1984 came and went

This lecture, first given at University of Alcala, Spain, in May 2000, was published in:

The Road from George Orwell, His Achievement and Legacy edited by Alberto Lazaro (Peter Lang, 2001)

In calling my talk ‘1984 Came and Went’, I am not seeking to be dismissive of Orwell, even though I must reserve my right to some professional and political disagreements with him. Rather, I am quoting from my own dystopian novel Benefits, which was published in 1979, thirty years after the publication of 1984 and five years before the date itself.

In my talk I want to do two things: firstly to tell you how and why I wrote Benefits, and thereby to offer some insight into the work of being a writer, particularly a woman writer in Britain in the 1970s; and secondly to describe some of the ways in which I was influenced by Orwell. This must of course include some of the ways in which I was influenced to disagree with him. In sharing much of the admiration which many people feel for this important writer, I nevertheless cannot quite forgive or forget what he wrote in The Road To Wigan Pier. Expressing his contempt for some of his comrades in the Socialist movement, he wrote this: ‘One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and…’ wait for it, folks, this is the worst of all! ‘..feminist in England.’ He refers to this as ‘the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together’ (173-4; ch 11).

Friends, I stand before you unapologetic with my fruit juice. I am not actually wearing sandals at the moment, but I do have a pair back at my hotel. I am a feminist but I do not think that makes me a crank, any more than the fact I sometimes use natural remedies for ailments makes me a nature cure quack. I am neither a Quaker nor a pacifist, but I have been close to both these movements. The people Orwell attacks sound very much like me and my friends. Wouldn’t it be nice if the social prejudice Orwell expresses in these passages had come and gone along with the year 1984?

The idea for Benefits first came to me in the year 1976. People often ask writers who our influences are, and often the only honest answer is, ‘I don’t know’. This is something that we frequently leave to the readers and students of our work, whose conclusions we then read with absolute fascination, finding out all sorts of things that we did not know before about what we intended and who influenced us. It is a sort of after-the-event consideration; you look back on the process and find out who or what your influences were, rather than being conscious of them at the time.

‘Influences’ are not always other writers. One of the most important influences on the initial development of Benefits was the weather. You may have heard that English people love to talk about the weather, that it is a national obsession. Some of us like to write about it as well. The summer of 1976 was exceptionally hot in the south of England. We had four months of sunny weather with virtually no rain. I realise that this may not sound terribly remarkable to people who live in some parts of Spain, but in the context of England it was unusual. At first we loved it, because it meant that we could do at home many of the things that we were in the habit of paying to come to Spain for: we could wear sandals, we could eat our meals outside, we could go swimming after work, we could wear shorts, we could relax, we could sleep at night without blankets, and we really liked that. But as time went on, it became sinister. We thought, ‘What if it never rains again?’ Rivers were drying up and farmers were losing their crops. In our anxiety, we looked around for someone to blame, and chose the government. We knew in our hearts that it wasn’t really their fault; but we still felt they ought to do something about it.

What the government did was what governments often do when they find themselves in a situation that they cannot control but feel they ought to. They appointed an official: a minister with special responsibility for the drought, Mr Denis Howell. History does not relate what Mr Howell actually did as minister, but whatever it was, it worked. Within days of his taking office, it rained, and went on raining.

This was one of the points of inspiration for the book – not only in the sense that this episode forms a backdrop to some of the action, but also in a wider sense. It shows the tendency of governments and people living in advanced western civilisations, when confronted by a natural phenomenon that we cannot control, to react at first with fear and bewilderment, and then to set up some department of state to try and get that control back. I saw this process reflected in the fictional government in my novel: a government trying to control something that they perceive as troublesome – sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality, and human fertility. One problem with trying to plan things for a nation, whether it is economics, public services, housing, roads, social control or whatever, is the sheer untidiness of human reproduction. Human beings have this tiresome tendency to have babies, and they do not always do it in accordance with a national plan. If you could just find a way to control that it would make the business of governments so much simpler, in the same way that if you could control the weather it would make things simpler. Anyway, that was the first aspect of the year 1976 which inspired me to write Benefits: the weather.

