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Blair, Eric Arthur [pseud. George Orwell]free


Blair, Eric Arthur [pseud. George Orwell]free

  • Bernard Crick

Eric Arthur Blair [George Orwell] (1903–1950)

by Felix H. Man, c. 1947

© Estate of Felix H. Man / National Portrait Gallery, London

Blair, Eric Arthur [pseud. George Orwell] (1903–1950), political writer and essayist, was born in Motihari, Bengal, India, on 25 June 1903, the only son of Richard Walmesley Blair (1857–1938), a sub-deputy opium agent in the government of Bengal, and his wife, Ida Mabel Limouzin (1875–1943). Richard Blair's great-grandfather Charles Blair (1743–1820), a Scot, had been a rich man, a plantation and slave owner in Jamaica who had married into the English aristocracy; the money had run out by Richard Blair's time, who all his career held poor posts, and was on the move constantly. He married Ida Limouzin, who was eighteen years his junior, late in his career. Her mother was English and her father French; she was born in Penge but had spent most of her life in Moulmein, Burma, where her father was a teak dealer and boat builder. Ida Blair took three-year-old Eric and his older sister, Marjorie, back to England just before the birth of her third and last child, Avril. Eric attended a small Anglican convent school in Henley-on-Thames until he gained a part scholarship to St Cyprian's, a fashionable preparatory school in Eastbourne where Cyril Connolly was among his contemporaries. His fees were topped up by his mother's unmarried brother, who like his sister, and totally unlike Richard Blair, seems to have had intellectual interests and ambitions for his nephew.

In The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell described his family with sardonic precision as 'lower-upper middle class', that is the 'upper-middle class without money' (Complete Works, 5.113–14). Late in his life he wrote a long account of his prep school days, 'Such, such were the joys', that could not be published in his lifetime for fear of libel. Some have taken this to be a literal account of the horrors of an oppressive and socially discriminatory regime, but it is more likely a polemic against private education based on fact and with a reimagined Eric Blair as the observer, hero, or rather anti-hero. However, whether or not he was caned in front of the school for bed-wetting, the school was bad enough.

Education and early life

Young Eric crammed for and eventually won a scholarship to Eton College, but once there he rested on his oars, neglecting the set tasks; however, he read widely for himself in the canon of English literature and books by rationalists, freethinkers, and reformers like Samuel Butler, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. As a scholarship boy at Eton he was in the College—an intellectual élite thrust into the heart of a social élite. He found a few kindred spirits, including Steven Runciman (later the historian of Byzantium) and his prep school friend Cyril Connolly (the critic and writer). In Connolly's Enemies of Promise there are good descriptions of Orwell both at prep school and at Eton. Orwell's contemporaries agree that, without being openly rebellious, he cultivated a mocking, sardonic attitude towards authority. The classical scholar Andrew Gow, who as a young man had taught Orwell, in the mid-1970s remembered him only with irritation and annoyance for having wasted his chance to get to university. It was that kind of attitude that Orwell reacted against.

Following in his father's footsteps, probably more cynically than purposively, Eric was sent to a crammer's to prepare for the Indian Civil Service exams. He scraped just enough marks to be able to join the Burma police in 1921. Burma was then governed as a province of India and did not rate high in the pecking order of ‘the Service’. Eric Blair may well have been the only Etonian ever to pass through the police training school at Mandalay to become an assistant superintendent. His fellow recruits were all older than he (though none taller or wearing size eleven boots) and almost all had gone through the First World War. Blair showed a loathing both for the war and for military values, but also some signs of guilt or regret at having missed it. He grew to like the Burmese and to dislike the effect of colonial rule on his fellow British. Like Flory in his first novel, Burmese Days, he 'learned to live inwardly, in books and secret thoughts that could not be uttered'. He was not popular in the police and had poor postings: 'In Moulmein in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me' (Complete Works, 10.501). When he wrote about Burma, both in Burmese Days and in two of his finest essays, 'Shooting an elephant' and 'A hanging', his contempt for imperial rule and the arrogant pretentiousness of too many of his fellows came bursting out.

