The thought police. Big Brother. Room 101. Even if you’ve never heard the name George Orwell, you’ve heard of the concepts he created. As the legendary writer of Animal Farm, Orwell took the volatile politics of the time he lived in, and used them to create twisted dystopias and savage satires. His 1984 is a cry for freedom still banned by repressive regimes across the world. Even now, nearly 70 years after his death, barely a day goes by without some media personality describing something as “Orwellian”. Perhaps more so than any other writer of his era, Orwell’s work is still powerfully relevant today.
Yet how much do most people really know about Britain’s greatest modern writer? Born in the early years of the 20th Century, Orwell was a man of fascinating contradictions. He was a socialist who studied at Britain’s most elite school; a passionate defender of oppressed peoples who despised Catholics and homosexuals; and a committed atheist who on his deathbed demanded a Christian funeral. In today’s video, we’re traveling inside the mind of this complex man… and discovering the origins of his most famous works.
Given Orwell’s veneration of the working classes, you might expect to hear he was born in straightened circumstances.
Not a bit of it.
When George Orwell was born on June 25, 1903 in Motihari, Bengal, it was into a family with claims to former greatness. His great grandfather had been a wealthy slaveowner who’d married into the British aristocracy, leaving his family a fat pile of money to live on. Unfortunately, it hadn’t quite been fat enough and, by the time Orwell first opened his eyes, his father Richard had been reduced to working for the British civil service in India.
Despite this, both Richard and Orwell’s young mother Ida tried to act like they were still as rich as ever, creating what Orwell later called an atmosphere of “impoverished snobbery.”
Not that Orwell was actually “Orwell” at this point.
Orwell’s birth name was Eric Arthur Blair; he wouldn’t come up with his famous pseudonym until he was thirty. Still, we’re just gonna go ahead and use “George Orwell” when referring to him throughout the video, partly because it’s easier, and partly just to annoy any massive pedants watching. In 1905 or 6, Orwell’s life in India came to an abrupt halt when Ida took him and his sister back to England for their education.
At first, this meant attending a small Anglican school not too far from Oxford. But then Orwell turned 11 and his mother shunted him off to St Cyprian’s. A fashionable preparatory school near the sea, St Cyprian’s was exactly the sort of place a respectable English family with aristocratic links might send their boy.
Sadly, Orwell’s family was by now so impoverished that they were anything but “respectable”, and his new schoolmates didn’t let him forget it. In a future essay on his schooldays, Such, Such Were the Joys, Orwell would paint his life at St Cyprian’s as one spent at the mercy of snobs piled upon snobs, with everyone fawning over those above them and sneering down at those below. Still, St Cyprian’s did its job as a preparatory school. By 1917, Orwell was prepared enough to win a scholarship to Eton, a private school that’s long been synonymous with “posh bastards”.
Not that Eton turned Orwell into the respectable pillar of the establishment his parents were hoping for.
It was while there that young Orwell began to cultivate his lifelong distrust of authority figures, to immerse himself in the works of socialist writers. By the time Orwell graduated, in 1921, he was ready to ditch the aristocratic pretenses forever.
So instead of going to university, he went to Burma.
For Richard and Ida, this was a little like hearing that their son had ditched a future at Yale to work the deep fat frier at Chick-Fil-A. Joining the colonial service was something Richard had done out of necessity, not choice. No graduate of Eton should be heading to Burma! Yet, come 1922, that’s exactly where Orwell found himself. As a policeman in a colonial force occupying a remote part of Asia.
He must’ve known he would hate it. And he did.
But Orwell’s time in Burma would prove to be more than just an exercise in masochism. Rather, it would be the place that transformed him from a melancholy schoolboy into a melancholy writer.
Down and Out in Burma and London
When he later looked back on his time in Burma, Orwell would laconically report that nearly everyone there hated him. After his arrival in 1922, he’d first tried to play the role of a colonial oppressor, only to discover that lording it over the Burmese made him miserable. So he began to instead try to befriend the locals. But while he enjoyed their company, the basic fact of his Englishness was a barrier to friendship.
As a result, he lived in a twilight state: ashamed of his work and ashamed of his fellow colonials, but indelibly associated with them. Finally, in July 1927, while home on leave in England, Orwell realized he couldn’t take any more. He resigned from the colonial police. But rather than chuck in the towel and go to university, Orwell instead decided to give his parents another heart attack.
