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October 18, 2017

Orwell on Orwell

On this day in 1950 George Orwell died, aged forty-six. Whatever Orwell achieved in his last years seems over-balanced by what he suffered. Against the acclaim earned by the two famous novels -- Animal Farm in 1945 and 1984 just seven months before Orwell died -- stands a withering series of personal challenges. In 1945, a little more than a year after their adoption of a one-month-old boy (their only child), Orwell's wife died on the operating table. As the severity of his tuberculosis became clear, Orwell searched with increasing desperation for a wife who might accept the certain roles of nurse and mother and the likely role of widow. Forced to spend all but four months of his last two years in a hospital or sanitarium, he had to revise his hopes ever-downward -- from thinking he might live until his son was thirteen, to joking that the upcoming newspaper profile of the famous author of 1984 would have to be rewritten as an obituary. He eventually surrendered his typewriter to the doctors, accepted the prescription of complete rest, and admitted that whatever time was left would probably be spent as an invalid.

Still, he hoped he might once again write, and sometimes showed signs of recovery. When he married in mid-October, 1949 he wore a mauve smoking jacket over his pajamas, and continued to wear it in the weeks afterward. Anthony Powell thought he saw flashes of "the old Wodehousian side," and Malcolm Muggeridge, another friend, noted that Orwell talked about the house he would buy with the money that he was finally earning. But in his journal after a Christmas visit, Muggeridge also noted that, like the decorations which hung over Orwell's head, and the reminiscences of the Spanish Civil War, "the stench of death was in the air."

As both his friends and critics have remarked, Orwell did not go gentle into life, either. His ideals and social commitment set "a stern example" and made him "an awkward person" (David Pryce-Jones). "He could not blow his nose without moralizing on the state of the handkerchief industry" (Cyril Connolly). And perhaps most famously, he was the "wintry conscience of a generation" (V. S. Pritchett). In one essay on Orwell titled "A Knight of the Woeful Coutenance" (this is borrowed from Don Quixote), Muggeridge recalls that his friend even got his laughter from obeying his ideals: "...he began to chuckle - a throaty, rusty, deep-down chuckle very characteristic of him. His laughter had the same rusty quality as did his voice, due, I understood, to a throat wound he had received in Spain."

Orwell was very aware that many found him over-earnest and under-humored. Occasionally, as if feeling guilty, he would try to explain how he felt "forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer." In his 1947 essay, "Why I Write," he says that he once aspired to writing differently -- "enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes" -- but that it didn't seem right for him or for "tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own." In "A Little Poem" he jokingly offers a vision of an alternate life:
    A happy vicar I might have been
    Two hundred years ago
    To preach upon eternal doom
    And watch my walnuts grow;

    But born, alas, in an evil time,
    I missed that pleasant haven,
    For the hair has grown on my upper lip
    And the clergy are all clean-shaven....
But even the joke turns into an Orwellian finger-point by the end:
    I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
    And woke to find it true;
    I wasn't born for an age like this;
    Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?
Visitors to Orwell's hospital room in his last days noted sadly that his fishing poles stood in the corner, ready to go. But for world wars, class-system poverty, Communism, Fascism and tuberculosis, he might have used them more.

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