Barnhill

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

Barnhill offers a glimpse into George Orwell's life after the publication of Animal Farm and the passing of his wife. Many people study Orwell's books in school or read them for pleasure, but most don't know much about the man himself. This would be a great book for Orwell fans who are interested in learning more about his personal life.
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Barnhill was a grim and intriguing novelization of the later years of George Orwell. As a lot of people, I've heard a lot about his books (and read them of course), but I knew very little about his life. Even though this book is fiction, I would assume that the bottom-line holds some truth to it. Nevertheless, it's an interesting, though a bit grim, novel.
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Animal Farm, published 1944, and '1984' published in 1949 are an important part of our history - novels that for most woke us to the possibilities of danger from Big Brother, ponderous government, doublespeak, and censorship - the governmental enemies of independent thought and freedoms. '1984' has been carrying this important message to readers since its first publication in 1949.  Seventy years.  Animal Farm has been a recurring theme for even longer.

Orwell - Eric Arthur Blair - wrote a number of other outstanding novels, his articles and essays are still relevant and his works have been published around the world, crossing language, political and religious barriers.  He died before his 47th birthday of TB.  Imagine his influence on the world had he not died so young. 

That said, I had a difficult time getting into this novelization, partly because for several years I have avoided dystopian tales like the plague, and also , the reader has to be of the right mindset to tackle George Orwell.   Optimization is not a fault he shared with the world.  Unless you are brimming with good will and optimism he can bring you down into the dumps in a New York minute. Once sucked in, however, there was a lot to learn about his life, his loves, and the Scottish isles in this novel. And once in that world, you cannot put the book down. It is one I am pleased to recommend to friends and family. 

