Although he had had lung problems for years, he always dressed down in cold, damp London weather. Friends and family tried to pursued him to dress better but he shrugged it off.
George Orwell always knew he had severe problems with his lungs, but it wasn’t until the year 1947 that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He learned this while in the hospital, which he was always in and out of. He didn’t do much to improve on his health. He probably should have moved, for short times, to a better climate than Jura, an island off the coast of Scotland, where he shared a large farmhouse (Barnhill) with his sister Avril and adopted son Richard, along with other friends and family that came to visit. He also should have quit smoking so much of the strong shag tobacco he was fond of.
The year 1947 was when Orwell moved to the island on a permeant basis. Not only was the weather bad, but living at Barnhill was physically strenuous. The nearest town was twenty miles away, and very difficult to get to. One incident that put Orwell in the hospital was during a trip to the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. While fishing with his small son and nephew and niece the boat capsized. The Corryvreckan is infamous for its danger, and the group barely made it out alive. The incident did not help with his lungs. He was taken to a hospital on the outskirts of Glasgow where he was diagnosed with TB. He was put on a regimen of a new drug called “streptomycin”. But his case was too far gone for it to do much good.
He returned to Jura in July of 1948. The rest of the year was spent laboriously writing and typing up the manuscript for “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. He wrote in bed and would sometimes literally crawl from the bed to the small table near the window to type the manuscript out. By December he finished and sent the manuscript off. While Orwell had pretty much had the entire book planned by 1946, the environment of the book here and there was no doubt inspired by his failing health. He had a grim determination to finish the book before he died.
The completion of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” almost killed him right then and a month later he was in the hospital again, this time at a sanatorium in Gloucestershire. Visitors who came were shocked by his appearance. Always a thin man, Orwell now looked like a skeleton. When he was able to visit, little Richard Blair would often ask his daddy “where it hurt”. Orwell wanted desperately to play with his son, but was afraid of the boy catching TB. Meanwhile, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was released on June 8, 1949. Already a well known from “Animal Farm”, Orwell’s fame now soared.
Lonely and worried about who would take care of his son should he die, Orwell began to court Sonia Brownell, a woman he met through his old childhood friend Cyril Connolly years before. Sonia was the inspiration for Julia and it’s not hard to see why. Beautiful with a vivacious personality, Orwell had tried to date her before, during a period of time when he asked quite a few women to marry him after the death of his first wife. She rejected his offers. That is until he became famous.
They announced their marriage in September of 1949, shortly after he moved to his final home—the University College Hospital in London (photo seen above). The marriage took place in his hospital room on October 13, 1949, with his good friend David Astor as best man. Gaunt and wearing a maroon smoking jacket over his hospital clothes, Orwell was clearly in love with Sonia but most likely for the wrong reasons. One symptom of the last stages of TB is an odd tendency to have fierce emotional attachments to people. Did Sonia marry Orwell for his money? It’s hard to say because although it may look like she did, Sonia was a kind woman who wanted to help everyone. Nevertheless, while Orwell was alone in his hospital room that night, while Sonia went from party to party.
As the days passed, Orwell declined rapidly. He had many visitors, including his boyhood chum Connolly, author Evelyn Waugh, and family—including his son Richard. His health was in such a bad state that plans to go to Switzerland, for the clean air, were canceled.
On the evening of January 20th Orwell was visited by a friend. The friend slipped out when he realized Orwell was asleep. In the early morning of January 21, 1950 Eric Arthur Blair, aka George Orwell, suffered from a burst artery in his lung, killing him instantly. He died alone in his hospital room, the one thing he never wanted to happen, at the age of 46.
Back at Barnhill his sister Avril Blair and son Richard heard about the death of Orwell from the BBC. They, along with friends and family, rushed back to London to make arrangements. Never a heavily religious man, Orwell liked the tradition of the Church of England and requested to be buried in accordance to Anglican rites in a graveyard of whatever church happened to be closest to where he died. The ones around the hospital had no space. Knowing her husband’s fear of being cremated, Sonia asked friends if they knew of a good place.
Friend and best man David Astor made plans with the vicar of the All Saints’ Churchyard in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire for Orwell to be buried there, even though he had no connection with the church or area. His gravestone is simple: “Here lies Eric Arthur Blair, born 25 June 1903, died 21 January 1950”. Nowhere is a hint of the famous author Orwell had become.