Setting out

To the dismay of his parents Blair resigned his safe, respectable, and pensionable job while on leave in England from July 1927 and not only resolved to be a writer but took to making journeys among tramps. He lived as a tramp sometimes for a day or two, sometimes for weeks at a time. He said that he wanted to see if the English poor were treated in their own country as the Burmese were treated in theirs. On the whole he thought they were. In spring 1928 he went to Paris to write. As he wrote for an American reference book in 1942, he

lived for about a year and a half in Paris, writing novels and short stories which no one would publish. After my money came to an end I had several years of fairly severe poverty during which I was, among other things, a dishwasher, a private tutor and a teacher in cheap private schools.

Complete Works, 12.147

But in an introduction to the Ukrainian edition of Animal Farm he revealed more:

I sometimes lived for months on end among the poor and half-criminal elements … who take to the streets, begging and stealing. At that time I associated with them through lack of money, but later their way of life interested me very much for its own sake.

ibid., 19.86–7

Years later Sir Victor Pritchett described him as a man 'who went native in his own country' (Crick, 276). In this period he called himself 'a Tory anarchist'. At first he did not know what he wanted to write about, and he destroyed two early novels. The poet Ruth Pitter remembers reading early manuscripts: 'How we cruel girls laughed. … He wrote like a cow with a musket' (ibid., 179).

Orwell stuck to it, however, and taught himself to write in his famous plain style. His first book published, Down and out in Paris and London (1933), was an account of his tramping days in England, particularly in the hop fields of Kent, and of the poverty he endured while living in Paris trying to write novels. The sales of the book were modest, but it received good notices. He used a pseudonym, George Orwell, partly to avoid embarrassing his parents, partly as a hedge against failure, and partly because he disliked the name Eric, which reminded him of a prig in a Victorian boys' story. His first novel, Burmese Days, was published in New York in 1934. Victor Gollancz in London had refused it for fear of libel actions: the novel was obviously written directly from experience. Based partly on teaching in cheap private schools such as The Hawthorns in Hayes where he had a position from 1932 to 1933, and partly on his parents' neighbours in Southwold, he wrote a contrived literary pastiche, The Clergyman's Daughter (1935). His schoolteaching had ended when in December 1933 he had a bad attack of pneumonia. In October 1934 he left Southwold and moved to Hampstead, London, where he became a half-time assistant in a secondhand bookshop.

Since 1930 Orwell had been reviewing books and writing sketches and poems for The Adelphi, owned and edited by Sir Richard Rees, a disciple of John Middleton Murry. Orwell moved to Hampstead to see more of Rees and also the young writers who called at the Adelphi office for a cup of tea, to talk, and to solicit books to review. He became friendly with Jack Common and Rayner Heppenstall, and met Cyril Connolly again after Connolly had reviewed Burmese Days. But his world, unlike Connolly's, was not that of fashionable Hampstead drawing-rooms but of Hampstead bohemia: those bitter and often jealous intellectuals, living in bed-sits, making a pint in a pub last a whole evening, fearing rent day, and knowing that the post brought only rejection slips. All this he portrayed in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). At this time he himself, like his novel's hero Gordon Comstock, came near to making a cult of failure and to believing that all literary success is ‘selling out’.

In January 1936 the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz, showing great faith in Orwell as a writer, gave him an advance of £500 (then nearly two years' income for Orwell) to write a book about poverty and unemployment. He spent two months in the north of England, living with working people in Wigan, Barnsley, and Sheffield from 31 January to 30 March. On his return he moved to a cheap cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire. On 9 June, after a short courtship, he married Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy (1905–1945), who had read English at Oxford, and after running a secretarial agency, was taking a postgraduate diploma in psychology at University College, London. They had met in Hampstead, and hoped to live on his writing, her typing, and running a small village shop.

