The last days of George Orwell

By Jonathon Van Maren

For a man who breathed his last at the young age of forty-six, Eric Arthur Blair—better known as George Orwell—had an impact on the Anglosphere he left behind that is almost unparalleled. A journalist, novelist, and diarist, his works have been read by generations of schoolchildren, and his name is invoked by politicians of both the Left and the Right to accuse their opponents of the “Orwellian” practices of state surveillance, gaslighting, brazen lies, mob trial, and more. In all likelihood, he would have despised them all.

Orwell was born on June 25, 1903 in eastern India to a British colonial civil servant who shipped him back to England to get his education at Eton. His short life unfolded in unlikely places around the world, beginning in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, and after his resignation from that force in 1927, he ended up working a series of menial jobs in Paris as he struggled to make his name as a writer. In 1933, his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, was published just after he took the name George Orwell to avoid embarrassing his family with his exploits. Burmese Days followed in 1934.

His political affiliations zig-zagged with his travels. In the late 1920s he was an anarchist, but by the 1930s he was a self-styled socialist. In 1936, he was commissioned to write an account of the grinding poverty among the jobless miners of northern England, which was published in 1937 as The Road to Wigan Pier. Later in 1936, Orwell travelled to Spain to fight Franco’s Nationalists, took a bullet in the throat, and eventually fled, fearing that the Soviet-backed communists there would kill him along with other socialists who dissented from their goals. It was this experience that transformed Orwell into a prescient and passionate anti-Stalinist, and he summarized his short war in Homage to Catalonia.

He was a man of the Left, but hated the evil empire that so many progressives sought to defend. It also might surprise many left-wingers who like to claim Eric Blair as their own to know that Orwell was very anti-abortion. He was a man of principle, and he hated injustice wherever he found it.

During the Second World War, Orwell worked on propaganda for the British Broadcasting Corporation as his writing career exploded. He picked up a literary editorship at the Tribune, and in 1945 his novel Animal Farm was published, excoriating the absurdities of Joseph Stalin’s murderous regime. His most famous novel, 1984, was published in 1949 and contained phrases that still litter the English language: “Newspeak,” “Big Brother,” and more. By this point, he had nearly worked himself to death, and he died of tuberculosis on January 21, 1950. He never witnessed the phenomenal success his work would see over the ensuing decades.

Today is George Orwell’s 116nth birthday, and everyone who knew him during his career has long followed him into the grave—all except one. Many people do not know that Richard Horatio Blair, himself now an elderly man of 75 years old, is the adopted son of Eric Blair, and still remembers the handful of years he spent with his famous father. I wanted to speak with someone who knew Orwell personally, and a few years ago I managed to track Blair down and give him a call. He held his silence for years, but when I contacted him, he was more than happy to talk about his father. His gravelly voice made for easy listening.

“[My story] starts on the fourteenth of May 1944, when I was adopted by Eric Arthur Blair and his wife Eileen,” he told me. “This was of course during the Second World War. He’d been wanting a child for several years because he felt, rightly or wrongly, that he was unable to have children himself. I think this was compounded slightly by the fact that Eileen—my mother—was not very well herself, and in fact when I was ten months old, in March of 1945, she went to the hospital in Newcastle, which was the area where she was born and had gone to school. She went into a nursing home and died very soon after being anesthetized to have a hysterectomy. She probably had cancer, she was very anemic, and she simply had a heart attack on the operating table and died.”

The adoption had come about when Eileen was told by her sister-in-law, Dr. Gwen Shaughnessy, that she knew of a pregnant woman whose husband was off fighting. Orwell and Eileen adopted Richard when he was only three weeks old, and Orwell ensured that he alone would be known as Richard’s father by burning the names of the birth parents from the birth certificate with a cigarette. Richard would never get to know Eileen, as she died tragically a mere nine months after the adoption took place, leaving the little boy and Orwell to fend for themselves. In fact, some of Orwell’s friends suggested that perhaps he turn Richard over to someone else, but Orwell was having none of it. “I’ve got my son now, I’m not going to give him over,” Blair recalled. Blair even remembers Orwell “changing my nappy and feeding me after my mother died,” which is certainly a strange way to imagine the great writer.

