13 Surprising Facts About George Orwell

Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He's best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. In remembrance of Orwell, who was born 115 years ago this month, here are 13 facts about his life that may surprise you.

1. HE ATTENDED PREP SCHOOL AS A CHILD—AND HATED IT.

Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive." While Blair's misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.

2. HE WAS A PRANKSTER.

Blair was expelled from his "crammer" school (an institution designed to help students "cram" for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?'

Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.

3. HE WORKED A NUMBER OF ODD JOBS FOR MOST OF HIS CAREER.

A photo of Orwell with a BBC microphone

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)

4. HE ONCE GOT HIMSELF ARRESTED ON PURPOSE.


The National Archives UK // Public Domain

In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.

5. HE HAD KNUCKLE TATTOOS.

While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it's more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. "He was never a properly 'correct' member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs," Bowker wrote.

6. HE KNEW SEVEN FOREIGN LANGUAGES, TO VARYING DEGREES.

Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.

7. HE VOLUNTARILY FOUGHT IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR.

Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

8. HIS MANUSCRIPT FOR ANIMAL FARM WAS NEARLY DESTROYED BY A BOMB.


Thomas D, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.

9. HE HAD A GOAT NAMED MURIEL.

He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.

10. HE COINED THE TERM “COLD WAR.”

The first recorded usage of the phrase “cold war” in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”

11. HE RATTED OUT CHARLIE CHAPLIN AND OTHER ARTISTS FOR ALLEGEDLY BEING COMMUNISTS.

Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell's list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).

Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”

12. HE REALLY HATED AMERICAN FASHION MAGAZINES.

A woman reads a fashion magazine in the '40s
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”

As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:

"Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: 'A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.' 'Bared and beautifully bosomy.' 'Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!' 'Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'"

In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.

13. HE NEARLY DROWNED WHILE WRITING NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.

One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world's third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death from tuberculosis.

11 Chilling Facts About Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House

Can a house be born bad? That’s the question Shirley Jackson asks in her classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Released in 1959, the gothic novel follows four strangers who converge on a purportedly haunted house to “scientifically” seek out evidence of the paranormal. Things rapidly devolve and the characters—in particular, the novel’s lonely protagonist, Eleanor—realize, too late, that they’re in over their heads.

Upon its release, the novel sold briskly, earning Jackson a National Book Award nomination and high praise from critics. In its review, The New York Times called the story “caviar for connoisseurs of the cryptic” and described Jackson as “the finest master currently practicing in the genre of the cryptic, haunted tale.” It also caught the attention of Hollywood, and within four years MGM released a film adaptation, directed by Robert Wise. Since then, the novel has been made into a play and into a widely panned 1999 movie. On October 12, the first ever television series based on the novel will be released by Netflix.

Whether you’re getting ready to dig into the horrors of Hill House on Netflix or a fan of the original novel, here are 11 facts about The Haunting of Hill House you should know.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY REAL-LIFE PARANORMAL INVESTIGATORS

A photo of a ghost in the 1890s
The National Archives UK // Public Domain

Jackson was inspired to write the novel after reading about a group of 19th century “psychic researchers” who rented a house they believed to be haunted in order to study paranormal phenomena. The researchers studiously recorded their experiences in the house, and presented them in the form of a treatise to the Society for Psychic Research. In her essay “Experience and Fiction,” Jackson explained that she was most intrigued by the way the researchers revealed their own personalities and backgrounds throughout the study. “They thought they were being terribly scientific and proving all kinds of things,” she explained. “And yet the story that kept coming through their dry reports was not at all the story of a haunted house, it was the story of several earnest, I believe misguided, certainly determined people, with their differing motivations and backgrounds.”

2. JACKSON HAD A TERRIFYING SLEEPWALKING EXPERIENCE WHILE WRITING THE NOVEL ...

Early on in the writing process, Jackson awoke one morning to find something terrifying atop her writing desk: A note, with the words “DEAD DEAD” scrawled upon it, written in her own handwriting. Jackson, who loved ghost stories but did not believe in ghosts, brushed the strange discovery off as sleepwalking. In “Experience and Fiction,” she wrote that she used the strange note to motivate her, explaining, “I decided that I had better write the book awake, which I got to work and did.”

3. ... AND MADE AN UNSETTLING DISCOVERY WHILE RESEARCHING HAUNTED HOUSES.

A haunted house on a hill
iStock.com/DNY59

Before she began writing The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson scoured magazines and newspapers for photos of houses that seemed haunted. During her research, she stumbled upon a photo of a house in California that had a particular air of “disease and decay.” She was so struck by it, she asked her mother, who lived in California, if she could find any additional information about the house. Her mother’s response shocked Jackson: Not only was she familiar with the house, but Jackson's own great-grandfather had built it. After standing empty for many years, the house had been set on fire—possibly by a group of townspeople.

