Every year I get myself an ill-iversary present – a weird sort of ‘hey you’re still ill, but have a present’ present. Soon, it will be my three year ill-iversary, which has happily coincided with getting an unexpected refund on an insurance policy so I could spend more than usual. I’ve never spent this much on a single book before (about £100 including postage), but I am So Damn Excited.
This is the facsimile edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It was published in 1984 and is, unfortunately, no longer in print. It’s a beast of a thing, as you can see in the picture to the left, and is roughly three times the size of my head. It’s the kind of book you need a big cosy armchair to sit cross-legged in, with a big pot of tea nearby.
It’s basically a copy of the original manuscript. On the right hand page is a copy of Orwell’s original draft, along with his revisions and annotations. On the left hand page is a typed copy of the draft and annotations, for ease of reading. This isn’t complete – only about 44% of the manuscript survived as Orwell hated to keep his manuscripts (I don’t think I’d keep my first drafts hanging around either).
The thing with good writing is that it looks effortless – the words should so obviously go in that order that it’s just a case of writing them down. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Writing is all in the editing, but that’s the bit you don’t get to see. I like simple, clean prose, something Orwell is famous for, so I love that I can get a peek into his process through this book.
Take the first line, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’. It’s often quoted as one of the great opening sentences in literature; it looks like it should always have been written this way.
But, you can see from the manuscript that it started as ‘It was a cold, blowy day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen’. It’s kind of clunky, and the ‘million radios striking’ doesn’t really work very well as an image. You can also see the changes weren’t immediate; it took Orwell a couple of tries to get it right (starting with ‘innumerable clocks’ before settling on ‘the clocks’). From my dippings into the book so far, it seems that most of the changes were this kind of tightening up, and that much of the story, or at least what’s left here, didn’t change from draft to finished product.
The introduction to the edition also details the timeline for writing the novel, Orwell’s letters discussing his struggles to write while dealing with the illness that would end his life, the type of paper he used, a comparison of the finished text and the draft, and the process of transcribing the manuscript. So much goodness. Maybe don’t try to speak to me for a couple of days while I get stuck into it.