By Stephen Wadhams
The author of Animal Farm and 1984—two of the biggest-selling books of the last century—was an eccentric, complicated man. Born into a comfortable English family and educated at Eton, he was in turn a policeman, a tramp, a dishwasher, a journalist, a socialist soldier, and a shopkeeper.
In the summer of 1983, while working as a CBC producer, I spent eight weeks crisscrossing Britain and Spain interviewing more than 70 people who had known Orwell. Here are five of the oddest things I found.
"George Orwell" was not his real name
Legally he lived and died under his real name, Eric Blair. "George Orwell" came into being as he searched for a pseudonym for his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, afraid his account of roughing it with the "lowest of the low" would embarrass his prim and proper parents. Also if the book failed, he could start again with a different name. The new name caused confusion as family and old friends called him Eric and everyone else called him George. Maybe he confused himself too. As a BBC producer in the 1940s he often put his initials "E.B" at the top of a letter and signed it "George Orwell" at the bottom.
Imagine if any of the other names he pitched to his publisher had been picked: Animal Farm and 1984 would be by P.S. Burton, Kenneth Miles, or (gasp!) H. Lewis Allways. And where would we be without the word Orwellian?
There is no known recording of Orwell’s voice
He worked at the BBC for two years, but none of his wartime broadcasts to India have been preserved, nor any interview with him. So what did Orwell sound like? “He talked in a gritty rambling way, in a monotonous kind of growl” is how poet Sir Stephen Spender described it to me. “I used to think it was like going through a London fog, having a conversation with George Orwell.”
It's possible his vocal cords were damaged when he was shot in the neck by a sniper's bullet in the Spanish Civil War and lost his voice completely. “Gradually it came back to be almost normal,” recalled the man who was standing next to him at the time, “but I don't think he ever fully recovered from that.”
Orwell had a dog named Marx
Comrade Marx was a French poodle. “Orwell was a countryman at heart,” said his friends. Back from Spain, writing Homage to Catalonia and running a small village store, he would invite visitors to join him and Marx for long walks across the fields. You could learn a lot about his guests, he said, when they were told what the dog was called; some thought it was named after Karl Marx, others Groucho Marx, and some asked if it was because of the supermarket chain Marks and Spencer.
Orwell also kept chickens and had a goat called Muriel which he grazed on the village green. He wrote Animal Farm from first-hand experience.
Orwell believed he was sterile
“We discussed children once or twice,” said one of the young women he dated. “I said did he want any and he said he didn't think he could have any.” Orwell married his next girlfriend, Oxford grad Eileen O'Shaughnessy. He desperately wanted a child but the years went by and finally he persuaded Eileen to adopt a baby boy.
They called him Richard after Orwell's father. Less than a year later Eileen died under surgery for a routine operation. Orwell was out of the country at the time; he told a friend the last time he saw Eileen "he wanted to tell her he loved her much more since they'd had Richard, and he didn't tell her and he regretted it immensely.”
Orwell had a deathbed second marriage
“George sacrificed himself for the message of 1984,” said a friend appalled at the toll writing, rewriting, and typing the final clean draft of his famous novel had taken on his health. In September 1949, with tuberculosis reducing his body to a skeleton, Orwell moved into a small private room in a London hospital where he shocked everyone by announcing he was planning to marry again. A month later, wearing a purple smoking jacket over his hospital pyjamas, Orwell married the young and beautiful Sonia Brownell. “In 1984 there's a girl called Julia who seems too good to be true,” said David Astor. “I think he saw Sonia that way, the idealized female he dreamed of.”
And Sonia? “Sonia always wanted a genius in her life,” said Stephen Spender, “a genius she could defend against the rest of the world.” Orwell's health improved briefly after the wedding but his illness was unstoppable. On the night of 21 January 1950 he died of a massive hemorrhage of the lung, alone in his hospital room. Sonia, already under suspicion of marrying him for his money, wept copiously.
Stephen Wadhams is the author of The Orwell Tapes, recently published by Locarno Press. He was a producer at the CBC for 42 years and won numerous Canadian and international awards, including a Prix Italia and a lifetime achievement award from Chicago’s Third Coast Festival. He lives in Victoria.More