I really enjoyed reading a post by Elizabeth Kay recently over on Authors Electric about visiting the setting of a favourite book and it got me thinking about a magical experience I had a few years ago.
I’d been listening to a series of dramas on Radio 4 about George Orwell, and was particularly moved by the last one, about the last few years of his life before he finally succumbed to TB at the age of 46.
He was living in an isolated house on the island of Jura, struggling to finish his final novel, 1984, despite increasing ill health. His wife had died during an operation a year or so before, shortly after they had adopted a baby boy, and Orwell’s sister Avril had come to Jura to look after him and his son.
So much pain and loss… in that moment, and that place, he created a book I barely remembered from my schooldays, but felt it was time to read again. I decided to go to Jura and read it there, where Orwell had written it.
It isn’t easy to get to Jura. You have to first take the ferry to Islay, and then make the short crossing from there.
It’s a big island, home to only about 200 people. The ferry lands at the South end of the road, where there’s nothing except a shelter, and after a drive of maybe twenty minutes you get to the only village, with its hotel and distillery. I sat in the bar drinking coffee, where doubtless Orwell would have sat, and read a few chapters before driving the 23 miles to the North end of the road.
There’s nothing at the North end either. Just a track that begins a 7 mile walk to the house Orwell lived in.
I love wild, empty places, but I was struck by the extreme isolation that Orwell chose, so far from any neighbours and so inaccessible. I imagined him writing his dark dystopia, with its bleak vision of human nature and society, having already removed himself as much as he possibly could, before the complete departure of his death.
Have you ever read a book in the place it was written? Did being there intensify the experience for you?