My Favourite Moments In Novels No. 1
In George Orwell’s ‘1984’ Winston Smith rents a shabby room in the Proles’ part of town where he can conduct his illicit trysts. I suppose now one looks back and sees how much middle-class guilt informed the writing, never more so than in the moment when Smith looks out of the window of his room and sees a huge woman in the yard hanging out laundry and singing happily. She knows nothing of wars and politics, only of what she’s been told, and her lack of knowledge protects her from the vicissitudes of life.
In that moment, the reader realises Smith’s fate is to know too much, because once knowledge is imparted it can never be taken back, and he is therefore doomed to have an unhappy life no matter what he tries to do. He can never be like her. This scene haunted me as a student; the moment in life when you realise you now know too much of the world to ever be naively happy again, a loss of innocence that cannot be regained.
If at that moment Smith could have traded his place for hers, would he have done?
– – – – – – – – –
Under the window somebody was singing. Winston peeped out, secure in the protection of the muslin curtain. The June sun was still high in the sky, and in the sun-filled court below, a monstrous woman, solid as a Norman pillar, with brawny red forearms and a sacking apron strapped about her middle, was stumping to and fro between a washtub and a clothes line, pegging out a series of square white things which Winston recognized as babies’ diapers. Whenever her mouth was not corked with clothes pegs she was singing in a powerful contralto:
It was only an ‘opeless fancy.
It passed like an Ipril dye,
But a look an’ a word an’ the dreams they stirred!
They ‘ave stolen my ‘eart awye!
The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound. He could hear the woman singing and the scrape of her shoes on the flagstones, and the cries of the children in the street, and somewhere in the far distance a faint roar of traffic, and yet the room seemed curiously silent, thanks to the absence of a telescreen.