As both pioneering political journalist and sage-like novelist George Orwell shaped how many of us interpreted the 20th century. His pre-war reportage highlighted inequality and poverty in Britain’s provinces, as well as bearing witness to pivotal political developments in Civil War Spain. His earlier fiction drew on his own experiences in imperial India and the English suburbs but broadened out to envision dystopian worlds rich in political allegory. His masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is one of the most significant novels of the 20th century.
Orwell’s brilliantly bleak future vision of totalitarianism is arguably the greatest of all literary dystopias. Both in its impeccably realised world-building and the prophetic nature of its many ideological concepts, Nineteen Eighty-Four contrived to look back to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s whilst simultaneously predicting with uncanny accuracy the worst excesses of the Cold War-era Soviet Union. A textbook example of a novel you really must read.
Novels by George Orwell
From Bengal to Catalonia
Born Eric Blair to a lower-middle class sahib family in Bengal in 1903, Orwell’s family returned to England in 1911. In 1922 he took up a position in Burma as part of the Indian Imperial Police. His growing disillusionment with British rule, however, led to his resignation in 1928, whilst on leave in England. Orwell’s increasingly distasteful experiences on the sub-continent were documented in his 1934 novel Burmese Days.
Ashamed and outraged by the treatment he had seen meted out by the British in Burma, Orwell decided to delve deeper into the poverty stricken shadow world of Europe’s outcasts. His investigations were collected in Down and Out in Paris and London, his first work published as George Orwell, in 1933. Following the publication of Burmese Days the following year, Orwell produced two more novels in as many years, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, before returning to investigative journalism with 1937’s The Road to Wigan Pier.
By this point a committed Socialist, The Road to Wigan Pier found Orwell living alongside destitute miners in the North of England and delivering pungent diatribes against the complacent National Government and rogue Socialist organisations alike. By 1938 Orwell’s restless indignation found him amidst the Spanish Civil War, where he fought with the Republican militia and sustained a serious injury to his vocal chords. His record of the conflict was published as Homage to Catalonia.
Orwell’s next novel, Coming Up For Air, was written on the eve of war in 1939 and, with characteristic prescience, contrasted the simple pleasures of a bygone age with the nightmare of global conflict about to engulf the world. Turned down for military service, Orwell spent the Second World War working for the BBC and producing an enormous journalistic output for the Socialist newspaper Tribune.
In 1944 he penned a short allegory based upon the corruption of Socialist ideals in the Soviet Union, called Animal Farm. Brilliantly using farmyard animals to portray key figures from the Soviet regime, the novella is one of the sharpest political satires of the 20th century. It was, however, outdone by Orwell’s final work, the monumental Nineteen Eighty-Four. Rightly considered a landmark literary dystopia, the novel elaborates on some of the themes of Animal Farm but places them in an astonishingly credible future Britain ruled by the omniscient dictator Big Brother.
Orwell completed the novel on the Scottish island of Jura whilst suffering the effects of tuberculosis. He died from the disease in 1950, having left one of the great literary legacies in 20th-century fiction.