In Wallington Orwell settled down to write essays including 'Shooting an elephant', sent to John Lehmann for New Writing, which established him as minor literary talent. He also wrote The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). Gollancz liked the clear and unromantic description of working-class life and coalmining in the first part of the book, but was dismayed by the second part where Orwell announced both his adherence to socialism and his dislike of socialist intellectuals and their admiration for Soviet power. Only with difficulty did Gollancz persuade the selectors of the Left Book Club to publish the book under that banner, and only then with an introduction by himself repudiating his author. 'A writer cannot be a loyal member of a political party,' said Orwell (Complete Works, 11.167). Yet he was soon to join a political party.

Spain and after

When he finished his book in December, Orwell went to Spain to fight for the republic. 'Someone has to kill fascists,' he is alleged to have said. Impatient to be there, he made his own way to Barcelona and joined the POUM militia ('Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista') on the Aragon front. The POUM was an independent Marxist movement, hated by the Stalinists and in dispute with the Trotskyites. Because he was on a quiet section of the front he tried to transfer to the communist-dominated International Brigades around Madrid, but he became involved in the May troubles in Barcelona. This attempt by the communists to purge the POUM and the Catalan anarchists made him bitterly anti-communist. Upon returning to the front, he was badly wounded in the neck, and was then hunted by the communists while still convalescent. With the help of his wife, Eileen, who had come to Barcelona to work for the Independent Labour Party (ILP), he escaped from Spain at the end of June 1937.

Orwell went back to Wallington and wrote Homage to Catalonia, a supreme description of trench life (lice and boredom), but also a trenchant and detailed exposure of how the communists risked the whole republican cause in their lust for power and in their zeal to suppress all other socialists. Gollancz refused to publish it, so Frederick Warburg, who was known as the Trotskyite publisher simply because he took left-wing books that were critical of Stalin, brought out the book in April 1938. Orwell now saw himself as an anti-communist revolutionary socialist; he joined the ILP, and he attended and spoke at their summer schools. Homage to Catalonia was much abused and much defended. Its literary merits were hardly noticed, and it sold few copies. Some now think of it as Orwell's finest achievement, and nearly all critics see it as his great stylistic breakthrough: he became the serious writer with the terse, easy, vivid colloquial style.

In March 1938 Orwell had collapsed with a tubercular lesion in one lung and was removed to a sanatorium. Thanks to help from an unknown admirer, the Blairs spent winter 1938–9 in the warmth of Morocco, where he finished Coming up for Air (1939), a novel reflecting a foreboding of war and an ironic nostalgia for a lost past. Like all his novels prior to the Second World War, except A Clergyman's Daughter, it was not written for the modernist intellectuals: he wanted to reach the audience whom he called the common man, the audience for whom H. G. Wells still wrote and who still read Dickens—those whose only university was the free public library. In fact Orwell's novels did not reach such a wide audience, each selling only between 3000 and 4000 copies.

In his ILP days Orwell claimed that 'the coming war' would be merely a capitalist struggle for the control of colonial markets. As late as July 1939 he wrote 'Not counting Niggers' (a title of savage, Swiftian irony), claiming that British and French leaders did not ask the vast majority of their colonies about whether they wanted to fight. But, when the Second World War broke out, he immediately declared that even Chamberlain's England was preferable to Hitler's Germany. In his essay 'My country, right or left' he stated a left-wing case for patriotism that he developed in The Lion and the Unicorn.

In wartime

Orwell was rejected for the army several times because of his tuberculosis (a friend said that he tried harder to get into the army than many did to get out), so he moved back to London and joined the part-time Home Guard; for a while he thought that it could become a Catalan-style revolutionary militia. In February 1941 he published The Lion and the Unicorn, partly a profound meditation on the English national character and partly a left-wing assertion of patriotism, but also continuing the argument from his Catalan days that the war could be won only if a revolution replaced the old ruling class. But those hopes faded. In August 1941 he became, after a period of painful underemployment, a producer with the Far Eastern section of the BBC, tolerating the job's unaccustomed and uncongenial restraints until November 1943.

