Meet the top 100: George Orwell

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ― George Orwell

George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in British India in 1905 and moved to England with his mother and sister a year later. His private education in England included four years at Eton, where he worked on three college publications: The Election Times, College Days and Bubble and Squeak. With too little money to send him to university (and since his academic record wasn’t good enough to get him a scholarship), Orwell’s family decided he should join the Imperial Police, which would later become the Indian Police Service.

He chose a posting in Burma, where his grandmother lived, and started in 1922. He was soon a sub-divisional officer, responsible for the security of 200,000 people, and was promoted to Assistant District Superintendent at the end of 1924. Posted in Syriam, he would head into Rangoon often, “to browse in a bookshop; to eat well-cooked food; to get away from the boring routine of police life.”

After contracting dengue fever in 1927, he went to England to recover and decided not to return to Burma. Instead, he would become a writer. Settled in England and taking inspiration from American novelist Jack London, Orwell started to explore poverty, dressing like a tramp and staying in lodging houses. He moved to Paris in 1928, and his time in the two cities formed the basis of his book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933).

In 1932, Orwell became a teacher; two years later he changed direction and took a part-time assistant job in London, at Booklovers’ Corner, a second-hand bookshop. This gave him the time to write more seriously.

Over the next two years, he travelled around the north of England and wrote The Road to Wigan Pier – a book that documents his northern adventure and an exploration of the development of his political conscience. Working on the book led to him being put under surveillance for twelve years by the Special Branch.

He married Eileen O’Shaughnessy in June 1936, then travelled to Spain to fight in the Civil War; he reportedly told John McNair of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) Office: “I’ve come to fight against Fascism.” Unfortunately, being much taller than most of the Spanish soldiers (1.88m), he was an easy target, and was shot in the throat by a sniper.

Following his return to England in 1937, he fell ill with tuberculosis. He set off for warmer shores to recover in 1938, visiting Gibraltar, Tangier and Morocco. By the start of the Second World War, he was unfit for service, so instead he joined the Home Guard. In 1941, he joined the BBC full-time to supervise cultural broadcasts to India, against Nazi propaganda, to which writers including T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and E. M. Forster contributed.

He left the BBC in 1943, giving him the chance to concentrate on writing Animal Farm. It was published in 1945, with great success, putting him in demand. He started work on Nineteen Eighty-Four the next year, and it was published to high acclaim in the summer of 1949, when his health had declined dramatically. On 21 January 1950, Orwell died when an artery burst in his lung.

As a novelist, journalist, essayist and critic, Orwell was a champion of clear, truthful and sincere writing, which gives his work a freshness that remains decades later. Steeped in his contemporary social context, his novels were imaginative and futuristic, and he came up with many neologisms that have since been absorbed into our everyday language: Thought Police, Big Brother, Room 101, newspeak, thoughtcrime.

Orwell put issues like social injustice and totalitarianism in the spotlight, and the impact of his works, including Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, resulted in widespread use of the word Orwellian to describe totalitarian or authoritarian social practices.

Many of Orwell’s essays deal with war, having been influenced by his experience in Burma, which he is said to have felt guilty about. He strongly supported democratic socialism and wrote about the language of politics: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He also wrote about the craft of writing, and some of his advice has been widely cited, including: “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

Why is he on the list?

Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.

  • Best-selling books – Wikipedia (various sources)
  • Goodreads Best Books Ever
  • The Best 100 Authors
  • Ranker
  • Book Depository
  • Bucket List Bookshop 2017 survey
  • Top 100 Works in World Literature
  • The Ideal Library
  • 100 Life-Changing Books
  • 100 books to read in a lifetime
  • 100 Greatest novels of all time
  • The 100 best novels written in English

Read about Orwell

George Orwell: The Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin


Image: Wikimedia Commons