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Inside George Orwell

by Gordon Bowker

By Michael O'Connor

Inside George Orwell Gordon Bowker
Palgrave MacMillan
September 2003

It's odd to note that the most Orwellian tale that the great British author George Orwell ever took part in was the one that made up his own life. Today, for most readers, Orwell's legacy brings to mind paranoid tales where governments run amok impinging on the rights of their citizens under the guise that it is for their own good. This comes from his two most familiar pieces of fiction, "Animal Farm" and "1984", both tales of power gone awry, where individual rights are taken away for the good of the state.

But even a supremely paranoid mind like Orwell's couldn't have dreamed up the story that was his own life. A socialist, Orwell found his literature often grossly misinterpreted by the public, and in the cases of both "1984" and "Animal Farm", manipulated and pitched by the Right (aided by Orwell's own publisher) as propaganda against Britain's Labour Government, which Orwell actually supported. Could Orwell's life have ended up any differently? His stories are tales of woebegotten souls who achieve freedom at great personal risk and sacrifice only to see that freedom stripped away through deception and cheating. Orwell's life as it turns out was just that. He struggled his whole life to come to a point where he could make a career out of his writing only to find that writing used as propaganda by the very individuals whom it had meant to criticize.

Gordon Bowker's extensively researched new biography "Inside George Orwell" tells the author's own story in great detail. Though there have been several biographies of Orwell published in the past few years (including this years Whitbread Prize winner "Orwell: The Life" by D.J. Taylor), this reader can't imagine one more replete with information about Orwell than "Inside George Orwell." Bowker has done the work of a team of researchers in uncovering one of the most misunderstood and misread author's of the Twentieth Century.

Bowker positions Orwell as a lifelong outsider, whose status, consciousness, and beliefs were constantly at odds with those around him. Born Eric Blair, the son of well-to-do Anglo-Indian parents, from an early age, Orwell developed a keen sense of the class system, and one's designated place within it. Both parents instilled in young Eric the expectation to know his class and play the part, making him painfully aware of the often thin line between classes.

Adding to this awareness was Eric's tenure at St. Cyprian's school for boys and later Eton College, two of England's most elite institutions of learning. Though the Blair's were well off, Eric was not of the same heritage of many of his classmates, who came from some of the most prestigious families in the country. Eric found himself one of the poorer students in his class, a fact often held over his head by the other boys. Compounding this was his constant ill-health (a life-long battle with respiratory problem) which forced him out of many of the activities that could have helped him fit in with the other boys, relegating him to the role of class rebel and cynic.

Bowker does well to illuminate how these formative years influenced the transition from young Eric Blair, the social misfit whose interests in nature, politics, and black magic didn't mesh with the football-frenzied, Oxford-bound set at Eton, to his later personae, the writer George Orwell, whose keen eye and confidence to criticize fellow writers would again put him at odds with his peers. Extracting specific events from Blair's youth, particularly his relationships with friends and female companions, Bowker explains the groundwork that led to the creation of Orwell.

Following graduation, Blair chose not to attend university, rather enrolling with the British police force in Burma. As Orwell would later describe in Burmese Days, his awareness of the hierarchy of colonial life would intensify during his stay in Burma. Bowker describes one poignant moment where Blair witnesses a fellow officer beating a native without cause and to no objection from the surrounding public. Witnessing the brutal oppression of the natives by his fellow officers, Blair would begin to take a sincere interest in how this other half lived, becoming particularly intrigued with the lives of prostitutes, drug-abusers, and derelicts.

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