“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Sixty years after the publication of Orwells masterpiece, Nineteen
Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling
as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something
else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in
different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its
Probably the definitive novel of the 20th century, a
story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms
such as “Big Brother”, “doublethink” and “newspeak” have become part of
everyday currency, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more
than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.
“Orwellian” is now a universal shorthand for anything repressive or totalitarian,
and the story of Winston Smith, an everyman for his times, continues to
resonate for readers whose fears for the future are very different from
those of an English writer in the mid-1940s.
The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting
narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwells dystopia.
Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the
demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate
aftermath of the second world war. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four,
alternatively, “The Last Man in Europe”, had been incubating in
Orwells mind since the Spanish civil war. His novel, which owes
something to Yevgeny Zamyatins dystopian fiction
We, probably began to acquire a definitive shape during 1943-44, around
the time he and his wife, Eileen adopted their only son, Richard.
Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of
the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher,
an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin,
Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at
Orwell had worked for David Astors Observer since 1942,
first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor
professed great admiration for Orwells “absolute straightforwardness,
his honesty and his decency”, and would be his patron throughout the
1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of
Orwells creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of
Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of
fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and
more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated “fairy tale”.
Its clear from his Observer book reviews, for example, that he was
fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.
There were other influences at work. Soon after Richard was adopted, Orwells
flat was wrecked by a doodlebug. The atmosphere of random terror in the
everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the
novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on
assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received the news that
his wife, Eileen, had died under anaesthesia during a routine operation.
Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in
his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of
remorse and grief at his wifes premature death. In 1945, for instanc
e, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15
book reviews for the Observer.
Now Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay.
There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote
northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides.
Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the
Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend,
that Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwells response.
In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life,
took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his
friend Arthur Koestler that it was “almost like stocking up ship for an
It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good
health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century.
Postwar Britain was bleaker even than wartime, and he had always
suffered from a bad chest. At least, cut off from the irritations of
literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new
novel. “Smothered under journalism,” as he put it, he told one friend,
“I have become more and more like a sucked orange.”
Ironically, part of Orwells difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm.
After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his
genius. “Everyone keeps coming at me,” he complained to Koestler,
“wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this
and that, etc – you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have
time to think again.”
On Jura he would be liberated from these
distractions but the promise of creative freedom on an island in the
Hebrides came with its own price. Years before, in the essay “Why I
Write”, he had described the struggle to complete a book: “Writing a
book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some
painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not
driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand.
For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby
squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write
nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface ones
personality.” Then that famous Orwellian coda. “Good prose is like a
From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell
would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way
imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory
and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.
At first, after “a quite unendurable winter”, he revelled in the isolation
and wild beauty of Jura. “I am struggling with this book,” he wrote to
his agent, “which I may finish by the end of the year – at any rate I
shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off
journalistic work until the autumn.”
Barnhill, overlooking the
sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small
bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive.
There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat
water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned
peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up
cigarettes: the fug in the house was cosy but not healthy. A battery
radio was the only connection with the outside world.
gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a
couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a spartan existence
but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is
remembered here as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.
locals knew him by his real name of Eric Blair, a tall, cadaverous,
sad-looking man worrying about how he would cope on his own. The
solution, when he was joined by baby Richard and his nanny, was to
recruit his highly competent sister, Avril. Richard Blair remembers
that his father “could not have done it without Avril. She was an
excellent cook, and very practical. None of the accounts of my fathers
time on Jura recognise how essential she was.”
Once his new
regime was settled, Orwell could finally make a start on the book. At
the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: “I think I
must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as
far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in
most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as
usual) and can’t quite shake it off.”
Mindful of his
publishers impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: “Of course the
rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the
finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.”
Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed
“rough draft” by October. After that, he said, he would need another
six months to polish up the text for publication. But then, disaster.
of the pleasure of life on Jura was that he and his young son could
enjoy the outdoor life together, go fishing, explore the island, and
potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer
weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike
up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous
Richard Blair remembers being “bloody
cold” in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing
worried his friends, did his lungs no favours. Within two months he was
seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow
escape was laconic, even nonchalant.
The long struggle with “The
Last Man in Europe” continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with
“wretched health”, Orwell recognised that his novel was still “a most
dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped
He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to
Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in
his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he
collapsed with “inflammation of the lungs” and told Koestler that he
was “very ill in bed”. Just before Christmas, in a letter to an
Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he
had been diagnosed with TB.
A few days later, writing to Astor
from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: “I
still feel deadly sick,” and conceded that, when illness struck after
the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, “like a fool I decided not to go
to a doctor – I wanted to get on with the book I was writing.” In 1947
there was no cure for TB – doctors prescribed fresh air and a regular
diet – but there was a new, experimental drug on the market,
streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.
