Son and Student
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903, in Bengal, India, where his father, Richard Walmesley Blair, was an official in the Opium Department. Like many middle-to-upper-class men of his time, Richard Blair served the British Empire in its most prized and lucrative colony. In 1896, he met Ida Amble Limouzin, a British governess 20 years his junior, also living in India. After their marriage, the couple lived in Bengal for eight years, where they had two children: Marjorie (born 1898) and Eric. One year after Eric’s birth, Ida moved back to England. For the next eight years, Eric would see his father for only three months in 1907, during one of his leaves. A third child, Avril, was born in 1908. Richard did not see his youngest child until his return to England when he retired from the Opium Department in 1912.
Eric spent his early boyhood in Henley, Oxfordshire, where he was an admittedly “chubby boy” who enjoyed walks in the Oxfordshire countryside. During this time, he began to vaguely understand his family’s need to spend money to “keep up appearances” and the differences between members of different social classes: A friendship with a plumber’s daughter was broken by his mother because she found the girl “too common.” Not surprisingly, Eric was enthralled with books, notably Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — a novel whose political satire would find its way into the books of George Orwell.
In the summer of 1911, Eric entered into the defining phase of his childhood when he was admitted to St. Cyprian’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne with a reputation for readying boys for notable “public” (that is, private) schools. He began his first term there in 1912 and, until he left it five years later, almost wholly dreaded and hated the experience. He was humiliated as a bed wetter, forced to memorize streams of dates and names, mocked by the wealthier boys, and led to believe that (in his own words), “[l]ife was more terrible, and I was more wicked, than I had imagined.” The headmaster and his wife routinely reminded Eric that he was attending their school on a partial scholarship in order to shame him into behaving as they wished — this was another lesson to young Eric about the importance of social class and money. His years at St. Cyprian’s are described at length in his essay, “Such, Such, Were the Joys … ” (1952), and a reader of the essay can see that it was at St. Cyprian’s that Orwell began to truly recognize the ways in which the strong belittle, control, and terrorize the weak — an idea that would later inform his political views and two most renowned novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although Orwell did enjoy some of his time at St. Cyprians (collecting butterflies, for example), he yearned for the escape he finally achieved when his impressive grades earned him a scholarship at Wellington College, where he went in 1916.
After spending only nine weeks at Wellington, however, Eric learned that he had been accepted to Eton — one of the nation’s most prestigious schools — as a King’s Scholar, whose education was almost entirely paid for by a scholarship. Eric’s grades at Eton were unimpressive, although he did read a great deal, especially modern writers like Jack London, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw, who undoubtedly helped Eric shape his growing social consciousness. Eton was also the place where Eric began to write seriously, although what remains from this period is largely juvenilia. In December of 1921, Eric graduated from Eton, and although many Eton boys continued their studies at Oxford or Cambridge, Eric’s marks were too low for him to receive a scholarship. His father (understandably) refused to pay for more schooling if Eric was not prepared to perform. Facing an undecided future, the 18-year-old Eric Blair made a decision that would heighten his awareness of politics and the abuses of power done in the name of goodness and moral virtue.
Officer and Tramp
If Eric could not become a scholar, he knew that he had a good chance at becoming a servant of the Empire which had employed his father for 30 years. He announced to his parents that he wanted to become a police officer in India, and they approved. Inspired by the status of the position, the good wages he would earn, and perhaps by a desire to see remote parts of the world, Orwell took and passed the admission test for the Imperial Police. When asked to name the Indian province to which he would most like to be assigned, Eric requested Burma — a shocking answer for a man his age, since Burma was an often lawless place, high on crime but low on comforts. He had little experience as a soldier (save for the Officer Training Corps at Eton) and none in a police force. There was also a great amount of tension in Burma between the British and Indian populations. Despite these apparent deterrents, in November, 1922, Eric arrived in Mandalay, Burma, to begin his new career as an Assistant Superintendent of Police in the Indian Imperial Police Force.
While in Burma, Eric developed a great distaste for the British rule of India and for imperialism altogether. As a police officer, he was expected to maintain order in a population that detested him. In turn, he also sometimes hated those he was being paid to protect. As he describes in “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), imperialism destroys both the rulers and the ruled: “I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.” His experiences in Burma would find their way into his essay “A Hanging” (1931) and his first novel, Burmese Days (1934). He resigned from the Indian Imperial Police Force in 1928 and returned to England, a 25-five year-old determined to become a writer able to comment on his ever-growing political consciousness.