Orwell: The New Life 
by D.J. Taylor.
Constable, 597 pp., £30, May, 978 1 4721 3296 3
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George Orwell’s Perverse Humanity: Socialism and Free Speech 
by Glenn Burgess.
Bloomsbury, 270 pp., £21.99, May, 978 1 5013 9466 9
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Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life 
by Anna Funder.
Viking, 464 pp., £20, August, 978 0 241 48272 8
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What​ a difference six inches can make. George Orwell was shot in the neck on 20 May 1937 while fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the POUM (roughly translatable as ‘The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification’). He was six foot two. If he’d been five foot eight the bullet would have gone through his head. If that had happened, what would the world think of him now?

We wouldn’t have the word ‘Orwellian’ in the OED’s sense, ‘characteristic or suggestive of the writings of George Orwell, esp. of the totalitarian state depicted in his dystopian account of the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)’, since Nineteen Eighty-Four lay twelve years in the future. Orwell’s earliest writings were, like most juvenilia, comically bad. A story called ‘The Vernon Murders’, written when he was about thirteen, has a beginning which is deadly in several senses: ‘The sky was overcast, & everything was silent in the darkening twilight save for the whispering in the boughs & for Vernons breath as he pulled at his cigar. But the air was full of evil suggestions, of thoughts of murder.’ Orwell wrote a perceptive essay on boys’ weeklies and their cultural influence in 1940. He knew what he was talking about: ‘With a bound he was up the steps, & through the iron-studded oaken door into the hall.’ Ouch.

Orwell’s writings from the 1930s were Zola-ish representations of poverty. Plongeurs (dishwashers) eke out a living in the kitchens of bad French hotels, and French waiters gob in customers’ soup. Hop-pickers in Kent get by on less than subsistence wages, while despairing would-be writers languish in bedsits unable to afford a pint and a packet of fags. By 1937 if there was anything distinctively ‘Orwellian’ it was the flavour of Gissing on stale beer which emanates from A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), the generic discomfort with empire registered in Burmese Days (1934), and the lice, hunger and cold described in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). For the Orwell of the 1930s the cultural and political aspirations of the high-minded individual expire for the want of a few shillings, and girls ignore you because there’s someone richer and better dressed around the corner. The early work specialises in micro-accounting. It tots up shillings and pence to equal a sum less than the cost of the next meal. It records exactly how much you could get by pawning your overcoat (Orwell the old Etonian always had well-tailored but affectedly shabby clothes) to a Jew (and before the 1940s it’s hard to find Orwell saying a good word about Jews) in the backstreets of Paris. The main unifying characteristic of Orwell’s work in this period is a programmatic solitude – programmatic because it originates not simply in being alone, but in deliberately attempting to kick away one’s own social and economic foundations in order to pass muster as a tramp or a miner, or to break free of one’s family.

For the Orwell of the 1930s domestic and financial security were snares. Dorothy Hare in A Clergyman’s Daughter stifles in a Suffolk village under a demanding High Church father. Orwell’s family, who were by then living in Southwold, where his sister was running a tea shop, and who supported him after he left the Burmese police in order to become a writer, can’t have been flattered by that picture of provincial drudgery. But for early Orwell freedom comes when, like the clergyman’s daughter, you blank out your former life – though Dorothy takes it to extremes by suffering a burst of amnesia after an excess of gluing costumes together for a church pageant. She wakes up in a low dive, transformed, in effect, into the George Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London, as whom (in a state remarkably free from the sex pests who would certainly have buzzed around a lonely woman) she lives as a tramp and goes hop-picking in Kent. She then continues life as a female Orwell by teaching in a very bad private school, as Orwell did briefly from 1932 to 1934, which allows for some finger-wagging descriptions of the horrors of such institutions. Eventually, like Orwell the reluctant boomerang baby, she returns to Suffolk to live on as a clergyman’s daughter, despite her loss of faith. The failed poet Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying also cuts himself off from his family and everyone who’s close to him, but nonetheless ends up getting his girl pregnant, marrying her, and acquiring both an aspidistra and a job.

