George Orwell's work changed the way people look at themselves and their governments, and is still hailed to this day. He was born (as Eric Blair) on June 25, 1903; in honor of his birthday, here are seven fascinating facts about Orwell's (often Orwellian) life.
Orwell and other names
As a child, Orwell yearned to become a famous author, but he intended to publish as E.A. Blair, not Eric Blair (he didn't feel the name Eric was suitable for a writer). However, when his first book came out — Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) — a complete pseudonym was necessary (he felt his family wouldn't appreciate the public knowing their Eton-educated son had worked as a dishwasher and lived as a tramp).
Orwell provided his publisher with a list of potential pseudonyms. In addition to George Orwell, which was his preference, the other choices were: P.S. Burton, Kenneth Miles and H. Lewis Allways. So if the publisher had opted for another name, today we could be calling excessive surveillance "Allwaysian" or "Milesian."
A watched man
Orwell not only wrote about state surveillance, he experienced it. Biographer Gordon Bowker found the Soviet Union had an undercover agent spying on Orwell and other leftists while they were fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Secret police in Spain also seized diaries Orwell had made while in the country and probably passed them to the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB).
In addition, his own government kept track of Orwell (a fact he was likely unaware of). This began in 1929, when he volunteered to write for a left-wing publication in France. The police also paid attention when Orwell visited coal miners in 1936 while gathering information for The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In 1942, a police sergeant reported to MI5 that Orwell had "advanced communist views" and dressed "in a bohemian fashion, both at his office and in his leisure hours." Fortunately, the MI5 case officer actually knew Orwell's work and that "he does not hold with the Communist Party nor they with him.
Difficulties publishing Animal Farm
Financial and popular success eluded Orwell until Animal Farm, his allegorical look at the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. But despite the book's quality, in 1944 Orwell encountered trouble while trying to get it published. Some didn't seem to understand it: T.S. Eliot, a director of publisher Faber and Faber, noted, "Your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm." Victor Gollancz, who'd published much of Orwell's earlier work, was loath to criticize the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin.
Publisher Jonathan Cape almost took on the book, but the Ministry of Information advised against antagonizing the Soviet Union, an ally in World War II (however, the official who gave this warning was later discovered to be a Soviet spy). With rejections accumulating, Orwell even considered self-publishing before Animal Farm was accepted by Fredric Warburg's small press. The success that followed the book's 1945 release probably had some publishers regretting their earlier refusals.
Helped by Hemingway
During the Spanish Civil War, Stalinists turned on POUM, the left-wing group Orwell fought with. This led to POUM members being arrested, tortured and even killed. Orwell escaped Spain before he was taken into custody — but when he traveled to Paris in 1945 to work as a correspondent, he felt he could still be in danger from Communists who were targeting their enemies.
A gun could offer protection, but as a civilian Orwell couldn't easily acquire one. His solution was to turn to Ernest Hemingway. Orwell visited Hemingway at the Ritz and explained his fears; Hemingway, who admired Orwell's writing, handed over a Colt .32. It's unknown if Orwell ever had to use the weapon, but hopefully it provided him with some peace of mind.
Orwell and Huxley
Before Orwell wrote 1984 (1949) and Aldous Huxley penned Brave New World (1932), the two met at Eton, where Huxley taught French. While some students took advantage of and mocked Huxley's poor eyesight, Orwell reportedly stood up for him and enjoyed having Huxley as a teacher.
Orwell and Huxley also read each other's most famous work. Writing in Time and Tide in 1940, Orwell called Brave New World "a good caricature of the hedonistic Utopia" but said "it had no relation to the actual future," which he envisaged as "something more like the Spanish Inquisition." In 1949, Huxley sent Orwell a letter with his take on 1984: though he admired it, he felt "the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience."
On May 2, 1949, Orwell sent a list of names to a friend at the Foreign Office whose job was to fight Soviet propaganda: the 35 names were people he suspected of being Communist sympathizers. Orwell noted in his letter, ''It isn't a bad idea to have the people who are probably unreliable listed." He also wrote, "Even as it stands I imagine that this list is very libelous, or slanderous, or whatever the term is, so will you please see that it is returned to me without fail."
Orwell wanted Britain to survive the threat of totalitarianism, and almost certainly felt he was helping that cause. However, it's still surprising that the man who came up with the concept of Big Brother felt comfortable providing the government with a list of suspect names.
Last chance at life
When Orwell's tuberculosis worsened in the 1940s, a cure existed: the antibiotic streptomycin, which had been on in the market in America since 1946. However, streptomycin wasn't readily available in post-war Great Britain.
Given his connections and success, Orwell was able to obtain the drug in 1948, but experienced a severe allergic reaction to it: hair falling out, disintegrating nails and painful throat ulcerations, among other symptoms. His doctors, new to the drug, didn't know a lower dosage likely could have saved him without the horrible side effects; instead, Orwell ceased treatment (the remainder was given to two other TB patients, who recovered). He tried streptomycin once more in 1949, but still couldn't tolerate it. Orwell succumbed to TB on January 21, 1950.