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Big Brother, Newspeak, Room 101, Doublethink. Few writers can boast the brilliant legacy of George Orwell, both in his numerous additions to the English language and in his profound influence on world literature. This book attempts to bring to life the man behind the words. It explores the influence of his childhood and Eton education, his experience as a policeman in Burma, his deliberate plunge into poverty and his experiences in the Spanish Civil War in the creation of the consciousness of the man who produced Animal Farm and 1984. The book includes new material on Orwell's complex and sometimes reckless sex life, new evidence of his being hunted and spied on in Spain, his paranoia about possible assassination, the strange circumstances of his first marriage and his deathbed wedding to a woman fifteen years his junior. This new material enables this biographer to cast new light on Orwell, the inner man, as well as on Orwell, the great author.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Inside George Orwell
By Gordon Bowker
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
'It is probably true that you can't give a really revealing history of a man's
life without saying something about his parents and probably his grandparents.'
Orwell, BBC radio talk, 1945
As a young man Eric Blair was fascinated by ghost stories and intrigued
by black magic. Once, seemingly to deadly effect, he laid a curse on a
schoolboy who had offended him. On another occasion he reported seeing
a ghost. Later, he told a friend that he used a pseudonym so that no enemy
could take his name and work magic against him. In dreams he looked for
symbols and interpretations, and more than once had highly prophetic
visions. None of this quite fits with the widely held image of a man who
transformed himself into the writer of clear-headed, rational and lucid
prose, George Orwell. But behind every bearer of a pseudonym there stands
an individual life, an individual who can appear in various guises and a life
which can come to us in different versions. That is because personalities and
lives are kaleidoscopic - records, images glimpsed behind words or lodged
in reminiscence, fragments viewed and re-viewed through the mirrors of
memory and conscious reflection, all projected in turn in new configurations
through the eyes of biographers.
In a strange vision, at the age of twenty-six, Eric Blair (not yet 'George
Orwell') seems to have foreseen his own death. Lying ill with pneumonia in
a squalid Paris hospital ward in 1929, he saw in a bed opposite a man who
had just died - pale, wasted, lifeless.
Numéro 57's eyes were still open, his mouth also open, his small face
contorted into an expression of agony. What most impressed me
however was the whiteness of his face. It had been pale before, but now
it was little darker than the sheets. As I gazed at the tiny, screwed-up
face, it struck me that this disgusting piece of refuse, waiting to be
carted away and dumped on a slab in the dissecting room, was an
example of 'natural' death, one of the things you pray for in the Litany.
There you are, then ... that's what is waiting for you, 20, 30, 40 years
Just over twenty years later, Orwell himself, wizened and enfeebled by
tuberculosis, lay at the brink of death in a hospital bed, the very image of
the old Frenchman he had once watched die. As his time approached, in his
solitary remorseless way, he observed his own slow deterioration. In 1948,
having caught sight of his naked reflection in a sanatorium mirror, he projected
his own horrifying likeness on to Winston Smith, the persecuted
protagonist of his final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Smith, too, is confronted
by the ravaged spectre of a tortured man seemingly close to death:
A bowed, grey coloured, skeleton-like thing was coming towards him.
Its actual appearance was frightening, and not merely the fact that he
knew it to be himself. He moved closer to the glass. The creature's face
seemed to be protruded, because of its bent carriage. A forlorn,
jailbird's face ... cheekbones above which his eyes were fierce and
watchful. The cheeks were seamed, the mouth had a drawn-in look.
Certainly it was his own face, but it seemed to him that it had changed
more than he had changed inside. The emotions it registered would be
different from the ones he felt ... But the truly frightening thing was
the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that
of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than
the thighs ... The curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin
shoulders were hunched forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the
scraggy neck seemed to be bending double under the weight of the
skull. At a guess he would have said that it was the body of a man of
sixty, suffering from some malignant disease.
This was The Picture of Dorian Gray reversed. The cruel self-portrait, the
emaciated wreck, was the reality; the man he longed to be - handsome and
attractive to women - lay hidden in the attic, or at least in a secretive corner
of his imagination. The reality on his deathbed testified to a harsh life of
self-denial and self-mortification for sins both real and imagined. It is
tempting to see in O'Brien, Winston's torturer, the sadistic alter ego of
George Orwell, intent on rendering him less than human, and in Winston
himself the masochistic alter ego, the mirror-image self of the same complex
character. This picture of the crushed and beaten man is Orwell,
transforming personal suffering into art. The passage quoted embodies
two other significant characteristics of the man - an impulse towards
prophecy and a compulsion to be candid, the latter a quality he both valued
and feared. So, while in many ways he could be brutally honest about himself,
some aspects of him remained concealed behind a carefully
constructed persona, secret sides of himself he seems to have feared and
which he may have hoped would remain hidden, even beyond the grave.