Blair believes that his father was given excessive doses of the new
wonder drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in
the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and
fingernails) but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB
symptoms had disappeared. “Its all over now, and evidently the drug
has done its stuff,” Orwell told his publisher. “Its rather like
sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.”
he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his
publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in his coffin. “It
really is rather important,” wrote Warburg to his star author, “from
the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by
the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.”
Just when he
should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into
the revision of his manuscript, promising Warburg to deliver it in
“early December”, and coping with “filthy weather” on autumnal Jura.
Early in October he confided to Astor: “I have got so used to writing
in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course its awkward to type
there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book
[which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t
This is one of Orwells exceedingly rare references
to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was
bad luck to discuss work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he
described it as “a Utopia written in the form of a novel”. The typing
of the fair copy of “The Last Man in Europe” became another dimension
of Orwells battle with his book. The more he revised his “unbelievably
bad” manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and
interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000
words”. With characteristic candour, he noted: “I am not pleased with
the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good
idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it
under the influence of TB.”
And he was still undecided about the
title: “I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN
IN EUROPE,” he wrote, “but I might just possibly think of something
else in the next week or two.” By the end of October Orwell believed he
was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it
It was a desperate race against time. Orwells health was
deteriorating, the “unbelievably bad” manuscript needed retyping, and
the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did
Orwells agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow
contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling
beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboys instincts: he would go
By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to
tackle “the grisly job” of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter”
by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea
and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill,
night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually
Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent
that “it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. Its merely that, as it
tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very
neatly and can’t do many pages a day.” Besides, he added, it was
“wonderful” what mistakes a professional typist could make, and “in
this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms”.
typescript of George Orwells latest novel reached London in mid
December, as promised. Warburg recognised its qualities at once
(“amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read”) and so did his
colleagues. An in-house memo noted “if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand
copies we ought to be shot”.
By now Orwell had left Jura and
checked into a TB sanitorium high in the Cotswolds. “I ought to have
done this two months ago,” he told Astor, “but I wanted to get that
bloody book finished.” Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his
friends treatment but Orwells specialist was privately pessimistic.
word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astors journalistic
instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a
significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated “with a
certain alarm”. As spring came he was “having haemoptyses” (spitting
blood) and “feeling ghastly most of the time” but was able to involve
himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering “quite
good notices” with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn’t
surprise him “if you had to change that profile into an obituary”.
Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US)
and was almost universally recognised as a masterpiece, even by Winston
Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwells
health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University
College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best
man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new
year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January he suffered a massive
haemorrhage in hospital and died alone.
The news was broadcast
on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on
Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard
Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers
the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.
arranged for Orwells burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay,
Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a
local family of Gypsies.
remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the
Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack Londons
novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in
1984), or perhaps to one of his favourite writer GK Chestertons story,
“The Napoleon of Notting Hill”, which is set in 1984.
edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes), Peter Davison notes that
Orwells American publisher claimed that the title derived from
reversing the date, 1948, though theres no documentary evidence for
this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of
Richard Blairs birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the
novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally,
1984. Theres no mystery about the decision to abandon “The Last Man in
Europe”. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher,
Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more
Freedom of speech: How ‘1984has entrusted our culture
effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape
has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt
and Richard Burton, with its Nazi-esque rallies and chilling
soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond
It is likely, however, that many people watching the
Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman
or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast
programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from
or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly
to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise
uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation.
pop-culture renditions of some of the novels themes, aspects of its
language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the
curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and officials –
alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.
owes his own adjective to this book alone and his idea that wellbeing
is crushed by restrictive, authoritarian and untruthful government.
Big Brother (is watching you)
term in common usage for a scarily omniscient ruler long before the
worldwide smash-hit reality-TV show was even a twinkle in its
producerseyes. The irony of societal hounding of Big Brother
contestants would not have been lost on George Orwell.
hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101 – rather like
those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor – thanks to the
ingenious Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its
occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has
spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name
the people or objects they hate most in the world.
accusation often levelled at the current government by those who like
it least is that they are trying to tell us what we can and cannot
think is right and wrong. People who believe that there are correct
ways to think find themselves named after Orwells enforcement brigade.
See “Thought Police” above. The act or fact of transgressing enforced wisdom.
Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but
also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing
official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon
currently in vogue with those in power.
but with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in
your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately
forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly
overlooked by people using the accusation of “doublethink” when trying
to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical – but it is a very popular
word with people who like a good debate along with their pints in the
pub. Oliver Marre
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