Renting a cheap room in East London, Orwell dressed himself as a tramp and went off to live among the poorest of the working classes.
He did that on and off for the next four years.
It’s been speculated that Orwell was trying to assuage the guilt he felt from his time in Burma, the guilt of being part of a privileged elite actively oppressing others. Whatever the truth, right up until 1932, Orwell lived alongside tramps and beggars, sometimes loafing around London, sometimes picking hops in Kent. At some point, he made his way to Paris, where he spent a year and a half in biting poverty, working irregularly in hotels and grimy restaurants.
Despite this, Orwell was not actually poor.
While he spent a lot of time experiencing poverty, his life in the slums was not a constant thing. He’d spend a few weeks there, then return to his parents’ home to decompress for a bit before restarting the cycle. It was this approach that gave him time to finally start writing.
Not that he crapped out masterpieces from the go. Orwell’s first tales were awful. Like, the sort of prose that instinctively makes literary professors projectile vomit across the lecture hall. The few writer friends he had would actually read his painfully earnest stories together just to make themselves laugh. But Orwell stuck with it. From 1928 to 1932 he worked hard to improve his prose, until he’d finally mastered a pared-down, minimalist style which wasn’t Hemmingway, but at least didn’t send anyone who read it into spasms of laughter.
For his first book, that was good enough.
Down and Out in Paris and London hit the bookshelves in January, 1933. A lightly fictionalized retelling of Orwell’s time among the destitute, Down and Out is famous today for its clear eyed reporting of life at the bottom. In 1933, though, it was potentially scandalous. So much so that Orwell – or, in some tellings, his publisher – decided to release it not under his birth name, but under a pseudonym.
And so it was that Eric Arthur Blair came to be known to history as George Orwell. While Down and Out didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, it did earn some stellar reviews. Good enough that Orwell’s publisher asked if he had any more.
We can only hope Orwell responded with a sly little smile. In his three short decades on Earth, he’d already amassed enough material to make himself famous.
The Road to Barcelona
The next few years saw a stream of books from Orwell, all based on his own life.
Down and Out was followed by Burmese Days, Orwell’s bitter attack on the colonial system.
But while Down and Out had been close to reportage, Burmese Days introduced one of the key characteristics of Orwell’s fiction: a lonely protagonist trapped in an oppressive system who can’t seem to escape no matter what he does. A year after Burmese Days came out, A Clergyman’s Daughter landed, based on Orwell’s own experience working for a cheap private school. This was followed in 1936 by Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a semi-satire of Orwell’s time living respected-but-penniless on the edges of London’s literary scene.
Yet if Keep the Aspidistra Flying was slightly tongue in cheek, it was still haunted by Orwell’s pet themes of poverty and the dehumanising power of social systems.
Which is why, the same year Aspidistra was released, Orwell got the offer of a lifetime. Victor Gollancz was a wealthy leftwing publisher who wanted to know if Orwell would take a commission writing about poverty in England. For this, Gollancz would be willing to pay £500.
To make that a little easier, in today’s money it would be like someone offering you over $45,000 for a short book written however you saw fit.
As Orwell probably didn’t say: Ker-ching!
For the next two months, Orwell lived in the north of England among destitute working towns, gathering material. It was a grim experience, one comprising nights of bedpans and bitter cold. In Orwell’s hands, though, it became The Road to Wigan Pier. Wigan Pier is the book where Orwell famously proclaimed himself a socialist, a belief he would hold for the rest of his life.
However, it’s also the book where Orwell took other English socialists to task for not living by their convictions. Victor Gollancz was so disappointed that he would only publish it with an introduction that basically said don’t listen to this guy, he’s an idiot. Still, Orwell got his £500 and, on June 9, was even able to marry his girlfriend, Eileen Maud O’Shaughnessy. But while Wigan Pier may have seemed like the culmination of Orwell’s life’s work, events in Europe were about to send that life careering in a whole new direction.
Back in 1931, Spain had abolished its monarchy, resulting in a new, liberal republic. At first, the republic had ticked along, but then, in 1933, hardline conservatives had won the elections. In the aftermath, leftwing Catalans in Barcelona had attempted to secede from Spain, only to be crushed by General Francisco Franco.
