Death of Orwell's Wife
However, Orwell's literary success was marred by a personal tragedy. He and his wife, having been unable to have a child of their own, had adopted a one-month-old baby in June 1944 and had named him Richard Horatio Blair. In February 1945, Orwell had gone to France and then to Germany as a war correspondent for a newspaper. While he was abroad, his wife, who had been in poor health throughout the War, had to undergo an operation to stop the decline of red corpuscles in her blood. She died when she was still on the operation table. Despite his wife's sudden death, Orwell refused to give up his adopted son. He put the little boy under the care of several house-keepers one after the other until his younger sister, Avril. came to live with him in 1946.
The Publication of "Nineteen Eighty-Four".
Second Marriage. Death
Orwell began writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in August 1946 and finished it in November 1948. He was seriously ill for much of that time. He was now living on the island of Jura in the Hebrides where there was neither a telephone nor electricity in his house. Life on Jura was very hard, and Orwell had selected this place for a stay in order to punish himself. Perhaps there was a masochistic strain in him. His wife's death and his own distaste for social life created in him an irrational desire to live an arduous life on this rainy island, far from medical attention. He was confined to bed for varying periods during this time. In the summer of 1947, he and the boy Richard were shipwrecked in a dangerous whirlpool off Jura and were lucky to be rescued by a fisherman. Orwell was admitted to a tuberculosis sanatorium near Glasgow in December 1947 and remained there until June 1948. He again became seriously ill in November-December 1948. In 1949 he was admitted to a hospital in London for the last year of his life. His letters during this period revealed the gravity of his disease. In October 1949 he married again, his wife this time being a woman called Sonia Brownell who was working as a secretary on Cyril Connolly's magazine, "Horizon". Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in June 1949, but Orwell did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of the success of this masterpiece. He felt somewhat better in the beginning of January 1950 and made plans to enter a sanatorium in Switzerland. But he died of tuberculosis on the 21st January 1950, and was buried in the churchyard of All Saints in Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire.

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