Interest in George Orwell and his dystopian fiction is high

From The Economist:

Few writers have achieved the cult status of George Orwell. He is so much a part of the collective imagination that John Rodden, an Orwell scholar, goes so far as to call him “the most important writer who ever lived”. He was not the best writer of his time, explains Mr Rodden, author of several books on the writer’s “afterlife”, but his universal recognition, continuous publication and repeated spikes in popularity are “an unprecedented phenomenon rivalled only by Shakespeare himself”.

Orwell’s most celebrated novel, “1984”, tells the story of Winston Smith, an everyman who embarks on a love affair in defiance of the surveillance state led by Big Brother, the supreme leader, whom some believe Orwell modelled after Josef Stalin. With “telescreens” that snoop on citizens, “thought police” enforcers and a system called “doublethink” in which both everything and the opposite are equally true, Orwell’s fiction has been prescient, invoked to describe the ills of nearly every age. “1984” has repeatedly topped English-language bestseller lists, including in 1954 (the year the bbc did a television adaptation), 1984 and 2003 (the centenary of Orwell’s birth). Political events bring Orwell new readers, including Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and fomenting of the riot at America’s Capitol in 2021. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “1984” became the most-downloaded electronic fiction book in Russia last year.

. . . .

Angst over totalitarianism, the manipulation of truth and the spread of surveillance technologies has hardly abated. Today’s world is increasingly Orwellian, argues Jean Seaton, director of the Orwell Foundation: consider social-media pile-ons, analogous to the “Two Minutes Hate” the novel’s characters spew at enemies of the state. The dangers Orwell flagged are as easily used by the left to bludgeon autocrats as by the right to denounce the left’s punishment of “wrongthink”.

It is thus no surprise that in 2023, with fears of autocracy and culture wars at fever pitch, the man who wrote so deftly about dark subjects is back in the spotlight. Films in production include a new documentary on Orwell’s life and an animated “Animal Farm”; a Russian-language “1984” was recently released. At least three Orwell books have been published in the past year, grappling with subjects including Orwell’s relationship with Russia.

Two more books are forthcoming, which look more closely at the women in Orwell’s life and work. For all his prescience and scrutiny of tyranny, Orwell was blind to another sort of repression: towards women. Along with a new biography by D.J. Taylor, a British historian, the books draw on letters discovered in the past 20 years between the writer and various paramours, as well as some written by Orwell’s first wife, Eileen, to her best friend. The picture that emerges is disheartening—but hardly unusual for a man of Orwell’s time.

Eileen O’Shaughnessy was married to Orwell from 1936 until her death in 1945. One of the first women to attend Oxford University, she was brilliant and witty but abandoned a master’s degree in psychology to wed Orwell. Their life was one of hardship. Eileen struggled to make a remote, unheated cottage a home, nursing the tubercular Orwell back to health while typing up and advising him on his work. She was often the main breadwinner.

Anna Funder’s “Wifedom” offers bleak details, including the day Eileen cleaned a blocked toilet, standing knee-deep in excrement, when Orwell appeared at a window to ask, “Teatime, don’t you think?” His wife dedicated her life to helping Orwell “fulfil his destiny”, one friend wrote, to the point of fatally ignoring her own health. Meanwhile Orwell was conducting numerous affairs. Before and after they married, her husband was a “sexual opportunist” who pounced on women who came his way, Mr Taylor writes.

. . . .

For decades feminists have called out the sexism of Orwell’s depiction of Winston Smith’s lover, Julia, who is presented as a nymphomaniac and honeypot trap, leading to their crushing by the state. “With Julia, everything came back to her own sexuality,” Orwell wrote. Whether the writer was himself a misogynist or simply satirising a group of sexist men, the author’s estate had long felt there was something missing in the story. They sought a writer who might give a new dimension to the tale, writing a spin-off of “1984” for the 21st century. “The only way to approach it was from a feminist perspective, because the whole regime was so horrifyingly misogynist,” says Bill Hamilton, Orwell’s literary executor.

Ms Newman’s “Julia” offers a female character with a rich inner life. Her Julia is a survivor, more subversive than Winston, adroit at evading control, finding a kind of liberty in “sexcrime”. “She imagined freedom as exuberance, a clumsy romping,” Ms Newman writes. If Julia entraps Winston, it is because she too has been coerced and victimised. A twisty ending in keeping with the original makes this an enjoyable read even to those unfamiliar with “1984”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG says, shame on Knopf and Mariner Books for getting a high-profile review while not having Look Inside working and no ebook preorders on Zon.

80 %-90% of the people who read The Economist will have forgotten about these books when they come out in a couple of weeks (for Wifedom) and over two months (for Julia).