While Franco’s bloody response turned him into a darling of the right, it alienated the electorate. So much so that the Conservatives lost power in 1936 to a leftist coalition.
So Franco decided to do away with elections altogether.
On July 17, 1936, Franco launched his coup. Across Spain, military units rose up to depose the government. They were successful in many areas, but not all. In Madrid and Catalonia, leftwing counter-coups kept the nationalists at bay. Suddenly, one part of Spain was under the control of hard-right fascists, and the other part under the control of hardcore leftists.
So the two sides did what came naturally. They executed tens of thousands of subversives in their respective areas, then turned their guns on one another. In Britain, the siren song of the Spanish Civil War called thousands of young men to go and fight on the republican side.
On December 23, 1936, George Orwell joined their number.
Saying goodbye to Eileen, he stepped aboard a train, heading first for the English Channel, then Paris, and then on to Barcelona. By the time he returned, his life would’ve changed completely.
Homage to Catalonia
It’s impossible to overstate both how complicated and how bloody the Spanish civil war was. On the bloody side, Republican mobs lynched clergy in the streets, while Nationalists had their female enemies publicly raped.
On the complicated side… well, just take a look at Barcelona. Although nominally under Republican control, Barcelona was actually home to multiple leftist factions, some of whom hated one another’s guts. There were anarchists. Catalan nationalists. Trotskyites. Stalinists. Non-aligned Marxists who viewed everyone with suspicion.
There were soldiers armed by and under the direction of the USSR, while out on the battlefields troops from Nazi Germany clandestinely trained Franco’s guys. It was into this tangled web of alliances that Orwell found himself plunged headlong in January, 1937.
Although nominally there to cover the war, Orwell lost no time signing up to fight.
Initially, he wanted to join the International Brigades, a Communist unit fighting around Madrid. But this proved difficult, so instead he joined POUM, those non-aligned Marxists we mentioned a moment ago.
In practical terms, this meant Orwell briefly training in Lenin barracks before being sent out to fight on the Aragon front… if by “fight” you mean “stand around in a trench getting bored.” Aragon was not where the action was. At all. After a couple of months Orwell was climbing the walls. Again, he tried to join the International Brigades. Again, it got him nowhere.
Finally, crawling with lice and bored out his mind, Orwell returned to Barcelona, just in time for the May Days. The May Days were a super-complicated power struggle that played out on the streets of Barcelona between the Communists, various anarchist factions, the Catalan nationalists, and the various Marxist groups.
The important thing is that, during the fight, the Communists went after the POUM.
Which is how Orwell found himself sat on a Barcelona rooftop with a gun, defending POUM headquarters as the left devoured itself. All told, maybe a thousand people died in five days of street violence. But it was what came next that was really shocking.
In the aftermath, the Communists began a hard propaganda drive against all groups that had opposed them. Anyone fighting for POUM was painted as a fascist. Suddenly, joining the International Brigades did not seem like the greatest idea.
So, Orwell went back to the front.
And there his story nearly ended. Lounging in a trench at Teruel, Orwell was shot by a fascist sniper. The bullet passed through his throat, nearly killing him. He lost so much blood that his death seemed inevitable. Just think. Had that bullet been a few millimeters over, we wouldn’t be here right now. “George Orwell” would be a name known only to those teaching courses with names like “Socialist Writers of Interwar Britain.”
Thankfully, the bullet passed clean through, and Orwell lived.
Taken off the front, with permanently-damaged vocal cords, he was returned to Barcelona just in time for everything to go south. By the end of May, 1937, things in the city had reached the point of no return. The Communists were moving against their enemies, and the POUM was high on their list.
Still badly wounded, Orwell realized he had no choice but to leave. Like, right now.
In the end, he barely made it.
As his friends from POUM were assassinated or vanished into jails, Orwell and his wife managed to flee Catalonia for France, just ahead of the clampdown. Had they been even a few hours slower, it’d have been “goodbye place in the history books; hello place on the Socialist Writers of Interwar Britain reading list.” By the end of June, Orwell was back in Britain, safe from the inferno engulfing Catalonia.
But his experience in Spain had changed him. While still a committed socialist, Orwell had discovered a new, abiding hatred for Communism.
