Orwell in all weathers

The weather was more than just a backdrop to Orwell's narratives - it shaped his life and art in profound and unexpected ways.
george orwell
Ronald Pickup playing Orwell in the 1983 BBC series 'Crystal Spirit: Orwell in Jura'. Credit: tom Kidd / Alamy Stock Photo
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‘Remember to get the weather in your damn book,’ Ernest Hemingway once advised. ‘Weather is very important.’ George Orwell didn’t just measure the political climate in his work, he also got seasonal weather into his damn books. Enter the chilly hell of Big Brother, Room 101 and the Thought Police on the greyest of days. Take in The Road to Wigan Pier with its ice-cold slums, frozen slag-heaps and blackened snow in the bleak midwinter. Experience the ‘stifling, stultifying world’ of colonial life in Burmese Days and the heat of battle and revolutionary zeal in Homage to Catalonia in torrid temperatures. Sometimes it was a mere backdrop to narrative events but other times it served a greater artistic purpose. 

There are the raw, rattling winds – ‘the first growl of winter’s anger’ – which blow through Keep the Aspidistra Flying and routinely exacerbate impoverished Gordon Comstock’s gloom. ‘Beastly cold’ in his dingy boarding-house room, he and his lover Rosemary find themselves roaming the equally freezing streets with nowhere to go and their relationship on its last legs. ‘It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money,’ he says. When spring finally blooms in the last pages it brings nothing in the way of hope or a fresh start, only ‘a few sooty buds on the trees if you cared to look for them.’

In Coming Up for Air George Bowling (who, memorably, looks like ‘a bookie’s unsuccessful brother’) flees his drab domestic life and the shadow of war by replaying his Oxfordshire childhood. ‘It always seems to be summer when I look back,’ he says, reeling off one sun-drenched memory after another. In A Clergyman’s Daughter, ‘a momentary spear of sunlight’ piercing the clouds is an act of divine intervention which lifts the spirits and restores the faith of the eponymous heroine. ‘The flash of living colour had brought back to her, by a process deeper than reason, her peace of mind, her love of God, her power of worship.’

Weather also plays a role in Orwell’s two famous political works. Animal Farm sees the animals toiling in all seasons to meet production requirements and suffering in cold months when food is scarce and rations are reduced. And when the windmill is destroyed one night by a violent gale, it provides the perfect pretext for smearing Snowball and initiating a purge. 

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia enjoy their first illicit romantic encounter away from prying telescreens in an arcadia dappled with May sunshine. When they meet for the last time and admit to betraying one another at the book’s bitter end, it is on ‘a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind.’

On the nonfiction front, Orwell got the weather into essays which serve up a snapshot sketch or eked-out anecdote. One which recounts an incident from his time in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police employs the weather to set the scene but also the tone of an execution. ‘A Hanging’ unfolds on ‘a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard.’ Charged with grim foreboding, the whole piece feels imbued with that sickly light. The rain contributes to a pertinent detail: as the condemned man is led to the gallows, he steps to the side to avoid a puddle.

If weather mattered in Orwell’s work it is because it mattered in his life. He was ground down by the cold from an early age. In the 1947 essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, his unvarnished account of the horrors he endured at his Dotheboys-esque prep school St Cyprians, he recalls how winters were an additional hardship: ‘In winter, after about the age of ten, I was seldom in good health, at any rate during term time. I had defective bronchial tubes and a lesion in one lung which was not discovered until many years later. Hence I not only had a chronic cough, but running was a torment to me.’ It comes as no surprise when he reveals that ‘all my good memories are of summer.’

Many of his bad ones involve shivering through more winters. He felt the cold the winter he roamed the streets and slept rough on the Embankment or in tramps’ hostels (or ‘spikes’) as documented in his tale of two cities, Down and Out in Paris and London. (‘The worst thing in this life is the cold,’ a beggar tells him.) He felt the cold during the winters he worked in a Hampstead bookshop: ‘As a rule a bookshop is horribly cold in winter,’ he wrote in ‘Bookshop Memories’, ‘because if it is too warm the windows get misted over, and a bookseller lives on his windows.’ He felt the cold and did further damage to his weak constitution the winter he went to Spain. As his biographer D.J. Taylor notes, ‘The freezing dawns and the damp trenches of the Aragon Front worsened this underlying frailty.’

Orwell especially felt the cold during one of the most brutal winters for years. ‘The winter of 1946-7 in London was really a bit too thick,’ he wrote to his close friend Celia Kirwan, ‘& I think it was probably what started me on this show.’ In actual fact the ‘show’ had started long before: his lungs had been steadily hardening for years. At the end of 1947 he was diagnosed with ‘extensive’ tuberculosis. Three years later he was dead.

Two far-flung places with better climates may have bought Orwell more time. The first was a six-month stay in Morocco in 1938 to escape the English winter and restore his health. Although he found it ‘a tiresome country in some ways’, he got peace of mind to work and to turn his gaze from international affairs. ‘I don’t know whether the world situation is better or worse,’ he told his friend Jack Common. ‘I look at it now simply with a meteorological eye, is it going to rain or isn’t it?’

That meteorological eye was wide open throughout his extended stays on Jura in the last years of his life. Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four there but you wouldn’t know it. His domestic diaries make no mention of his writing progress: instead each entry is a diligent and often tedious summary of flora and fauna sightings, gardening exploits and above all weather updates. Singling one out at random: ‘Blowy, coldish, raining on & off throughout the day. Wind mostly from west. Sea rough. Another rabbit in the garden last night. Shot at him but missed him.’

Orwell wasn’t always this dull on Jura – he was, after all, writing his masterpiece. And Jura wasn’t always so wind-lashed and rain-spattered. The climate, though varied, was mostly mild and the air was fresh. It was probably far better for his health than smog-saturated London with its fuel shortages and madding crowds.

But when the weather worsened and Orwell’s health deteriorated, Jura was no idyllic island retreat. In October 1948 he admitted that getting cold ‘promptly upsets me’ and going outside ‘gives me a temperature.’ He became too weak to sit at his desk and discovered leaks in his roof. Yet still he soldiered on. 

An arresting image presents itself: that of an ailing man in a draughty room on a ‘filthy day, about the worst we have had’, battling the elements and defying the odds, typing away on his bed while rain dripped through the ceiling, determined to finish his manuscript – ‘this bloody book’ – before the end of the year and the end of his life.

The end came in a hospital bed following a massive haemorrhage of his beleaguered lungs. I like to imagine an alternative ending and a more dignified exit, one based on real events. In 1946, Orwell dined at the London home of a fellow journalist. Afterwards, visibility was so bad that fellow guest Tosco Fyvel decided to leave his car and stay the night with his hosts. Orwell was resolved to walk home and refused to be beaten by the weather. Fyvel’s last and abiding memory was of ‘his tall figure, looking grim and sad-faced, as he strode off and disappeared into the fog.’

Malcolm Forbes

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer and critic based in Edinburgh.

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