January 17, 2018

George Orwell, Working Class

Eric Blair's father spent thirty-five dutiful years in the poppy fields of India as an "Assistant Sub-Deputy Opium Agent (third grade)" -- though by retirement he'd made it to first grade. His job was to maximize output and monitor quality for Britain's lucrative drug trade, making sure a steady flow of high-grade narcotic made it to the opium dens of China. Blair grew up in England, hardly ever seeing his father, but at the age of nineteen he too seemed bound to become another loyal son of the Empire. He joined the India Imperial Police, and took up a post in Burma as an Assistant Superintendent.

What he witnessed and became part of in Burma would change the direction of his life. Later novels and essays document his feelings about the system of beatings, hangings, surveillance and social slavery to which he guiltily conformed. But no amount of training or habit, he later wrote, enabled him "to be indifferent to the human face," and in 1927, after five years of doing "the dirty work of the Empire," Blair resigned.

His father's disbelief was doubled when Blair announced his decision to be a writer. For the next five years he seemed to attempt to undo through his writing the five years spent in Burma. His desire to "get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants" led him to live with tramps, to get himself put in jail, to tour the mines and dockyards of industrial England, to live Down and Out in Paris and London, as his first book's title puts it.

He did not think that book very good, and when it was finally published he chose to use a pseudonym. His publisher suggested "X"; Blair thought perhaps "P. S. Burton," his tramping name; or "Kenneth Miles"; or "H. Lewis Allways"; or perhaps finally, after the river in Suffolk, "George Orwell."

Over the next fifteen years, Orwell fought for socialism and against totalitarianism by word and deed. When he joined the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War they wanted him to write propaganda, but Orwell wanted to fight. He had a habit of volunteering for raids, and of being reckless on them. He was 6' 3," and a good target in the trenches; in the spring of '37, he was shot in the throat by a sniper, almost fatally.

Image: photograph of George Orwell, author of 1984, Animal Farm, and Down and Out in Paris and London; twentieth century British novelist and social critic
Orwell had always suffered from bronchial, pre-tubercular ailments, and his only option during WWII was the Home Guard. He lectured on street-fighting and kept a supply of home-made bombs on his fireplace mantle. He lobbied the government to subsidize showings of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator across England, to dispense guns and grenades to each household, even to create a permanent People's Army. "That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer's cottage," he wrote, "is the symbol of democracy."

When the war was over, Orwell began 1984, the novel that would become his most famous call to arms against totalitarianism. Orwell drew its hero from the ranks of the working class, and from his belief that the horrors of Thought Police and Newspeak and the Two Minutes' Hate must be fought by the Winston Smiths of the world, rather than the Winston Churchills.

Though still in his early 40s, Orwell was aware that he did not have long to live. His tuberculosis was worsening, and he was ignoring his instructions to rest. Contrarily, the passionate socialist had moved to the remote Scottish island of Jura, to a house without electricity, eight miles by foot from any sort of road, and twenty-five miles from a store. His wife had suddenly died in 1945, and Orwell was also faced with raising their infant son. He proposed, in a manner, to at least three women over the next year, but failed to attract any of them to Jura, or to motherhood -- or even, as one written offer put it, "to be the widow of a literary man." One of them was later persuaded by the 'widow' part of the deal, and married him at his bedside just three months before he died.

Orwell finished the novel in December of 1948, and entered a sanatorium in the Cotswolds almost immediately. When his publisher visited on January 21st, 1949, they decided to change the title Orwell had intended, The Last Man in Europe, to 1984. The New York Times Book Review summarized the response to the novel as "overwhelmingly admiring, with cries of terror rising above the applause." Many looked upon the title as ominous, but it was only chosen as an inversion of 1948, the year that Orwell finished writing.

On January 21st, 1950 -- exactly a year after the decision about the novel's title -- Orwell died, at the age of forty-six.

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble