I recently picked up a copy of Orwell Remembered (1984), edited by Audrey Coppard and Bernard Crick. The first selection is by a former neighbor who made friends with Eric Blair in 1914. Blair (better known by his pen name “George Orwell”) would have been eleven at the time. We are told that when on visits home from boarding school he was unaccompanied by friends. It was just he and his sister playing in the garden of the children next door. The culture of that time was very different and much more private. For a corroborative account by a contemporary of Orwell, I recommend Douglas Jerrold’s memoir Georgian Adventure (1938).
By all accounts Orwell was fond of his mother. His relationship with his father, who was considerably older, was respectful but aloof. His upbringing was secular and he was introduced early on to socialist ideas that would form his mature worldview. Orwell’s sister Avril Dunn provides a glimpse from a later stage in her brother’s life.
When he came back from Burma in 1926 [at age 23], his appearance had changed quite considerably. He’d become very much like my father to look at.
One can’t help but note an ironic fact about the burgeoning progressive. As Avril writes
I suppose being used to a lot of servants in India he’d become terribly – to our minds – untidy. Whenever he smoked a cigarette he threw the end down on the floor – and the match – and expected other people to sweep them up.
Finally, toward the end of Orwell’s life, in 1945, the author found refuge in Barnhill, a remote house in Jura, a bleak island off the coast of Scotland.
There was no more than a cart-track up to the house, eight miles long, and there was no telephone or electric light. It was almost like camping out. But he felt that he could really settle down and write there in a peace and quiet.
This penchant for domestic austerity in the lives of many older British authors, including Hilaire Belloc and David Jones, is apparently rooted in the culture. The lack of creature comforts, like decent heating and regular hot baths, was something I encountered in many places in England just a couple of decades ago. That said, I can appreciate Orwell’s longing to get away from the madding crowd. I am reminded of another contemporary, the French author André Maurois, of whom it is said that amid a busy writing and lecture schedule “he retreated annually to a country house without a telephone.”