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George Orwell, pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair Biography

(1903–50), pseudonym of Eric Arthur Blair, Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London

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British novelist and social critic, born in Bengal, educated at Eton; he was the son of Richard Blair, an opium agent in the Indian Civil Service, and his much younger wife Ida. Relations between father and son were virtually non-existent for the first eight years of Orwell's life, as he and his mother and older sister Marjorie moved to England in 1904, leaving Richard on his own in India until his retirement in 1911. Orwell was educated at St Cyprian's Preparatory School under the regime of a Mr and Mrs Wilkes, whom he later portrayed as brutally unjust in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. Here he befriended Cyril Connolly, with whom he was also subsequently at Eton. He had no university education, but spent his early adulthood in Burma as an officer of the Imperial Office. It was this experience that led to the texts ‘Shooting an Elephant’, ‘A Hanging’, and Burmese Days (1934).

In 1927, after an attack of dengue fever, he returned to Europe and a succession of poorly paid jobs in Paris and London. He began the experiment of living for short periods among the homeless and deprived while trying to establish himself as a professional writer. For his first major publication, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), which reflected this period of impoverishment, he adopted the pen-name of George Orwell. After a spell as a teacher, and during his employment with a London bookseller in 1935, he met Eileen O'Shaughnessy, who was to be his first wife. By this time he had completed two novels, Burmese Days and A Clergyman's Daughter (1935). His publisher for these was Victor Gollancz who had a phobia about libel and asked for numerous changes, but he also commissioned The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), the book in which Orwell found his authentic voice and the kind of politically aware approach that has been associated with him ever since. At the time of its publication Orwell was already in Spain, fighting for the Republicans as a member of the P.O.U.M. militia. His account of the Spanish Civil War, in which he was wounded in the throat, focused on his experiences in Barcelona and at the Aragon front, but when the book was first offered for publication, the two chapters dealing with the political infighting on the Republican side were antagonistic to the orthodox Left in Britain, and Gollancz declined to publish Orwell's version of events. It was left to Fredric Warburg, of the then ‘midget’ publishing firm of Secker and Warburg, to bring out Homage to Catalonia (1937).

After returning from Spain, and until the London blitz of 1940, Orwell and Eileen spent most of their time in a cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, where they kept animals, planted a vegetable garden and opened a village shop. Soon after the outbreak of war they moved to London where Orwell began reviewing films and drama, contributing regularly to Cyril Connolly's Horizon and to the American Partisan Review, and composing some of his finest political journalism, including ‘Inside the Whale’, ‘My Country, Right or Left’, and ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. Despite the ambitious scope of his fiction in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) and Coming Up for Air (1939), his reputation as a novelist was only securely established with Animal Farm (1945), which enjoyed worldwide success. The financial rewards came too late for Orwell to share with Eileen, who died of a heart attack after reacting adversely to anaesthetic during an operation. Orwell was left to bring up their newly adopted son Richard with the help primarily of his younger sister Avril. He spent the best part of his remaining years on the remote farm in Jura where he completed his most formidable work of fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Even before he finished the typescript of this he became gravely ill, and after being diagnosed as tubercular, was more or less hospitalized for the last year of his life. His wedding to Sonia Brownell took place at his bedside in University College Hospital. By the time of his death, he had been judged a major author by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and his value as a cultural critic has been increasingly widely recognized. His warnings against ideological manipulations of language, as in ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), have become increasingly pertinent. The collection of journalistic pieces The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941), elucidating his own non-conformist brand of patriotism, received high critical acclaim for its clarity and colloquial style. His essays were collected in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (1940), The Lion and the Unicorn: Critical Essays (1946), Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (1950), and Such, Such Were the Joys (1953). The four volumes of Orwell's Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1968) were edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. See Orwell (1971) by Raymond Williams, George Orwell (1980; revised edition, 1981) by Bernard Crick, and George Orwell: The Authorised Biography (1991) by Michael Shelden. See also Utopia and Anti-Utopia.

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