How a village in Herts inspired Orwell's Animal Farm
- Credit: UCL Library, Special Collections, Orwell Archive 2D21
The little village of Wallington in North Hertfordshire appears, on a first visit, to have remained relatively untouched by time in the 85 years since George Orwell lived here. It was here he found inspiration for many of the settings and characters in his iconic novel Animal Farm, first published in 1945.
A small sign saying Manor Farm can be seen on the roadside wall of the Great Barn, a large black timber-framed structure almost visible from the cottage on Kitt’s Lane where Orwell, real name Eric Blair, lived between 1936 and 1940 with his wife Eileen. The writer probably had the lofty interior of the barn in mind for the scene in the novel where Old Major, the prize middle white boar, shares his vision of Animalism with the assembled creatures, encouraging them to believe in a new order in which humans are overthrown and animals enjoy the fruits of their own labour.
Orwell’s letters and diaries of the period show his close engagement with the politics of the era and his criticism of the rise of Stalinism, but also, and less well-known, his hands-on experience as a smallholder which enabled him to represent farming and farm animals with such authenticity.
Orwell had the image of a pig in mind when he first made mention of Wallington (the village in Animal Farm is 'Willingdon'), in a letter to a friend, in February 1936: ‘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… it is very cheap, only 7s.6d a week’.
Situated at the heart of the village, The Stores was a primitive two-up two-down, with a corrugated metal roof and outside WC. It is opposite a piece of ground known as Kitt’s Piece, suitable grazing land for goats. By the time he moved there in April 1936, Orwell was planning to marry Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a postgraduate student he had met a year earlier at a party in London.
On June 9, their wedding took place in the parish church of St Mary’s. Eva Wilson, a local villager, reported that the occasion was very simple: 'Eileen and he walked down the road from the cottage together, George vaulted over the churchyard wall so as to be standing inside the gate to pick up Eileen and carry her to the church door, having plainly got his folk-lore muddled.’
In the months and years that followed, the couple established a working partnership deeply rooted in a country way of life although one which ran in parallel to Orwell’s ambitious programme of writing and journalism (he penned Shooting an Elephant and The Road to Wigan Pier here), even involving them both in active military service during 1937 in the Spanish Civil War (he returned to Wallington to draft Homage to Catalonia).
When at home, they shared in the running of a village shop from their front room, selling local produce and sweets in order to pay the rent. They kept chickens and grew crops in the back garden, in time acquiring two goats named Muriel and Kate, which grazed on Kitt’s Piece.
At intervals Orwell, and occasionally Eileen, maintained a smallholder’s diary: ‘Muriel seems well, rather thin, appetite good. Still giving over 1½ pints (close on a year in milk now). Yesterday planted a dozen carnations. (25.5.39)… Many apples forming. Strawberries should be netted about a fortnight from now. (26.5.39).’
The diary shows Orwell’s engagement in rearing livestock and cultivating crops all year round. From this way of life sprang the idea for Animal Farm, although by the time he actually began work on the novel, in November 1943, he and Eileen had taken a flat in central London, subletting the Wallington cottage to friends.
At first, Orwell set out to write an explicit criticism of Stalin and totalitarianism, but according to Sylvia Topp, whose 2020 biography of Orwell reveals Eileen's crucial role in the crafting of Animal Farm, it was she who 'suggested writing the story as an allegory when the issue of Stalin as an ally made it difficult for his publisher in the original format.’
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Orwell explained in a letter that his novel was ‘about a farm run by people, where the animals take over and make just as bad a job of it’. Subtitled ‘A Fairy Story’, the work fuses political satire with the anthropomorphic characterisation seen in Aesop’s Fables and the tales of Beatrix Potter, especially The Tale of Pigling Bland.
In a later preface to the novel, he recalled the precise moment, years earlier in Wallington, that had inspired him to write the story: ‘I saw a little boy… driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn… It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their own strength we should have no power over them.’
For the fictional world of Manor Farm, Orwell certainly drew on his knowledge of Wallington and the surrounding area. The neighbouring ‘Foxwood Farm’ derived from Quickswood, a local farm surrounded by woodland. The knoll where the animals gather is suggestive of The Wick, the field behind the old school.
Muriel the goat is a sympathetic portrayal of her real-life counterpart, whilst in Boxer, the stalwart old carthorse and the tragic hero of the novel, Orwell may have memorialised his Wallington neighbour, Fred Hatchet, 'Old H', who used to carry out heavy work for him in the garden. Fred was known for the way he ‘walked on his heels’ with the hobnails on his boots making a ringing sound, like shire horses’ hooves.
Eileen is known to have had editorial input in the manuscript, and a particularly poignant example of this is, perhaps, Boxer’s death scene: ‘A thin stream of blood had trickled out of his mouth… “It is my lung,” said Boxer in a weak voice.’ Orwell himself suffered from tubercular lesions on his lungs which, while in Wallington in August 1938, had led him to haemorrhage very seriously.
Animal Farm was considered too hot to handle by several major publishers, and after a series of rejection letters, Orwell considered self-publishing. However, Fred Warburg of Secker and Warburg eventually agreed to take it on. When, after its publication on 17 August 1945, several friends of Eileen read the novel, they sensed her light touch and humorous intelligence.
Sadly, she herself died undergoing an operation in March 1945 while Orwell was abroad working as a war correspondent for The Observer. Orwell told a friend: ‘It was a terrible shame that Eileen didn’t live to see the publication of Animal Farm which she was particularly fond of and even helped in the planning of.’
The first print run of 4,500 copies sold out quickly and a further run of 10,000 copies appeared in November. Subsequently translated into more than 70 languages, it has never been out of print. From the little fields of Wallington to the world, arguably the most effective critique of totalitarianism ever published.