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A ‘feminist retelling’ of George Orwell’s 1984 is in the works

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Winston and Julia from 1984 stand next to each other Image: The Criterion Collection

One of the seminal works of fiction of the 20th century, George Orwell’s 1984, is getting a sequel of sorts. The British writer’s estate has granted approval to Julia, a novel by Sandra Newman (The Country of Ice Cream Star) that reframes the horrifying story of fascism from the perspective of the original’s romantic interest.

1984, which was first published in 1949, is told from the very narrow perspective of Winston Smith, who lives in a dystopia where Great Britain has been named Airstrip One. The country, and the world at large, moves through a series of perpetual wars and alliances between three mega-countries: Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. At home, Airstrip One is ruled with an iron grip by its sole political party, INGSOC, which is driven by a cult of personality around its leader Big Brother.

As an Outer Party member of INGSOC, Winston lives a sheltered, if not particularly glamorous, life working for the Ministry of Truth, the state’s propaganda arm that revises history to prove Big Brother correct. The Party’s official policy of newspeak works to eliminate even the thought of resistance in people’s minds, creating vague and threatening phrases instead of precise ones. All this changes for Winston when he meets Julia.

Big Brother speaks in 1984 Image: The Criterion Collection

Julia is a particularly enthusiastic participant in the Two Minute Hate, a gathering in which the populace express their open disgust towards the state’s enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein. She catches Winston’s eye, which fills him with feelings of both arousal and disgust.

In Julia, Winston discovers a free spirit, someone who actually has sex for pleasure (which is a crime) and who mocks Big Brother. They know their romance is doomed, but continue onward in defiance. She claims to have slept with other Party members, a claim backed up by the fact that she has gotten items seemingly out of Winston’s reach, like chocolate and tea.

“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,” says Bill Hamilton, the literary executor of the Orwell Estate, in a press statement. “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.”

The news release states that Julia will showcase a character who “understands the world of Oceania far better than Winston and is essentially happy with her life—Julia has known no other world and never imagined one. But one day, finding herself walking towards him in a long corridor, Julia impulsively hands Winston a note—a potentially suicidal gesture—and comes to realize that she’s losing her grip and can no longer safely navigate her world.”

1984, which Orwell originally considered titling The Last Man in Europe, has the mixed blessing of being constantly discussed in the modern age while its content is mostly ignored. Questions like “What’s up with the 1984 references?” regularly appear on Reddit, and both the phrases “Wow, This is Just Like 1984 and “Living in 1984 have earned entries on Know Your Meme.

Newman, who described her still-unfinished book on Twitter as a “feminist retelling,” is not the first person to adapt Orwell’s novel. A movie version came out in 1984 starring John Hurt as Winston and Suzanna Hamilton as Julia. The movie also featured washed out cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins, and both a score and accompanying pop song from Eurythmics. Here’s the surprisingly pop-y “Sex Crime.”

While there’s been no official release date set, Mariner Books, an imprint of the William Morrow Group at HarperCollins Publishers, says that it hopes to publish Julia in time for the 75th anniversary of Orwell’s novel, which would put its publication date in 2024.