Image: Pixabay.

Review: everything you never knew about George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-Four

Londoner Dorian Lynskey usually writes about music for big mastheads like the Guardian and GQ. His latest project, The Ministry of Truth, is something completely different – and fascinating, writes Orwell fan Mark Broatch. 

In the months leading up to the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four in June of 1949, George Orwell talked down his novel. In letters to friends he called it a “beastly book”, “an awful book really”, and “a good idea ruined”. He thought it would have been better had it not been written under the influence of tuberculosis – the disease that would kill him within months. He told his publisher that “it isn’t a book I would gamble on for a big sale”. (Animal Farm, his surprise-hit earlier novel, had already earned him the equivalent of £400,000.) Nineteen Eighty-Four would go on to sell millions of copies, be translated into dozens of languages, and indelibly change literature and society.

Orwell always undersold his novels, says Dorian Lynskey in this outstanding “biography” of the book. This was due to Orwell’s “tangle of modesty, expectation management and genuine self-doubt”. Burmese Days “made me spew”; Coming Up for Air was “a mess”. He believed himself to be a failure, at home with defeat, says Lynskey. His publisher noticed that he “never liked being associated with anything that was too powerful or successful”. Friends nevertheless thought him destined for greatness, including Arthur Koestler, author of the 1940 anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon, who bet five bottles of burgundy that Orwell would have a bestseller within five years. Animal Farm beat the deadline by a year. The success of that novel, a satirical allegory of Russian history from the 1917 Revolution until mid-WW2, meant Orwell – largely a jobbing journalist and reviewer – could devote himself to writing books. 

The Ministry of Truth‘s first part explores Orwell’s life, loves and losses, his ill health and writerly struggles, philosophical and financial. All the influences and experiences that fed the novel are here too in fine-grained detail: his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, which informed his view “that political expediency corrupted integrity, language and truth itself”; wartime Britain under threat of the Luftwaffe’s bombs and serving in the Home Guard; and working in the talks department of the BBC’s Indian Section, a key inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s propaganda and bureaucracy and Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth; as well as his pen to pen combat with HG Wells, and the stirring ideas of Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution

As for the development of the novel itself, elements like Ingsoc, the three super-states and the Two Minutes Hate were there from 1943 or 1944, says Lynskey, along with the basic idea of a subversive writer, a significant conversation and an affair. The back half of the book was always going to incorporate arrest, torture, confession and, as usual with Orwell, failure. But important elements, such as telescreens and Big Brother, an amalgam of characters blurred with Hitler and Stalin, arrived later.

Then there’s the writing. Orwell’s wife Eileen had recently died, leaving him a single father to the adopted Richard, as had his mother and older sister. Racked with illness, he decamped to an isolated, electricity-free house on the Scottish island of Jura, with his sister Avril, his housekeeper and Richard, and set about feverishly working to finish the novel.

The second part of The Ministry of Truth covers the book’s impact and aftermath. Orwell was admiring of Kipling for having introduced phrases to the language. Many who have never read Nineteen Eighty-Four nevertheless know exactly what is meant by doublethink, Newspeak, the Thought Police, unperson and Room 101 – and the much-misused term Orwellian. 

Its impact wasn’t immediate. In 1954 the BBC’s broadcast of a two-hour adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four drew seven million viewers, about one in seven of the population. Prior to that, its impact was “marginal”, reckoned the Times, though the book had already sold probably a million copies. “Not that marginal, then,” notes Lynskey.  

The book in fact cast a gigantic shadow over the future canon of dystopian fiction. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (though he specifically cited Darkness at Noon), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood called it “speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety”), Brazil, V for Vendetta, Big Brother the TV series and Black Mirror. Its effect has been felt in the cultural comprehension of Edward Snowden and NSA surveillance, the nightmare of deepfakes, and of course on to China (“any reference to Orwell’s book is scrubbed from the internet”), Trump (“he has the cruelty and power hunger of a dictator but not the discipline, intellect or ideology”) and Putin. The book meanwhile ensured the world had lost its appetite for shiny, happy utopias, with the exception of BF Skinner’s Walden Two and Huxley’s Island, which depict perfect worlds you’d never want to live in.

Lynskey has read everything to do with Orwell, his novels, letters, reviews. But he’s read many of his subject’s contemporaries and rivals too. The author is largely a music writer, and was perhaps drawn to the subject – he doesn’t say – because of David Bowie’s intense interest in making a musical of Nineteen Eighty-Four, before Orwell’s widow Sonia kyboshed that idea. He is particularly good at dropping in just one or two apt quotes, never slowing the narrative with the trove of material he has sifted. The Ministry of Truth gives an excellent sense of events elsewhere, providing a political, social and literary context that’s sometimes missing from such accounts. 