My second point of inspiration was a political one. Thinking back to the year 1976, in which I started work on the book, I am reminded of William Wordsworth’s comment about the French Revolution: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven! […]’ (The Prelude bk. 11, lines 108-09). To say the same thing about being a young woman (or at least this young woman) in Britain in 1976 involves only a small amount of exaggeration. It was not quite bliss or heaven, but I can tell you it was pretty good. It was a time of huge relief; I had spent much of my childhood dreading becoming an adult woman, and now that I was one I found it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. In fact, it was great. It was rewarding. It was fun.

Like many other girls from middle class backgrounds, I had grown up believing that although as a child I could have it all – I was the equal of any boy, and had the same rights to education, to freedom, to fun – once I became an adult woman all that would stop. It would stop firstly because discrimination against women was widespread – in employment, in social custom and social expectation, in tax and social security laws, in family law – and also because I believed that once I reached adulthood one of two terrible things was going to happen to me: either I would get married, in which case I would be required to put everything else that mattered to me to one side and devote myself primarily to my husband and my family; or else I would fail to get married, in which case I would live my life of loneliness, as an object of pity and contempt. To my eyes, it wasn’t much of a choice.

But in the 1970s, with the rebirth of feminism within Britain, it suddenly became clear that these were not the only choices, that there were lots other ways of living your life besides being traditionally married or traditionally single: you could live in groups, you could live in unmarried partnerships, or married ones with different rules, you could be a lesbian or gay, you could live alone through choice, you could have children or not have them, as you wished. In terms of work, there was a lot of campaigning going on for equality of pay, for equality of opportunity. New opportunities were opening up for women all the time, and there was a thriving feminist culture in the worlds of writing, art, publishing, music and dance as well as politics. I am not suggesting that all the problems of sexual politics had been solved; they hadn’t in the 70s, and they still haven’t now. But it was an exciting time to be a young and activist woman.

Among the campaigns for improvement in women’s status, was the Wages for Housework Campaign. Their demand was that the government should pay a wage to any woman who was at home looking after children, so that she could be financially independent of her husband, and free of his control. It was a controversial campaign, even within the women’s movement. Some feminists supported it, believing as I did that financial independence was a necessary precondition for equality; but others took the view that if you pay women to stay at home to look after children it will confirm them in that role and then they will never get away. Oddly enough, I found that argument as convincing as the other one. In the Wages for Housework debate, I was on both sides. Being on both sides is not a very comfortable position to be in ideologically, but it is the perfect posture from which to write a novel.

The Wages for Housework debate took place mainly on the fringes of politics, among pressure groups and radical movements. Within mainstream politics, it had its reflection in the furore over Child Benefit.

The Labour government had been promising for some time to introduce this new payment. It would only be a few pounds per child per week, but it was an acknowledgement that bringing up children costs money. More importantly, and unlike most social security benefits, it was to be paid directly to mothers. It would not be a wage for housework; you could not live on it; but it would be an acknowledgement of the work that mothers did, and their need to have money of their own. But then at the last minute the government changed its mind and said that they were not going to pay the benefit to mothers, but to the main family breadwinner, which in most cases meant the father. For the women’s movement it was a clear illustration of a male-dominated government saying ‘Men are in charge, men must control the family income, women must go on being subservient and dependent.’ Outrage followed, and not just among card-carrying feminists; anti-poverty lobbyists, social justice campaigners, even conservative pro-family groups all took up the cause of an independent income for women at home. Faced with this outpouring of public anger, largely from women, the government gave way and agreed to pay Child Benefit to mothers. All this was going on in 1976, and all these things coming together made me decide to write this novel.

I knew it was going to be called Benefits right from the beginning. Sometimes the title does not come until much later, but in this case I had it right from the beginning. And I also knew that I was going to have to do a lot of research for it, but it would not be ordinary sorts of research. The research that I did for a later novel, Stand We at Last, much of which was set in the 19 th and early 20th centuries, could be done in books, libraries, museums and by talking to people who had lived through the times that I was writing about. But you cannot research the future in that way. You can only look at the present and the past, and then invent. So I enrolled in an evening class about social policy, and learned all I could about how the welfare state had developed. Then I used my imagination.

The novelist Doris Lessing has this to say about the role of the writer in politics:

“I see no reason why writers should not work in their role as citizens for a political party, but they should never allow themselves to be obliged to publicise a particular party line unless their own passionate need as writers make them do so, in which case the passion might, if they have talent enough, make literature out of propaganda.” (81)

I agree. I never saw it was my job to propagate a party line, either when writing Benefits or at any other time. I wrote it to ask questions, most of which begin with the phrase ‘what if …’ What if a British government paid an allowance to women to encourage them to stay at home and look after children? Would that mean more equality or less? Would it mean more social justice or less? More happiness or less? It was with those questions in my mind that I began writing the novel.

