Jura is a small island off the coast of Scotland, famous for two things: It’s home to a renowned distillery, and it’s where George Orwell wrote “1984.”
Orwell arrived at Jura in May 1946, hoping the fresh air would help a chronic lung condition, and moved into a remote farmhouse. He soon set up a garden and was able to hunt and fish for additional food — telling friends, in what appeared to be all seriousness, these skills might come in handy if there were another nuclear war. (Jura was so far from any major cities — Glasgow was approximately 100 miles east — that Orwell seemed to believe he’d be safe if the bombs ever fell.)
Neighbors, who knew him by his birth name, thought he was a friendly sort, and many were shocked when they finally read “1984.”
“I couldn’t think that it was the same man that was doing this writing was the Eric Blair that I knew,” said one resident. “I just couldn’t place them together at all.”
From Big Brother down to Room 101, the language and concepts of “1984” are so ingrained in our consciousness that when totalitarianism manifests itself in the real world, we call it “Orwellian.” The novel’s unrelenting depiction of a man broken in spirit by a police state is often presented to new readers as “a protracted wail of despair issuing from a lonely, dying man who couldn’t face the future,” in the words of British journalist Dorian Lynskey.
But the truth, as Lynskey reveals in a new book, “The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ ” (Doubleday), out now, is more complicated — and more interesting.
Some of the inspiration for the novel’s Thought Police, for example, goes back to the Spanish Civil War. Orwell came to Spain in late 1936 and joined a militia affiliated with POUM, a local Communist organization. But the group ran afoul of a pro-Soviet faction, which flooded Barcelona with propaganda smearing POUM (and Orwell) as fascist collaborators. Orwell managed to evade arrest and escape to England and though he remained committed to left-wing politics, his mistrust of the Communists, particularly Joseph Stalin, never faded.
As a journalist and book critic, Orwell was keenly attracted to dystopian stories such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We,” the story of a rebellious bureaucrat in a totalitarian future, or Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” a thinly veiled account of the Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union. Although he had become friendly with H.G. Wells at the start of his career, as another war in Europe became inevitable, Orwell turned on the older writer, attacking what he saw as a naive faith in science’s ability to save humanity from its worst impulses.
Wells argued fiercely against the accusation — writing Orwell privately after one savage review to suggest he “read my early works, you s—,” before breaking off contact with Orwell completely.
During World War II, Orwell spent two years writing radio programs for the BBC.
Though he would later dismiss the job as “wasted years,” it taught him a lot about the bureaucracy of propaganda and censorship. He would draw upon that knowledge, as well as his memories of the cramped office spaces, in his portrayal of Winston Smith’s duties at the Ministry of Truth.
He left the BBC in 1943 to write “Animal Farm,” but when that story was completed, editors were unwilling to accept a book criticizing Stalin, even in the allegorical form of a barnyard pig, while he still led part of the Allied forces fighting Hitler. Orwell was so eager to get the book into print that he considered self-publishing until a publisher named Fredric Warburg offered him a £100 advance — roughly $ 4,500 at today’s rates.
(Warburg later suggested, somewhat self-aggrandizingly, that if he hadn’t stepped in, Orwell might have lost the will to write and we would have never seen “1984.”)
In early 1945, Orwell was hired by a London newspaper to cover the liberation of Paris. While he was away, his wife, Eileen, died on the operating table during an emergency hysterectomy. Orwell returned to England, devastated. The success of “Animal Farm,” published a few months later, failed to raise his spirits, but it did provide enough money to relocate, along with the son he and Eileen had adopted shortly before her death, to Jura.
Orwell lived on the island off and on for 2¹/₂ years. As “1984” neared completion, he was unable to find a typist willing to come to the remote farmhouse.
So, despite suffering a relapse of what had finally been diagnosed as chronic tuberculosis, he propped himself up in his bed in the winter of 1948 and typed the final manuscript at a furious pace. When it was finished, he came downstairs, split a bottle of wine with the caretaker and his visiting sister, then went back to his room and collapsed.
Some readers see “1984” as a last, desperate warning. Certainly, Orwell had no interest in sugarcoating the political situation; as he wrote to one fan in 1944: “If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn’t point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.”
But he had spent much of his life dealing with various health problems and even as he checked himself into a sanatorium in early 1949, he was convinced he’d get better — he always had before. He even started working on two new novels.
That summer, less than a month after the publication of “1984,” Orwell proposed to Sonia Brownell, the former assistant of one of his literary associates and 15 years his junior. Although some mutual acquaintances were appalled, Brownell felt she had to accept for Orwell’s sake. As she confided to a friend, “He said he would get better if I married him.”
Despite his optimism, however, the tuberculosis, exacerbated by a lifetime of heavy smoking, had too thoroughly ravaged Orwell’s health for him to recover again. On Jan. 21, 1950, three months after a wedding ceremony in his hospital room, an artery in his lungs burst, killing him immediately. He was just 46 years old.
By then, “1984” was already a bestseller in both Britain and the United States, praised by Cold War pundits as an indictment of the Soviet Union. (The Soviets agreed, denouncing the novel as “filthy” in Pravda.) Orwell, however, took pains to clarify that the evils he described were not unique to communism.
“Totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere,” he wrote shortly before his death. “I do not believe the kind of society which I described necessarily will arrive, but I believe . . . that something resembling it could arrive.”
From the start, “1984” has inspired storytellers in other media. The first radio adaptation was broadcast on NBC two months after the novel came out. Many other radio, TV and film versions followed — even a ballet and an opera.
There have also been several stage versions, including a critically acclaimed play that debuted in London in 2013. That production came to Broadway in May 2017, after a viral clip of presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway invoking “alternative facts” to defend President Trump reignited interest in the novel. Signet, publisher of the American paperback, said sales shot up by 340 percent over the previous year.
Little wonder, then, that a new movie, with Oscar-nominated Paul Greengrass directing, is in the works. He’ll undoubtedly put his own spin on the material, but, like most versions of “1984,” it’s likely to echo a warning Orwell himself summarized from his hospital bed:
“Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”