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A feminist retelling of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is coming our way

The new version of the classic novel will reimagine the story from the perspective of Winston Smith’s lover Julia

From Madeline Miller’s Circe, an adaption of Greek myths from the perspective of the witch Circe, and Natalie Haynes’s reimagining of the Trojan war, A Thousand Ships, to Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre, feminist reimaginings of classic stories have become increasingly popular. 

Now, a new retelling of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which reimagines the story from the point of view of Winston Smith’s lover Julia, has been approved by the estate of George Orwell. Titled simply Julia, the project is being penned by American author Sandra Newman, previously longlisted for the Women’s prize for her third novel The Country of Ice Cream Star. According to the Guardian, Orwell’s estate said it had been “looking for some time” for an author to tell the story of Smith’s lover. 

Orwell’s 1949 novel tells the prophetic tale of a dystopian surveillance state strangling the free will out of its citizens. It follows the story of former journalist Winston Smith, who lives out a bleak existence as a copywriter at the state-run Ministry of Truth. Under the command of the all-powerful dictator, ‘Big Brother’, he spends his days rewriting history to ensure all historical records reflect state policy. Over the course of the novel, he starts a forbidden affair with Julia until both are captured and sent for re-education via Room 101.

Described by Orwell as being “far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda,” Julia is a complex character in her own right and the new retelling will delve more deeply into her motivations and decisions. “Two of the unanswered questions in Orwell’s novel are what Julia sees in Winston, and how she has navigated her way through the party hierarchy,” the estate’s literary executor Bill Hamilton told the Guardian. “Sandra gets under the skin of Big Brother’s world in a completely convincing way which is both true to the original but also gives a dramatically different narrative to stand alongside the original.”

Publisher Granta, meanwhile, described the character as an opportunist who believes in nothing and cares not at all about politics. “She routinely breaks the rules but also collaborates with the regime whenever necessary. She’s an ideal citizen of Oceania,” they said. “But when one day, finding herself walking toward Winston Smith in a long corridor, she impulsively hands him a note – a potentially suicidal gesture – she comes to realise that she’s losing her grip and can no longer safely navigate her world.”

Julia will be published following the release of Newman’s latest novel The Men, in which all people with a Y chromosome vanish from the world, next June.

Since being published over 70 years ago, Nineteen Eighty-Four has become one of the most influential novels of the last century, with both the title and the adjectival form of the author’s last name used as short-hand for describing authoritarian policies, omnipresent government surveillance, censorship, and state control. Kanye West recently inappropriately and nonsensically used the phrase “Nineteen Eighty-Four mind control” while trying to justify collaborating with an alleged serial abuser and a homophobe.  

Earlier this week, it was announced that Matt Smith had voiced a free audiobook version of the novel titled 2021, in which all the dates have been changed from 1984 to 2021 in an effort to highlight the complexities and issues surrounding online surveillance today. George Orwell’s estate previously made headlines when in 2015 it, very ironically, copyrighted the number 1984.