Review | ‘Julia’ by Sandra Newman is a sparkling take on Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

This retelling of the Orwellian classic gives agency to the original protagonist’s lover

Published - January 12, 2024 09:40 am IST

All about learning to love Big Brother.

All about learning to love Big Brother. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

The clocks don’t strike 13 at the beginning like in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Sandra Newman’s Julia, a retelling of the dystopian classic from the perspective of “the girl from the fiction department”, is imaginative, full of empathy, and a wonderful companion novel to the original.

Critics have taken on Orwell for not having etched out his women characters better, and this lack is evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four as well, with the protagonist Winston Smith’s story taking centrestage. Coincidentally, a recent biography, Wifedom, by Anna Funder shines a light on ‘Mrs. Orwell’s invisible life’. Eileen O’Shaughnessy, married to Orwell from 1936 until her death in 1945, did many things at once for Orwell, but was never given enough credit either by her husband or his biographers. The real girl from the fiction department, however, is the dazzling Sonia Brownell, who was married to Orwell for three months before he died of tuberculosis in 1950. In 2021, it was announced that the Orwell Estate had given its nod to an American writer to retell Nineteen Eighty-Four through the eyes of Julia, Winston Smith’s lover. 

Totalitarian state

It’s 1984 and Julia Worthing works as a mechanic, repairing the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department at the Ministry of Truth in Oceania. Newman goes straight to the point when she begins to narrate Julia’s story: “It was the man from Records who began it, him all unknowing in his prim, grim way, his above-it-all oldthink way.” He was the one people called ‘Old Misery’ but “Comrade Smith was his right name, though ‘Comrade’ never suited him somehow”.

Newman’s description of the totalitarian state, and what it is like for women, is perceptive, particularly the way she recreates the various organs that spread the messages (war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength). Her sketches of the Ministry of Truth building, the room above the junk shop where Winston and Julia catch their breath before the dreaded Thought Police catches up with them, the place in the forest where they meet with the bluebells blooming, the Ministry of Love’s O’ Brien (who is full of Hate) and his intimidating home, and the torture chambers, especially Room 101, are atmospheric. Though it will be fair to say that Orwell’s depiction of what transpires at the Ministry of Love is more chilling and utterly hopeless.

In Newman’s reworking, Julia is adept at staying alive, against all odds. She goes off in a new direction in Chapter 2 of Part One when she signs herself out for two hours on a ‘Sickness: Menstrual’, “a privilege all the girls used and abused”. We get a glimpse of her relationship with the other girls in their dormitory, her depressing childhood, her sexual desires, and her positivity in the face of adversity. When Smith tells her, “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth,” she responds, “I couldn’t care less,” and is soon in his arms in a “savage embrace”.

All for the cause

Smith, on the other hand, has “a taste for negativity”, what Julia calls ‘bloodythink’, a Newspeak word. He abominated the Party, but was sure its reign would last for generations. “If there is any hope — I don’t say that there is — it must lie in the proles [proletariat],” he loved to say. He kept a diary in which he wrote down all his “forbidden thoughts and deeds: his hatred of the party, his visit to a tart, his idea of killing his wife. One day he’d even found himself writing ‘Down with Big Brother’ over and over.” This strikes Julia as madness — “what fool made a note of such things, which were of interest only to police?”. Winston often talked about joining the rival Brotherhood and taking part in arson, bombings, assassinations.

Part Two and Part Three are about their incarceration in the depths of the Ministry of Love for “betraying” the cause of Big Brother, and its aftermath. Julia, who is 26 years old, wants to live in hope — she goes off to join the Brotherhood, but isn’t it another side of the same coin? — and that is perhaps the biggest departure from the original, which ends with Smith declaring his love for Big Brother, winning the victory over himself.

Sandra Newman
Granta Books

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