So there were some of my influences: the weather, sexual politics, party politics. And then there was George Orwell and 1984. I was of course aware, as I started writing this book in 1976, that one of the most famous dates in dystopian fiction was only eight years in the future. And whereas there was no guarantee that Benefits would still be in print in eight years’ time, or even that it would be published at all, I sort of hoped that it would still be around. 1984 was a famous date, and I couldn’t ignore it. I didn’t want to ignore it, I wanted to acknowledge it, build on it and move on from it. So at the beginning of the second part of the book I wrote this:

“1984 came and went, but the discussion continued: had Orwell been right? Public opinion was divided. On a literal level, clearly he had not been. The nation had its problems, but the inborn good sense of its people had saved it from the excesses he foresaw. The country did not lie in thrall to an autocracy of left or of right: government was sluggish and pragmatic; proportional representation ensured frequent changes of party in power, but rare changes of policy. Outside parliament, of course, the fascist right kicked and spat at the Marxist left, but these factions cancelled each other out, proving if anything that freedom of political thought still existed. Inside parliament, individual MPs kept up their outward allegiance to the parties for which they had been elected, but in effect it was government by pact and coalition. For, whatever their differences, the major parties were united in their perplexity as to why the coming of North Sea oil had not brought economic recovery on anything like the scale promised by their now-retired colleagues, and in their anxiety over what was to be done to appease their restive neighbours in the European community. No – the prospect of a one-party tyranny or a single-minded big brother overseeing every act and thought of the people, and bending them to his nefarious aims, was the least of Britain’s worries […] And yet there were those who saw uncanny fulfilment of Orwell’s prophesies. Here, for example, with the misnamed bureaucracies: ministries for law and order, health and welfare, that had ceased to dispense either; organisations for racial harmony whose main function was encourage blacks to accept voluntary repatriation; and all-male committees to promote sex equality. Here were the promises to keep the people together: when the oil is flowing everything will be fine had had to be replaced with when the oil is flowing more abundantly … or when the oil that belongs to us, as distinct from that which was mortgaged to foreign bankers to shore up governments in the seventies when the Arabs stop fooling around with world priceswhen we’ve brought inflation under control… then you can have your jobs back, and your hospital beds and your housing and all these other state bounties which you cannot believe are not your right.

And the dying welfare state brought its own newspeak as well: government’s failure to link child benefit, unemployment pay and so on to the cost of living was the fight against inflation; putting children on half-time schooling was referred to as giving parents a free hand; closing hospitals and dumping dying patients on the doorsteps of unwarned and distant relatives was community care; and a new political movement that saw remedies to the whole predicament, if only the nation’s women would buckle down to traditional role and biological destiny, was known quite simply as FAMILY.” (37-39)

That was one acknowledgement of Orwell and his enormous achievement in introducing the year 1984 into the language before it had even happened. Another way in which I feel that I was influenced by Orwell was the way he captures in 1984 the dreadful day-to-day greyness of the world of Winston Smith. It is not simply that people get tortured and killed, that they disappear. That is the worst thing. But even if it does not get that far, there is the day-to-day boredom and dreariness of life before that happens. The food tastes bad, work is boring, conversations are controlled, sex is restricted and you are never alone and never unobserved. I think he captures that brilliantly in 1984 and I wanted to get something like that in my novel: the day-to-day dreariness of life in a totalitarian state, existing alongside the terror.

And then there is the issue of the people whom Orwell calls ‘the cranks’ -the vegetarians, the teetotallers, the Quakers, the fruit-juice drinkers and all the rest. For him in his analysis of socialism, these people are an embarrassment; for me in my novel, they are the heroes of the story. I write about people on the fringe: I write about squatters, I write about a woman who initially does not want to have children and then changes her mind and has a child, I write about a lesbian couple, I write about a modern-day embodiment of the Greek mythical character of Cassandra whose fate is always to tell the truth, but never to be believed. I wanted to write about people for whom politics do not stop at the ballot box or the political meeting, people who don’t simply state their political beliefs but try to live them. This was my approach. The personal is political. What if the slogans were embodied in a political system, and in day to day life? How would people live? What would happen to them?

