A FEW weeks ago I wrote about George Orwell and noted that he only achieved fame and financial security with the publication of Animal Farm in 1946. He was to write just one more book. Originally to be called The Last Man in Europe, we know it as Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell had TB and his health was deteriorating fast, but he was determined to complete the novel. He retreated to the Scottish island of Jura, where he could work at it undisturbed, away from London and from demands on his time from publishers and friends.

Some people think that the deep pessimism of Nineteen Eighty-Four was coloured by his final illness. I disagree.

The book had been forming in his mind over many years. If you are familiar with his other works and his posthumously published Letters and Diaries, you notice many of the ideas in the novel beginning to take shape.

Two examples: he often mentions his hatred of rats, which appear in all but one of his novels; we see George Bowling in Coming Up for Air (1939) worrying not so much about the looming war, but life afterwards: ‘…the kind of hate-world, slogan world…the secret cells where the electric light burns night and day…the posters with enormous faces…It’s all going to happen.’

In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell creates a dystopia – a world where things have gone badly wrong (just as George Bowling feared they would). Over the years he had been interested in books like this and took inspiration from works such as Jack London’s The Iron Heel, H.G. Wells’s science fiction and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But the final creation was entirely his own.

In his nightmare world there is no individual liberty. The state operates control for control’s sake. Its central character Winston Smith is trapped.

The novel’s setting in many ways reflects war-torn London. Orwell superimposes aspects of totalitarianism (Big Brother, five year plans, show trials, torture) and futuristic developments (telescreens, state surveillance, tower blocks, news management). He intended the book to be a ‘warning’ rather than a prophecy, though it sometimes reads like one. Kim-Jong Un and President Trump, in different ways, both belong to the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In his essay Why I Write (1946) Orwell said: “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” He was an independent thinker and always his own man: his political views lay somewhere between liberalism and socialism.

But the novel was at first seized upon, especially in the US, as an attack on Socialism, which it wasn’t. It is an attack on totalitarianism, and it remains relevant and powerful today. Orwell wrote: ‘The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.’

Lance Christopher

PS Books can indeed be bought as paper copies, or as eBooks via Kindle, and, once the coronavirus lockdown has passed, borrowed from Wiltshire libraries.

Free RBdigital eBooks, eAudio and eMagazines are available from Wiltshire libraries.

You need a Wiltshire library card and an email address so that you can register with RBdigital. If you don’t have a library card, you can join online by completing a form and then receiving an email with your library card number.

More information about this service and a link to the joining form can be found at http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/libraries-ebooks