The manuscript of his novel was a disaster. Its tentative title was "The Last Man in Europe." He called it "that bloody book." He had typed and re-typed it while lying in bed. Littered with cross-outs and deletions, he said “It’s a ghastly mess now.”
"A good idea ruined” he called it. There was a part of him that had always hated writing. In one of his essays he concluded that, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.”
Now Eric Blair was indeed having a tortuous struggle with a terrible malady—He was dying of tuberculosis. The first sentence of his 'ghastly' book goes this way—"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
Eric, better known by his pen name George Orwell, had to struggle to finish his novel "1984." For what it's worth, when he was writing it, he also called this classic of world literature "unbelievably bad."
He started writing '1984' in 1947. It was a race to see whether he would finish it or die trying.
Recent years had not treated him kindly. Only two years had passed since the sudden death of his wife Eileen. She was undergoing a routine hysterectomy. Immediately after being given anesthesia and before the surgery began, she suffered cardiac arrest. She was only 39. Orwell had had premonitions of her death. He was devastated.
Now a single parent with a modest income he had to slam out essays and reviews to pay the rent. He wrote 10 hours a day, often suffering from bronchitis and confined to his bed for weeks.
He had been in poor health for years. He may have contracted tuberculosis when he was a child in India. During his life, he had fought not only bronchitis but also dengue fever and bacterial pneumonia. He suffered constant coughing jags because his bronchial tubes were so scarred.
The Hot Smoke
Of course, he chain-smoked cigarettes. Even when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, his doctors encouraged him continue. They thought the hot smoke was good for the lungs—it helped TB patients cough up sputum.
And, of course, when he was in a sanitarium, the doctors took away his typewriter—so he could completely rest. When he continued to write using a pen, to put an end to that, they put his right arm in a plaster cast.
How did Orwell get to this point? He had atrocious eating habits, worked all hours of the day and night, and generally ignored his health. He wouldn't wear a coat in the winter.
Now he was feverish, losing weight, wheezing, gaunt, spitting blood, and struggling with night sweats. During his last months when he was in-and-out of sanitariums, a friend said he was "long-suffering, tired-looking, immensely thin, but gentle." He was almost six-foot three-inches, and he weighed less than 160 pounds.
Tuberculosis tortured him, and he felt tortured by his doctors. On at least one occasion they inserted a long scope into his esophagus peer into his lungs. "It was a hideously painful thing, and very frightening," to Orwell, according to his publisher David Astor.
More than one literary critic has noted the physical resemblance between Orwell at the end of his life and Winston Smith, the hero of '1984,' after being tortured. Orwell described Smith this way:
"The truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was a narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs...The curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin shoulders were hunched forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the scraggy neck seemed to be bending double under the weight of the skull….He was aware of his ugliness, his gracelessness."
The diagnosis of tuberculosis came a few days before Christmas in 1947. Orwell had spent the bulk of the year in the worst possible place for a person with the disease. He had secluded himself on Jura, a remote windswept island off the Scottish coast. He lived there in a farmhouse owned by Astor at the end of a five-mile-long rutted dirt path.
To prepare for life on the island, he told a friend he amassed provisions as though he were going an arctic expedition. The house had no electricity. Orwell used bottled gas to cook and peat and gas for heat.
The weather was "freezing cold," said a friend who visited. "It pelted with rain, slamming it into the side of the house which such force I thought it would blow the place down. He chose the place for its isolation and quietness, but for a TB patient it couldn’t have been worse. It was damp and cold most of the time."
The first winter there, Orwell said, was "quite unendurable." He was lucky just to survive the summer. In August, he nearly drowned when his rowboat (with an outboard motor) was swamped in a whirlpool at sea.
Unable to bear conditions there any longer, he entered the hospital for Christmas. The wonder drug streptomycin had just been released. It was so hard to come by in England there was a black market for it. Orwell was treated with it only because of Astor's personal friendship with the Minister of Health.
"That Wretched Book"
The drug did no good. He may have received too strong a dose, and he suffered agonizing side effects.
It gave Orwell ulcers in his throat and blood blisters in his mouth and on his lips. “In the morning my lips were always stuck together with blood and I had to bathe them before I could open my mouth," he wrote. "Meanwhile my nails had disintegrated at the roots & the disintegration grew, as it were, up the nail, new nails forming beneath meanwhile.”
In July 1948, he was free again. Upon returning to Jura, he worked hours on end to re-type his 150,000-word manuscript. He finished it days before his December deadline.
“I began to relapse about the end of September," Orwell wrote. "I could have done something about it then, but I had to finish that wretched book, which, thanks to illness, I had been messing about with for 18 months and which the publishers were harrying me for.”
Orwell's ordeal made him more empathetic to the suffering of his characters—and other human beings. The greatness of '1984' lies in the courage Orwell marshalled in the face of death.
In his last months, he knew he was a dead man. '1984' was published to immediate and great acclaim in the middle of 1949. Orwell died soon thereafter in January 1950. He was only 46.
MORAL: Write the book of your life so it lasts for ages.
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