L’Enfant Terrible: How Eric Blair became George Orwell

(originally published in 2008 at wilhed.wordpress.com)

George Orwell aka Eric Blair
University of Adelaide, in Australia, has a free collection of ebooks on Orwell:


How Eric Blair became George Orwell

By David G. Wilhelm

Born Arthur Eric Blair in 1903 (d. 1950), Orwell chose his nom de plume shortly after publication of his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London, pub. 1933 by Gollancz, London-based independent/socialist publishing house.

A now widely read classic, Down and Out was the result of Blair’s years of “tramping” among the poor and destitute of those cities. As a well-educated grad of Eton and the prestigious boarding school St. Cyprian’s, contemporaneous reviewers grant that the young author was “down” – his characterizations struck a note of uncanny accuracy – but were skeptical as to whether the fledgling author was truly “out”. Orwell was inspired by Jack London’s 1902 English sojourn, chronicled in The People of the Abyss (1903), an exposé of the slum conditions of London’s East-End. Like London, Orwell’s “tramping” required dress as “a vagabond” so to blend in with the lower classes.

But where Jack London had been commissioned to write the Abyss, Orwell set out to write, though with no major prior arrangement or back-up. He was on an adventure, and really was poor. If he did not share the proles‘ (another Jack London-coined term) birth or “class”, he did share the lower-classes’ living conditions, starting out (as did London) in Lew Levy’s “kip”, or boarding house, in the East End on Westminster Bridge Road. And later, over on the west side, he worked for shillings at Bllingsgate fish market for three weeks, staying in another Levy kip. Yet, he was also sending manuscripts to T.S. Elliot, writing reviews for the socialist magazine The New Adelphi, and corresponding with his editor at Gollancz, Sir Richard Rees.

Spring of 1928, Orwell decided to go to Paris. Despite continued success selling short pieces to small journals there and in England, Bernard Crick in his biography George Orwell: A Life (pub. 1980) claims that he ran out of money and was forced to look for other work. He found a job as a plongeur – a dishwasher – “in a fashionable hotel on the rue de Rivoli.” Though not a bad-paying job by most standards, it was out of necessity, belying somewhat the skeptical reviews as to the author’s sincerity. Identity can be slippery. Shortly before publication the, as yet, Eric Blair wrote to his literary agent Leonard Moore, ‘As to a pseudonym, a name I always use when tramping etc. is P.S. Burton.’ And so Orwell would have kept in character. Indeed, the narrative of Down and Out does jump straight in, offering no explanation of who the author/narrator is or how he got to these down and out places.

Crick writes colorfully of the exchanges between Orwell and Gollancz before the novel’s publication, that the title and pseudonym were undecided in November even as a January deadline loomed:

Gollancz favored ‘The Confessions of a Down and Out’, but Blair protested
that ‘I don’t answer to the name of down and out…’. He favoured
‘The Confessions of a Dishwasher’.

A compromise was finally reached for ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, but so late that the first edition was printed with ‘Confessions of a Down and Out’ as the running header on the pages!

He wrote to Moore, ‘…but if you think this sounds a probable kind of name, what about Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, H. Lewis Allways. I rather favour George Orwell.’ And so, Bernard Crick writes in his biography, did Gollancz.

And so publication of “Down and Out in Paris and London”, Eric Blair’s first serious novel, cemented the name George Orwell for good – and the rest is history – on up the later 1984, and canonizing of the name as a not rarely-used adjective in the English language.

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English (online edition):


• adjective relating to the work of the British novelist George Orwell (1903-50), especially the totalitarian state depicted in Nineteen Eighty-four


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Filed under essays, George Orwell

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