Wells inspired Orwell's 1984

October 13, 2000

A previously overlooked newspaper article written by George Orwell has hinted at the debt that 1984, arguably his finest novel, owed to a similarly bleak work by the Utopian science fiction writer H. G. Wells.

Orwell was deeply impressed by When the Sleeper Wakes, also published as The Sleeper Awakes, which was written in 1899 by the author of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. Shortly after Wells died in 1946, Orwell wrote 1984, one of the darkest and most prophetic works of 20th-century literature.

The 1,600-word Manchester Evening News article was an obituary of Wells. It had been missed by Orwellian scholars and was not included in the acclaimed Complete Works, published three years ago. Neither was it known to the Orwell Archive at University College London despite its having a record of the payment the author received. This was annotated by the editors:

"article rejected?".

The obituary, while being obscure to Orwellian scholars, has been widely read by Wells experts. Michael Foot quoted from it in his recent Wells biography, and it is available at the Wells Collection at the University of Illinois, Urbana, in the United States.

Patrick Parrinder, professor of English at Reading University and author of several books on Wells, has now brought the article to the attention of Orwellian scholars.

He believes the "discovery" demonstrates the complexity of 20th-century literary archives and how fragmented literary studies has become.

"I have the sense that the traditional processes of literary scholarship are breaking down here - why produce these flawed monumental works at huge cost and taking up so much shelf space, when online publication would now mean that the works can be kept up to date?" Parrinder asked.

The two writers had acrimoniously fallen out in the early 1940s, yet in 1945, as the older man's health was failing, the Manchester Evening News requested that Orwell write an obituary that was held until Wells's death a year later.

The article said of When the Sleeper Wakes: "In this book, Wells drops all traces of optimism and forecasts a highly organised totalitarian society based quite frankly upon slave labour.

"In some ways it comes extremely close to what is actually happening, or appears to be happening, in the modern world, and it is in any case an astonishing feat of detailed imaginative construction."

The same year, Orwell wrote his first "utopian" novel, Animal Farm. He went on to write 1984 in 1949, the year before he died.

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