In 1939 Orwell had published a volume of essays, Inside the Whale. His powers as an essayist were recognized and went from strength to strength. A remarkable series of essays followed when he at last could begin to choose for whom he wrote: notably 'The prevention of literature', 'Politics and the English language', 'Politics versus literature', and 'Writers and Leviathan'. During the war he wrote regularly for Cyril Connolly's Horizon and for Partisan Review in New York. But some of his best writing came after November 1943, when he was made literary editor of The Tribune, a left-wing weekly directed by Aneurin Bevan. His weekly column, 'As I please', ranged through a vast number of topics, some serious and some comic, some political and some literary. He set a model for the lively mixed column soon to be emulated by many other writers not only in Britain. As George Orwell he became a known character, hard-hitting and good-humoured, a quirky socialist but with a love of traditional liberties and pastimes. The private man was, however, very reserved and a compulsive overworker. Both his and Eileen's health became very run down, partly through wartime conditions and partly through physical neglect; yet he persuaded her to adopt a child, Richard.

Brief days of fame

Early in 1944 Orwell finished writing Animal Farm but at least four leading publishers (Gollancz, T. S. Eliot for Faber, Jonathan Cape, and Collins) turned it down as inopportune while Russia was an ally. It was not published until shortly after the end of the war in Europe. Several critics called it the greatest satire in the English language since Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and it brought Orwell instant fame and a huge new and international readership. Harcourt Brace took it after many New York firms had rejected it, and it was a Book of the Month Club selection: it sold 250,000 copies in one year. It was translated into every major language, including some in which it could only be read in smuggled or in samizdat versions. It has survived the late twentieth-century collapse of Soviet power not only because of its plain style—Orwell believed passionately and politically that no meaningful idea was too difficult to be explained in simple terms to ordinary people—but because the satire can touch all power-hungry regimes, left or right, and even some rulers who can be hard to pin down in either category.

Before it appeared Orwell went to France for The Observer to report on the liberation, and to Germany to try to witness the opening of the concentration camps, but Eileen died and he came hurrying home. He told people that she died during anaesthetic for a minor operation. In fact she had cancer. She may well not have told him, but it seems somewhat obtuse of him not to have seen that something was badly wrong. Outwardly he bore her death with the stoicism of Orwell, but Eric Blair was deeply hurt and shaken—though by now the public mask had taken over almost entirely. Only a few very old friends called him Eric; new friends, as diverse as Julian Symons, Arthur Koestler, Anthony Powell, and Malcolm Muggeridge, called him George. He stuck to his adopted son, Richard, first on his own, then with the help of a housekeeper. He began writing regularly again for The Tribune and The Observer and also for the Manchester Evening News. He moved to a farmhouse on the northern tip of the remote island of Jura, where, even in Eileen's lifetime, he had resolved to escape, to avoid the distractions of London and to begin work on a new and ambitious book.

Barnhill was indeed remote, 8 miles up a track from the nearest phone, which in turn was 25 miles from a shop in a small village where steamers came twice a week. The journey from London took two days. At first Orwell revelled in the difficulties and seclusion, but soon his younger sister, Avril, followed him, froze out the young housekeeper, and became herself both housekeeper and ‘gatekeeper’ against unwanted visitors. Brother and sister did not always see eye to eye on who was unwanted or welcome. He worked hard, perhaps too hard, in a small room with a smoky stove, and chain-smoked as usual. In a notebook he wrote that in all his writing life

there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the period when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time.

Complete Works, 20.204

Orwell collapsed with tuberculosis with only a first draft of his long-planned new novel finished, which as always 'to me is only ever halfway through'. In a Scottish hospital the new drug streptomycin, obtained from America with the help of David Astor and Aneurin Bevan, was tested on him. Gruesome side-effects resulted, not then controllable, and the treatment was unhappily abandoned. Rested, at least, he returned to Jura, but drove himself hard again and, when his agent and his publisher failed to find a typist who would go to Jura, he sat up in bed and typed the second version of his novel himself. He collapsed again when he had finished.

The resulting novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, immediately elicited diverse interpretations. Critics have seen it as a pessimistic and deterministic prophecy; an allegory on the impossibility of staying human without belief in God; an anti-Catholic diatribe, in which the inquisitor, O'Brien, and the inner party are really the church; a world-hating act of nihilistic misanthropy; a deathbed renunciation of any kind of socialism; or a humanistic and libertarian socialist (almost anarchist) satire against totalitarian tendencies in both his own and other contemporary societies. Isaac Rosenfeld saw it as 'mysticism of cruelty, utter pessimism' (Rosenfeld, 514); and Anthony Burgess as 'a comic novel', or one that 'allows' (Burgess, 20) humour.

