I am suffering a loss. Mostly I am coping but sometimes the sadness rolls in like a frothy, stupefying wave, knocking me flat.
When George Orwell moved to Barnhill, an isolated property on the Scottish Isle of Jura (population approx. 180), he had just lost his wife. But he had a book to finish, one that he believed, he told a Jura local, ‘had an important message’. That book was Nineteen Eighty-Four.
A few weeks ago I worked and slept in Orwell’s room at Barnhill for seven days. I travelled even further than he did to get there, though I did so with the benefits of modern technology: three flights, a car trip, two ferry rides, one drive along Jura’s single track road, and then the final drive down a dirt track, accessible only by 4WD. I am working on a manuscript with political threads. I am not as sure as Orwell was that its message is important, but ‘every novelist, has a “message”, whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his work are influenced by it. All art is propaganda.’
So writes Orwell in his excellent essay on why Dickens is a ‘moral’ writer but not a true agitator or voice for the poor, because the message in his novels is often the wealthy learning to be benevolent, while class systems are not truly shaken up.
Orwell lived a unique life and his essays reveal a truly empathetic mind, attempting not only to articulate ideas of equality and oppression, but to suggest (sometimes with frustration, as though shouting into a void) that existing political systems are terribly flawed, always privileging the few over the many.
Orwell was also very ill with tuberculosis when he went to Barnhill. Visitors could hear the urgent clack of his typewriter keys as he worked from bed in his room above the kitchen. I carried a barking dry cough with me there; my friend Josephine Rowe, whom I shared my stay with, said it was very strange to hear the cough coming from Orwell’s room. I communed with him, in a way, in that house: through reading his work, and through inhabiting his space. Next to the mirror on the dresser, there’s a picture of him with a small attractive smile and scruffy hair. Sometimes I burned a candle there, and looked at him. The room and house carried a good feeling, a positive presence (if we were to talk about such things), and I tried to remain respectful of it.
Orwell went to Jura to be un-get-to-able, and that appealed to me: at home I am always get-to-able, in touch; but in Scotland I was isolated. The lack of access to phone and internet was not so hard, not there. There is so much to absorb: blue skies turning orange, the sparkling water, a sea eagle chasing buzzards, seals, deer, wild goats, pretty house martins. At night it was so quiet I could hear my own blood. We could also hear a sound in the wind like singing. One night, when there was a clear sky, we went out to look at the stars. They were dense, and there was no moon; the Milky Way was a viscous smudge through the centre.
Maybe being in that place helped Orwell retain a sense of wonder. Though Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bleak book, his anxiety to finish it expressed some form of hope, that people would read it and be moved to think about political systems, power, control, oppression, freedom.
Rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four, I discovered that it had dated in some ways, that it felt rushed in parts. My editor’s brain found unnecessary repetition, internal inconsistencies. My awareness of these flaws was enhanced by simultaneously reading Orwell’s essays, which by contrast are sharp, polished and stimulating. And yet, I still saw in Nineteen Eighty-Four everything that it first awakened in me, and will continue to awaken in others. It is easy to forget that it was published only at the beginning of the Cold War. Orwell says of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, ‘after a lapse of time the atmosphere of the book, besides innumerable details, seemed to linger in my memory in a particular way.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book like that: thoughtcrime, Big Brother, ‘We are the dead’ – the details and prevailing mood stay with you.
I started to think about Orwell’s vast political capacity and the way he wrote (and tried to write) about equality and oppression, but found myself coming back to the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four in which a woman is washing and singing outside the window of Winston and Julia’s hiding place. Winston suddenly realises she is beautiful: the singing worker, a symbol of the possibility of overthrowing power. Initially, I got so excited reading this, but then this is what follows: ‘Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings may one day come.’ So the figure of the woman is still foremost a mother, or lover (in the case of Julia).
Orwell’s attempts to communicate ideas of equality in both his fiction and nonfiction were visionary. I was disappointed to find that, even so, he possessed a susceptibility to gender bias that was of his time.
