Monday 11 May 2009

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four

Sunday's Observer Review cover story was Robert McCrum's feature on the writing of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, reflecting on the book published sixty years ago on June 8th 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death at the age of 46.

One of the sidebars to the feature reopens the mystery of the novel's title.

Why '1984'?

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.


Calix said...

Sunder, would it be a good thing or a bad thing if George Orwell had alluded to the Fabians in his title?

I always find it interesting to think what impact a book would have had with another title. 1984 has become an iconic title that everyone knows. Would 'The Last Man in Europe' have had the same impact? Perhaps not.

Will Self who has shut himself off in Jura (where George Orwell wrote the novel) is sure to have something interesting to say about this as usual.

Stuart White said...

A terrific book on Orwell - better, I think, than Taylor's prize-winning book - is the collection of essays and photos 'Orwell at Home and Amongst the Anarchists' published by Freedom Press. It has very thoughtful essays by Colin Ward and Nicholas Walter which, amongst other things, chart Orwell's engagement with the anarchist left from the late 1930s through to his death. Much of the biographical material out there treats this aspect of Orwell's politics rather superficially. I think its critical to understanding the libertarian brand of Orwell's socialism - and how '1984' is written from a libertarian socialist standpoint and not an anti-left one.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. I think it would be interesting if the Fabians were a target. I just don't think there is much evidence that they are in any significant way a significant target in the text of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Fabians and/or a certain type of left intellectualism were a frequent target of Orwell's elsewhere. I wrote an essay three years ago when we were involved in a National Theatre discussion to mark Shaw's 150th birthday which noted the contrasting reputations of Orwell and Shaw, who both died in 1950 despite being of different generations. It was, overall, a fairly warm piece about Shaw but the reputation and resonance of Orwell as a political writer is merited.


"The two great essayists of the British left both died in 1950 - Orwell at 46 and Shaw at 94. Since then, Orwell's stock has risen as Shaw's has plummeted. Orwell could have been thinking of Shaw in his caricatured complaint that "the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit juice-drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, 'nature cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England."

Socialism for superior brains proved no match for plain-spoken common sense, at least when it came to the fundamental judgment call of the century. Orwell seems to be our contemporary, in a way that Shaw cannot be".

Anonymous said...

I agree with Stuart re 1984 being a left-liberal critique, rather than an anti-left piece of work.

Indeed, reading Homage to Catalonia alongside 1984 is instructive, as in the autobiographical work Orwell clearly charts his growing distrust of the Communist forces and his growing admiration for the anarchists who were of course betrayed and in many cases murdered by their Stalinist "allies".

I've been long convinced that Orwell's experiences in Spain informed the writing of 1984. To put it crudely, one thing Orwell probably learned from Spain was that whoever wins, ordinary people lose.

Stuart White said...

On the issue of whether Orwell had the Fabians in mind: I think the direct evidence is weak. That said, if memory serves, he does refer to the philosophy of the ruling party in '1984' as 'IngSoc' (??) which looks like a play on 'English Socialism' and could be a reference to the Fabians. I'm sure he also regarded some influential Fabians - the Webbs, Shaw - as stupidly complicit in the rise of the totalitarian left. (He was, of course, right on this point.) But I think he regarded quite a lot of people on the left as complicit in this way, not just the Fabians. That's why he hung out a lot with the anarchists - he saw them as having a realistic analysis of Soviet Communism which much of the mainstream left of the time lacked.

Sunder Katwala said...

Stuart is right about IngSoc which is Newspeak for English Socialism. To the extent that there is evidence of a satire on Fabianism it is in the article linked in the post, but it is much more about left intellectuals, Communists and fellow travellers in general.

I think badconscience is spot on about the importance of Homage to Catalonia. And that is what shows too that Orwell's anti-Stalinism and his democratic Socialism went together (against those who claim that his anti-Stalinism reflected a repudiation of an earlier socialist commitment).

Orwell was never unwilling to criticise his own side, so I do not see why (if he had given up on the left) he would have denied it. Instead he wrote, in 1946 in 'Why I Write' that "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it", which was the argument for justice and liberty.

Taylor writes of the reception of Animal Farm that "Orwell was nervous of the wider political response, fearing - correctly, as it turned out - that a left-wing critique of Stalinism might be misrepresented as an attack on socialism per se. ... Mindful of the danger of being adopted as a talisman of the Right, he lost no opportunity over the next six months to state his political position. The Duchess of Atholl, a Unionist MP soliciting support for her League of European Freedom, was politely rebuffed: "I belong to the left and must work within it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country". (Taylor, p356). Similarly, he stressed around

The idea that Orwell became an anti-socialist by the time of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is pushed for various reasons. Partly, most people read Orwell backwards, and start with those two most famous books (and many leave it at that. But the evidence is that Orwell's values and politics in 1936 and of his last books are very similar.(I wrote about the attempts to claim Orwell for the right in my tribute to Bernard Crick last December, noting the strange alliance between US neo-cons - who had a good attempt at this throughtout the Cold War and in 1984 in particular - but also his widow Sonia who wanted to claim Orwell for letters and literature, and so also wanted to play down the politics for that reason, which is why Crick's emphasis on Orwell as a political writer and an essayist were important).

Stuart, thanks for the recommendation of the the Orwell at home and amongst the anarchists book (which I don't know, and which was also among DJ Taylor's picks).

It would be interesting to have something on Orwell and anarchism at some point. (Perhaps we should continue a mini-Orwell symposium here on Next Left this month). I think the pieces on Orwell in Crick's 'Essays on Politics and Literature' are particularly good: there is one on 'Orwell and English socialism' which is about his libertarian socialism; and there is a very funny one about 'On The Orwell Trail' about the experience of doing the 1984 circuit in 1984 itself.

Sunder Katwala said...

I left a half sentence hanging there somewhere ...

Similarly, he stressed around the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four that he remained a supporter of the Attlee Labour government; though undoubtedly there are satirical references to wartime and post-war England, scarcity, rationing, etc.

Stuart White said...

'Orwell at Home and Among the Anarchists' is definitely worth buying. Aside from the excellent essays, the photos are great. Many of the canonical photos of the late '40s Orwell were taken in one session by two anarchists, Maria Berneri and Vernon Richards. Orwell also had his hair cut by a commited anarchist!

One of the nice things about living in Oxford is that one can visit Orwell's grave fairly easily. I try to go there every other year. I leave a cigar or a couple of cigarettes on the grave as I know George's ghost must be gasping for a good smoke.

nd, yes, let's do that special session on Orwell and the anarchists!