Certainly it is the most complex piece of writing Orwell attempted. Jenni Calder in a lecture called it 'a well-crafted novel', perhaps over-crafted; and part of the craft was dramatizing dilemmas and fears of humanity, and not offering easy solutions. But biographically it is clear at least, contrary to much facile opinion, what it is not: it is not a work of unnatural, almost psychotic intensity dashed off by a dying man with a death wish for civilization and regressing to memories of childhood traumas. In fact it was long planned and coolly premeditated, and was neither a conscious nor an unconscious repudiation of Orwell's democratic socialism. Czesaw Miłosz in 1953 reported that in Poland some of his old Communist Party colleagues had read smuggled copies as a manual of power, but that the freer minds had seen it as 'a Swiftian satire': 'The fact that there are writers in the West who understand the functioning of the unusually constructed machine of which they are themselves a part, astounds them and argues against “the stupidity” of the West' (Miłosz, 42). It is arguable whether Nineteen Eighty-Four was Orwell's greatest achievement; most critics, and Orwell himself, see Animal Farm as his unquestioned literary masterpiece. 'What I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art,' he said in his essay of 1946 'Why I write'. He was both a great polemical and a speculative writer: 'Liberty is telling people what they do not want to hear.' He challenges his readers' assumptions in direct terms of homely common sense, forces them to think, but mostly leaves them to reach their own conclusions. He may argue fiercely but never as if authoritatively, which perhaps accounts for his continued popularity.

If seen as Swiftian satire then a lot falls into place: grotesque exaggeration, humour but also deadly seriousness. Orwell raged against the division of the world into spheres of influence by the great powers at the wartime meetings at Yalta and Potsdam; power-hunger and totalitarian impulses wherever they occurred; intellectuals for turning into bureaucrats and betraying the common people; the debasement of language by governments and politicians; the rewriting of history for ideological purposes; James Burnham's thesis in his Managerial Revolution that the managers and technocrats are going to take over the world; the existence of a permanent cold war because of the impossibility of a deliberate atomic war; and, not least, the debasement of popular culture by the mass press. He pictured the ministry of truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four as producing for the proles not propaganda but 'rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing but sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs composed entirely by mechanical means'. Plainly he was getting at the British press of his day. It is doubtful if he had even heard of the Frankfurt school of Marxism which held that social control was maintained in capitalist society by the degradation of literacy rather than by terrorism, but in homely terms Orwell makes the same point.

Last days and afterlife

From January to September 1949 Orwell lay in a sanatorium in Gloucestershire. Then he was transferred to University College Hospital in London to be under one of the best chest specialists in England, who had also once treated D. H. Lawrence. The doctors, as was then customary, gave him some hope. In fact they knew that there was none. But he was not told, nor was Sonia Mary Brownell (1918–1980), a former editorial assistant on Connolly's Horizon to whom he had proposed marriage without success in 1945. When he asked her again, she accepted, genuinely hoping to help him and nurse him back to health and, at the worst, perhaps not unwilling to accept the status of widow of an already world-famous author.

Orwell married Brownell on 13 October 1949 and began work on a new novel, as if he thought he would survive; but he also made his will and left precise instructions (fortunately ignored by his widow) about which of his writings to reprint and which to suppress. He read the first reviews of Nineteen Eighty-Four and dictated notes for a press release to correct some American reviewers who saw in it an attack on all forms of socialism, not just on all forms of totalitarianism. He reminded them that he was a democratic socialist, that the book was 'a parody', and that he meant only that something like the iron regime could, not would, occur, if we did not all both guard and exercise our liberties. He died on 21 January 1950 of a tubercular haemorrhage and was buried on 26 January at All Saints, Sutton Courtenay. Unexpectedly (for he was an avowed non-believer) he had asked to be buried not cremated, and according to the rites of the Church of England. The language and liturgies of the church were part of the Englishness he felt so deeply.

