At the start of this month, the estate of George Orwell announced a feminist retelling of Nineteen Eighty-Four by the American author Sandra Newman. Julia will reimagine the story of the totalitarian empire, but this time, from the perspective of protagonist Winston Smith’s lover, Julia.
Revered as one of modern literature’s masterpieces, Orwell’s 1949 novel imagines a dystopian future where Britain, known as Airstrip One, is part of the superstate of Oceania.
Ruled by mysterious figure Big Brother, it follows Winston as he desperately craves a life away from the bleak dictatorship under which he lives.
It’s while working at the state-run Ministry of Truth rewriting historical records that he encounters the opportunistic Julia and they embark on a forbidden affair after she passes him a secret note in the corridor.
The book has been a bestseller since its release and remains part of the cultural discourse due to its uncanny foreshadowing of modern-day events.
In 2013, when news broke that the US National Security Agency (NSA) was covertly surveilling personal data from the internet, sales increased sevenfold.
In 2017, they surged again when Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts”, which was widely compared to Orwellian Newspeak.
Few novels continue to penetrate society this deeply. But there’s another side to Nineteen Eighty-Four, that is rarely noticed by most readers. And that is its deeply misogynistic subtext.
Early in the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four, we learn that Winston “disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones”, and it’s not long before we start to observe his casual objectifications. This culminates in Winston imagining himself raping and murdering Julia.
“He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax.”
Winston suspects Julia is a vacuous spy with little personality beyond the Party she serves. Yet she is a spirited young woman who astutely negotiates the world of Oceania – the subservient guise she wears is a veil to hide behind while she discreetly serves her interests. But Winston’s male gaze notices little beyond the immediate. “Except for her mouth, you could not call her beautiful.”
Julia will be published after Granta releases Newman’s new novel, The Men – in which every single man vanishes from the world – in June.
Newman, author of The Heavens who was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for her 2014 dystopia, The Country of Ice Cream Star, says she will highlight Julia’s complexities.
These were sidelined by Orwell, says Jason Arthur of Granta, which is publishing Julia.
“There are very few female characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Julia, a secondary character to Winston but by far the most prominent woman in the novel, is really little more than a vehicle for Winston’s own political and sexual awakening,” he says.
In recent years, several classic stories have had this kind of retelling, from Pat Barker’s contemporary take on the Trojan War, The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy, to Madeline Miller’s feminist reworking of Homer’s Odyssey in Circe.
“We’re in the midst of fourth-wave feminism. It’s in a way not surprising that these stories offer themselves for reanimating just now, in this particular way,” says Charlotte Higgins, journalist and author of Greek Myths: A New Retelling, a collection of ancient myths reinterpreted through female characters.
Readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four have always been restricted to Winston’s world view. Told in third-person perspective, the book gives us access to his thoughts and memories but not those of the other characters. But it is so heavily loaded with tired clichés about women, you get the sense its misogynistic rhetoric owes more to Orwell than Winston’s character traits.
“The woman down there had no mind, she had only strong arms, a warm heart, and a fertile belly,” Orwell’s narrator tells us. Descriptions of older women are demeaning: “An enormous wreck of a woman… with great tumbling breasts.”
And there’s a clear repulsion for those who have borne children: “The body of a woman of 50, blown up to monstrous dimensions by childbearing.”
It’s often suggested we should expect glimmers of inequality within historical works, but discrimination was and is not ubiquitous. For a book that critiques power structures, Orwell missed the mark when it came to his portrayal of women.
While Julia is set to be one of literature’s most high-profile retellings, writers have been cleverly reimagining the canon for generations, says Higgins.
“If you look at Mary Renault’s classical-themed novels, or a novel like William Golding’s The Double Tongue, or Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, which was published over 15 years ago, you could argue that using the classical world as a backdrop for thinking about sexuality and gender is nothing new,” she says.
Despite this, feminist retellings have undeniably become a literary movement, infiltrating the mainstream, topping bestseller lists and winning awards.
This year saw a fresh tranche of works, including Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne, giving voice to the daughters of King Minos, Ariadne and Phaedra and breathing new life into the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.
“A major change I wanted to make to the traditionally known version of one myth was Phaedra’s tale – she’s a woman renowned for ruining men’s lives with a false allegation of sexual assault and writing in the #MeToo era, that wasn’t a trope that I was prepared to perpetuate,” Saint says.
In Cecily, Annie Garthwaite tackled the War of the Roses, told through one of the most important (yet most ignored) women in England’s history, the titular Duchess of York.
And in her beautifully illustrated young adult (YA) release, Medusa: The Girl Behind the Myth, Jessie Burton, bestselling author of The Miniaturist, reclaimed the story of the Gorgon to reveal a vulnerable yet resilient girl.
“There was a lot in it that I thought was ripe for investigation; issues of objectification, young women and personal agency, concepts of beauty and power, consent,” says Burton.
The trend continues into 2022. In January the myth of Pandora’s Box is transported to Georgian London by Susan Stokes-Chapman in Pandora.
Liz Foley, who is publishing the book at Harvill Secker loved “how Susan uses the legendary Pandora’s Box as both a plot element and a thematic strand about women’s ambitions and restrictions”.
“Retellings… allow writers to enrich the gaps in the original stories and look at them from angles which speak to our own times and preoccupations,” she says.
The world of 007 also gets a feminist makeover as award-winning author Kim Sherwood becomes the first female author to write a new James Bond trilogy featuring a new generation of 00 agents she says “we can all identify with.”
Jennifer Saint follows up Ariadne with Elektra, detailing the lives of three women in the House of Atreus. Ava Reid weaves a gothic retelling of The Juniper Tree in Juniper and Thorn while A C Wise reveals Wendy’s life after Neverland in Hooked.
Contemporary interpretations now sit in the canon as companions to the originals, revealing new ways to view the stories. And by doing so, they challenge our own prejudices.
“The intention of these works is not to replace or reduce the original text, but to sit alongside them, in conversation, enriching our understanding of them”, says Arthur.
“It’s a way of taking critical theory – whether it be feminist, Marxist, post-colonial or gender – out of the dusty halls of academia and making it accessible and relevant to a greater number of readers of literature”.
While Newman is still working on Julia, we can expect her to transform the world of Oceania for readers who are both new to the text and familiar with it. Arthur suggests it will finally answer the outstanding questions we have too: “What does she see in this older man?” he asks.
“How has she navigated the world of Oceania and Ingsoc more successfully than Winston? What is her history? Her story?”
The Men by Sandra Newman will be published in June 2022 (Granta, £14.99), with ‘Julia’ following in 2023