“Meanwhile, my father had been asked to go to Germany at the end of the war by his friend, a gentleman by the name of David Astor of the Astor family,” Blair told me. “He was the proprietor of a newspaper called The Observer, and he asked my father—they had met during the war and become friends—to go to Germany after the war to observe what was happening, and it was while he was in Paris that he got a telegram telling him that Eileen, my mother, had died. So he had to rush back and attend to the funeral and funeral arrangements. He decided the best thing he could do would be to go back to Germany and continue his war report, so that’s what he did. I was placed in the hands of relatives and friends to be looked after. I was cared for from that period onward by a nanny.”

“When we came to 1946,” he went on, “he had decided to give up his reviews and extra work, because by now he had published his first major book, Animal Farm, which gave him enough resources to think about what to do next. And he had in his mind by then that what he wanted to write [was] what turned out to be 1984, and to this end he decided that he would take the invitation of his friend David Astor to go to a remote island off the west coast of Scotland called Jura. He went up for a holiday, and spent a couple of weeks there in the early part of 1946, came back, and announced that he would like to move out of London to this island of Jura and rent a farmhouse called Barnhill. A few weeks later I joined him with my nanny at the farmhouse, a place he had indicated to a friend was a very ‘un-get-at-able’ place.”

And indeed it was. To reach the remote Hebridean island from London, “you had to take a train and several ferries, and then a taxi from the top part of the island, and then for the last five miles you had to walk,” Blair remembered. At first, it was Richard, Orwell, and his nanny, Susie Watson. This didn’t last long: Watson clashed with Orwell’s younger sister Avril, and Watson headed back to London. “From that point on,” Blair told me, “I was cared for by my father’s sister Avril, and that continued well past when he died in 1950.” In the meantime, however, Blair still had a few precious years with his ailing father, who was trying to balance his fear of passing on his tuberculosis to his son and wanting to be an involved father. “He was really hands-on in a way that was really unusual for that era,” Blair told one interviewer.

In fact, he was so hands-on that he even worried about Richard’s television consumption, which is perhaps not surprising from someone who was so concerned about how people absorbed information and what sort of information they were being fed—but Richard was, at this point, a very small child. “As a father he was completely devoted to me,” Blair told me. “He was terribly worried about my emotional development simply because he had TV, and he was very concerned that the views [on TV] might be passed on to me.” Blair still bears a scar on his temple from balancing on a chair while “watching him make a wooden toy for me.” He fell off the chair, cracked his head, and was bustled down to the village for a few stitches in the enormous gash on his forehead. “There’s a groove in the bone,” he ruefully told one interviewer. But there were no tests or that sort of thing in those days, and so his head was sewed shut and he was shuttled back home again.

On the other hand, Orwell sometimes treated his son like an adult. A heavy smoker, Orwell would roll his own cigarettes with pipe tobacco, Black shag roll-ups. If he ran out of rolling paper, he’d use old newspapers. During lunch, he’d flick the shrivelled butts into the empty fireplace, and one day Richard “had found an old pipe—I was about age three, three-and-a-half—and I’d found an old wooden pipe. So after lunch I got down, and I decided to fill the bowl with cigarette ends.” Once he completed that task, he asked for a light. His father, who was absorbed in conversation, reached behind his back and handed his son a lighter. The boy lit the pipe, and promptly and predictably became “violently ill.” It rather amused Orwell, who thought that his son had probably “learned your lesson.” The eye-watering lungful of smoke and the resulting fit of vomiting, Blair noted ruefully, “are some of the things you tend to remember quite vividly.”

Blair also remembers the constant clacking of his father’s typewriter. “He was writing what would turn out to be 1984,” he told me. “He would write all morning, and then come for lunch.” Then the clacking would resume, his father usually obscured by veils of smoke. He’d re-emerge in early evening, and “of course in summertime in that part of the world, it didn’t get dark until half past ten at night, and we’d go out. We’d go fishing, which he really enjoyed. We’d go fishing for mackerel, lobster, or anything else we could catch. This was very useful, of course, because it supplemented our diet. You have to remember that in wartime England and just afterward, you couldn’t just buy anything—you had to have a ration card.” If you used a bit too much butter and ran out, for example, you just had to wait until the next coupon came up.