And then Josephine and I were sitting by candlelight one evening, the rich brown smell of coal in the kitchen, and I began to read out the descriptions of Orwell’s other novels in the back of my Penguin edition of the essays.
We were both alarmed that we hadn’t heard of some of the novels; specifically A Clergyman’s Daughter, which has a woman as its main character. I was intrigued. We only had one full day left at Barnhill. I found a collection of Orwell’s complete novels in the house, and began reading A Clergyman’s Daughter that evening. It opens with Dorothy, a Rector’s daughter, taking a cold bath, fasting in self-punishment, worrying about the butcher’s bill and her father’s failure to understand its urgency. We are with her bodily in the bath (‘A deadly pang, an actual physical pang, had gone through her viscera’), and we are in her mind, empathising with her stress over the following pages as she takes on an increasing weight of responsibility.
‘One thing loomed up after another – whether it was the costumes for the school play or the collapsing floor of the belfry, or the shop-debts or the bindweed in the peas – and each in its turn so urgent and so harassing that it blotted all the others out of existence.’
I quickly became addicted to the book, and read most of it by candlelight on our last night. In part two, Dorothy blacks out and wakes up far away from her village, in London. In the extraordinary pages that follow, she meets some young tramps and takes to the road with them, begging and eventually hop-picking. The description of hop-picking is based on Orwell’s own experience, and is described in detail over two pages. Here, Orwell does what he berates other novelists for ignoring – writes about work.
Part three of A Clergyman’s Daughter is equally wonderful. It opens with many pages written like a play from the point of view of several homeless people huddled on a cold night in Trafalgar Square (including Dorothy). Throughout these shifts the novel manages to always be warm and satirical, and richly detailed (the descriptions of characters are memorable and amusing: Dorothy’s cousin has a ‘puzzled, prawnish eye’).
In its structure, detail, tone, and its vivacity, A Clergyman’s Daughter is a very different novel to 1984. Orwell apparently dismissed this novel not long after its release. Did he feel he’d been too experimental, perhaps too showy with the structure? Was he unhappy with the tone? The books he was openly proud of are bleaker and more sparse. Did he feel he’d not truly captured the character of Dorothy? Or had he not quite known what to do with her once she’d been created? Maybe this is a more accessible novel now than it was then, accustomed as contemporary readers are to formal experimentation.
Both entertaining and absorbing, A Clergyman’s Daughter captures something of the weight of expectations placed on women (when Dorothy disappears, her father is distraught at having to make his own breakfast). It captures the way a woman takes on the mental weight of unpaid emotional labour – knowing what needs to be done, and by when, and for whom – so that the men around her do not have to. It also explores the limited options available to women of any class: when Dorothy tries to find work in London, she is rejected mostly because her status is evident in her voice and people perceive she has ‘fallen’.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston muses on why he is writing his diary, and for whom: ‘For the future, for the past – for an age that might be imaginary.’ Orwell may have wondered the same about his own work, knowing that there would always be people, and leaders, turning a blind eye, and systems to oppress the poor and minorities. Even if he ended up thinking A Clergyman’s Daughter was ‘bollocks’, his attempt to capture a working woman’s life matters.
Sometimes it is hard to have hope. Personal distress meets a consideration of the weary world – the multitudes who are worse off, and all that we cannot do or know – and may manifest as paralysis. Orwell was a writer who continually attempted to express societal issues, and represent the complexities of individuals, even while grieving and close to death. Encountering him was a rejuvenating privilege: lying in a remote, magical place, communing with the products of his mind, and feeling small but alive under that starry sky. These moments will smoulder warmly beneath my own attempts for a good time to come.
A source that must be noted is the pamphlet Jura and George Orwell by Gordon Wright (Jura local), which includes the memoirs of Mrs Nelson at Ardlussa, Barnhill’s closest neighbour. And sincere thanks to the Fletchers, and to Kate.