Why did George Orwell call his last novel Nineteen Eighty-Four?
The usual explanation for the choice of title of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it was a play on the last two digits of 1948, the year the manuscript was finished.
This has never convinced me. I think there may be a better explanation, which comes from George Orwell’s intellectual hostility to the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton.
This post sets out this alternative explanation as to why Orwell did give his novel the title Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is culled from work I did some time ago when I was considering a higher degree. Although the coincidence on which it is based has been noticed before, I am not aware of any other attempt to assess the alternative explanation that I offer.
A choice of title
In autumn 1948, Orwell is uncertain as to the title of his new novel. He has two titles in mind, and he asks at least two people for their view. In a letter dated 22 October 1948, Orwell explains the dilemma to his literary agent:
“…I have not definitely decided on the title. I am inclined to call it either NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE, but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.”
On the same day he also writes to his new publisher and makes the same unsure admission:
“…I haven’t definitely fixed on the title but I am hesitating between NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR and THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE.”
However, within a month, the first of these two titles appears to have stuck. At least other people had taken it up. In December 1948, the publisher had compiled a report on the novel, calling it “1984”, as did one of the professional readers.
By 17 January 1949, Orwell himself has clearly made his choice of title and was now discussing whether it should be entitled “1984” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.
The book was published later that year.
The conventional explanation
The conventional account is now almost an urban myth. Everybody knows it, so to speak.
This 1948 explanation, although widely adopted, is actually not that well attested. For example, I have not found it stated anywhere by Orwell or by anyone with whom he conversed.
So far, I have only been able to trace the 1948 explanation to an American publisher called Robert Giroux, who saw Nineteen Eighty-Four through the press for the US edition.
However, Orwell was not particularly close to Giroux, and there is no reason to believe that Giroux was privy to any special information about Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although there is some correspondence between Orwell and Giroux, I have not seen any mention in that correspondence of why the book had this title.
In passing, I note that Orwell complained that he did not like what Giroux was doing to the book in the US edition. Nor did he appreciate the unsolicited requests for writing blurbs.
An alternative explanation?
If the 1948 theory is possibly not correct, why did Orwell choose to set his dystopia in the year 1984? My alternative explanation brings us to G.K. Chesterton, an earlier and very different writer to Orwell.
Chesterton was, of course, the writer of the Father Brown stories, as well as a prolific poet and journalist. But it is one of his two famous novels (the other being The Man Who Was Thursday) with which I am concerned here: The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a fantasy set in a future London. (As a fantasy writer, Chesterton has the deserved admiration of modern fantasy writers such as Neil Gaiman.) The hero is Auberon Quin, a well-meaning eccentric who suddenly becomes King. The political context for all this is set out when the story begins:
VERY few words are needed to explain why London, a hundred years hence, will be very like it is now, or rather, since I must slip into a prophetic past, why London, when my story opens, was very like it was in those enviable days when I was still alive.
The reason can be stated in one sentence. The people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions. All revolutions are doctrinal…such as the French one, or the one that introduced Christianity.
For it stands to common sense that you cannot upset all existing things, customs, and compromises, unless you believe in something outside them, something positive and divine. Now, England, during this century, lost all belief in this. It believed in a thing called Evolution. And it said, “All theoretic changes have ended in blood and ennui. If we change, we must change slowly and safely, as the animals do. Nature’s revolutions are the only successful ones. There has been no conservative reaction in favour of tails.”
And some things did change. Things that were not much thought of dropped out of sight. Things that had not often happened did not happen at all. Thus, for instance, the actual physical force ruling the country, the soldiers and police, grew smaller and smaller, and at last vanished almost to a point. The people combined could have swept the few policemen away in ten minutes: they did not,because they did not believe it would do them the least good. They had lost faith in revolutions.
Democracy was dead; for no one minded the governing class governing. England was now practically a despotism, but not an hereditary one. Some one in the official class was made King. No one cared how; no one cared who. He was merely an universal secretary.