Orwell later wanted to suppress A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but they are the 1930s version of ‘Orwellian’ fiction: you escape to no escape; or, in Orwell’s words, ‘any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.’ Eric Blair’s choice of the name ‘George Orwell’ as a pseudonym is symptomatic of that trajectory: you break free of your family by adopting the name of a tidal river in Suffolk, but tidal rivers ebb away and then flow back home again.

I first encountered Orwell in 1977, when a brave English teacher got a group of bolshy 14-year-olds to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and told us to write our own dystopia. One wag (I still regret it wasn’t me) put up his hand and said: ‘Sir, if Orwell just scrambled the digits in 1948 to get 1984, can I call my dystopia “1977?’ Most people of my generation that I’ve talked to about Orwell say they loved him when they were teenagers. One even said she’d had a copy of Burmese Days with her when she was arrested on a demonstration at the age of eighteen, which is surely the height of Orwellian chic. It isn’t hard to see why peak Orwell might hit at around seventeen. He gives you all the bleakness and naked political passion a teenager could desire. Who could argue with this, from The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)?

Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all co-operate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.

Orwell’s direct statements of principle always sound like he’s standing up to the man and stating ‘blatantly obvious’ truths that other people are too scared or too dim to voice. And his writing from the 1930s dramatises the key psychological dynamic of teenagedom: they fuck you up your mum and dad, so fuck ’em, I’m off to Paris to live off eight sous a week, and if I telegraph for more money or come home when I get sick it’s not because I love you, mum, but because of the evil system.

Spain certainly changed Orwell. The bullet ripped through his vocal cords. This aggravated his natural reticence by giving him an unnaturally quiet voice, which was made worse by his tuberculosis. In George Orwell’s Perverse Humanity, Glenn Burgess argues that Orwell’s experiences in Spain made him a revolutionary socialist (Orwell himself used a capital S), which he remained until the end of his life – the attacks on the totalitarian consequences of revolutions in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four being, you understand, attacks on the consequences of the wrong type of revolution.

Possibly. But Orwell’s brand of socialism was always more akin to a system of manners than a political system, and that makes it hard to imagine what in practice his kind of revolution might have looked like. When he describes life in liberated Barcelona in Homage to Catalonia (1938) he doesn’t dwell on shifts in ownership of the means of production, but on changes in the ways people behaved towards each other. He liked the fact that waiters were no longer servile and dependent on tips (though presumably they still waited on him), and that ‘servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said “Señor” or “Don” or even “Usted”; everyone called everyone else “Comrade” and “Thou”.’ He was struck by the ‘essential decency’ of the Catalan working class, and said that if you asked him what he was fighting for in Spain he would say ‘common decency’. ‘The whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.’

Orwell, despite being the enemy of doublethink and an impassioned advocate of clear, plain English, never quite defined ‘decency’. It remained a sacred relic of public school moral vocabulary at the heart of his thinking. In his 1940 essay on Dickens (which is still a great read) you can hear him thinking through the shortcomings of his own political thought:

Where exactly does he stand, socially, morally and politically? As usual, one can define his position more easily if one starts by deciding what he was NOT … He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places … His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.

The Dickens essay was all about Orwell, who was far better at describing what he didn’t like about the world than at articulating what he wanted it to become. In The Road to Wigan Pier, socialism is represented through the abstract nouns ‘justice and liberty’ and as a negative image of the popular perception of it, which was ‘a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half-gangster, half-gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers’. The Dickens essay tried to give a bit more political force to that elusive concept of ‘decency’, the enabling condition of which is making a ‘decent’ living. So without some redistribution of wealth or equalisation of incomes the goal of ‘decency’ could not be achieved, because otherwise some people will live in squalor. Give everyone a ‘decent’ income and they will behave with decency, because there will be no need to grab money or lie.