It is much debated whether Orwell's real genius is as an essayist and descriptive writer rather than as a novelist. In 'Why I write' (1946) he said that

while my starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice … [yet] so long as I remain alive and well so I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth and to take pleasure in solid objects and useless scraps of information.

He said he was not able and did not want 'completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood'. Above all else, he said, he wanted 'to make political writing into an art' (Complete Works, 18.319).

Rarely has a more private and simple man become more famous. Orwell's very name has entered the English language. The word ‘Orwellian’ conveys the fear of a future for humanity governed by rival totalitarian regimes who rule through suffering, deprivation, deceit, and fear, and who debase language and people equally. But ‘Orwell-like’ conveys something quite different: a lover of nature, proto-environmentalist, advocate of plain language and plain speaking, humorist, eccentric, polemicist, and someone who could meditate, almost mystically, almost pietistically, on the pleasure and wonder of ordinary things—as in the small, great essay 'Some thoughts on the common toad'.

Even before Orwell's death political battle broke out and has long continued to annex his reputation. Some American editors and writers had genuinely misunderstood Animal Farm as a satirical polemic against all forms of socialism, rather than a betrayal of revolutionary egalitarian ideals by Stalin and the Communist Party. By the time of the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four the then powerful Time and Life magazines chose to ignore the author's standpoint and to present him again as both anti-socialist and anti-communist. If they recognized a distinction in the presence of the post-war Labour government in Britain, they either thought that inevitably it ‘would go that way’ or that Orwell, had he lived, would have abandoned democratic socialism.

The espousal of Orwell by the American right and free-market liberals made some British socialists immediately brand him as a betrayer of socialism and ‘a cold war warrior’. He himself had first coined the phrase ‘cold war’ in postulating an atomic stalemate. Certainly he was much more alert and aroused than many fellow socialists to the real threat of the communist subversion in western Europe; but he cannot be considered a betrayer of socialism if his reviews and writings are followed right up to the time of his death. Many ex-communists were angry with him for being, as was said, ‘prematurely correct’ and for giving ‘ammunition to the enemy’. One example of such ammunition was that he gave permission without charge for translations of Animal Farm into Ukrainian to be made for smuggling into Ukraine by the early Central Intelligence Agency (which helped to fund a cartoon based on the novel released in 1955). He wrote an interesting introduction to explain his own background and his politics. Most of the copies were, by another irony, destroyed by the American military in Austria who were strictly observing the three power agreement. Back then, in the eyes of the left, all Ukrainians were of course fascists, and to complicate matters further some Ukrainians who did get to read his introduction could not (like the editors of Time) see any difference between communism and socialism.

The ‘old’ new left (that is, those who left the Communist Party after Hungary in 1956 but were still Marxists) engaged in a deliberate campaign of both political and literary abuse of Orwell. They still smarted at the impatience he had shown at their earlier illusions and naïvety. To this the ‘new’ new left of the New Left Review (the student generation trying to reform Marxist theory) added two more charges: that he was not a serious theorist and that he was patriotic, comfortable in his Englishness. They seemed with their secular liberationist ideology to be in favour of anybody else's nationalism except their own. Edward Thompson's and Raymond Williams's intense dislike of Orwell was especially curious because all three had a vivid sense of an English radical tradition in perpetual conflict with the conservative account of tradition, the common people versus the establishment.

At least these attacks took Orwell seriously as a ‘political writer’ which, he said in his essay 'Why I write', had been his main intent since 1936. Many literary figures found it hard to come to terms with his politics and most critical studies in the 1950s and 1960s concentrated on his character and on his books. A Uniform Edition of his books had been published by Secker and Warburg in 1960, but not until 1968 in the four volumes of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of 1968, edited by Sonia Orwell (as Sonia Blair, his widow, called herself) and Ian Angus, could the full variety and power of his writing be appreciated. A less Orwellian version of Orwell could then emerge: the Orwell-like speculative, humorous, sardonic, discursive essayist. Even then the last of the four volumes left out several telling political essays and long reviews that Sonia Orwell regarded as 'repetitive' or 'not his best'. These could strengthen the complacent surmise of English writers that he was moving away from political writing back to more conventional novels and belles lettres, and the wishful belief of American neo-liberals that he was ‘giving all that up’, ‘that’ being democratic socialism. Sonia Blair's friend Mary McCarthy took it for granted that he was moving to the right before his death, as did two major studies of cultural politics in the cold war. But biographical evidence is to the contrary.