I received a free electronic copy of this novelization of the final years of George Orwell - and the writing of his crucial novel, '1984' - from Netgalley, Norman Bissell, and Luath publishers.  Thank you for sharing your hard work with me.  I read this historical novel of my own volition, and this review reflects my honest opinion of this work.
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I love historical fiction, so it is no surprise that I really enjoyed Barnhill.  I was however, very surprised by how much I did not know about the life of George Orwell.  Norman Bissell uses multiple points of view to show the reader Orwell's complex and conflicted life.  His need to write and to be with those he loves are often at odds with each other, as is his need to be in London with his friends and at Barnhill by himself.  His poor health is always in the background and deeply affects his writing.  Orwell lived at a time when he the politics of the day influenced his every thought.  He had a message to share with 'humanity' that continues to shock with its prophetic qualities.
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Big Brother, Room 101, The Ministry of Truth are all terms we're so familiar with and form part of our language. Created by author George Orwell in his novel '1984' this year sees the 70th anniversary of its publication just a year before his death from TB and this excellent fictional novel gives a good insight into his life, family and the influence of his writing through the years.
Bissell has taken the story from Orwell's point of view alongside Sonia Brownell who was a literary editor and who he married only a short time before his death. Brownell inherited Orwell's estate (much it seems to the disgust of Orwell's sister Avril who had cared for him for many years) and she made a career out of managing his legacy.
Born Eric Arthur Blair in June 1903 in India, he was the son of Richard, a rather distant military man and his mother Ida who brought Eric and his older sister Marjorie back to England when he was only one. Father and son never had a strong bond.  Despite being a sickly child particularly with bronchitis, he was sent to a boarding school in Eastbourne and the effect of public schools (later Eton) on the way poorer students, like himself on a scholarship were treated  differently helped to form Orwell's class and political views. He was also an avid reader and soon wrote poetry and articles (his first poem published in a newspaper when he was 11)
We meet Orwell when he is married to Eileen O'Shaughnessy in 1936 and they have survived the Spanish Civil War where he was badly injured and both were called traitors and are now living in a bomb threatened London during WWII. Orwell had spent time in Scotland with friends and seen the remote cottage called Barnhill and now wanted to take Eileen away because she was ill to escape the bombs. Eileen is ill and despite their 'open marriage' observing Orwell's many affairs they have decided to adopt a child. In fact some of the most wonderful parts of the novel and a reflection of Orwell's love for his son followed the adoption of a son in 1944 who was named Richard Horatio Blair.  But family tragedy followed Orwell throughout his life alongside his loneliness and following the deaths of his mother and father, his sister Marjorie died and then tragically also Eileen.
Her death affected Orwell badly.  Maybe he felt guilt over his dalliances (which were many) and his fear for the care of his son without a mother role terrified him. Luckily his sister Avril was to come to his rescue, especially when other nannies and friends either moved on or left when approached romantically by Orwell who had a habit of meeting young women and immediately asking them to marry him! He obviously found it impossible to be without a woman in his life and dreaded being on his own - despite needing such time to write.
His novel 'Animal Farm' had been published to much fanfare in 1945 and Orwell saw this as part of a trilogy and the ideas for the second obsessed him.  He also felt it could only be written on the island of Jura where he would return to Barnhill cottage and be able to concentrate.
The loveliest scenes are those on the island with Orwell's time gardening, fishing and exploring the scenery, especially when his son was old enough to be beside him.. There were also some lovely scenes when Orwell is caught without transport in Glasgow over Hogmanay and soaks up the sounds, people and working class lives of the locals.
The author weaves in Sonia being the darling of London's literary and artistic scene (he doesn't come over to me as very likeable) with authors and also in France with many lovers. She was a model for Francis Bacon and lover of Lucien Freud and known as the Euston Road Venus. This contrasts so much with Orwell up on the isolated Scottish island often through wet and wintry winters and although invited by him she never did go to his beloved Barnhill.
As ill health grips Orwell will he finish 1984 and it is written as though he is struggling with the world of his main character Winston Graham alongside smoking too much and drinking dreadfully strong tea (12 teaspoons per pot!).  We can almost imagine him at the typewriter with that famous first line "It was a cold day in early April, and a million radios were striking 13".
Instantly makes you want to go and read '1984' again and delve more into the life of this writer whose words still affect the world we see around us today.
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Barnhill is a farmhouse on the Scottish Hebridean island of Jura – a mountainous, sparsely populated piece of land, bare except for vast areas of blanket bog. The main settlement there is the village of Craighouse where the famous Isle of Jura Single Malt Whisky is produced, but the property itself stands alone to the north of the island and is notable mainly because it was the home of author George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Arthur Blair) during the late 1940s. Here he grew vegetables, raised his son and completed his celebrated dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Being familiar with Orwell’s time in Scotland from his Diaries, Life in Letters and biography, Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers, I was fascinated to learn of Norman Bissell’s fictional retelling of this significant period in the writer’s life. Described in an early review by Leela Soma as a “rich, absorbing narrative that draws a convincing picture of the life of a great writer”, I was intrigued to discover how Bissell had interpreted the inner-life of such an intensely private and emotionally impenetrable figure.

The narrative begins in 1944, when he and his stoical wife Eileen are still living in London and covers the period when he ends an extramarital affair with his secretary, adopts a three-week old child, publishes Animal Farm, becomes a war correspondent in Paris and experiences the death of his wife in shocking circumstances. He arrives in Barnhill (a place once described by his friend Richard Rees as “the most uninhabitable house in the British Isles”) in 1946, later to be joined by his sister, housekeeper and son. Here he spends about six months of the year from 1946 to 1948.

Orwell had tuberculosis, which was undoubtedly aggravated by living in damp conditions. Between bouts of ill health and undergoing agonizing treatment in hospital, he wrote and redrafted his final novel in a dingy bedroom overlooking the sea. He was in a sanitorium in Gloucestershire by the time he corrected the proofs, and married his second wife, Sonia Brownell, the inspiration for the book’s fearless Julia, at University College Hospital in London only three months before his death on 21st January 1950.