In response to a letter from the Dickens scholar Humphry House, Orwell sketched out a political manifesto of a kind, though it remains low on detail and high on Orwell’s drug of choice, righteous clarity: ‘I think it is vitally necessary to do something towards equalising incomes, abolishing class privelige [sic] and setting free the subject peoples.’ It’s worth pausing over Orwell’s wording and even his spelling here. The misspelling of ‘privilege’ was one way in which this Old Etonian kept his own privileged education out of sight.

The fact he could believe that all the insidious markers of class privilege of which he was acutely aware – what you wear, how you wear it, how you talk, how you drink your tea, where you live – could be simply ‘abolished’ is of a piece with his periodic attempts to vanish off into the world of tramps and sub-subsistence manual workers. Erasing class was like erasing your past: all it took was changing your name or suffering a good bout of amnesia like Dorothy Hare. ‘Free the subject peoples’ – again it sounds so easy, and from his early career in the Burmese police force Orwell remained as anti-imperialist as anyone of his generation could be, but it’s an agitprop statement of aspiration rather than a programme for action. The real sign that Orwell is aware of his own Orwellian adolescence of mind lies in the untypically woolly phrase ‘to do something towards equalising incomes’. What? When? How? How much? In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn of 1941, which builds on the Dickens essay, he was more explicit: England had to become a socialist country in order to win the war, because the war had shown the failure of capitalism. But common ownership of the means of production was less important to Orwell than the eradication of hereditary privilege by equalising incomes and abolishing private schools. ‘The Lion and the Unicorn, which after the war looked as though it had simply got the course of history wrong, was another work he didn’t want to see reprinted.

The conceptual poverty of Orwell’s socialism was a major reason why in the mid to late 1940s he was able to become what is now called ‘Orwellian’. Like Dickens, he knew what he hated. His loathing of the Soviet Union, totalitarianism and fascism was sharp and immediate in a way that his concept of socialist ‘decency’ was not: avoid the bad and you get the good. That’s why he’s at his best in the crude ferocity of Animal Farm, which was a brave book to have written in 1944 when the Soviet Union was Britain’s ally, and which many publishers, including T.S. Eliot at Faber, refused to publish. Eliot’s rejection of it was blunt: ‘The positive point of view, which I take to be Trotskyist, is not convincing.’ But the overwhelmingly negative force of Orwell’s political position enabled him to produce the quintessence of the ‘Orwellian’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he wrote in remote seclusion on the Isle of Jura, and which was published shortly before he died in January 1950. Some of his ideals seem to have died before then: the only reference to ‘decency’ in either of his two last and best novels occurs when the old pig Major (Marx and/or Lenin) in Animal Farm asks why the animals live in misery: ‘Is it because this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life to those who dwell upon it? No, comrades, a thousand times no!’ After that, Animal Farm is all about pigs behaving like pigs.

Orwell’s career shows that writing bad early novels and having intensely felt but under-thought-out principles can enable someone eventually to produce a masterpiece. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not only ‘Orwellian’ in the OED sense. It’s also ‘Orwellian’ in the 1930s sense, since the pulse of Orwell’s earlier fiction runs right through it. Winston Smith is a latter-day version of Gordon Comstock from Keep the Aspidistra Flying, stuck in a dead-end job (obliterating evidence that conflicts with the new version of history being put out by the Party) and living in a flat which is a futuristic version of the 1930s boarding houses that Orwell represented in his earlier fiction: ‘The hallway smelled of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall.’ Winston is entrapped not by revolutionary aspirations but by nostalgia: he buys a notebook from what seems to be an old-style junk shop but is actually a cover for the Thought Police. The loop of Orwellian rebellion that runs through the earlier novels – an attempt to break away from everything and everyone who has made you what you are, followed by subsequent conformity – becomes a noose, as Winston ultimately yields to the truth that 2+2=5 and he is, by class and employment, a party man after all.

