How George Orwell’s 1984 Almost Didn’t Happen

Illustrations © Nathan Gelgud for Signature

June 8, 2017, marks the sixty-eighth anniversary of the publication of 1984, a book that George Orwell almost didn’t manage to write. And when he did, it practically killed him.

As Bernard Crick wrote in the first complete biography of Orwell, at the time Orwell started to write about Winston Smith, Big Brother, and Ingsoc, Animal Farm was becoming an international sensation, and Orwell was having to learn to be more judicious with his time. A career journalist devoted to liberal causes, a new level of fame brought requests from publications that paid better than his regular work at the Observer. Orwell had just adopted his son, Richard, and his wife Eileen had died unexpectedly, so keeping the bank balance up made sense. And even if that hadn’t been the case, Orwell’s liberal-minded passion compelled him to broadcast his work to a bigger audience.

Still, he wanted to write a novel, one about a possible future inspired in part by the Tehran Conference of 1944. There, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met to agree to a commitment to fight Nazi Germany. But Orwell saw something more sinister, believing that the world leaders actually met to agree on how to divide the world up among the superpowers, providing a blueprint for global totalitarianism.

When I was in high school, I would have liked to know that Orwell was inspired by a conspiracy theory of his own making when he wrote 1984. As a teenage radical who carried around the Communist Manifesto in my back pocket, I was captivated by Orwell’s plotting and prose, but turned off by what I thought to be its simplistic counterrevolutionary politics. High school teachers of young Marxists, take note.

So even though he was already sick with the illness that would eventually become the tuberculosis that killed him, Orwell left London to live on the Scottish island of Jura (off and on) for the next few years, where he could try to focus on writing fiction instead of journalism. A steady stream of visitors and continued requests for journalistic work slowed the process, as did an extended stay in the hospital. Of course, when he finally did publish 1984, he reached his widest audience yet.