Bissell’s endeavours to recreate events in the last six years of Orwell’s life have obviously required a degree of dramatic licence (he happily admits as much in his Afterword) – for instance, certain dialogues have been imagined and the parts of his book written by Sonia about her life with Orwell are fictitious. However, as Bissell rightly points out, her voice is “essential to the story” and he has “tried to convey it as accurately as possible.”

Barnhill remains faithful to the most important aspects of Orwell’s life and it will likely appeal to those who know little of the man behind the disconcertingly prescient novels, while also offering a slant on his final years that readers more familiar with his history will hopefully accept and applaud. Bissell has movingly and vibrantly reanimated Orwell in all his gloomy, troubled, visionary sagacity.
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There can be few other novels to compare to George Orwell's 1984 for not only achieving such an instant impact on its publication but also being able to maintain such a cultural influence that has lasted until the present day. Arguably this dystopian and political tale published in 1949 warning us of the manipulations of a totalitarian and authoritarian state is as relevant today as it was at the start of The Cold War. I still remember the impact it had when I first read it over 50 years ago. However although like most people I was aware of the political landscape and ideologies that inspired it I was until reading this book unaware of the actual mechanics of its composition and the fact that it was written on the isolated Scottish island of Jura (see the cover). There is clearly a dichotomy here between the place of its actual writing, isolated and free from the industrial world and the nightmarish society he created in the novel. Also Norman Bissell makes it clear that due to Orwell's increasingly failing health and the immense strain placed on it by the writing of 1984 it may well not have come to fruition without his escape from post war London.        

This is a fictionalised account of mostly real events and certainly of real people and it is the author's interpretation of their motivations and actions into the story that at the same time makes this both an interesting and problematic read for me for ultimately this can lead to an embellishment and even a distortion of the facts. But this is something that the reader can research and come to their own conclusions regarding the veracity of the picture presented to them and certainly in regard to some of the leading characters to be found here such as Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cyril Connolly and indeed Orwell himself biographies exist for the reader to fulfill this. This is probably particularly apposite when determining the accuracy of the unacceptable and disagreeable  behavior towards women that prevails throughout the book.    

I actually found this a rather absorbing tale and particular liked the description of the dirt, squalor and sheer shabbiness to be found in London and Glasgow at that time. There is a wonderful sequence where when he was in Glasgow on Hogmany Orwell becomes a Flâneur exploring the backs of tenement buildings and smoky bars. Also what the book does do well is convey Orwell's paranoia emanating from his not unreasonable fear of retribution from Soviet Russia. This was a period when many of his contemporaries served in the intelligence services during the war and where double agents and "fellow travelers " were still around. As a flavour of the period and as an introduction to further reading I think this is well worth a read.
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The story follows George Orwell from the death of his wife Eileen, as he struggles with ill health, un-requited love and  the vagaries of a Hebridean island to finish '1984'.  The story is told in chronological episodes, with interjections in the voices of Orwell and Sonia.  
Orwell was clearly a complex character: his relationship with women and readiness to propose marriage within days of first meeting someone;  the fact that he retired to an idyllic Scottish island to write a dystopian novel; and his possible paranoia about being a target of the Soviet operatives should all offer dramatic starting points for an exploration of his life.  This novel presents a fairly pedestrian fictionalisation of Orwell's life, but does not offer much in the way of additional insight..  All the characters are two-dimensional, they talk in cliches and the dialogue is leaden.  I felt I was reading a dramatisation of the Bernard Crick biography.  The title, 'Barnhill', suggests that the author wanted to focus on the disparity between place and the book Orwell wrote there, but I didn't get a strong sense of life on Jura, or gain any understanding of why it might have helped to shape '1984,' any more than I did from the travelog-stlye episodes in Glasgow.
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Not impressed by this book. Rather tawdry and grim and not particularly well written. I won’t be posting a review on social media to criticise it, but it really wasn’t of a standard I can find any positives about.
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