The key thing Orwell learned from the 1940s was that his habitual representations of people entrapped by social norms could be amped up into full-on totalitarian horror. And if that left socialism looking like something that could only be defined negatively, as not what Stalin did and not what Big Brother did, then so be it. The main thing was to resist fascism rather than to imagine a workable alternative. It is radically disappointing, and has often disappointed radicals, that Orwell’s alternative to a totalitarian destructive modernity so often looked like Edwardian England. In his teens he had Housman’s A Shropshire Lad by heart, and it shows. The middle-aged George Bowling, hero of Coming Up for Air (1939), longs to return to the ponds of giant carp from his childhood, but discovers they’ve been built over by a sprawling housing estate, full of smug incomers who have the taint of Orwell’s earlier description of socialist cranks: ‘I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, Nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.’

That nostalgia also generates the woods filled with birdsong in which Julia and Winston have their trysts. But Orwell’s kind of nostalgia is usually nostalgia with menaces, as when he described returning from Spain to

the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens … from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.

Socialism, England: both lie beyond the dark grey perimeter of Orwell’s present.

Orwell’s papers have been deposited in archives and indexed and endlessly examined. His works were meticulously edited by the late Peter Davison. This creates a big problem for his biographers. There’s just too much life. No biographer wants to be the one who fails to mention, say, that Orwell in Spain, ‘having passed the train journey up from the front gorging himself on anis, muscadel, sardines and chocolate, promptly went down with a stomach upset’, or that he brought in a 25 lb blackberry jam harvest in 1939, or that he had a goat called Muriel, named after an aunt, or that he really did (like Winston Smith) hate rats. But the risk of a biographer diligently banging it all in there in a great big sprawl of fact is that after a bit readers might end up losing sight of the reason they’re reading a biography of Orwell at all. I confess to having hit this threshold of fact nausea by about page 183 of 597 in D.J. Taylor’s New Life, but I offer that as a criticism of myself rather than of this super-diligent book, and I did persist right to its end (spoilers: Orwell remarries on his deathbed and then dies of TB).

Taylor has rewritten most of his biography from 2003 to take account of material that has come to light since then. The result is full and judicious to a fault. There are many bland sutures of fact which join Orwell’s weirder and madder behaviours to the humdrummery of a busy journalistic life, with the result that the weird stuff, which is usually also the interesting stuff, gets muffled. In the course of a conversation about Freud with Arthur Koestler, Orwell said: ‘When I lie in my bath in the morning, which is the best moment of the day, I think of tortures for my enemies.’ I sometimes do that too: being helpless in the bath is the best moment to indulge horrible fantasies of retributory violence because your own physical vulnerability tells you that you’re never actually going to get that bastard Dr X or Professor Y, and you don’t feel too guilty as you imagine them … (and that isn’t a sentence I propose to conclude).

The fantasies of torture in the bath are like the Two Minutes Hate in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which everyone screams at the enemies of the Party on the telescreen. Would Orwell have secretly been delighted by the post-Orwellian sadism of Big Brother the TV series? He certainly understood how groupthink could fuse with sadistic appetites to generate entertainment. But although the Two Minutes Hate in the bath is the kind of thing most people do (or so I want to believe), it’s not something that many people would be willing to say they do. It would (obviously) be in the worst sense adolescent to spew hatred outwardly at the world, so we mostly do it in our heads, or, now, in that substitute for our heads called social media.

Taylor says Orwell was just winding Koestler up by babbling about his bathtime dreams of blood ‘to see how his opposite number might react’. No. He didn’t play that kind of game. There are people who are too much in touch with their inner child. Orwell was so much in touch with his inner adolescent that he had to let it out for a good scream, not just every second Wednesday, but every morning in the bath, and he was so much of an adolescent that he was willing to confess to it too. Grown-ups don’t do that – and in saying that I’m not sticking up for grown-ups or simply rebuking Orwell. Part of what gets to you about Orwell is his naked adolescent disinhibition.