One of Richard Blair’s few vivid memories of this happy time was a nearly tragic accident. Three cousins, Henry, James, and Lucy had come to visit them in August of 1947, and they embarked on a camping trip to the “wild side of the island” and went on a fishing expedition to a shepherd’s hut. A storm resulted in the boat capsizing and Orwell, his son, and the three relatives nearly drowning in the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Orwell, weakened by tuberculosis and attempting to swim out of the whirlpool that had tossed them into the sea, spotted a seal watching their misadventure and noted wryly that, “Curious thing about seals, very inquisitive creatures.” They were rescued by a lobster boat. An unplanned dip in the sea might “sound silly,” Blair told me, but “this sort of accident at sea can very quickly turn into tragedy.” If things had gone differently, 1984 would never have been published: “That would have ended Orwell and the book. That particular story managed to make the papers the next day.”

It was already clear by this point that Orwell was dying. “He was finished 1984, and exhausted himself,” Blair remembered. “The tuberculosis was really quite rampant in his lungs.” In January 1949, it was decided that Orwell would head to a sanitorium, and a car came to pick him up and take him to the ferry. “Sitting in the car with him, it was quite sad, really,” Blair recalled. “He realized that this could well be his last journey. He didn’t want to die, he didn’t have a death wish or anything, but I think he simply drove himself a little too hard.” On that last day on Jura, the car broke down, and the others had to walk back to Barnhill to fetch a jack. Father and son were left alone in the car, eating candies. “He told me stories and made up poetry,” Blair said later. “I think he knew he might not be coming back again.”

Orwell’s prediction was correct. He was first interred in a sanitorium in Gloucestershire, where Blair remembers being allowed to visit him on the weekends, noting sadly that “I didn’t understand, really, what his problem was.” Eventually, he would be taken to the University College Hospital in London, where each afternoon a funereal procession of visitors would arrive at his bedside, including Anthony Powell, Malcolm Muggeridge, and an assortment of other scribblers. Every now and again, someone was permitted to come in with little Richard Blair, who was only allowed to remain for a moment or two before he was escorted out again. George Orwell was, at this point, so terrified at the possibility of transmitting his disease to his adopted son that he refused to allow the little boy to touch him. His care was paid for by the already-fabulous success of 1984, which had been published in June of 1949 and had already sold 25,000 copies by January of 1950.

Despite his failing condition, the dying writer was unexpectedly and strangely happy—one frequent visitor was the beautiful, brown-haired Sonia Brownell, a girl sixteen years younger than himself. She worked for the monthly magazine Horizon, and as Orwell had been told by one doctor that he had a “relatively” good chance of living awhile longer, he proposed to her, and she accepted. They were married on October 13, 1949, in Orwell’s hospital room, with David Astor giving away the bride in the presence of several others, including Powell, Muggeridge, and Sonia’s friend Janetta Kee. To this day nobody quite knows why Brownell agreed to marry Orwell—she had no idea at that point that his work would become unbelievably famous in the years ahead, and Powell believed that she married him simply because her mentor Cyril Connolly, the owner of Horizon, had told her to.

In any event, Orwell was scheduled to be taken to Switzerland, where it was hoped that the crisp mountain air at a sanitorium in the Alps might help his recovery along. The drug that doctors had tried on Orwell, streptomycin, made him worse—Blair told me that he was allergic, and that tuberculosis treatments were at that point simply too unsophisticated to save his life. George Orwell died on January 21, 1950 of a massive lung hemorrhage, leaving behind a thirty-year-old wife and a five-year-old son. Richard was in Jura with Orwell’s sister Avril, and he heard about his father’s death on the 8 PM news. His aunt became his legal guardian, and in a will written three days before he died, Orwell ensured his son would be take care of by means of a generous life insurance policy. His new wife Sonia would take charge of his literary estate.

Thus departed one of the 20th century’s greatest literary icons, and his fame would only grow in the years ahead. His books would prove to be parables if not for all times, then certainly for our times, and the pseudonym Eric Arthur Blair chose for himself would enter the English language as a way of describing the totalitarian societies he despised. Sonia spent a fortune protecting his legacy, and died penniless in 1980. Richard Blair became an engineer and also promotes his father’s legacy, and is perhaps the last one yet living who remembers Orwell as a man rather than a legend. We are all grateful for the insights Orwell left behind, and I am grateful that his son was willing to share just a few memories of the writer he remembers as a devoted father.

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For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.

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