11 thoughts on “Interest in George Orwell and his dystopian fiction is high”

  1. It’s been awhile since I’ve read 1984, but the idea of Julia being a honeypot trap is nowhere in the novel IIRC. She’s presented as being as much of a victim as Winston Smith is, her sexuality a thing that the regime must destroy, lest it cause an alternative loyalty to develop.

    Frankly, the book this article is an advertisement for strikes me as a solution in search of a problem.

    • Julia sounds like the sort of cultural artifact destined to gather dust and cat-hair on the Ikea bookshelves of a great many aspirational-class middlebrows. “The Hulu series is all right,” they will say, “but it’s no Handmaid’s Tale.”

  2. Oh, if only the article had included a reference to Orwell’s rather direct criticisms of the publication that printed the article… Let’s just say he had less than a healthy appreciation for The Economist (and its readership, especially between Dunkirk and VE Day) and leave it there.

    Or one could just read the reviews of Animal Farm and 1984 that appeared in The Economist close to their publication dates.

    • I am reliably informed that each weekly print run of The Economist includes several thousand copies that have a special, easy-to-read font designed for the nictitating membranes of Lizard People, who number among that publication’s most loyal subscribers. It costs extra, of course, but they can afford it.

  3. Fair point about the absence of a Look Inside, but the preorder buttons are right there for both books.

  4. “80 %-90% of the people who read The Economist will have forgotten about these books when they come out in a couple of weeks (for Wifedom) and over two months (for Julia).”

    That might be a feature, not a bug.

  5. The society depicted in 1984 is deeply misogynistic and just as deeply misandristic. Masculine males and feminine females tend to develop ties outside of the State – which Orwell recognized as anathema to any would-be autocracy.

    • Absolutists are by definition misanthropic.
      Equal opportunity predators.
      As today’s cancellers will discover soon enough.
      Yet another case of what goes around…

  6. “Along with a new biography by D.J. Taylor, a British historian.”
    Alarm bells. Taylor’s first biography is riddled with inaccuracies and mis-placed opinion. An example:
    ‘On page 28 of Taylor’s Orwell The Life when describing the atmosphere of the weeks immediately preceding and following the outbreak of the Great War Taylor refers to Alec Waugh’s The Early Years of Alec Waugh:

    Evelyn Waugh’s elder brother Alec remembered watching Kent play cricket at Blackheath, with a stream of telegraph boys arriving on bicycles to present the players with their summonses to call-up.

    Alec Waugh may very well have thought he recalled such a sight, but he would have been mistaken. The call-up, or conscription, was not introduced until January 1916, i.e. eighteen months after the war started and the so-called events described.’
    And so it goes.
    Here’s a link to Part one of five informative blog posts which contest Taylor’s version of Orwell’s time in Spain:
    Here’s a link to another part:
    Here’s a link to the third part:
    Here’s a link to tje fourth post which demolishes D.J. Taylor’s account:
    And, finally, a link to the fifth post:

    • As a sometime Orwell scholar, who went into not-yet-publicly-available materials while Over There more years back than I care to admit to, I can say only this:

      Mr Blair’s various biographers — most emphatically including himself — are telling stories that are often a bit dodgy around the edges. What one must remember is that just as the map is not the territory, the author/artist is not the work (essay, novel, painting of an atrocity of the Spanish Civil War, whatever). Whatever the influences one can infer from the author’s/artist’s life story may be, they are inevitably filtered, however lightly, through memory, and later experience, and intent; and perhaps most interestingly by what is left out.

      Consider, for example, the leading biography of Blair/Orwell published in the 20th century (Crick). Crick was a political scientist of… let’s just say a particular ideology and subculture. Crick’s background provided some valuable interpretive insight that was — being as gentle as I can because this is after all someone else’s family-friendly forum — not constrained by the ideology/subculture of some of the others, in particular the individual who provided the “editorial material” for the most-commonly-available-in-the-US-during-the-last-half-of-the-century Signet mass-market paperback edition.

      Trying to pretend that any biography (or autobiography) is unvarnished, incontrovertible, objective Truth with no interpretive elements is, umm, intellectually dishonest. And I’d put almost all efforts regarding an individual who adopted not just a pseudonym, but an entirely different identity, into the category of “narrative nonfiction” at best — and in the instance of one particular biography of Orwell, retroactive-continuity fiction.

      Perhaps the biography/autobiography can give one a head start on understanding some of the difficulties raised in a creative work, but that’s all: One still must read/view/listen to the creative work for itself. Perhaps, too, that biography/autobiography might help rule out some interpretations as implausible, but even that becomes problematic when assuming “He couldn’t have thought that at the time he was writing it” with 20/20 hindsight.

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