Don Quixote on a Motorbike
The world’s becoming a nightmare as far as I’m concerned.
I have written before about my ambiguous relationship to the legacy and works of George Orwell, pen name of Eric Blair. His writings served as my first introduction to the power of long narrative fiction, and in particular how pathos can be communicated through the tragic tradition. Still, many of his later choices as a writer and human being trouble me. He took decisions I consider awful, but produced works I nonetheless value. At an early stage of my own critical reflections on Orwell (then unspoken), I was fortunate to meet Norman Bissell during a stay on the Scottish Isle of Jura, when he was writing Barnhill about Orwell’s time in the selfsame place. Here, the author secluded himself in a remote farmhouse — the titular — to write his most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-four. Bissell was a wonderfully insightful interlocutor (on this subject and many others) and so it was with enthusiasm that I read his historical novel, an enthusiasm that was duly rewarded.
The conditions of Barnhill itself are described in tortuous detail in this book, far worse than the Jura I visited in cottage-comfort: ‘George’s landlord, the Marquis of Northampton, still hadn’t had the roof fixed and it now leaked in a dozen different places[…] His flat was like an icebox[…] icicles had formed on the insides of the windows.’ Still, the extreme remove of the place instantly conjured my time there — and it was a wonderful connection to have with this story. During my stay on Jura, I had a great deal of reading time and indulged in the horror of Thomas Ligotti and Sheridan Le Fanu — authors that are vastly different to Orwell, and to each other. There is something genuinely haunting about the place that put me immediately in the mood for that type of fiction, and in centring this place in the genesis of Nineteen Eighty-four Bissell brings out what is most powerful about that novel’s nightmare future. Ligotti, Le Fanu and Orwell might be remarkably unalike, except that they all evoke nightmares. And as starkly beautiful as Jura is, it is easy to see how Orwell dreamt his most famous nightmare in this singular place — its grey seas, its cold.
Nineteen Eighty-four famously opens, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Bissell opens his novel with Orwell’s first person interior monologue: ‘It must be about three o’clock. In the morning.’ This establishes in Barnhill the deep connection between Bissell’s fictionalised biography and an account of the creation of a fictionalised version of our shared future. The dystopia is evoked, then, in all its historical specificity. For example, Orwell is shown writing Nineteen Eighty-four as a form of self-therapy for PTSD: ‘He realised he’d have to start writing his novel at some point that summer if he was to exorcise these nightmares he kept having.’ And as Orwell grows sicker, Bissell details the author’s tuberculosis, as well as meticulously rendering the horrifying procedures used then to treat it. These moments meld with the book-within-the-book, as it ‘felt like [Orwell] was in a torture chamber. Shades of the Spanish Inquisition.’ Such impressions are explicitly related to the concluding chapters of Nineteen Eighty-four, sometimes in hallucinatory dreams of O’Brien torturing Winston who is now also a proxy for the author of both of these characters.
Bissell has a somewhat different relationship to Orwell than mine, but Barnhill is not hagiography, and all the better for it. The book is written in such a way that it comprehends, without necessarily sharing, the small c conservatism of Orwell, the man’s dated and wistful longing for ‘a time when human decency was the norm, and people valued ordinary things like high teas, antiques, cricket, saucy postcards, angel scraps and stamp collecting.’ Bissell also contextualises Orwell’s attitude to women and ‘the sandal-wearing, vegetarian lefties’ the author held in less than high opinion. The most difficult subject for any treatment of Orwell, however, and the reason he has understandably been taken against by the left, was not these dated beliefs. It is rather the man’s infamous list of communists, happily turned over to the British state. Not being central to this narrative, this is handled cursorily in Barnhill, ‘I have a list of some of the usual suspects at Barnhill.’ It is couched in the politics of the day, and in a paranoia Orwell suffered after being snooped on by MI5 and in the context of the assassination of Trotsky, ‘he believed it was his patriotic duty to act in this way. However, he realised that not everyone would see it like that.’ My own view, as I expressed in my previous piece, is that while Orwell’s social prejudices are merely typical of his day, his list is difficult to overlook — Norman Bissell’s Barnhill necessarily allows readers to draw their conclusions.
As a novelisation of Orwell’s last years, and one that does not idealise or demonise, Barnhill is a deeply humanising story. Here, Orwell is neither monster nor angel, and from the point of view of his lover Sonia Brownell (whose first person accounts intersperse Orwell’s own as well as a more frequent third person limited POV) he is deeply mortal, frail, fallible and often tragic. ‘Not only did George snore — find me a man that doesn’t — but he used to cry out in his sleep.’ In this sense, Orwell’s convictions seem always strained against a very grounded fear of nihilism, ‘You’re a pessimist, a hedonist, a nihilist, whereas I still believe in democratic socialism. Otherwise we might as well top ourselves.’ Orwell, here, is also an adventurer, ‘a bit of a Don Quixote on a motorbike’. Finally, Orwell is someone who, having been traumatised, wants nothing more than the comfort of a reliable lover and a retreat from a world he increasingly feared: ‘I’ve always liked Robinson Crusoe and, whilst Jura was no South Sea paradise island, it was the nearest thing I could find to one in the British Isles.’
As a talented writer, Bissell is able to craft such a complex portait. Whether assuming the voice of various historical personages, evoking the heady world of the intelligentsia of postwar London, or bringing to life the end-of-the-world feel of one of the most remote places in the United Kingdom, he proves at each instance as being more than up to the challenge. The result is a singular piece of fictionalised history, and one I now proudly keep next to my old copy of Nineteen Eighty-four itself.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.