In the 50 years since his death, Orwell has become England's secular saint.by Geoffrey Wheatcroft / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fifty years after his death, George Orwell looms larger than ever. His aura has never been greater, nor his name invoked more often. There is a strange symmetry about his life, death and legacy. His lifetime was almost exactly covered by the first half of the 20th century: he was born in June 1903 and died in January 1950. But it’s the second half of the century which has been “the age of Orwell,” with his shadow lengthening all the time. He captivates us and haunts us. He is cited or prayed in aid by politicians and polemicists on diametrically opposed sides. His name resonates across the world, but in England it has acquired the flavour of a household god.
The real-life Orwell’s last years were a kind of martyrdom: journalistic drudgery; the failure to have children of his own; his wife’s sudden death; the struggle to bring up his adopted son; the slow, horrible death from lung disease; marriage on his deathbed to the frightful Sonia (who didn’t love or desire him and was, according to literary lore, still Cyril Connolly’s mistress at the time).
All this was only made more bitter by the irony that he had become famous and rich just when it could help him no more. Orwell might have echoed Mozart’s wistful complaint that he was paid too much for what he should not be doing and too little for what he should: compare the international bestsellerdom of Nineteen Eighty-Four with Homage to Catalonia, now one of his most admired books, which sold fewer than 700 copies in its first two years.
In the 50 years since his death, he has become a secular saint, his cultus growing wider and wider. In many ways, he is the English writer of the 20th century. Compare him with the remarkable generation to which he belonged. George Orwell (or Eric Blair) was at Eton with Connolly and Anthony Powell, both friends later in his life, not to say with Robert Byron and Henry Yorke (“Henry Green”). If he had gone to Oxford, as he might have done if family finances had allowed, he would have been there with Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Kenneth Clark and Claud Cockburn. A little later came “the nancy poets,” as Orwell called WH Auden and Stephen Spender.