Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
Orwell claimed later that his spell in Burma ruined his health. His lungs had always troubled him, and in 1927 he was sent back to England on a convalescent leave. That year he resigned from the police and dedicated himself to becoming a writer. His father never quite forgave him.
An avid reader whose favorite writers included futurist H. G. Wells (War of the Worlds) and satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), Blair began reading and writing in earnest. He was excited by The People of the Abyss, by Jack London, who had gone "down and out," putting on rags and living among the destitute, the underclass, so he could write a book about them.
Blair decided to go "down and out" too-partly because he was trying to gather material, and partly because he wanted to erase the guilt and disgust he felt for serving in the Indian Imperial Police and for being a member of the privileged class. He bought tramps' clothes from a second-hand store and began a five-year period in which he lived, off and on, among tramps in flophouses. He took odd jobs and lived on pennies, first in London and then in Paris. Although he had begun to write for periodicals, he eventually ran out of money. Broke and desperate, he ended up with pneumonia in the paupers' ward in a French hospital.
During his "down and out" period, Blair learned what life was like for the underclass-desperate people with little hope for a decent future. Unlike them, however, he had a comfortable home to retreat to. You'll read in 1984 that Winston goes among the underclass, or proles, but can't or won't join them. Perhaps Orwell believed too strongly in class divisions to deny them completely.
Writing about his "down and out" experiences, Blair did what most good writers do: he transformed and fused what had happened to him to build a coherent story. The book went through several versions. He was about to give up on it when a friend took the manuscript to an agent who found him a publisher.
Down and Out in Paris and London was first published in 1933. Blair chose a pseudonym because, he said, "I am not proud of it." On paper, at least, he became George Orwell. Although friends and family continued to call him "Eric," he was George Orwell to everybody who read and wrote about him. In time he thought of having his name legally changed. If Eric Blair was the little boy who was lonely at school and who, in Burma, did things he was not proud of, George Orwell was the writer with a cause. That cause defined itself in the 1930s.
By this time he was teaching school. Though he attracted several women, he was a late-bloomer socially and apparently he was never quite at ease with women. According to those who knew Orwell, he neither understood nor liked women very well, a fact that may have influenced his drawing of women characters-including Julia, Winston's lover in 1984.
This did not prevent his falling in love with Eileen O'Shaughnessy in 1935. As soon as he met her at a party, he knew he wanted to marry her. Schoolteaching was not for him, though, and he had moved to London and worked in a bookstore. He had just published Burmese Days, his first novel, and was at work on A Clergyman's Daughter. (His novel about his bookstore days would be called Keep the Aspidistra Flying.)
The year 1936 was perhaps the most important in Orwell's life. In January, his publisher, a founder of the Left Wing Book Club, commissioned him to live among the unemployed coal miners in the north of England and write a book about their lives. The publisher hoped to awaken the English to their poverty and suffering so that people would act to change conditions.