The Writing Training of George Orwell: Or How Eric Arthur Blair Became George Orwell

Few writers are as fortunate or lucky as Eric Arthur Blair to find their life’s calling when they are just five or six years old. Even luckier are those who stick to it throughout their life. Eric Arthur Blair admits this in so many words in his highly-underrated, Why I Write in a revealing passage that in many ways characterises his body of work.

from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued…. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

What Eric Arthur Blair’s literary corpus also shows is the manner in which he not only overcame his perceived failure but challenged it frontally. And won. Repeatedly.

This essay is the story of how Eric Arthur Blair became George Orwell.


George Orwell is second to none among all the great writers that emerged in the 20th century whatever be the yardstick of evaluation. But he also stood apart and towered over these other greats for a very significant reason: language.

George Orwell valued language as a primary source of our expression of integrity. It was this characteristic trait that made T S Eliot describe his work as “good writing of fundamental integrity” even when he rejected the manuscript of the timeless classic, Animal Farm. Orwell’s integrity was combined with a candour devoid of self-righteousness. And it was this same integrity that made Orwell unafraid of strongly condemning his seniors, peers and “big names” like J. B. Priestley, and specifically, Harold Laski, in the brilliant Politics and the English Language. Thus when he writes that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” he provides memorable instances that show why and how it is so. The following is one telling example.

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Perhaps no other English-language writer in the previous century has explored the deep and interconnected links that exist between language, thought, idea, the psyche, feeling, politics, and (real-world) consequences as simply, plainly, clearly, and courageously as Orwell. It was his lifelong dedication to the study of applied language that transformed him as one of the greatest voices against totalitarianism of every stripe. In a very fundamental and profound sense, Orwell’s greatest works, Animal Farm and especially, 1984 are extraordinary, seasoned studies in the use, misuse, abuse and manipulation of language.

An Early Start

George Orwell began this lifelong study of language very early in life when he taught himself how to “search for the right words,” a quest he undertook till he was twenty-five. This exercise served him well for the rest of his (short) life like an unshakeable foundation upon which he sculpted his “good prose, like a windowpane.” It developed into a passionate conviction till the end of his life, leading him to remark that

So long as I remain alive…I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.

As the boy who had discovered his calling in life as a writer began to grow up, Eric Arthur Blair quickly learned that the mandatory training for becoming a writer was to read, read, read — diligently, widely, watchfully, vigilantly. Which he did at the expense of his mainstream subjects at Eton, History and Classics. He had admitted himself as the mental pupil of such masters of prose as Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens and Jack London, and “at the age of seventeen or eighteen…I had read and re-read the entire published works of Shaw, Wells and Galsworthy.”

After he resigned from his job in 1927 at the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, a five-year stint that he abhorred with all his heart, he returned to England and resumed his self-training to become a writer. However, his time in Burma did him an immeasurable good: it supplied him enough raw material which he would later put to brilliant literary use.

Taking heart in a motto of sorts at that time, Eric Arthur Blair decided to live the hard life and gain valuable experience, which he considered an essential part in the training of a writer.

Portobello Road showing the room George Orwell had lived in. Pic credit: Wikipedia

And so, a twenty-four year old Blair settled in a dismal bedroom on Portobello Road which he found with the help of a family acquaintance named Ruth Fitter. In a spirit of an industrious, patient, and uncomplaining apprentice of a craftsman or sculptor, he began to teach himself how to write. His undaunted labour and single-minded determination quickly elicited admiration from his neighbours. He would rarely step out of this tiny bedroom spending all his time writing, practicing, improving. Here is how Ruth Fitter describes it.

That winter was very cold. Orwell had very little money indeed. I think he must have suffered in that unheated room…He said afterwards that he used to light a candle to try and warm his hands when they were too numbed to write. [George Orwell: A Life — Bernard Crick. Emphasis added]

And then a description of the sheer tenacity Blair was endowed with.

But the formidable look was not there for nothing. He had the gift, he had the courage, he had the persistence to go on in spite of failure, sickness, poverty, and opposition, until he became an acknowledged master of English prose. [Ibid. Emphasis added]

Down and Out in Paris and London

Next year, Eric Blair moved to Paris as a continuation of the quest for said life experiences and settled into a squalid hotel at 6, Rue du Pot de Fer. For the next fifteen months, he wrote even more copiously than before, polishing and refining his craft. The result was two novels and numerous short stories all of which were rejected. Subsequently, Eric Blair destroyed them. Indeed, George Orwell’s later, spectacular successes owes to this precise fact: he was his own best — or worst critic. He was unsparing with himself and was almost never dejected.

During his stay there, he became acquainted with a literary agent, L.I. Bailey who offered him advice and did “condemn” some of his short stories. Eric Blair was essentially living below subsistence levels, teaching English folks who either paid poorly or didn’t pay at all. He also contributed to some vague and obscure journals which like his students either paid poorly or reneged on the payment. He recounts how “My literary efforts in the first year barely brought me in twenty pounds.”

Blair’s savings from Burma which had by now dwindled to just over 200 Francs were stolen and he had to sell or pawn most of his meagre belongings including clothes. Which was when, he experienced, in his own words, “the peculiar lowness of poverty.”

But that theft brought a ray of light with it. In the last ten weeks that he lived in Paris, he assiduously worked on what would become his first published work, Down and Out in Paris and London, a chronicle and commentary of his experiences in the slums of Paris and London. When we read it even today in the backdrop of his more accomplished writing, it is hard to detect that Down and Out in Paris and London was his first work in terms of prose and style.

Originally titled A Scullion’s Diary, it was completed in 1930 and upon the suggestion of his friends and well-wishers, he reworked and enlarged the manuscript and submitted to Faber and Faber, where T.S. Eliot was the director. He rejected it. This was the second rejection. Eric Blair decided to destroy the manuscript and instructed his friend, Mabel Fierz. Not only did she not destroy it, she took it to Leonard Moore, a respected literary agent, who in turn submitted it to the (new) publishing house, Gollancz. Gollancz agreed to publish it on the condition that some swearwords had to be deleted and some revisions made. Eric Arthur Blair quickly made the revisions and wrote to the owner, Victor Gollancz:

I think if it all the same to everybody I would prefer the book to be published pseudonymously. I have no reputation that is lost by doing this and if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again.

That was how Eric Arthur Blair became George Orwell.


Postscript

Apart from George Orwell’s reputation as an acknowledged master of prose and linguistic finesse, we need to also highlight an oft-overlooked trait in his writings: the aesthetic. His essay, Why I write testifies to this in the form of two important tidbits closely linked to each other.

1. before he ever begins to write, [the writer] will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.
2. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’… But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. [Emphasis added]

When we combine the foregoing note about Orwell’s insistence on integrity with his impulse and need for writing to be an aesthetic experience, we are reminded of the classical contemplations and treatises about Truth and Beauty by say Aristotle in Greece and Bharata, Anandavardhana, et al in ancient India.

As a parting note of sorts, it is only fitting and relevant to reproduce George Orwell’s reputed Six Rules for Writing:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.