In this manner it happened that everything in London was very quiet. That vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition. There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill is, however, now more famous for its preface, entitled Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy. Only a few hundred words long, it is a much-quoted source of Chestertonian wit. (It begins wonderfully with “THE human race, to which so many of my readers belong…”.)
The preface is not used to introduce the story but to undermine both modernist pretensions and radical predictions. Chesterton ridicules in turn H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter (the early environmentalist), Leo Tolstoy, Cecil Rhodes, Benjamin Kidd ( a sociologist), W. T. Stead (a campaigning journalist), and Sidney Webb. In each instance their views are stated and then juxtaposed with an absurdly exaggerated view of an invented eccentric.
There was Mr. Sidney Webb, also, who said that the future would see a continuously increasing order and neatness in the life of the people, and his poor friend Fipps, who went mad and ran about the country with an axe, hacking branches off the trees whenever there were not the same number on both sides.
And so on. Chesterton then concludes the preface with a provocative challenge to every other forecaster or prophet. They would err as every such pundit had erred:
All these clever men were prophesying with every variety of ingenuity what would happen soon, and they all did it in the same way, by taking something they saw ‘going strong’, as the saying is, and carrying it as far as ever their imagination could stretch.
When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill was published in 1904; the curtain therefore goes up in 1984.
Orwell and Chesterton
Orwell intellectually loathed GK Chesterton and other Catholic conservative writers.
If this aspect of Orwell’s thought is less appreciated today, it is perhaps because the debates changed. However, Orwell’s criticism of the intellectual and moral dishonesty of Catholic conservatives was a common theme in Orwell’s journalism and other published writing, and he often bracketed Catholic conservatism and his other bugbear, Stalinism.
Indeed, one can often swap his comments on Stalinism and Catholic conservatism. They are almost invariably interchangeable.
Orwell wrote only one major political essay in 1945 (the year he started Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was Notes on Nationalism. This influential essay sets out how certain ideologies (or “nationalisms”) can undermine clear political and moral thinking. And only one writer or politician is examined in this context: Chesterton.
In the essay, Orwell introduces both Chesterton and his long held attitudes towards him:
Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent – though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one – was G. K. Chesterton.
Orwell characterises Chesterton:
Chesterton was a master of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.
And Chesterton’s method:
Every book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the Pagan.
In a Tribune column in February 1944, Orwell specifically attacked Chesterton’s assertions about change over time:
It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar.
Orwell continues by contrasting Chesterton’s Catholic conservatism with his own democratic socialism:
At any rate what will never come – since it has never come before – is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings.
Orwell and Catholic conservatism
Orwell’s hostility to Chesterton has to be seen in the context of his disdain for other Catholic conservative writers. In a book review as early as 1932, Orwell is dissing Catholic writers:
Our English Catholic apologists are unrivalled masters of debate, but they are on their guard against saying anything genuinely informative.
Later, a central theme of Orwell’s hostility towards ‘political Catholicism’ was its close relationship with Fascism. In 1944, he notes almost in passing,
Outside its own ranks, the Catholic Church is almost universally regarded as pro-Fascist, both objectively and subjectively.
And in a Tribune column of 1945,
The Catholics who said ‘Don’t offend Franco because it helps Hitler’ had more or less consciously helping Hitler for years beforehand.
Animosity towards ‘Catholic conservatism’ was perhaps most obvious in his weekly Tribune column. For example, two favourite straw-dollies were the right-wing, Roman Catholic journalists ‘Timothy Shy’ and ‘Beachcomber’. In 1944, Orwell warned readers that,
their general ‘line’ will be familiar to anyone who has read Chesterton and kindred writers. Its essential note is denigration of England and of Protestant countries generally.
It is a mistake to regard these two as comics pure and simple. Every word they write is intended as Catholic propaganda.
