by Norman Bissell
Barnhill is a farmhouse on the Scottish Hebridean island of Jura – a mountainous, sparsely populated piece of land, bare except for vast areas of blanket bog. The main settlement there is the village of Craighouse where the famous Isle of Jura Single Malt Whisky is produced, but the property itself stands alone to the north of the island and is notable mainly because it was the home of author George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair) during the late 1940s. Here he grew vegetables, raised his son and completed his celebrated dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Being familiar with Orwell’s time in Scotland from his Diaries, Life in Letters and biography, Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers, I was fascinated to learn of Norman Bissell’s fictional retelling of this significant period in the writer’s life. Described in an early review by Leela Soma as a “rich, absorbing narrative that draws a convincing picture of the life of a great writer”, I was intrigued to discover how Bissell had interpreted the inner-life of such an intensely private and emotionally impenetrable figure.
The narrative begins in 1944, when he and his stoical wife Eileen are still living in London and covers the period when he ends an extramarital affair with his secretary, adopts a three-week old child, publishes Animal Farm, becomes a war correspondent in Paris and experiences the death of his wife in shocking circumstances. He arrives at Barnhill (a place once described by his friend Richard Rees as “the most uninhabitable house in the British Isles”) in 1946, later to be joined by his sister, housekeeper and son. Here he spends about six months of the year from 1946 to 1948.
Orwell had tuberculosis, which was undoubtedly aggravated by living in damp conditions. Between bouts of ill health and undergoing agonizing treatment in hospital, he wrote and redrafted his final novel in a dingy bedroom overlooking the sea. He was in a sanitorium in Gloucestershire by the time he corrected the proofs, and married his second wife, Sonia Brownell, the inspiration for the book’s fearless Julia, at University College Hospital in London only three months before his death on 21st January 1950.
Bissell’s endeavours to recreate events in the last six years of Orwell’s life have obviously required a degree of dramatic licence (he happily admits as much in his Afterword) – for instance, certain dialogues have been imagined and the parts of his book written by Sonia about her life with Orwell are fictitious. However, as Bissell rightly points out, her voice is “essential to the story” and he has “tried to convey it as accurately as possible.”
Barnhill remains faithful to the most important aspects of Orwell’s life and it will likely appeal to those who know little of the man behind the disconcertingly prescient novels, while also offering a slant on his final years that readers more familiar with his history will hopefully accept and applaud. Bissell has movingly and vibrantly reanimated Orwell in all his gloomy, troubled, visionary sagacity.
Many thanks to Luath Press for providing an advance review copy of this title.