The year 1984 saw a carnival of misunderstanding in the media, as if Nineteen Eighty-Four had ever been a serious projection or prophecy rather than a Swiftian satire, still less a prediction of a date. But what was remarkable was that by then all Orwell's books and most of his essays had been in print since 1960 and that at conferences large non-academic audiences appeared. Orwell's stature as writer and thinker cannot rival that of George Bernard Shaw or H. G. Wells, but neither of their reputations as popular writers has survived as well, nor have even their major writings remained continuously in print. Perhaps it is this popularity of Orwell in a literal sense that so irritates or embarrasses some critics and writers, either jealous or convinced that he cannot therefore be a serious intellectual writer.

In 1996 a fresh storm broke out when some files in the Public Record Office were routinely opened and The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph ‘revealed’ that Orwell had ‘spied on’ fellow writers for the Foreign Office. (In fact this information had appeared in Bernard Crick's biography of 1980 drawn from Orwell's own papers in University College, London.) Far from spying, he provided a list that he sent to a friend, Celia Kirwan (Arthur Koestler's sister-in-law), who was working in the IRD (information research department), a special unit of the Foreign Office set up by Ernest Bevin. It was a list of writers who, he thought, would be unsuitable for anti-communist propaganda in 1946 when the Soviet Union was subsidizing and infiltrating every kind of cultural conference and event they could. There was a cultural cold war. The Sunday Telegraph mocked that an 'icon of the Left has been exposed', and The Guardian said that no liberal should ever do such a thing. But Orwell was not a liberal in their sense: his temperament was republican. When the republic was threatened, it had to be defended.

Struggles to appropriate or to denigrate Orwell will continue, as will popular interest in his essays and the documentary books. Four major biographies, with two more appearing in the centenary year 2003, have been produced, and fully reliable texts have been reissued by Secker, in the twenty-volume Complete Works of George Orwell (1986–98), and are now followed in the Penguin editions. These are freed from the bowdlerization of publishing in the 1930s, errors, and omissions, thanks to the monumental labours of one of England's leading Shakespearian bibliographers, Peter Davison. After Orwell's death many of the fashionable intellectuals of the time who knew him wrote tributes or assessments as if his character was more noteworthy and important than the quality or content of his writings. But the continued popularity of his writings has settled that argument. His greatest fame and readership have been posthumous.


  • B. Crick, George Orwell: a life, pbk edn (1982)
  • P. Stansky and W. Abrahams, eds., The unknown Orwell (1972)
  • P. Stansky and W. Abrahams, eds., Orwell: the transformation (1979)
  • A. Coppard and B. R. Crick, eds., Orwell remembered (1994)
  • M. Shelden, Orwell: the authorised biography (1991)
  • The complete works of George Orwell, ed. P. Davison, 20 vols. (1986–98)
  • G. Woodcock, The crystal spirit (1967)
  • P. Buitenhuis and I. B. Nadel, George Orwell: a reassessment (1988)
  • C. Hitchens, Orwell's victory (2002)
  • C. Miłosz, The captive mind (1953)
  • J. Calder, Chronicles of conscience: a study of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler (1968)
  • A. Burgess, 1985 (1978)
  • I. Rosenfeld, ‘Decency and death’, Partisan Review (May 1950)
  • G. Orwell, Nineteen eighty-four (1984) [with a critical introduction and annotations by B. Crick]


  • NRA, corresp. and literary papers
  • UCL, corresp. and diary
  • UCL, corresp., literary MSS, and notebooks
  • UCL, corresp. with Secker and Warburg, publishers


Wealth at Death

£9908 14s. 11d.—in England: probate, 2 Feb 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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