It would be this hatred that would fuel his two greatest works.
“Some animals are more equal than others”
On April 1, 1939, Spain fell to Franco’s forces, heralding a fascist victory. For George Orwell, it was just another piece of bad news in two years filled with them. On his return from the war, Orwell had written Homage to Catalonia, now regarded as one of the best pieces of war reporting ever.
In 1938, though, it was seen as a betrayal of the leftwing, Communist-leaning audience he’d cultivated over the years. Despite great reviews, it barely shifted, failing to reach even Orwell’s normal lows of three to four thousand copies sold.
Just before its publication, Orwell collapsed with breathing troubles. His subsequent diagnosis of tuberculosis only confirmed that he was on a downward trajectory. By mid-1939, Orwell was ill, unloved by many of his former readers, and deeply pessimistic about the future of Europe.
When war finally broke out on September 3, it just seemed to confirm his cynicism. That fall, he tried to join up to fight the Nazis, but was refused because of his tuberculosis. So he joined the Home Guard, half-hoping it would become a vehicle for revolutionary change like POUM. If you’ve ever watched Dad’s Army, you can probably guess how that panned out.
Finally, in 1941, desperate to be of some help, Orwell joined the BBC, producing propaganda for its radio division.
Today, Orwell’s time at the BBC is legendary, not because of the work he did there – almost none of which survives – but because of the tales. For instance, it’s said that 1984’s mental torture chamber Room 101 was named for a real room where Orwell had to sit through endless meetings. That’s probably a myth, but it does show what Orwell thought of his time there.
When he left in late 1943, he couldn’t wait to see the back of the place.
By 1944, both Orwell and Eileen were in a bad place. Although they’d recently adopted a boy called Richard, both were sick with serious illnesses. On top of that, there wasn’t a publisher in England willing to take on Orwell’s latest novel, a fable about farm animals who revolt against their owner.
Yep, it’s time to talk about Animal Farm.
A deceptively simple satire on the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by Stalin, Animal Farm is the first of Orwell’s two late-life masterpieces. But, in 1944, it was also a potential embarrassment. Stalin’s USSR was an ally. Not wanting to hurt the war effort, no-one wanted to touch the book. Eventually, Orwell managed to find an American publisher willing to take a chance, provided they could wait until WWII was over.
Orwell agreed and, on August 17, 1945 Animal Farm hit the shelves.
It was an instant, colossal smash.
Remember when we told you Orwell’s novels usually sold 4,000-ish copies each? Animal Farm sold over 250,000 in its first year alone. For some reason, the fable struck a cord with readers in a way more complex fare like Homage to Catalonia never did. Maybe it was the timing. Maybe it was the endless quotability, like the moment the pigs pronounce “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
For whatever reason, Animal Farm was the hit Orwell had dreamed of writing. The money poured in. He became famous. The CIA even contacted him for permission to translate his book into Russian and smuggle it into the Soviet Union!
Yet Orwell felt no joy at any of this.
Just five months before Animal Farm’s release, Eileen had died of cancer while Orwell was away on a newspaper assignment. Outwardly, Orwell bore her death with stoicism. But inside? Inside he was a mess. An angry, guilty, bitter mess. Early next year, he took his adopted son Richard and left London for good.
By now, his tuberculosis was nearly terminal. As man and boy headed to the remote islands of Scotland, it must’ve seemed like Orwell was shortly to go the same way as Eileen.
But not yet.
Orwell still had one, last book in him. And it was this final book, written as he drifted towards death’s doorway, that would change the world.
If you look up the definition of “remote” in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of Jura island. Actually, that’s a lie. We just wanted a more interesting way of saying “Jura is remote,” without just saying “Jura is remote”. But Jura is remote, and the house Orwell and Richard moved into was remote even for Jura.
It was 8 miles from the nearest phone. 25 miles from the nearest village.
To get from there to London would take over two days. Naturally, Orwell loved it. For years now, he’d been turning a story over in his head. A dystopian, sci-fi fantasy that would mix together all his thoughts on Communism, what he’d seen in Catalonia, and totalitarianism generally.
Now he was effectively alone amid Jura’s bleak wilderness, he could devote himself to the book entirely.
