George Orwell's 1984 gets a feminist reckoning and the British monarchy gets a juicy overview in Miriam Sallon's book picks for November
Julia by Sandra Newman
The trend for feminist re-writes has long been upon us: Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Jennifer Saint’s Atalanta to name a very few.
While a brilliant idea in its inception, there’s now a sense of jumping on the bandwagon, looking for new ways to sell old stories. But in the case of Julia, Sandra Newman resolves a problem that has beleaguered the seminal 1984 since its publication.
Orwell created a terrifying totalitarian nightmare, but it is very much a man’s dystopia. Julia might be considered the lead supporting role but she is, as Noah Berlatsky wrote, nothing more than a manic pixie dream girl, a tool for Winston Smith to self-actualise.
Newman doesn’t discredit Winston's story—rather she enriches it, lending a female experience so that the two novels might be presented as one series, from the perspective, first of earnest Winston, and then of savvy and cynical Julia.
On the surface Julia is a loyal and dedicated party comrade: An enthusiastic member of the Anti-Sex League, she attends all the marches and screams with vitriol during the daily Two Minutes Hate. But, hiding behind her dogged loyalty, she shops on the black market and secretly satisfies her sexual lust with multiple partners. When she is picked out by the Thought Police as an ideal secret operative, she believes this is her destiny. She is special, and for this the state will surely reward her.
"In lending a new perspective, Newman creates a more complex and, arguably, more disturbing image"
Julia’s relationship with Big Brother is decidedly more complicated than that of Orwell’s Winston. She is not simply waking up to the injustices of the party—she has always known that the party is unjust, she just thinks the best way out is in; with more power would come more freedom. Despite initially feeling more distorted—even the good guys are bad guys—this somehow also creates more room for hope than Orwell allowed and, stranger still, more humour.
The two narratives don’t just run in tandem. Newman does well to lattice her story with some of Orwell’s unexplained details; Why is Julia’s arm in a sling when she and Winston first make contact, and why does Winston’s blindly devout neighbour shout “Down with Big Brother” in his sleep? It’s as if Orwell were hoping someone would take these hints to follow up with a sequel.
There’s no doubt that Orwell’s ideas were revelatory, and Newman is certainly standing on the shoulders of an eminent giant. But in lending a new perspective, she creates a more complex and, arguably, more disturbing image.
Unruly: A history of England's kings and queens by David Mitchell
Don’t know your Henry V from your Edward III? Not sure how and when England became England, or indeed English became English? Well, this is the book for you. Sort of. Á la Horrible Histories, except with a lot more swearing and authorly anecdotes, David Mitchell runs us through the creation of the monarchy and England’s borders, right from the Romans’ withdrawal in 410 to Queen Elizabeth I’s supposedly virginal reign.
It’s less a love letter to royalty than an explanation of how we as a nation came so ardently to identify with one very rich, supposedly divinely chosen family.
Much like a soap opera, it’s hard to keep up at first, not just because there’s very little proof of who was doing what and where, but because the names and territories change so regularly. Mitchell seems well aware of this, so the first few hundred years are whizzed through—a handful of Edwards, Edgars and Henrys, and one Cnut, all grabbing and ceding power, back and forth.
"With a lot of swearing and authorly anecdotes, David Mitchell runs us through the creation of the monarchy"
We finally get to the juicy stuff with King Harold and the Battle of Hastings, after which everything comes into much sharper focus and we finally get to the juicy stuff: the backstabbings, strange alliances and scheming plans gone awry.
Even at this point, there’s a lack of personal details which, granted, makes it much easier to whip through the generations, but harder to retain any information. This is less a handy reference text and more an argument for the ridiculousness of our longest standing English tradition. Irreverent and easily read, this is the perfect introduction for those who have little knowledge of, or interest in, the history of the English monarchy, but who feel they ought, just a smidge.
"I’m going to throw a few names at you: Vortigern, Hengist and Horsa, Wehha, Aescwine, Aelle, Aella, Ida, Icel and finally Cerdic (whom I’ve already mentioned). You will be thrilled to hear that no one totally knows if any of these people existed. But it’s more likely than King Arthur. If you like, you could say that King Arthur was based on one of them. Really, go ahead, there’s no harm in it.
But who were they based on? Why do we have these names, these noises? Have I made them up? No, I haven’t. I like to think I’d have made them sound more plausible. They are the names that have emerged out of the mists of time as belonging to some early rulers in England.
Yes, the mists of time! Deal with it! It’s not a cop-out, that’s the situation. There was very little in the way of record-keeping. Why do you think archaeologists got so excited when, at Sutton Hoo, they discovered the body of a king and a few trinkets in a rotten old boat? All of it dating from hundreds of years later than the complete buried Roman leisure centre they found in Bath? It’s because it was a rare sign of what might have been going on in the 300 years after the Romans left. Otherwise it’s mainly rumour and guesswork.
"There was very little in the way of record-keeping…it’s mainly rumour and guesswork"
This is how the (hi)story goes. Notwithstanding the Caraticus- and Boudica-led resistance to the early days of Roman control, by the time the empire left, the ancient Britons had gone completely Stockholm syndrome. They loved the Romans. In fact, they’d become the ‘Romano-British’ and, with the legions gone, their instinct was to try and keep things going in a nice comfy Roman way.
This strategy didn’t work out. When the Western Roman Empire was collapsing, a lot of other things were going on. Huns, Goths and Vandals were moving around Europe in an upsetting way. In Britain, a king called Vortigern (but note that ‘vortigern’ means ‘king’ in Brittonic, the ancient Britons’ language, so I worry someone might have got confused, but maybe there really was this King King) was beset by raids from the Picts, who came from what is now Scotland, and from the Scots from what is now Ireland. I know that sounds wilfully confusing but there’s nothing I can do about it.
I imagine Vortigern looking anxiously out to sea over the North Kent marshes, trying to remember how to do up his toga. I also imagine a thick sea mist blowing in. I may be taking the mists of time thing a bit too literally. Baffled and terrified though he was, there’s no reason to assume he didn’t benefit from a normal amount of clear weather."
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