Sexual politics are central to Benefits. They are virtually ignored by Orwell. As far as 1984 is concerned, this doesn’t matter very much. This is a novel about a man in conflict with other men; he happens to be in love with a woman, but she is a fairly minor character. I have no objection to that. You cannot expect a writer to write about everything all the time, and you cannot criticise a book for not being another book unless it is pretending to be. In criticising Orwell for ignoring sexual politics, I am thinking much more of The Road to Wigan Pier which was supposed to be a book about the working class in England in the thirties and is in fact a book about some working-class men in England in the thirties. It pays very little attention to the situation of women. Like many patriarchal authors, Orwell writes a book about men and pretends that it is about everybody. He writes about poverty as a problem caused by low wages and inadequate benefits; but does not address the issue of income distribution within families, or the sort of poverty that occurs where you may have a head of household, a male breadwinner, who is earning a certain wage, who is getting a certain benefit, and chooses not to share it equitably with his wife and his children. This was a live issue at the time; some sections of the women’s movement and socialist movement had been campaigning for family endowments payable to mothers since 1917. Orwell could not have been unaware of the surrounding controversy, unless of course he chose to be unaware of it. I, by contrast, chose to make it central to my novel.

1984 has indeed come and gone. An occupational hazard of writing about the future is that the future becomes the present, and then the past; and your words may come back to haunt you.

Orwell was safely dead by 1984, so nobody could tell him to his face that he got it wrong – or right, for that matter. But I am still around, and I know the ways in which reality has deviated from fiction. There are two really important developments of the 1980s and 1990s which I did not foresee at all and which have transformed the lives of all of us. The first is mass computing: the change from computers being mysterious presences in locked rooms, operated by scientists in white coats, to being everyday equipment that millions of people have access to, millions of people own and use for work and for fun. The other change is the tragic fact of AIDS, which has changed lives and destroyed lives, and altered the way people talk and think about sexuality. Whether it has actually altered the way people behave, I would not like to hazard a guess, but it has changed the culture of sexuality and sexual politics in a way that perhaps makes Benefits sound a little bit quaint at times.

Attitudes to motherhood and work in Britain have not gone down the Benefits road. Neither governments nor any other serious mainstream organisations are putting pressure on women to stay at home. If anything, the opposite is true; some government policies seem to be based on the assumption that staying at home looking after children really is not enough, and that women, particularly if they claim any kind of state benefit, should be required to take a paid job as well. This is something which I did not foresee, and which appals me. Raising children is is a hard day’s work, a serious job. It seems to me that if people want to do it full time, they should be able to, they should not be required to do something else as well.

On the plus side, I did manage to invent a charismatic princess who identifies with the underclass, and I did foresee a European superstate. So I did not get it all wrong.

At the end of 1984, Orwell’s vision is pessimistic. His hero is defeated: ‘Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother’ (256). For my two heroines the struggle is not over at all. My novel ends with two old ladies sitting on a pile of bricks, working out a strategy to storm a building, a tower block. Although they want to do it, they think that it may not be very practical, because they have no weapons, there are only two of them, they are old and frail.

“She sat on a pile of bricks as if very tired. She glared at Lynn. ‘I dare you’ she yelled, and to calm her Lynn said, ‘Maybe if we wait a while some others will come and help us.’ They sat together in silence watching the sun come up. It was going to be one of those odd mornings when it was the sky at the same time as the moon, racing with the clouds.” (214)

I think my ending is less pessimistic than Orwell’s. Orwell really closes the door. There is no bright light at all. There is not even a suggestion that the struggle continues. Whereas I want to suggest that although bad things have happened, good things have happened too, and as long as there is somebody who still wants to make things better, things can improve. Bleak, pessimistic endings can be a bit of a cop-out. They are too easy; you can just bring down the curtain on a moment of gloom and walk away. Happy endings, by contrast, run the risk of being sentimental. If I had written an ending in which the women all got together and all agreed on what they wanted, and put their demands to the government, and the government said ‘yes, all right, we’ll do that,’ and that was the end of the novel, I do not think anybody would have believed a word of it. But the idea that the individuals continue to try and make changes and make things better, makes Benefits a bit more Utopian than dystopian. The struggle is not over. It continues. Two old women versus a tower block. You must take your choice.


(In answer to questions from the floor)

Benefits was first published by a feminist press. Did you come under pressure to write in accordance with any particular political line?

