Celebrating 80 years of publishing a great writer

Totalitarianism, imperialism exposed by Orwell

A number of special events are planned by Penguin Books to celebrate their publishing the work of George Orwell for 80 years. The events include new audiobooks of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm”, a paperback edition of Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant”, new-look editions of his best-loved fiction and the first ever graphic novel of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.
10. January 2021 14:40

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair on 25 June 1903 in eastern India, the son of a British colonial civil servant. He was educated in England and, after he left Eton, joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, then a British colony. He resigned in 1927 and decided to become a writer.

In 1928 he moved to Paris where lack of success as a writer forced him into a series of menial jobs. He described his experiences in his first book, “Down and Out in Paris and London”, published in 1933. He took the name George Orwell shortly before its publication. This was followed by his first novel, “Burmese Days”, in 1934.

An anarchist in the late 1920s, by the 1930s he had begun to consider himself a socialist. In 1936 he was commissioned to write an account of poverty among unemployed miners in northern England, which resulted in “The Road to Wigan Pier”’ (1937). Late in 1936 Orwell travelled to Spain to fight for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists. He was forced to flee in fear of his life from Soviet-backed communists who were suppressing revolutionary socialist dissenters. The experience turned him into a lifelong anti-Stalinist.

George Orwell circa 1949

Between 1941 and 1943 Orwell worked on propaganda for the BBC. In 1943 he became literary editor of the Tribune, a weekly left-wing magazine. By now he was a prolific journalist, writing articles, reviews and books.

In 1945 “Animal Farm” was published. A political fable set in a farmyard but based on Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian Revolution, it made Orwell’s name and ensured he was financially comfortable for the first time in his life. “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published four years later. Set in an imaginary totalitarian future, the book made a deep impression, with its title and many phrases – such as “Big Brother is watching you”, “newspeak” and “doublethink” – entering popular use.

By now Orwell’s health was deteriorating and he died of tuberculosis on 21 January 1950.

“Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” are two of the most famous novels of the 20th century.  This month, the great author’s words are being brought to life in the two audiobooks from Penguin Random House, the former recording by Adam Buxton and the latter by Peter Capaldi. Buxton is an English comedian, writer, podcaster and actor. Capaldi is a Scottish actor and filmmaker. He portrayed the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor in “Doctor Who”.

To coincide, Penguin Modern Classics are publishing a new paperback edition of Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant”, which was the first work by him ever published by Penguin when it appeared in an edition of Penguin New Writing” in 1940. It was broadcast by the BBC Home Service on 12 October 1948.

This essay describes the experience of the English narrator, possibly Orwell himself, called upon to shoot an aggressive elephant while working as a police officer in Burma. Because the locals expect him to do the job, he does so against his better judgement, his anguish increased by the elephant’s slow and painful death. The story is regarded as a metaphor for British imperialism and Orwell’s view that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys”.

Orwell spent some of his life in Burma in a position akin to that of the narrator, but the degree to which his account of the shooting is autobiographical is disputed, with no conclusive evidence to prove it to be fact or fiction. After his death in 1950 the essay was republished several times, including in “Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays” (1950), “Inside the Whale and Other Essays” (1957) and “Selected Writings” (1958).

Penguin also has new-look paperback editions of Orwell’s best-loved works of fiction, with covers featuring the artwork of British artist Francis Bacon, and new clothbound hardback editions of “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. Bacon was an Irish-born English figurative painter known for his raw, unsettling imagery. Bickford-Smith is an award-winning designer at Penguin Books, where she has created several highly acclaimed series designs. She studied typography at Reading University and lives in London.

On 1 April Penguin will publish the first ever graphic novel of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, illustrated by Fido Nesti, a self-taught Brazilian artist who has worked in illustration and comics for more than 25 years. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Runner’s World, and Americas Quarterly, among other publications.


  • 1951 cover of Animal Farm

  • A new cover of Animal Farm

  • Another new Animal Farm cover by Coralie Bickford-Smith

  • A new cover of Nineteen Eighty-Four

  • The cover of Shooting an Elephant

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