Eric Blair, better known under his pen name George Orwell, is considered by many the foremost British writer of the 20th Century. A journalist, political writer and novelist he is famous for two influential and iconic novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
These two works, published mid-century, railed against totalitarianism and political oppression and the latter gave us nightmarish images still referenced today.
Blair was in 1903 in Bengal, India. His father was a minor official for the British-run Indian Civil Service. His grandfather had been a wealthy plantation owner but the family had lost most of its wealth by the time of Blair’s birth.
In 1904 Blair and his mother moved to England. His father remained in India until 1912. The young Blair attended private schools where he got his first taste of corporal punishment and rigid authority and he formed early ideas about punishment and anti-authoritarianism. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to the prestigious, or as he called it “the most costly and snobbish of English Public Schools,” Eton. There he was taught French by Aldous Huxley, who would later write Brave New World. The two would be subsequently linked for their famous dystopian novels.
After leaving school without a scholarship to university, Blair joined the Indian Imperial Police and was posted to Burma in 1922. Blair remained in Burma for five years and grew to love the country and its people. He also grew to hate the colonial imperialist attitude of the country’s British rulers. He began to write and A Hanging (published in 1931), Burmese Days (1935) and Shooting an Elephant (1936) all dealt with his experiences in Burma.
After a bout of pneumonia, Blair quit his position and returned to Europe, settling in Paris to write. He met with little success and in 1929, after two years in France returned to England. Broke, Blair lived in the seedier parts of London and continued writing. He adopted the pen name George Orwell and wrote of experiences in Down in Out in Paris and London. He also an ardent socialist and began to travel around posing as a vagrant and would commune with miners and other members of the working class. He pledged to write for the ordinary people.
He worked in a bookstore to pay the bills while writing. Even when he was finally published he was still unable to make a living by writing. Down and Out was published in 1933. He followed that up with Burmese Days the following year. He had slightly more success with the comic novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying and garnered considerable critical attention with a journalistic work, The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1936.
Orwell and his new wife Eileen O’Saughnessey, were drawn to the Spanish Civil War and cobbled enough money together to go to Spain and join the leftist cause. The Orwells joined the Marxist militia and fought against the forces of Generalissimo Franco. But after a short time fighting, Orwell was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper. The Orwells moved to Barcelona to recuperate but quickly became embroiled in the violent battles between rival leftist groups and eventually barely escaped Spain with their lives.
Back in England, Orwell renounced the sort of Marxism and communism he had seen in Spain and advocated a more English form of socialism. In 1938, Orwell published a book about his Spanish experience, Homage to Catalonia, although it was roundly criticized by English leftists and sold very few copies.
During World War II, Orwell worked as a journalist and editor and began work on one of his most famous works. In 1944, he published Animal Farm, a biting satire of Marxism, which was a huge success and finally allowed Orwell a modicum of financial security. The short novel followed the takeover of a farm by totalitarian pigs and coined the famous phrase. “All animals are created equal. But some are created more equal than others.”
At the end of the war, Orwell retired to the Isle of Jura off the coast of Scotland would begin work on what would become his most famous novel. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 and was a critical and commercial success. Unfortunately, Orwell was unable to enjoy his success. In 1947 Orwell had contracted tuberculosis and spent three years battling the infection. In 1950, he suddenly succumbed to the disease at the age of 47.
Originally titled The Last Man in Europe, 1984 was a dystopian nightmare vision of the future, where the state controls all things including thought, media and speech. The leader ‘Big Brother’ and the Party control everything in Airstrip One, the former Britain which is now part of the superstate Oceana. The state is in perpetual war, which is the pretext for the suspension of all freedoms and liberties. Now the Party rewrites the history, invents and enforces use of a new language – newspeak -- which restricts the ability of people to form complex thoughts against the party and Big Brother.
Winston Smith is a minor bureaucrat in the Ministry of Truth where he is busy rewriting history. His is a dull, blank grey life under the all-seeing gaze of Big Brother. But he starts up a forbidden love affair with a young woman and he begins to harbour thoughts of opposition to Big Brother. He enlists the aid of a party operative whom he believes shares his anti-party feelings. But Smith is betrayed to the Thought Police and so begins his nightmare as the state attempts to bring him back under control.
The novel is one of the most influential of the 20th Century and its language and imagery are mainstays of popular culture. It exposure of the evils of totalitarianism found a ready audience still reeling from the effects of fascism and frightened by the rising power of Soviet Communism. As a political document or a science fiction thriller it elevated Orwell to the top of the British literary canon.