George Orwell Biography
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As often happens with legendary people, George Orwell lived a challenging life, only getting to enjoy the riches of success the last four years of his too-short life after the success of “Animal Farm” made him a household name, and much of those later years of fame were spent battling disease. However, his legacy has grown to terrific measures in the decades that have followed his death while many schoolchildren around the world learn about his works even though they may not truly appreciate the significance of them and what they communicated until later in their lives.
Eric Arthur Blair was born on June 25, 1903, in Motihair, British India (now India), 15 miles south of Nepal, 110 miles south of China and 200 miles west of Bangladesh. His father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was employed by the Indian Civil Service and stayed behind when his wife, Ida Mabel Blair, took George Orwell and his sister, Marjorie, to England. Ida had a French father and was raised in Burma (now Myanmar), a place that would prove to be an important one for George Orwell during his adult years. George Orwell later had another sister: Avril.
George Orwell would later describe his family as having the snobbery that often goes with having money but, unfortunately, not really having all that much of it. They were much closer to or below middle class.
George Orwell and his mother and siblings initially spent time in Henley-on-Thames and Shiplake, both 40 miles west of London, before he headed south of the capital city to Eastbourne, where he attended and was boarded at St Cyprian’s School from ages 8-13. George Orwell did not enjoy his time there and was only able to return home on sporadic occasions. However, he was able to develop his skill for writing, a passion that had started sprouting when he lived in Henley-on-Thames. Some of his early literary successes included composing a poem at 4 and having one published in a newspaper at 11. But perhaps the biggest impact on George Orwell’s life that his time at St Cyprian’s provided him was seeing the class system up close. He was one of the poorer students there and saw other pupils receive more benefits and be treated better.
Eton College in Windsor was his next scholarly stop. However, what followed three years later with George Orwell now 18 years old was the first major road block in his life path. He had focused a little too much on extracurricular activities and did not have stellar grades, and the lack of those in addition to his family not having much money meant that going to university was not going to happen. What would he do?
George Orwell decided to go to his mother’s native country: Burma (now Myanmar). He would work with the Imperial Police and spend time in Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin), Myaungmya, Twante and Syriam (now Thanlyin). The latter city was just 10 miles from Rangoon (now Yangon), a bustling metropolis of nearly 400,000 that allowed George Orwell regular opportunities to visit bookstores and otherwise lead an active life.
During his time in this country, George Orwell saw first-hand the intimate interactions between the British and the Burmese and how much the latter group was being ruled against its will. Many of his experiences here formed the basis for future pieces of writing such as the essay, “Shooting an Elephant.” Partly due to these experiences, George Orwell, on leave in England in 1927 after contracting dengue fever in Katha, decided to not return to Burma. It was at this point in his life when his focus turned much more fully to writing.
However, George Orwell did keep having sympathy for those in trying situations and turned that into empathy by literally putting himself in their shoes. Now living in the Notting Hill district of London, George Orwell made regular trips to some of London’s poorer areas, including the East End, and immersed himself in the culture in those places. This included dressing like a homeless person. Some of these experiences served as the basis for part of George Orwell’s first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London,” which would be published six years later, in 1933.
The “Paris” part of George Orwell’s initial book was researched shortly thereafter, in 1928, when he moved to France’s capital city and started learning more about the bohemian happenings there. He also continued to write. Many of his pieces were devoted to telling the story of the impoverished.
However, what was perhaps most significant about “Down and Out in Paris and London” was that it marked the first time that George Orwell used that name. He was concerned that the book would embarrass his family or affect his employment as a teacher, so he wrote under a different name, one that was inspired by the River Orwell and that also sounded like a name that an Englishman would have. The other names that he considered using were H. Lewis Allways, Kenneth Miles and P.S. Burton.
Before George Orwell wrote his first book, he returned to England in 1929 and headed to Southwold, a coastal community located 120 miles northeast of London and where his family had settled down. But he didn’t stay long as George Orwell was never really known for staying in any one place for that long. In the following few years, he continued to write for a variety of publications as he moved around England.
In December 1931, George Orwell attempted to further create material for a future book by spending Christmas in prison, but his attempts at acting “drunk and disorderly” were not enough to grant him his wish. Although he did spend a couple of days in a police cell, he was then released and headed back to Southwold, a place he would return to several times during this period of his life.