My appreciation should come with a disclosure: George Orwell and I have something of a history. Worn paperbacks of Nineteen Eighty-Four, We and Brave New World sit on my bookcase, as well as the likes of Homage to Catalonia. So taken by Nineteen Eighty-Four was I that I even have a copy of the Fascimile, an expensive hard-bound assemblage of surviving manuscripts published in 1984. As part of a postgrad degree years ago I wrote long, doubtlessly febrile essays about Orwell’s novel and other dystopias. Still, I marked half of this book for quotation as a result of the many things I wasn’t quite aware of, such as the title – the 1948-1984 idea is a myth; it was originally called The Last Man in Europe – and The Appendix Theory, which allows a hugely different interpretation of events.

Is Nineteen Eighty-Four ultimately pessimistic about humanity’s prospects? My 1983 version ends with him writing with his finger in the dust on the table “2 + 2 = ”. In the original, and in all versions since 1987, says Lynskey, it was “2 + 2 = 5”. Big Brother had won; all hope was lost. No one has explained whether it was a late change by Orwell, or a strange printing error. The eerie 1984 Michael Radford film, with John Hurt as Smith, Richard Burton – persuaded out of retirement for the role and just a short distance from his own death – as O’Brien and Suzanna Hamilton as Julia, is probably the most famous screen version. It ends with Winston writing “2 + 2” and stopping. Radford felt it would be too dark without that doubt.

Despite Sonia Orwell’s staunch resistance to suspected travesties over the years (they married months before his death; she died in 1980), many adaptations of the book have been made, including film, TV and theatre versions, even an opera and ballet. A Paul Greengrass film was mooted for this year, but nothing has come of that. No rock musical has arrived; perhaps the Eurythmics’ ‘Sex Crime’ soundtrack* of the Radford film – engineered, says Lynskey, by Richard Branson’s Virgin Films, which had pumped $US6m into the film – is punishment enough.

Like Animal Farm before it, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been championed and condemned, subverted, co-opted (most egregiously by Steve Jobs’ Apple Mac ad) and misunderstood. Orwell – the pathologically honest atheist socialist – has been embraced by conservatives, liberals, socialists, anarchists, Catholics and libertarians. He could be “rash, hyperbolic, irritable, blinkered and perverse”, says Lynskey. But he always questioned his instincts, prejudices, motives. In an article, Why I Write, Orwell noted: “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 understand.” Orwell argued that authors jostle four major motives: ego, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. He decided that the fourth had propelled his best work in what would be the last decade or so of his life, and declared he wrote because “there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention”.

Just 19 days after Orwell’s death, Joseph McCarthy would tell an audience that he had a long list of communists working in the US State Department. “I always disagree when people end by saying that we can only combat Communism, Fascism or what not if we develop an equal fanaticism,” Orwell said. “It appears to me that one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself.”

Join us and help us hire new
political & climate reporters
Find Out More

The 70th anniversary of the book’s release “falls at a dark time for liberal democracy, no doubt,” writes Lynskey in his afterword. “Yet around the world, millions of people in the ‘reality-based community’ continue to push back against the Medium-Sized Lie, to reaffirm that facts matter, to fight for the preservation of honesty and integrity, and to insist on the freedom to say that two and two make four. For them, the book still has much to offer.” Orwell was more interested in psychology than systems, says Lynskey, so every cognitive bias, prejudice and trick that lets injustice gain the upper hand is on show in the novel. As he wrote in his preface for Animal Farm, liberal values “are not indestructible, and they have to be kept alive partly by conscious effort”.

Huxley’s biographer Sybille Bedford expressed the view – in the year 1984 – that instead of the binary dystopian paths of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, we had entered the age of mixed tyrannies. She meant, says Lynskey, that modern seekers of power would use “whatever combination of coercion, seduction and distraction proved most effective”. The book does not, it should be noted, predict surveillance capitalism, in which huge private companies capture and dominate our lives by way of our online social and buying behaviour, with our complicity. 

Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a prophecy, Orwell insisted. A satire, a parody and a warning, but not a foretelling – and definitely not a howl of despair from a dying man. In his last months he explained that he wrote the book not to “bind our wills but to strengthen them”, writes Lynskey. He told his publisher: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare is a simple one. Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.

The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, by Dorian Lynskey (Picador, $37.99) is available at Unity Books.


The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.