Wallington is a small village in Hertfordshire, approximately fifty miles north of London and twenty-five miles from the outskirts of Cambridge. George Orwell lived at No. 2 Kits Lane, better known as ‘The Stores’, on a mostly-permanent basis from 1936 to 1940, but he would continue to journey up from London on occasional weekends until 1947.
His first reference to The Stores can be found in early 1936, where Orwell wrote from Lancashire during research for The Road to Wigan Pier to lament that he would very much like “to do some work again — impossible, of course, in the [current] surroundings”:
I am arranging to take a cottage at Wallington near Baldock in Herts, rather a pig in a poke because I have never seen it, but I am trusting the friends who have chosen it for me, and it is very cheap, only 7s. 6d. a week [£20 in 2021].
For those not steeped in English colloquialisms, “a pig in a poke” is an item bought without seeing it in advance. In fact, one general insight that may be drawn from reading Orwell’s extant correspondence is just how much he relied on a close network of friends, belying the lazy and hagiographical picture of an independent and solitary figure. (Still, even Orwell cultivated this image at times, such as in a patently autobiographical essay he wrote in 1946. But note the off-hand reference to varicose veins here, for they would shortly re-appear as a symbol of Winston’s repressed humanity in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)
Nevertheless, the porcine reference in Orwell’s idiom is particularly apt, given that he wrote the bulk of Animal Farm at The Stores — his 1945 novella, of course, portraying a revolution betrayed by allegorical pigs. Orwell even drew inspiration for his ‘fairy story’ from Wallington itself, principally by naming the novel’s farm ‘Manor Farm’, just as it is in the village. But the allusion to the purchase of goods is just as appropriate, as Orwell returned The Stores to its former status as the village shop, even going so far as to drill peepholes in a door to keep an Orwellian eye on the jars of sweets. (Unfortunately, we cannot complete a tidy circle of references, as whilst it is certainly Napoleon — Animal Farm‘s substitute for Stalin — who is quoted as describing Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers”, it was actually the maraisard Bertrand Barère who first used the phrase).
“It isn’t what you might call luxurious”, he wrote in typical British understatement, but Orwell did warmly emote on his animals. He kept hens in Wallington (perhaps even inspiring the opening line of Animal Farm: “Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.”) and a photograph even survives of Orwell feeding his pet goat, Muriel. Orwell’s goat was the eponymous inspiration for the white goat in Animal Farm, a decidedly under-analysed character who, to me, serves to represent an intelligentsia that is highly perceptive of the declining political climate but, seemingly content with merely observing it, does not offer any meaningful opposition. Muriel’s aesthetic of resistance, particularly in her reporting on the changes made to the Seven Commandments of the farm, thus rehearses the well-meaning (yet functionally ineffective) affinity for ‘fact checking’ which proliferates today. But I digress.
There is a tendency to “read Orwell backwards“, so I must point out that Orwell wrote several other works whilst at The Stores as well. This includes his Homage to Catalonia, his aforementioned The Road to Wigan Pier, not to mention countless indispensable reviews and essays as well. Indeed, another result of focusing exclusively on Orwell’s last works is that we only encounter his ideas in their highly-refined forms, whilst in reality, it often took many years for concepts to fully mature — we first see, for instance, the now-infamous idea of “2 + 2 = 5” in an essay written in 1939.
This is important to understand for two reasons. Although the ostentatiously austere Barnhill might have housed the physical labour of its writing, it is refreshing to reflect that the philosophical heavy-lifting of Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been performed in a relatively undistinguished North Hertfordshire village. But perhaps more importantly, it emphasises that Orwell was just a man, and that any of us is fully capable of equally significant insight, with — to quote Christopher Hitchens — “little except a battered typewriter and a certain resilience.”