For the next few months, Orwell worked ten hour days hunched over a small desk, chain smoking cigarettes and working on his novel. By February, 1948, he had a first draft. Famously, he swapped the last two digits of the date to make the title: 1984. That done, he promptly collapsed and nearly died of tuberculosis.
Rushed to hospital, Orwell was forced to undergo brutal treatments just to survive. He had air injected directly into his lungs. Was given experimental medicines that caused an allergic reaction that nearly killed him. Desperate to get his last novel out before he kicked the bucket, he tried to hire a typist to take dictation. When no-one responded, he simply sat in bed, getting weaker and weaker as he typed away.
By the end of the year, he was back on Jura again, where he finished the second draft. Almost immediately, he collapsed again. From that point on, he spent most of what remained of his life in sanitoriums. By January, 1949, Orwell was barely clinging to the world of the living, the effort of hanging in there itself almost killing him.
Yet hang on he did, until, on June 8, 1949, 1984 was finally published.
Almost immediately, the fight began over what it meant. For some, the novel’s vision of Britain under a Stalinistic dictatorship that watches people’s every move and polices their thoughts represented Orwell’s final break with the left.
For others, it was another satire the USSR, this time one with far darker undertones than Animal Farm. Others saw in it a veiled attack on the Catholic Church’s role in the Inquisition, while yet others thought it was an allegory for the post-WWII order, where conferences at Yalta had carved up the globe.
But that’s part of the genius of 1984. It can be reinterpreted in so many ways, a free market libertarian, a committed anarchist, an anti-Stalin Communist, and a stuffy old British conservative could all claim it as their own.
Sadly, none of them had a chance to ask if they were right.
On January 21, 1950, George Orwell died of his tuberculosis, aged just 46. Barely three months before, he’d married Richard’s old babysitter, Sonia – the model for Julia in 1984. One of Orwell’s last acts was to ask for a Christian burial. Although he was a lifelong atheist, it seems he just couldn’t refuse a traditional goodbye.
Not that it seems western culture will ever truly say goodbye to Orwell.
In the decade after her husband’s death, Sonia Orwell methodically republished his old, out of print works. Thanks to Animal Farm’s mega-popularity, people were now ready to read forgotten gems like Coming Up for Air, or essays like A Hanging or Shooting an Elephant. By 1960, Orwell’s status as a literary icon was cemented in Britain. There were animated films of Animal Farm. In the 1970s, David Bowie first tried to produce a glam-rock musical, and then released a concept album based on 1984.
Come the actual year 1984, Orwell’s work was so well-known that it triggered a 12 month media frenzy. Today, George Orwell is a bona fide literary superstar, a novelist whose name is as recognizable as that of Hemmingway. But even after all this time, the man himself remains a mystery.
As we stated in our opening, Orwell was a man of many contradictions, an intellect that refused to be classified. Just type “Orwellian” into Google’s news tab. You’ll find leftwing and rightwing writers both using his name to decry their opponents; Remainers and Brexiters; capitalists and socialists, everyone and his dog, all convinced they’ve got Orwell sussed.
But to assume you can just stuff Orwell into a box and label him misses the point. All his life, Orwell made a virtue of speaking his mind, even if it meant biting the hand that fed him, even if it meant playing devil’s advocate.
In the end, we shouldn’t think of Orwell as something as simplistic as a “leftwing writer” or a “rightwing writer”. Perhaps we should just think of him as a writer who tried to tackle hypocrisy wherever he saw it, never compromising in his vision of a fairer society. He may have only lived a mere 46 years, but in his short time on Earth, Orwell managed to create complex masterpieces that defied interpretation.
Come 2084, even 2184, it seems likely we’ll still be reading them.
Britannica’s Orwell Bio: https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell
Excellent, very informative ONDB biography (paywall for non-UK users. UK users need only enter library card number to access): https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-31915
Spanish civil war: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/spanish-civil-war
Orwell’s mistakes on the Spanish Civil War: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/06/george-orwell-homage-to-catalonia-account-spanish-civil-war-wrong
Orwell at the BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-41886208
Orwell’s rejection letter for Animal Farm: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/26/ts-eliot-rejection-george-orwell-animal-farm-british-library-online
Orwell’s list: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2003/09/25/orwells-list/
On 1984’s relevance today: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180507-why-orwells-1984-could-be-about-now