George Orwell: A History of Novels

George Orwell

George Orwell (Photo credit: jovike)

Today may be Blue Monday, the supposed saddest day of the year, but there is another reason why we should be sad today: on the 21st of January 63 years ago one of the most beloved writers in all of history, Eric Arthur Blair, died. Who is he, you ask? George Orwell. Penguin Books along with the Orwell Estate and The Orwell Prize are marking this inaugural ‘Orwell Day’ by releasing new designed editions by David Pearson of some of his most treasured works. This celebration of his life is also going to be continued over the next month by BBC Radio 4 where there will be narrations of Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia. His literature wasn’t purely for enjoyment, but they helped to provide views and ideology on politics and social injustice.

To mark the occasion here is a look at the history of Orwell’s nine great novels:

Down and Out in Paris and London (9 January 1933, Victor Gollancz Ltd)

This was Orwell’s first full time piece of work written when he was thirty years old. Down and Out in Paris and London is a memoir by our writer which focuses on the parallels in poverty between the two leading capital cities. His time in London during 1927 was a social experiment where he was undercover, analysing what hostels were available for tramps for his first published essay, The Spike (1931). The Latin Quarter is a bohemian area in Paris where many writers ventured to for inspiration including the likes of, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Orwell himself when he moved there in the spring of 1928. It was here that our writer took on jobs as a dish washer at ‘Hôtel X’.

Burmese Days (October 1934, Harper & Brothers)

This novel describes a time when Burma was ruled as part of India under the British Raj. Publishers were worried that the work was based on real people, so the novel was first published in the USA in 1934 until it was released in Britain the following year. From 1922 to 1927 Orwell was a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma. His time here had a big influence over his life as he was seen as quite an outsider. He learned Burmese and had tattoos of an untidy blue circle done on each of his knuckles as this was a Burmese tradition which is meant to protect you from bullets and snake bites.

A Clergyman’s Daughter (11 March 1935, Victor Gollancz Ltd)

His next fiction novel is one Orwell was ashamed of which is clear from the instructions he left after his death for A Clergyman’s Daughter; to never be reprinted again. The book is his most experimental piece of work, although it was written during a period of his lesser adventurous days. He spent five years after his time in Paris living in his parents’ home at Southold. During this time Orwell became a teacher; he began as a tutor, then at a small private school with a mere twenty boys at Hayes, West London, until finally a school with 200 pupils at Uxbridge, Middlesex. The story is of the daughter of a Clergyman, Dorothy Hare, who suffers from amnesia.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (20 April 1936, Victor Gollancz Ltd)

Published the following year, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is set during the 1930s in London where Gordon Comstock tries to defy the importance of money and class status. Orwell’s early essay work appeared in a left-wing journal, which was edited by Sir Richard Rees. It has been suggested that Rees influenced the character of Ravelston, as Orwell appreciated the support he gave him, but he was most likely jealous of Ravelston’s ability to make a lot of money without an expert job. The Aspidistra is a plant which was popular during the Victoria era as it had the ability to survive with low sunlight and poor indoor air, and it was a symbol in the 1930 of respect towards the middle class.

The Road to Wigan Pier (February 1937, Left Book Club edition; 8 March 1937 Victor Gollancz Ltd edition for the general public)

This is an autobiographical account spilt into two sections: the first is a more descriptive passage of his investigations into the terrible living conditions of the working class in Lancashire and Yorkshire before the Second World War, whereas the second is more of a long essay which highlights his middle class upbringing and his political socialism ideology. When Orwell was submitting his Keep the Aspidistra Flying manuscript to Gollancz on the 15 of January 1936, his publicist, Victor Gollancz proposed to Orwell a new project which would have him reviewing the depression in Northern England. Gollancz was too a socialist who believed that through education there could be change, and so Orwell’s accurate writing of the poverty could make a difference. Orwell’s journey saw him leave on the 31st of January to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds; he spent three weeks of February in Wigan; and in March he spent time in Sheffield, Leeds and Barnsley in Yorkshire. During these travels he kept a journal which he edited to form the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier.

Homage to Catalonia (25 April 1938, Secker and Warburg)

After Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy on the 9th of June 1936, the political uprising of the Spanish Civil War began and our writer decided to go and fight in the war on the Republican side with the POUM (the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) organisation. He served as a private, a corporal and a lieutenant in Catalonia and Aragon until June the following year when the organisation was deemed illegal. Shockingly on May 20th 1937 Orwell was shot by a sniper through the neck, after he received aid he returned back to England where he wrote his experiences and views of the Spanish Civil War over the next 9 months until he was healthy again. Homage to Catalonia only sold 900 copies until the beginning of WW2 due to the public’s disagreement with his ideology on Communism in Spain.

Coming Up for Air (12 June 1939, Victor Gollancz Ltd)

This novel conveys Orwell’s ideas on the war to come in comparison with a utopian Thames-side Edwardian envious childhood. After his injury from the Spanish Civil War it was recommended for Orwell to spend the summer months in a warm climate, and author L. H. Myers anonymously gave him £300 so he stayed in French Morocco, North Africa. It is here where Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air and it was the last of his novels to be published by Gollancz. The book centres on nostalgia; we hear our protagonist, George Bowling, from a first person account as he goes on a trip to his boyhood home when he is an adult.

Animal Farm (17 August 1945, Secker and Warburg)

By far Animal Farm has to be Orwell’s most famous written work. Despite all of his past novels with political connotations, it is this one which Orwell explains that the intention was: “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”. The book was written during the end of WW2 when Britain’s relationship with the Soviet Union was at its greatest, and Orwell despised this fact. Thus, the dystopian novel is anti-Stalinist, with the animals in the Farm being allegory of the Communist leaders themselves and in a satire format it reveals the history of the Soviet Union. Animal Farm is one of those books you have to read before you die and it was placed at number 31 on the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (8 June 1949, Secker and Warburg)

Again this anti-Communism theme is the main focus behind Nineteen Eighty-Four and critics argue that this was Orwell’s most acclaimed work of fiction. The adjective, Orwellian, was coined with this book to describe the lack of freedom in society caused by the surveillance of authorities. Our protagonist in the sci-fi tale is Winston Smith whose job at the Ministry of Truth is to re-write the newspapers of the past to suite the ideology of the current party in power, he hates the Party and wants to start a rebellion against it.  Nineteen Eighty-Four has had a large impact on our Big Brother culture, and it is a great resolve for a great writer who died the following year in 1950.

What is your favourite George Orwell novel?


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