The ancestry of this strange, guilt-ridden ascetic, with English, French and
long-obscure Scottish connections, has been chronicled previously, though
details remain somewhat sketchy, and therefore difficult to vivify. Some
hints and clues and new revelations, however, do bring some life to names
inscribed in dusty records.
Two geographical axes enable us to map the family inheritance. One
links Hardy's Dorset to Kipling's India; the other connects a town in central
France, celebrated for its delicate enamel paintings, to a bustling port in
Burma. In his first work of fiction, Burmese Days, Orwell sets out to debunk
the Kiplingesque myth of the 'white man's burden', the story unfolding
with all the tragic inevitability of a Hardy novel. In no other work of his
would these diverse strands of his distant heritage come together quite so
evidently, except perhaps in the autobiographical sections of The Road to
Wigan Pier, and a long work, a family saga projected before his death, which
died with him.
On his father's side there were West Indian slave-owners, minor aristocrats
and upstanding servants of Empire; on his mother's were French
colonials, shipbuilders and timber merchants. He would come, as a young
man, to despise those who profited from colonialism, as he found himself
doing for a time, even though he sneakingly admired the people who made
the system work. He poured scorn on Anglo-Indian imperialists, even while
admiring their bard, Kipling, for portraying them so honestly. He was
ashamed of what Europeans like his maternal ancestors had done in Burma,
yet he embraced his Gallic heritage and immersed himself in French literature.
Despite attending the most prestigious school in England, he rejected
the easy path to wealth and privilege, and denied himself the many comforts
which conformity would have brought. The rest of his life is a story of
adventures, often reckless adventures, invariably destined to fail, as he was
only too ready to admit. As he wrote, 'Any life when viewed from the inside
is simply a series of defeats.' The one adventure which did succeed for
him was his venture into literature, though even that path, too, was strewn
with disasters, and lasting success eluded him until the very end of his life.
A taste for adventure marks his family history on both sides - in colonial
exploits and exploitations. In the eighteenth century the enterprise of the
Blairs led to wealth and marriage into the nobility, only to be followed by
slow decline into respectable obscurity. Charles Blair, Eric's great-grandfather,
was born in 1743, probably of Scottish ancestry. By way of Jamaican
sugar plantations and the slave trade he became sufficiently prosperous to
be an acceptable husband for Lady Mary Fane, youngest daughter of the
Earl of Westmoreland, to whom he was married in 1765. The Fanes were
enthusiastic field sportsmen. Their ranks include Masters of Hounds and
army cavalry officers as well as a Commander of the British Army in Burma.
Eric was keenly aware of his Blair ancestry - the procession of ghostly forebears,
their names inscribed in the Blair family Bible inherited from his
father, an oil painting of Lady Mary Blair and a set of leather-bound volumes
once owned by his great-uncle, Captain Horatio Blair, to which he
became sentimentally attached. Unlike the worthy captain, he never developed
a yen for the sea, but field sports, especially shooting and fishing,
became lifelong passions. In novels such as A Clergyman's Daughter and
Coming Up For Air he wrote knowingly about the fate of worn-out aristocrats
and their declining families, and in his wartime call-to-arms, The Lion
and the Unicorn, he observed that 'England was ruled by an aristocracy
constantly recruited from parvenus' which nevertheless 'somehow ...
decayed [and] lost its ability, its daring, finally its ruthlessness.'
However, back in the eighteenth century, at least, Blairs were thriving.
The parvenu Charles Blair and Jane, his Lady wife, produced at least nine
children, four of whom died young - Henry Charles was killed at nineteen
while serving as captain in the 23rd Regiment of Foot in St Domingo. Of
the surviving five, last in the line was Thomas Richard Arthur Blair, Eric's
paternal grandfather. There were Blair cousins, too, including the first
Horatio, born in 1808 and named, presumably, in honour of the great
Nelson, killed at Trafalgar just three years earlier.
Thomas Richard was born in the year of his father's death, 1802, and
grew up with his siblings and widowed mother at Ensbury in Dorset. In
accordance with family tradition, the children were educated privately,
though not entirely ineffectually. Thomas gained entrance to Pembroke
College, Oxford, where for a year he read Theology as a Fellow Commoner
with high-table privileges, before setting off for the colonies as an acolyte of
the Anglican Church. Why he failed to complete his Oxford years and disappeared
so precipitately to the colonies is unknown, but he was first
ordained a deacon of the Church of England in Calcutta in 1839, then in
1843 as a priest in Tasmania. Legend has it that in the 1830s, sailing home on
leave from India, his ship called at Cape Town where he met and proposed
to Emily Hare, intending to marry her on his return. However, on arrival, he
found her already married. Apparently unconcerned, he simply said, 'Well,
never mind, I'll have Fanny' - Francis Hare, her fifteen-year-old sister. His
first child, Horatio, was born in Calcutta in 1838. There followed a daughter,
Augusta Michel and two sons, Dawson, and Richard Walmsley Blair, born
nine months apart in 1857.
