When Eric Blair changed his name to George Orwell at the age of 28, it marked the merger of a well-honed inferiority complex with a nagging social conscience. As the writings of George Orwell make painfully clear, Eric Blair as boy and young man was convinced that nothing he could do or be would ever turn out quite right. In fact, it almost seems that the lines he wrote many years later might have been set down at any time after the age of six, when he decided to become a writer:
I dreamed 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?
Perhaps only a world clean-stripped of meanness and injustice, and peopled with saints named Smith and Jones, would have enabled either Blair or Orwell to live and write in a state of inner peace. Human nature being what it is and Blair-Orwell being what he was, he could only rail against human imperfection, carry the torch for decency and behave as though he had somehow to share everything that degraded human life. It is these two qualities, conscience and a passion for justice, that make even his most dis-similar books parts of a whole that also included his personal conduct. Whatever the imperfections of the whole, the parts were always recognizable: from Burmese Days to 1984, from the boyish agonies of Eric Blair to the almost militant honesty of George Orwell. Orwell hated social inequalities enough to call himself a Socialist, yet the political Socialists have never taken such withering criticism from anyone as they got from Orwell. He hated the British Empire, yet had considerable respect for the men who kept it going. He despised a society that could spawn and tolerate bums, but he himself became a bum for a time to share their life and perhaps ease his conscience. All his sympathies lay with common people, but he saw with complete clarity how their sloth could lead to a welfare state and from there to the horrors of regimentation he attacked in 1984. And while he despised various laws, social institutions and forms of government, he recognized as few men have that changing such things was of small use unless there were changes in the hearts and minds of men. Above all, he knew how totalitarianism is bred and flourishes and how completely it withers the human spirit. So long as the threat remains, and in much of the world the Orwellian nightmare is the simple fact of daily life, Animal Farm and 1984 may well be the clearest warnings yet given to free men of the shape of things to come.
Orwell was born in India in 1903, and that fact, of course, is the origin of Burmese Days, his first novel. Malcolm Muggeridge points out in his special Introduction to this edition how skimpy is the literature that derives from British rule in India. Mr. Muggeridge emphasizes how true Burmese Days is to a pattern of life that only recently embraced much of the world and has now all but disappeared. What is surprising is how it came about that Orwell found the matter for the novel which Muggeridge, an old India hand himself, thinks is even more satisfactory than his major successes. Orwell's father was a minor official in the Indian Civil Service who reached retirement age when his only son was very young. Orwell was sent back to England before he was eight and later wrote that he hardly ever saw his father before that time. Later he was able to remember only that the old servant of empire had a gruff voice and used it chiefly, when with his son, to say “don't.”
Orwell began wearing his inferiority complex early in life. At eight he was sent to an expensive prep school, but at reduced rates as a scholarship boy. His part of the contract was to win a scholarship to one of the famous English public (i.e., private) schools and thereby bring a measure of glory to his prep school. He did his part by winning scholarships to both Wellington and Eton, but the experience seems to have embittered him for life. In a fascinating essay called “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he remembered being “crammed with learning as cynically as a goose is crammed for Christmas.” He went to Eton, where he became, he says, “an odious young snob” at 15. His relative poverty (he was surrounded by sons of tycoons and noblemen) made him feel that he didn't belong. Instead of going next to Oxford or Cambridge, the normal step, he took a job in the Indian Imperial Police and was shipped off to Burma.
George Orwell was a policeman for five years. He was a competent one and some say not an unhappy one, at least at first. At low pay, and in a climate that was to him abominable, he carried his bit of the white man's burden. And in the curious way that was typical of Orwell, his hatred of imperialism was inextricably interwoven with his respect for the job that needed doing if the empire was to be held together. It was typical of him that he hated Englishmen for treating the natives as inferiors, and that he experienced moments when the sneers of those same natives made him wish, by his own admission, he could go at them with a bayonet.
In the end, it was imperialism and his countrymen's behavior that he hated most, together with the part that he himself played. His sense of guilt never diminished. Throughout his writings it is never far from his consciousness, as in his book Wigan Pier where he wrote: “The wretched prisoners squatting in the reeking cages of the lock-ups, the grey cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos, the women and children howling when their menfolk were led away under arrest — things like these are beyond bearing when you are in any way directly responsible for them. I watched a man hanged once; it seemed to me worse than a thousand murders.”
Obviously, a man as suffused as Orwell was with kindliness and ordinary decency had chosen the wrong job. Just as obviously, as a writer, he was bound to write Burmese Days. Quite apart from its reflection of Orwell's personal distaste for imperialism, the book is one of the very few novels that portend the doom of the British Empire. And as a good novel should, it does so on the basis of the behavior of fairly ordinary people rather than in terms of governmental policies and world tensions.
The Englishmen Orwell shows us in the Burmese station of Kyauktada are desperately lonely and insular. The wretched little club which is their social capital is really a fortress which assures them that there will always be an England. They despise the easy-going natives, bait them and are determined never to accept them as equals. When high-level policy makers decide that British clubs had better take in a token native or two, all the passions of the English are aroused, along with the vain ambitions of the natives who want in.
Orwell draws his Englishmen harshly but not unfairly. They drink hard, talk trivialities, yet behave with almost Kiplingesque bravery when there is a brief native uprising. Hearing them speak, watching their embarrassing behavior, knowing their contempt for the millions they rule, no reader of Burmese Days could have been surprised when the British were forced to bow out of Burma, as they were in 1948. Flory, the hero, the one man who both hates and loves the country and its people, goes down, as in the circumstances he must. There can be no doubt he is meant to be Orwell himself.
Like everything Orwell wrote, Burmese Days was the product of personal experience and deep feeling. It might be said that he raised simple honesty and personal decency to the level of literary virtues. When he went to Spain during the Civil War of the '30s, he went as a reporter who stayed to fight for the Loyalists. What he saw of the Communists there led him to write Homage to Catalonia, still the best book written about that vicious conflict. During a time when intellectuals in England and the United States were swallowing the Communist line unquestioningly, Orwell wrote Animal Farm to show precisely the means by which totalitarians take over. It is hard to remember now how much intellectual courage it took to write such a book during the war, when Stalin was an ally of the democracies against Nazi Germany. Only five years later he was ready to speak of the shape of things to come and wrote in 1984 not a horror story of the imagination, but a warning based on a totalitarian drift which only he among major writers was willing to measure.
With each passing year since Orwell died of tuberculosis in 1950, it becomes more plain that he was a natural, one of a kind. No one has replaced him, no one has inherited his voice and style. What Sir Richard Rees wrote of him recently is piercingly true: “We hear something that is excessively rare in modern literature, something that has hardly been heard in England since D. H. Lawrence's death in 1930, and was hardly to be heard again after Orwell's in 1950: the voice of a man with a mind of his own, with something in his mind and speaking his mind. Not the academic and cagey accents of a literary pundit, nor the phonographic rigmarole of a party-liner, but the voice of an independent individual who saw with his own eyes and knew what he ought to say and how to say it. The rarity of the phenomenon was attested by the sensation it caused.”