D. J. Taylor: A brief life

GEORGE ORWELL, the pen-name of Eric Arthur Blair, was born on 25 June 1903 in Motihari, Bengal, where his father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was working as an Opium Agent in the Indian Civil Service, into what – with the uncanny precision he brought to all social judgments – he described as ‘the lower-upper-middle classes’. In fact the Blairs were remote descendants of the Fane Earls of Westmoreland. Like many a child of the Raj, Orwell was swiftly returned to England and brought up almost exclusively by his mother. The Thames Valley locales in which the family settled provided the background to his novel Coming Up For Air (1939).

Happily for the family finances – never flourishing – Orwell was a studious child. From St Cyprian’s preparatory school in Eastbourne, a legendary establishment that also educated Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton, he won a King’s Scholarship to Eton College, arriving at the school in May 1917. Orwell left a caustic memoir of his time at St Cyprian’s (‘Such, Such Were The Joys’) but also remarked that ‘No one can look back on his schooldays and say with truth that they were altogether unhappy.’ At Eton he frankly slacked, leaving the school in December 1921 after only a term in the sixth form. The following June he passed the entrance examination of the Indian Imperial Police and was accepted into its Burma division.

Orwell’s five-year stint in Burma is often seen as a mournful period of parentally-ordained exile. However both sides of his family were professionally attached to the Eastern Empire, and his stated reason for applying for the Burma posting was that he had relatives there. Almost nothing is known of Orwell’s time in the province, other than that it offered the material for two of his best-known essays, ‘A Hanging’ and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and his first novel Burmese Days (1934). It also ruined his health. Although disillusioned by the Imperial ‘racket’ he had helped to administer, he left Burma in June 1927 on a medical certificate. The decision to resign from the Burma Police was taken after his return.

For the next five years he led a vagrant life. Some of this time was spent at his parents’ home in Southwold, Suffolk. There were periods teaching in private schools, living in Paris and masquerading as a tramp, the background to his first published work, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). His professional alias, which combined the name of the reigning monarch with a local river, was adopted shortly before publication. His teaching career was brought to a close by a bout of pneumonia and at the end of 1934, having used a long, recuperative stay in Southwold to complete a second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), he decamped to London to work in a Hampstead bookshop. This was a productive period. Here he met and married his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and wrote a third novel, partly based on his book-trade experiences, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).

The Orwells began their married life in a tiny cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, where Orwell worked up the material gathered on a recent tour of the industrial north into The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Although the book’s second half consists of a long, inflammatory polemic on Socialism, Orwell’s political views were still not fully formed. The defining political experience of his life, alternatively, was the six months he spent in Spain, in 1937, as a Republican volunteer against Franco. He was wounded in the throat – the bullet passing within a few millimetres of his carotid artery – and was present in Barcelona when Soviet-sponsored hit-squads attempted to suppress the Trotskyist POUM militia, of which he had been a member. Spain made Orwell ‘believe in Socialism for the first time’, as he put it, while instilling an enduring hatred of totalitarian political systems.

Homage to Catalonia, an account of his time in Spain, was published in April 1938. He spent most of the next year recuperating, both in England and Morocco, from a life-threatening lung haemorrhage. At this stage Orwell was determined to oppose the looming international conflict, only changing his mind on the announcement of the Russo-German pact in August 1939. Initially Orwell had high hopes of the war, which he believed would instil a sense of Socialist purpose: this view was developed in the pamphlet essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941). Rejected for military service on health grounds, he became a talks producer in the BBC’s Eastern Service, a job he came to dislike. The BBC’s atmosphere, he complained, ‘is something between a girls’ school and a lunatic asylum, and all we are doing at present is useless, or slightly worse than useless’. In 1943 he secured a more congenial billet as literary editor of the left-wing weekly magazine Tribune, to which he also contributed a column under the heading ‘As I Please’.

Animal Farm, his bitter satire of the Soviet experiment, was written by the middle of 1944. Publishers’ timidity, and the covert pressure exerted by a Russian spy working for the Ministry of Information, delayed its appearance until August 1945. By this time Orwell’s personal life was in ruins. Five months previously Eileen had died of heart failure during a routine operation. The couple had previously adopted a small boy, Richard Horatio Blair, whom Orwell, with the help of his sister Avril, determined to raise on his own.

Through his friend David Astor, he had already begun to explore the possibility of living on the remote Scottish island of Jura. Much of the last half-decade of his life was spent in the Inner Hebrides struggling against worsening health to complete his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. After finishing a final draft at the end of 1948 he suffered a complete physical collapse and was taken away to a nursing home in the Cotswolds suffering from advanced tuberculosis. The novel’s enormous international success, on publication in June 1949, came too late for its author. He was transferred to University College Hospital in September and died there on 21 January 1950, aged 46. Shortly before his death he made an unexpected second marriage to Sonia Brownell, an editorial assistant on the literary magazine Horizon. Sitting down to read his obituaries on the day of his funeral, his friend Malcolm Muggeridge thought that he saw in them ‘how the legend of a human being is created’.

D. J. Taylor was born in Norwich in 1960. He is the author of five novels, including English Settlement, which won a Grinzane Cavour prize, Trespass and The Comedy Man. He is also well-known as a critic and reviewer, and is the author of A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s, After the War: The Novel and England since 1945 and an acclaimed biography, Thackeray. His critically acclaimed Orwell biography, Orwell: The Life (2003) won the Whitbread Biography Award, and he gave the 2005 Orwell Lecture entitled ‘Projections of the Inner “I”: George Orwell’s Fiction’. He is married with three children and lives in Norwich.