1984 in the 1940s
House on the island of Jura occupied by George Orwell when writing novel 1984. Photograph taken in 1986 via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
Although the novel begins on April 4, 1984, in the dystopian empire of Oceania, its inspiration was England, circa 1946. The food is bad, and there isn’t enough of it. (Meat was rationed in England until July 1954.) Whatever your vehicle, you’re constantly worried about running out of gas. Your house is cold, the plumbing leaks, and privacy is hard to find.
Winston Smith, whose evolution into an enemy of the Party is the novel’s narrative backbone, has more than a little of Orwell in him. Both have an aversion to sulfurous odors (cabbage, feces). Winston’s first transgressive act—starting a diary—is something Orwell had been doing for years. As Winston stares at his book’s blank pages, it’s hard not to hear the author talking to himself:
For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was to transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years.
There are other grains of autobiography. When Winston goes to help unclog the sink of the woman in the neighboring flat, he hopes he doesn’t have to bend down, “which was always liable to start him coughing.” This was a problem Orwell had when gardening. Winston ruminates early in the novel that “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against one’s own body.” Orwell must have felt the same when he twice left Jura to seek treatment for his failing lungs.
The inadequacy of Barnhill’s paraffin, or kerosene, lamps whispers in the description of how “the feeble light of the paraffin lamp” didn’t permit Winston to see that the prostitute he hired was a toothless woman in her 50s. Even in the famous scene in which Winston is shown the torture device made for him—a facemask attached to a cage of hungry rats—we find a precursor on Jura. In the diary entry for June 12, 1947, Orwell noted: “Five rats (2 young ones, 2 enormous) caught in the byre during about the last fortnight … I hear that recently two children at Ardlussa were bitten by rats (in the face, as usual.)”
But that’s about it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is an extreme product of the imagination. It didn’t just render life under totalitarianism, it imagined the R&D that would go into the totalitarianism of the future, much of which has proved true. That included the purging of the historical record, state control of procreation, government surveillance of public spaces by camera, and the invention of electronic screens that both project images and record activity that occurs in their presence.