After “Down and Out in Paris and London” was published and before George Orwell’s second book, “Burmese Days,” followed suit in 1934, he left teaching for good. A bout with pneumonia that he suffered from 1933-34 played a role in this decision as was his parents now having the ability to support him.
However, George Orwell’s working days (outside of writing books) were not complete. The same month that “Burmese Days” was published, October 1934, he headed back to London to work in a bookshop there. Just five months later, he had this third book, “A Clergyman’s Daughter,” published. Also during this busy time, George Orwell met the woman who would become his first wife: Eileen O’Shaughnessy. A year later, in June 1936, they married in Wallington.
Two months before that marriage, George Orwell’s fourth book, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” was published. Around this time, he traveled to northern England, spending some of his time there attending Communist Party meetings and seeing how they would blame so many wrongdoings on Jews and how asking tough questions of leadership was very strongly discouraged. Much of George Orwell’s research done in this part of England went towards his fifth book, “The Road to Wigan Pier.” This would be published in February 1937, giving him five published books in four years and a month.
Before George Orwell’s fifth book was published, a military uprising was taking place in Spain that really got his attention. In fact, he was so moved by what was happening there that he soon headed to the country himself, departing in December 1936 to fight for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, which would last from 1936-39. His goals were to defend democracy and combat fascism.
However, he was quickly taken aback by the propaganda – lies and distortion – that was spread by Communist news sources, and this experience played a significant role in his future writing.
In May 1937, George Orwell was shot through the neck thanks to a sniper’s bullet. When he was told what had happened, he assumed that he would be dead in minutes. Fortunately, it had just missed a major artery. His voice was affected, but he would mostly recover. George Orwell wrote about his experience being shot as well as of his entire time in Spain in his sixth book, “Homage to Catalonia,” which would be published in April 1938. One of the most famous George Orwell quotes is from that book: “The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think worth describing in detail.”
Although George Orwell quickly recovered from his bullet wound, wartime conditions worsened, and he had to depart Spain, which was done without serious incident. He was back in England by June 1937.
Unfortunately, George Orwell had issues with his health for some time to follow. A trip to French Morocco (now Morocco) followed in September 1938 so that he could avoid the English winter and, hopefully, continue to recover as a result. He spent much of his time in Casablanca writing, “Coming Up for Air,” which would be George Orwell’s last book that would not be known worldwide. His seventh book was published in June 1939, two months after he returned to England and two months before the United Kingdom entered World War II.
George Orwell wanted to enlist and help the U.K. on the front lines, but he was rejected, most likely due to the poor condition of his lungs, although he did join the Home Guard and helped out there. Otherwise, he focused on writing, doing so for a variety of outlets, before joining the BBC in 1941. Much of his work there involved countering German propaganda to India by helping the United Kingdom provide it with what George Orwell would admit was essentially a different type of propaganda.
In 1943, around when he decided to leave the BBC and Home Ground, George Orwell started working on the book that would make him the talk of the world: “Animal Farm.” George Orwell finished this book in 1944, and it would be published in August 1945. During this time, he also continued writing things like book reviews and editing.
In late 1944, an adopted boy, Richard Horatio Blair, joined George Orwell and Eileen Blair.
George Orwell was finally allowed in war-torn places after the areas were deemed safe. He traveled to Paris after France was liberated and to Cologne, Germany, after the Allis had occupied it, working as a war correspondent.
Sadly, his wife died when he was gone, on March 29, 1945. She suffered cardiac failure while undergoing surgery to remove her uterus. George Orwell went back and forth between mainland Europe and England over the next few months, following her death and covering events taking place in both areas.
It was during this time when “Animal Farm” became a worldwide success and provided George Orwell with fame. During the next few years, he continued writing in a journalistic manner as well as started working on his next and what would be his final book, “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Much of George Orwell’s time between “Animal Farm” and “1984” being published was spent in Jura, a sparsely populated Scottish island, so that he could escape the hustle-bustle of London and better focus on his writing.
Continuing to battle illness, which he had been doing since being diagnosed with tuberculosis in December 1947, George Orwell was able to finish writing, “1984,” in December 1948. A month later, he headed for a sanatorium in Cranham, 100 miles west of London.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published in June 1949, and it, like “Animal Farm,” received a considerable amount of popular reviews and high sales numbers. However, George Orwell’s health remained poor. But he did have at least one other shining light during this trying time as he and Sonia Brownell married in October of that year.
Three months later, he died after an artery burst in his lungs. He was 46.