Three years earlier, Thomas had returned to England and, through his
Westmorland connections, was handed the vicarage of Milborne St
Andrew, a small village in his home county of Dorset. Milborne stands a few
miles north of Tolpuddle, where in 1834 six farm labourers attempted to set
up a union and were transported to Australia - a martyrdom still celebrated
by English socialists. The parish included the hamlet of Dewlish,
where Fanes formed the squirearchy, and in this essentially feudal setting,
Thomas remained vicar for thirteen years, until his death in 1867.
There was a touch of arrogance in old Thomas, and the village retains
one controversial memorial to him. In 1856, considering the existing vicarage
not quite dignified enough for the grandson of an earl, he excited
great local hostility by building a new one at considerable cost to the parish.
Although Eric would turn atheist and spend his life attacking institutional
religions, he always had a lingering affection for the Anglican Church, identifying
with its dissenting martyrs and allowing it to confirm, marry and
ultimately to bury him. And, while he declared war on the capitalist class
and embraced the basic philosophy of socialism there was a lingering streak
of the nineteenth-century Tory in his make-up. No doubt it was with the
High Church Blairs in mind that he commended his favourite eighteenth-century
novelist, Smollett, for writing mostly about 'the kind of people
who are cousins to a landowner, and take their manners from the aristocracy'.
The nineteenth-century industrial middle classes, on the other hand,
who were catered for by the Low and Nonconformist Churches, and engineered
the rise of capitalism, could be happily despised.
Like the rest of his brothers, Richard was privately tutored, in his case at
Bath in neighbouring Somerset, continuing there until he was eighteen. As
with most upper-middle-class families of the time there was great emphasis
on public service. Thomas's cousin Horatio (son of the first Horatio
Blair), not surprisingly perhaps, was destined for the Navy, Richard for the
far more humdrum life of colonial civil servant. Horatio became a Royal
Navy captain, and would be buried with full naval honours at Portsmouth
in 1908, when Eric was five and Britain was building up its formidable fleet
of dreadnoughts. It was he who left behind the much-valued set of leather-bound
volumes kept in a wooden travelling-case which Eric was to inherit.
But there were also unusual, unpredictable and unstable relations who
brought a dash of drama to the family. On 13 January 1911, Richard Charles
Blair, another of his father's cousins, a captain in the 6th Gurkha Rifles, sailing
home from India through the Red Sea, and suffering from depression,
walked up on deck one night and quietly jumped overboard. The family
kept the newspaper cutting of the story, another scrap of Blair history
retained, and one is reminded of Eric's alter ego, John Flory in Burmese
Days, who did away with himself in Burma in similarly melancholic circumstances.
The aristocratic connection had weakened by the time Richard Walmsley
Blair was born. What took him to India is unclear, but he is said to have had
an unhappy love affair, and this may be what led him, at the age of nineteen,
to take on one of the most obscure and least heroic roles in the whole colonial
system. In 1875 he entered the Opium Department of the Province of
Bengal, an uncovenanted member of the Indian Civil Service. As Assistant
Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, grade 5 on 500 rupees per month, he could
hardly have found a more remote and less exalted position at the lowest
level in the order of precedence in the complex hierarchy of the Empire. His
job was to oversee the growing of opium, mainly for export to China. It was
a lucrative trade monopolised by Britain, but one which the Chinese
Government was actively seeking to have banned. By 1897, Richard, still
stuck on his lowly grade 5 and his poor starting salary, was serving in Tehta,
in the Gaya district in Upper Bengal. He was thirty-nine, unmarried, and
employed in a job that seemed to have a distinctly limited future.
Eric's mother, Ida Mabel Limouzin, grew up in Moulmein in Lower
Excerpted from Inside George Orwell
by Gordon Bowker
Copyright © 2003
by Gordon Bowker.
Excerpted by permission.
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsThe Inheritance
"The Golden Age"
Pathos and Nightmare
"Absorbing Wisdom Unawares"
"The Pain of Exile"
Picking up the Thread
Getting a Footing
The Invention of George Orwell
Tory Anarchist Meets James Joyce
Journeys of Discovery
The Spanish Betrayal
The Road to Morocco
One Character in Search of a War
War of Words
Tribune of The People
The Dark Side of Solitude
The Man Who Loved Islands
The Nightmare and the Novel
The End of the Beginning
Life after Death