One of the sidebars to the feature reopens the mystery of the novel's title.
Orwell's title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London's novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favourite writer GK Chesterton's story, "The Napoleon of Notting Hill", which is set in 1984.
In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes), Peter Davison notes that Orwell's American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there's no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair's birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There's 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 commercial title.
I have come across the theory that Orwell may have had the Fabian Society in mind, here and there around the internet, including on wikipedia. But I am not aware of any credible source, or of any substantive evidence of Orwell's intentions. If anybody has anything on this, please do get in touch. (One long article asserting this also claims that the Fabian Society inherited control of the Orwell estate on Sonia Orwell's death. Which would have been nice, if a somewhat mysterious turn of events, but is not true).
A quick flick through the Orwell biographies on my bookshelves do not throw up any mentions of the Fabian theory.
DJ Taylor's Orwell: The Life (2003) mentions London's influence on Orwell. Intriguingly, Taylor reports that Orwell's first wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy (who had died in the spring of 1945) had, in 1934, published a poem, a futurist satire entitled 'End of the Century: 1984', in the school magazine where she was an ex-pupil.
Bernard Crick, author of the authorised biography published in 1980 and updated in 1992, also discusses the title at some length in his excellent essay 'Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four as Satire' which can be found in his 'Essays on Politics and Literature.
Crick thinks the publisher would have found 'The Last Man in Europe' too leading and gloomily didactic. "Nineteen Eighty-Four would invoke more of a surprise, arousing expectations of some Brave New World or utopia. The dashing of those expectations would then add to the satiric effect", writes Crick, who goes on to say:
Consider the title as if we are reading the book in 1949. If thirty-five or under, the reader will think to himself that he will probably be alive to see if it is so. He may quickly realise that any precise date is a joke, but he will relish the joke that though it sounds like a utopian, anti-utopian or possibly science-fiction novel, the date is well adjusted to be within the lifetime of some of us and in their children's lifetime for others, sounding both closer and more precise than Huxley's year 2000. It is overwhelmingly probable that the date is simply 1948, when Orwell finished the book, turned inside out: the date had been used before by other writers, but it is most unlikely that they could have influenced Orwell's choice.
Crick suggests that it is important to understand that the novel inhabits what critic Julian Symons calls "a near future", with many features familiar to anybody who lived in second world war Britain, and also believes that rendering the title correctly helps to establish the authorial intent:
Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and Doris Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor are other examples of 'near futures' and they can worry us more than dystopias because they are less easy to distance. Nonetheless, commentators try to distance Nineteen Eighty-Four by putting it in the tradition of Wells, Zamyatin and Huxley, rather than seeing it as a mutant of social novel and satiric polemic. This is made easier if the title is misrendered (as is the usual American custom) as a date, 1984, rather than spelled out. A date suggests a prophecy, whereas a spelling suggests a fictive name.
Does that satisfactorily explain Nineteen Eighty-Four?
Or are there new theories - or even evidence for them - out there?
PS: DJ Taylor recommended a selection of books for Orwell lovers for The Guardian back in 2004 when his own Orwell won the Whitbread biography prize. I would add Christopher Hitchens' Orwell's Victory to the list, though it divided the critics.