Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, but impending death can be just as powerful a source of inspiration when it comes to creation.
Today, I think it’s fair to say that almost everybody in the West is familiar with some part of George Orwell’s writings, even if it is unconsciously through such thought-provoking shows as Big Brother.
While Orwell is still famous all these decades on for works including Animal Farm, it is undoubtedly Nineteen Eighty-Four that continues to resonate with us more than any of his other stories. Perhaps not surprisingly, especially for those who believe in life mirroring art (and vice versa), the road to completing Orwell’s opus was nothing short of heartbreakingly tragic – and yet somehow uplifting, if for no other reason than the sheer determination he showed in getting down on paper what would quickly become one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.
As Robert McCrum noted in an article for The Guardian titled “The masterpiece that killed George Orwell,” Mr. McCrum “tells the compelling story of Orwell’s torturous stay on the [remote Scottish] island where the author, close to death and beset by creative demons, was engaged in a feverish race to finish the book.”
In a nutshell (stress the nut in this “shell”), Orwell suffered through the misery of living in wartime London in the lead-up to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, what with the bombings, the rations, and the constant fear of death in some variety. Then his flat was torn asunder by doodlebugs (i.e. his apartment was destroyed by termite-like bugs) just after he and his wife Eileen adopted their only child, Richard. Then, two months before VE Day and the end of the war in Europe, his wife died under anesthesia during a routine operation.
Penniless, suffering from ill health as a result of his chest/lung problems, and heartbroken at the loss of his wife at such a young age, the widower and single parent traveled to the island of Jura, Scotland, where his friend and boss from The Observer owned an estate he said Orwell could use to pen his next novel.
While living and writing on the inhospitable rock (“mountainous, bare and infertile, covered largely by vast areas of blanket fog”), Orwell nearly drowned one day while out with his son, only to develop TB and be mostly bedridden for the rest of his days. No matter how sluggish his days, however, Orwell crept along and finished what initially he called The Last Man in Europe, but later settled on as Ninety Eighty-Four.
As he wrote years earlier in an essay, almost presaging this final dance with his craft:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.”
By the end of 1948, when he submitted the manuscript, Orwell’s health was deteriorating quickly. Nonetheless, Ninety Eighty-Four was published on June 8, 1949 to huge acclaim, and people across the English-speaking world awoke that day to the opening line of a novel that has since become timeless: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Although he remarried in October 1948, any happiness he might have felt was short-lived; Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) died, alone, of a massive haemorrhage on January 21, 1950. And as despondent as his “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle” passage may seem, it did end on what Mr. McCrum called “that famous Orwellian coda.”
“Good prose is like a window pane.”