But he was weird. Since I first read him in the late 1970s several things have come to light which make him look weirder. His reputation took a hit early this century from a document that became known as Orwell’s List. This was a list of names of people Orwell believed to be fellow travellers of the Soviet regime. It was compiled in the late 1940s, known about from 1996 and published in 2003. Orwell gave it to Celia Kirwan shortly before his death. Kirwan was working for the Information Research Department, the decidedly Orwellian name for a section of the Foreign Office that sought to manipulate public impressions of the Soviet Union through propaganda. The names on Orwell’s list included Charlie Chaplin, Michael Foot and the historian E.H. Carr, as well as Peter Smollett, who was indeed a Soviet agent, and who had probably advised Jonathan Cape not to publish Animal Farm in 1944.

Burgess explains at length that Orwell’s list was not a McCarthyite hit list, since the only harm that might befall those on it would be that they wouldn’t be asked to provide propaganda for the Information Research Department. His book argues that the list grew from Orwell’s continuing concern for a kind of freedom that enabled people to be eccentric or nonconformist (the ‘perverse humanity’ of his title), and from his corresponding hostility to totalitarianism. But to provide a list of names of communist sympathisers in 1949 to a government department – a list presumably based chiefly on gossip and inference and private conversations – is an act that some might find hard to reconcile with Orwell’s conception of the ‘decent’, or with his repeatedly expressed horror at a totalitarian society which has eyes on every wall and spooks at every street corner. Indeed, in the public-school vocabulary which came naturally to Orwell, it would be more natural to describe passing that list to Kirwan, in full awareness of who she worked for, as the act of a sneak. Burgess’s book has two voices: the evidence carefully amassed by the conscientious scholar tells him things that the teenaged admirer of Orwell’s outspoken socialism is trying very hard not to hear. In some sentences – ‘He wanted intellectual honesty and decency in propaganda, as in all things’ – the two voices combine to generate something like a paradox, or at least an evocation of Orwell’s ability to use very clear words to deceive himself.

The​ most significant documents relating to Orwell to have come to light in the past twenty years, however, are various letters from women whom at one point or another he wanted to marry, and six letters from his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, to her friend Norah Symes Myles. These were discovered in 2005. Eileen, who read English at Oxford and was doing a master’s in psychology when she married Orwell, was a gem of a letter-writer: ‘We also have a poodle puppy. We called him Marx to remind us that we had never read Marx and now we have read a little and taken so strong a personal dislike to the man that we can’t look the dog in the face when we speak to him.’

Anna Funder’s Wifedom, which is part novel, part biography, builds these letters into a story about Eileen, which brings out all of her wit, and pulls no punches in detailing Orwell’s bad behaviour towards women. Funder has Celia Kirwan, to whom Orwell gave his infamous list, describe him as making love ‘Burma-Sergeant fashion, afterwards saying “Ah, that’s better” before he turned over.’ Wifedom gives a far more negative picture of the Orwells’ marriage than Sylvia Topp’s biography of Eileen from a few years ago, and along the way it skewers Orwell’s earlier male biographers, who often artfully eradicated Eileen’s actions from Orwell’s life by oh so natural seeming use of the passive voice: ‘manuscripts are typed without typists, idyllic circumstances exist without creators, an escape from Stalinist pursuers is achieved.’ Taylor’s ‘New Life’ does a bit better in this respect, since he’s careful to recognise Eileen’s ‘humanising influence’ and characterises her letters as ‘poignant, self-effacing, hopeful and yet full of hurt’. But Funder’s wider aim is to show that ‘wifedom is a wicked magic trick we have learned to play on ourselves. I want to expose how it is done and so take its wicked, tricking power away.’ She ascribes Eileen’s willingness to tolerate Orwell’s intolerable behaviour (he propositioned his old flame Brenda Salkeld when Eileen was prostrated by the death of her brother at Dunkirk; and, while Eileen was grieving for her mother, ‘pounced’ on Inez Holden) to ‘patri-magic’. ‘Patriarchy,’ Funder says, ‘is the doublethink that allows an apparently “decent” man to behave badly to women.’