4. THERE WAS ORIGINALLY MORE THAN ONE VERSION OF ELEANOR.

In A Rather Haunted Life, Shirley Jackson biographer Ruth Franklin writes that Jackson initially struggled to decide what kind of character her protagonist, Eleanor, would be. Jackson wrote three different iterations of Eleanor before settling on her final version. One, according to Franklin, was “a spinster with a swagger”—a far cry from the introverted Eleanor of the finished novel.

5. IT'S A GHOST STORY WITHOUT GHOSTS.

Jackson often referred to the novel as a “good ghost story” despite the fact that it doesn't have any overt ghosts. Instead, it’s the house itself that seems to do the haunting. In her notes for the novel, Jackson explained, “The House is the haunting.” While much of the novel is left ambiguous, Jackson was clear about the connections between Hill House and her protagonist, Eleanor. “Jackson clearly intended the external signs of haunting to be interpreted as manifestations of Eleanor’s troubled psyche,” Franklin explains in A Rather Haunted Life. At the same time, Franklin notes, “The novel makes it clear that something in the house brings out the disturbance in Eleanor.”

6. JACKSON'S HUSBAND WAS TOO AFRAID TO READ IT.

Jackson’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a well-known literary critic and professor who enthusiastically read all of his wife’s books—but not The Haunting of Hill House. According to Franklin, “For the first time he refused to read her manuscript: He found the concept of ghosts too frightening.”

7. THE NOVEL HAS EARNED COMPARISONS TO THE TURN OF THE SCREW.

Since its release, critics and fans have drawn comparisons between The Haunting of Hill House and the writings of everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to Hilary Mantel. But the comparison that comes up the most is to Henry James’s classic novel The Turn of the Screw. In her introduction to The Haunting of Hill House, Laura Miller explains that the two novels share common themes, including “a lonely, imaginative young woman” and “a big isolated house.” In his 1981 book Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes, “It seems to me that [The Haunting of Hill House] and James’s The Turn of the Screw are the only two great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years.”

8. IT WAS JACKSON'S FIRST PROFITABLE NOVEL.

The Haunting of Hill House wasn’t just Jackson’s most popular novel: It was her first profitable novel. “Hill House was a financial and critical triumph," Franklin writes. “For the first time, a novel of [Jackson’s] had finally earned back its advance and was even making a profit.”

9. SHE SOLD THE FILM RIGHTS FOR $67,500—AND USED THE MONEY TO BUY A WASHING MACHINE.

When Jackson sold the movie rights to Hill House for $67,500 (“an astronomical fee for the time,” notes Miller), it propelled her family into true financial stability for the first time. They used the money from the film to pay off their mortgage and all other debts, and to buy living room drapes, a player piano, and a washing machine and dryer.

10. ROALD DAHL SENT JACKSON A LETTER AFTER READING IT.

Roald Dahl
Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Legendary children’s author Roald Dahl was so struck by The Haunting of Hill House, he wrote to Jackson suggesting she write for television. According to Jackson biographer Lenemaja Friedman, Dahl asked her to “consider writing a script for a television show that Ellyn Williams was doing in Britain.” It’s unclear whether Dahl himself was working on the show (his TV series Way Out premiered in 1961, two years after the publication of Hill House), but Jackson ultimately refused his request.

11. THE NOVEL HAS A LOT OF FAMOUS FANS.

Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, and Carmen Maria Machado are all huge fans. Del Toro included Hill House in a series of six classic horror novels he curated for Penguin, Maria Machado called it “the scariest novel I’ve ever read,” and Neil Gaiman has written that, while plenty of novels have scared him, Hill House “beats them all.” Stephen King, meanwhile, has written that Hill House has one of the best openings he’s ever read, calling it “the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for.”

JK Rowling's Newest Obsession? A Teenager's 350-Year-Old Math Notebook

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

Inspiration can be found in surprising places—including the math notebook of an 18th-century farm boy. As the BBC reports, a collection of 350-year-old doodles posted on Twitter recently went viral, and now they've caught the attention of author JK Rowling.

The Museum of English Rural Life shared pages pulled from its archives in a Twitter thread on Saturday, October 6. The book, dating from 1784, belonged to a 13-year-old boy named Richard Beale from Biddenden in the English county of Kent. It was primarily a math notebook, but the owner also apparently used it to explore his artistic side.

Beale scribbled some elaborate drawings around his equations. In one doodle, a pair of triangles spans the width of a city street. In another, an angle overlaps with a mountain with a burning fortress at its peak.

One figure, a black-and-white dog, appears throughout the book, leading the museum to believe it may have been the teen's family pet. Beale also sketched a picture of a chicken wearing trousers.

J.K. Rowling retweeted the thread on Sunday, to which the museum responded with a request for her to make the pants-clad chicken the protagonist of her next book series.

She responded: "Way ahead of you. He's best friends with a duck in a balaclava."

The notebook is part of a collection of farm diaries that was donated to the Museum of Rural English Life a few years ago. Researchers looking to appreciate Beale's detailed doodles in person can access them through the museum's reading room.

[h/t BBC]

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