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Sandra Newman – Julia: A Novel [Feature Review]

JuliaAdded Dimension to a Classic

A Feature Review of

Julia: A Retelling of George Orwell’s 1984
Sandra Newman

 
Hardcover: Mariner Books, 2023
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Reviewed by Crystal Hurd

Lauded as an “imaginative, feminist, and brilliantly-relevant-to-today retelling,” Julia by Sandra Newman is a cautionary tale that seeks to fill in the narrative gaps of Winston’s lover from George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. Such retellings often fall short and often leave the reader with a sense of dissatisfaction. However, Newman’s text does not attempt to revise a perceived deficit in Orwell’s great work, but to provide shade and substance to a character which, although important to Orwell’s text, is often underdeveloped. The ambiguous end of 1984 leaves more questions than answers, an intentional creative decision that Newman addresses. Julia continues beyond Winston’s demise and illustrates how Winston was in fact prophetic in his assessment of the Proles. Julia, whose story extends far beyond sips of Victory gin and awkward exchanges at the Chestnut Tree Café, discovers that the more things change, the more they ultimately stay the same. 

Newman’s text begins in relatively the same time frame as 1984, at a time shortly before the Two Minutes of Hate. While the pageant of misery plays itself out, Julia finds herself bored by the ritual, but under the critical gaze of O’Brien, she musters enough deception to lob a book at the screen. It is during this display that she notices Winston Smith, and unlike the many trysts she has with other Party members, feels a genuine connection with him. In fact, many portions of Newman’s book echo scenes from its inspiration and present a more comprehensive picture of Oceania. 

In the book, Julia serves as a Party mechanic, bunking in the women’s dormitory with several young ladies. One in particular, Vicky, is taken advantage of by a Party administrator but finds a strong and unique kinship with Julia. The relationship flourishes after Vicky takes an abortion pill at the behest of her Party lover and passes the fetus in the community bathroom. After reporting it, Julia watches in horror as another woman is dragged off and condemned for the pregnancy. Women in Oceania can volunteer for Artsem, or artificial insemination. This creates “comrades” without the bother of sexual intimacy, a bonding which the Party warns is a threat. Later, it is Vicky who leaves a handwritten note in Julia’s locker stating “I love you,” the note which Julia later gives to Winston in Orwell’s text. Julia’s parents are described as “Old revolutionaries” who were later exiled after her father turned against the Party. Because of this experience, Julia quickly learns how to navigate life as an outcast, playing the role of loyal Party member for mere survival. 

Although Julia is hailed as a “feminist” tale, the gender politics in Oceania are still painfully traditional. Women can fight wars and serve the Party, but their substantial contribution is to make “more comrades.” The Party administration is still predominantly male, and the only agency that women possess is their sexuality. Julia’s devout adherence to the Anti-Sex League is tongue-in-cheek; she has many sexual encounters, especially with airmen. In the original text, Winston states that Julia is only a rebel “from the waist down,” and yet Julia weaponizes promiscuity for Party gain after O’Brien demands that she carry on affairs with Party members to uncover their true intentions. Some of her “clients” include Orwell’s original characters, such as Ampleforth. In Newman’s text, Winston comes across as naïve and even a bit arrogant, as if he is the first to discover that the Party is seditious.  When she and Winston finally meet in the meadow beyond surveillance, he struggles to perform at first, and she is frustrated by his self-deprecation. Despite this rough initiation, Julia still nurtures a deep affection for Winston. 


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This perennial rehearsal of Party language and behavior is perhaps why Julia is often frustrated with Winston: “Why was this damned man always complaining? He was as well-off as one could be without being Inner Party. And all his talk of abolishing the Party was the purest vanity. “‘If there is any hope, it must lie in the proles’ – all that meant was that Winston wanted the proles to do his fighting for him” (128). Surely Winston is authentic in his distaste for the Party, but why resist? Julia has learned the fragile ballet of pretending and performing. She understands the difference between what one thinks and how one acts. She pressures Winston to discard his journal, the one with the ominous repetition “Down with Big Brother.” While she agrees that the Party is desperately flawed, she has no confidence in the Proles to instigate change. In truth, she believes that one must tolerate the Party but never explicitly challenge its authority. 

After Julia and Winston are discovered in Room 101, Julia is shocked to find that she, also, is treated as a criminal. She discovers that she is pregnant and immediately volunteers for artsem to conceal its origins. After a sobering incident in which she bites the head off of a mouse in Room 101 (an act of rebellion that Winston misses because he falls asleep), Julia strikes out on her own to save her life and the baby’s. The bombings begin and just as Julia begins to lose hope, she realizes that an army of Proles have toppled the Party. The Party’s headquarters, known as the Crystal Palace (a real location during the Victorian era) is usurped, and Big Brother is taken into custody. Julia, when she asks to meet him, only finds a scrawny, weak, mumbling old man. Instead of pure hatred—an emotion fully endorsed by the former Party—Julia feels pity. This tyrant, much like the whiskered professor behind the screen in The Wizard of Oz, is actually an ordinary man named Humphrey Pease. She soon finds with great relief that Vicky is safely housed at the Crystal Palace and pursues a relationship with her. In the final pages of the book, Julia undergoes an interview to receive new “Brotherhood” papers. The inquiries are eerily similar to the same questions O’Brien posed when she and Winston acquired Goldstein’s book (in Orwell’s text), questions on lying, stealing, and killing to claim loyalty to the new government. 

For those who have loved and reread 1984 many times, this novel may provide a bit of cognitive dissonance. Previously, readers have perceived Oceania exclusively through Winston’s eyes. However, Newman’s novel challenges not only Winston’s perspective, but the motivations and intentions of other characters. She fills in some narrative and social gaps in Orwell’s original story. This, as Julia herself mentions, illustrates Winston’s own privileged upbringing (and perception of “struggle”) as contrasted to hers: the delicate life of a traitor seeking redemption through perceived obedience. At the very least, Newman rewrites the ending with new villains. With a rich vitality, Julia realizes Winston was right about the power of the proles, and as the book crescendos to its conclusion, that new seeds squat in the soil of old roots. While these changes are unsettling for some readers, further consideration finds the novel a complement to Orwell’s original text. Julia is no longer an ambiguous ally but a fully fleshed character with a vibrant backstory. This history situates her much better in Orwell’s text and makes her shine on her own. Newman’s story darkens the dystopian aspects of Orwell’s narrative infrastructure, truly unveiling the fascist nightmare that has haunted readers for decades. 

Crystal Hurd

Crystal Hurd is an educator, researcher, and poet from Virginia. She is the author of Thirty Days with C.S. Lewis: A Women's Devotional as well as several articles on C.S. Lewis. She currently serves as Reviews Editor for Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal.
Find her online at CrystalHurd.com

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