That is surely true, but it may also be itself a kind of doublethink. It’s one of the potentially self-deceiving means by which people of my generation might seek to let our teenaged hero off the hook even while being critical of him. Though patriarchy may explain why someone as clever as Eileen would put up with Orwell’s behaviour, it wasn’t patriarchy that made Orwell such a bastard to his wife. It was Orwell. And his treatment of Eileen was typically Orwellian, in the 1930s sense. The way he writes her out of his fiction and downplays her role in his Spanish adventure (where she is always just ‘my wife’), the way he failed to acknowledge his dependence on her for practical and financial support, and the way he failed to be there at crucial moments in her life, is entirely of a piece with Orwell’s particular kind of self-mythologising. The Orwellian person seeks surgically to separate himself from every person who materially or emotionally supports him, but then finds he can’t actually live that way. You leave your family, and despise them for supporting you, so you can go off and write about yourself as the freestanding freedom fighter. The Orwellian hero needs a wife to keep the ego-show on the road. But he also needs to edit a wife out to satisfy his own conception of how a hero lives. To me in my teens Orwell’s Orwellian aspiration to escape the aspidistra of domesticity looked like heroism and a radical search for freedom. To me now it looks like the extension of self-harming lovelessness into the realm of conscious cruelty to others.

After Orwell had recovered from being shot (and his description of that moment is one of his genuinely great pieces of writing) there was a communist crackdown on the POUM, of which Orwell was a member. Eileen got early notice of this because while in Spain she was one of the main administrators in the POUM office, though from reading Homage to Catalonia you might be forgiven for thinking she was mostly in Barcelona for the tapas. In one of the most Graham Greene-ish moments in that book, Orwell describes how Eileen intercepted him before he could be arrested. He turns her into a kind of helpful ancillary Bond girl who gets our hero out of a scrape – and there is a faint flavour of the Boy’s Own idiom of his teenaged ‘The Vernon Murders’:

When I got to the hotel my wife was sitting in the lounge. She got up and came towards me in what struck me as a very unconcerned manner; then she put an arm round my neck and, with a sweet smile for the benefit of the other people in the lounge, hissed in my ear: ‘Get out!


‘Get out of here at once!

He did. She saved his life.

Orwell failed to return the compliment. In 1945 Eileen was diagnosed with uterine tumours and advised to have a hysterectomy. Orwell, for whom, perhaps, the cause of socialism or (maybe) the cause of his own career was greater than the basic humanity that makes you want to be there when people you love are in pain and in danger, was in Paris as a war correspondent. Eileen, meanwhile, set off to Newcastle to have the operation on her own. It was cheaper there than in London. She wrote a heartbreaking letter to Orwell in March 1945 in which she says: ‘What worries me is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money.’

Eileen was anaemic. The cheaper operation for which she opted did not include expensive blood transfusions (this was three years before the founding of the NHS). She died under the anaesthetic, leaving an unfinished letter to Orwell that trails off into scrawl as she was going under. ‘The only good thing is that I don’t think she can have suffered or had any apprehensions,’ Orwell wrote to his friend Anthony Powell. The claim that Eileen didn’t suffer, since he was not there at the time, he cannot have been able to verify. Her letters to him, which are full of apprehensions (‘I might die on the table on Thursday’), show that the second claim is false.