In a Tribune column in October 1944, Orwell discussed the writing and broadcasting of C.S. Lewis :
[I was] reading, a week or two ago, Mr C. S. Lewis’s recently-published book, Beyond Personality…The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a ‘jolly good chap’ at the same time. I don’t imagine that the attempt would have much success…but Mr. Lewis’s vogue at this moment, the time allowed to him on the air and the exaggerated praise he has received, are bad symptoms and worth noticing…
A kind of book that has been endemic in England for quite sixty years is the silly-clever religious book, which goes on the principle not of threatening the unbeliever with Hell, but of showing him up as an illogical ass, incapable of clear thought and unaware that everything he says has been says has been refuted before. This school of literature started with W. H. Mallock’s New Republic, which must have been written about 1880, and it has a long line of practitioners – R. H. Benson, Chesterton, Father Knox, ‘Beachcomber’ and others, most of them Catholics, but some, like Dr Cyril Allington and (I suspect) Mr Lewis himself, Anglicans.
The line of attack is always the same. Every heresy has been uttered before (with the implication that it has been refuted before); and theology is only understood by theologians (with the implication that you should leave your thinking to the priests)…
One reason for the extravagant boosting that these people get in the press is that their political affiliations are invariably reactionary. Some of them were frank admirers of Fascism as long as it was safe to be so. That is why I draw attention to Mr C. S. Lewis and his chummy little wireless talks, of which no doubt there will be more. They are not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look
Most relevant for the purpose of connecting Orwell to The Napoleon of Notting Hill is his 1946 book review of The Democrat at the Supper Table, where Orwell forcefully attacks the author’s conservative politics and the sophistry of the novel’s central character:
Without actually imitating Chesterton, Mr. Brogan has obviously been influenced by him, and his central character has a Father Brown-like capacity for getting the better of an argument, and also for surrounding himself with fools and scoundrels whose function is to lead up to his wisecracks.
When a clergyman wrote to complain about the tone of Orwell’s review, the reply elaborated on the initial attack:
Ever since W. H. Mallock’s ‘New Republic’ there has been a continuous stream of what one might call ‘clever Conservative’ books, opposing the current trend without being able to offer any viable programme in its place.
Orwell continued, appearing to have in mind the Preface to The Napoleon of Notting Hilll
If you look back twenty years, you will find people like Ronald Knox, Cyril Alington, Chesterton himself and his many followers, talking as though such things as Socialism, Industrialism, the theory of evolution, psycho-therapy, universal compulsory education, radio, aeroplanes and what-not could be simply laughed out of existence.
So did Orwell take the year 1984 from The Napoleon of Notting Hill?
Taking the stories as a whole it is not too much of a strain to see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a riposte to The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are many points of comparison. Both books show that a belief in revolution that appears to have gone wrong, and both focus on the frustrations of a sympathetic central character as he attempts to challenge the prevailing system. Both are utopian/dystopian visions, containing prophecies extrapolated from current trends.
There are also many telling contrasts. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is written from the point of view of a Catholic populist and Nineteen Eighty-Four is by an almost secular social democrat.
It is, in many ways, a plausible explanation.
However, this alternative explanation has gaps.
For example, even though Orwell has a clear disdain for Chesterton and is antipathetic to the prophetic pretensions of Chesterton and other religious conservative writers, there is actually no direct evidence that Orwell either had read or even possessed The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
One feels he “must have done” as it is one of Chesteron’s three best-known works and probably his most quoted, but one cannot invent convenient evidence. The best I can say is that it difficult to imagine Orwell committing his attacks in Notes on Nationalism without being aware of Chesterton’s clearest and best known statement against “progress”.
Subject to further research, the final position on the question must be inconclusive though fascinating.
However, the possibility that the title of Nineteen Eighty-Fourwas derived from The Napoleon of Notting Hill does allows us to explore an often overlooked part of Orwell’s political outlook: the deep hostility of a decent and progressive liberal to the intellectual and moral dishonesty of religious conservatives.
This post is republished from my old Jack of kent site.
Comments are pre-moderated. No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters. Other comments published at my absolute discretion.