No. As I have already said, I agree with Doris Lessing’s line on this – as quoted above – and I would have resisted any pressure to be doctrinaire or write the book in a way that did not accord with what I wanted to do. But there was no such pressure. The book that was published is the book that I wanted to write. In writing Benefits, I set out to make fiction of sexual politics, to explore and dramatise sexual politics – and of course it is no coincidence that a feminist press should choose to publish it, because those were the issues that interested them too.

Most fiction, from great classics to pulp, is at some level about the way men and women relate to each other. If you took that theme out of all fiction, there would be not much left. And if you start from certain presuppositions, as I did – the world that I grew up in had very fixed ideas about what men do and what women do – and you challenge that, the whole edifice is blown to smithereens, and each smithereen contains a story. I wrote a novel called Closing in the ’80s, which was about a group of women training to become high pressure saleswomen, and dealing with the world of business. Here Today was a detective story in which the central character is a woman who has just lost her job, lost her partner, lost her sense of self; she is going to solve the crime and rediscover herself. Different novels, different genres, but each one inspired by a belief that old ideas about sex roles had to change, and a fascination with what happens when they do change. I have never seen feminism as a restriction on my writing; quite the contrary, it gives me ideas.

Where I have come under pressure – not with Benefits, but with other books, and with both feminist and mainstream publishers – is when it comes to marketing the book. My view is that the marketing strategy should be tailored to fit the book, but some people in the industry think it should be the other way round. I have on occasions been urged to write more quickly- to produce one book per year, to fit in with a marketing plan. (I normally take between two and four years to complete a novel.) I have been asked to set parts of a story in a particular town because the publishers have good contacts in that town and know that a bit of ‘local interest’ would help to sell the book. I was also once told by an editor that a novel I offered her ‘is not your next book.’ What she meant was that she could not see any way of marketing it as my next book – therefore, according to her, it could not be my next book, notwithstanding the fact that I had indubitably written it after the one before and before the subsequent one. This sort of thing can be upsetting and frustrating, but it is not about sexual politics; it is an issue of author-publisher politics, and you had better not get me started on that.

In Benefits , and also in your new novel Other Names, you write about tensions in the mother-daughter relationship. Do you think this is an issue of sexual politics?

That is an extremely interesting question; I have never thought about that before, so any answer I give will be very tentative.

In Benefits, Lynn is the character who is doubtful about having children. She does not really want to do it. She is scared of the commitment and the work involved. She actually changes her mind and tries to get pregnant with her husband on the night when the rain starts, because when the rain came back people went a bit hysterical and that was her way of going hysterical – she pulled her husband into bed and said ‘make me pregnant.’ It was not that simple, but it was a change of impulse. When the child is born, she turns out to have a congenital illness which, although manageable in many cases demands a huge commitment of work from the child’s carers. So here is this woman who did not even want children in the first place, and now she has a child who makes even bigger demands on her than a healthy child would. But she loves the child too and she develops a sort of possessiveness where she is looking after the child and yet she is resenting her lost freedom.

In Other Names, once again there is a feminist mother, Julia, whose daughter Heather rebels against her mother’s unconventionality by becoming much more conservative. But in this case the mother, Julia, knows that she owes her politics to Heather; that it was her own experience as a single mother in the early 1960s that brought her to a political struggle which is now an essential part of her identity.

In both books, you have daughters who exasperate their radical mothers by falling in love with men who are, in the mothers’ terms, totally unsuitable – i.e. conservatives and traditionalists. I was setting out to explore the ambivalence that can exist alongside love between a mother and a child; but whether these are about sexual politics or something else entirely, I am not sure. I need to think about it some more.

Works cited

Fairbairns, Zoe. Benefits. 1979. London: Virago Press. 1998 Nottingham, Five Leaves
——, Closing, London: Methuen, 1987.
——, Here Today. London: Methuen, 1984.
——, Other Names. London: Michael Joseph, 1998.
——, Stand We at Last. London: Virago Press, 1983

Lessing, Doris. ‘The Small Personal Voice. ‘Woman as Writer.Eds. Jeannette L, Webber and Joan Grumman. Boston,MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1978. 80-82

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. Harmondsworth:

Penguin Books, 1984.
——, The Road to Wigan Pier. 1937. London: Seeker & Warburg,

1959. Wordsworth, William. The Prelude, 1850. Ed. J. C. Maxwell. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.