He and Eileen had adopted a child in 1944. By the time of her death in March 1945 Orwell’s tuberculosis was bad and he was often coughing blood. It may be that it was concern for the future of their son that led him to spend (in Taylor’s words) ‘the early months of 1946 proposing marriage more or less on the spot to a series of much younger women, none of whom knew him well’. Or it could be that he was a creature of strange, dark appetites. Or both. Though Orwell, being Orwell, seems to have grieved only thinly and egotistically for Eileen, Nineteen Eighty-Four is in many ways a product of his relationship with her. She wrote a poem called ‘1984’, which Orwell adopted in preference to his working title, ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Orwell knew a bit about how a real-life Ministry of Truth might operate from his two years on the Eastern Service of the BBC, where propaganda (as well as organising radio programmes on such vital topics as house flies) was part of his brief. But Eileen had experienced the sharp end of the surveillance state. While in Barcelona she had spies from all sides buzzing around her in the headquarters of the POUM. She supported Orwell before he got his job at the BBC by working at the Ministry of Information (another institutional name that now can only sound ‘Orwellian’) in the censorship department. Orwell wouldn’t have written Nineteen Eighty-Four without her.

But at least Eileen seems to have been spared one form of literary immortality. Some of Orwell’s friends thought that the ultimately treacherous figure of Winston’s lover Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four was based not on Eileen but on his second wife, Sonia, whom he married on his deathbed. His youthful sweetheart Jacintha Buddicom, on whom Orwell had pounced (which is 1920s-speak for ‘attempted to rape’) in 1921, had other ideas. She was sure that Julia was based on her, and was ‘destroyed’ by Nineteen Eighty-Four, which she described as ‘like a man in hobnailed boots stamping on a spider’.

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Vol. 45 No. 20 · 19 October 2023

One idea about the title of Nineteen Eighty-Four, floated in Colin Burrow’s piece, is that George Orwell was writing the novel in 1948 and simply swapped the final two numbers around, presumably to create a connection between the projected future and the world its first readers inhabited (LRB, 5 October). Another suggestion is that he took the year from the title of a poem, ‘1984: End of the Century’, published by his first wife, Eileen. Of course it’s possible that neither is correct. On page 7 of the typescript reprinted in Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Facsimile of the Extant Manuscript, the work of the pre-eminent Orwell editor, Peter Davison, we see what Orwell typed and then changed. In his diary, Winston enters the date he believes he is writing on as ‘April 4th, 1980’. At a later date, presumably, since the change is entered in ink, Orwell scratched out ‘1980’. A ‘2’ is written alongside the typed zero, changing Winston’s diary date to ‘1982’. Then, above the now scratched out ‘1980’ Orwell writes (again in ink) ‘1984’. Davison detects a written ‘2’ beneath the ‘4’ in that final date, and notes: ‘So the progression is typed “1980”, amended to 1982 and then to 1984 in manuscript.’ On this evidence, the ‘swapped years’ argument evaporates.

The idea that Orwell was inspired by Eileen’s poem is compromised by the possibility that he never read it. It was published in 1934 (a year before they first met) in Eileen’s high-school magazine, to commemorate the school’s fiftieth anniversary. Her projection fifty years into the future to ‘1984’ – a hundred years after her school had been established – makes perfect sense.

Peter Marks
University of Sydney

Colin Burrow quotes an erroneous claim that Anna Funder made in her book Wifedom about my mother, Celia Kirwan. The claim is entirely baseless, as I have told the book’s publisher, Viking.

Ariane Bankes
London W1

Vol. 45 No. 22 · 16 November 2023

It’s a bit harsh of Colin Burrow to describe Winston Smith’s lover Julia in 1984 as ‘ultimately treacherous’, making her sound like the villain of the story (LRB, 5 October). We don’t know exactly what happens to her in Room 101, but we do know that Winston, in the same place, faced with his own nightmare of having his face eaten by rats, implores his tormentor to ‘Do it to Julia,’ thus putting his survival above hers. This is of course the point of the process, as the party’s aim is to destroy any love or loyalty that might exist between two individuals, as opposed to the love or loyalty they should feel towards Big Brother. We can assume from what Julia says to Winston when they meet up again that she underwent some parallel horror, and begged that Winston be subjected to it in her place; but if she betrayed Winston, then he betrayed her no more, no less.

Nick Wray
Coldingham, Borders

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