Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, by Sylvia Topp, Unbound, 475 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1783527083
Eileen Blair, George Orwell’s first wife, is the subject of this welcome and assiduously researched biography by Sylvia Topp. Eileen married Orwell in 1936 when he was a virtual unknown and, until her death in 1945 at the age of just thirty-nine, shared with him a life that was lived primarily on the unreliable income from his writing. She did not live to see even the beginnings of the worldwide fame that would come her husband’s way with Animal Farm, which was published in the year of her death.
“She was a good old stick,” Orwell famously remarked when Stephen Spender offered his condolences. To Spender this was an affected stoicism: deep down, he reckoned, Orwell was hurting. Others thought the same. Still, it is that throwaway “good old stick”, ever so faintly on the wrong side of cold-heartedness, that has, well, stuck. Orwell had been on a journalistic assignment at the time of his wife’s death ‑ a journey into a newly liberated (but still dangerous) Western Europe. He had gone despite Eileen’s obvious illness, her imminent surgery, the child, Richard, whose adoption they were still finalising, not to mention his own so-so health, and his firm conviction that the Comintern had him on a hitlist. (So emphatic was he on this latter that, in Paris, Hemingway pressed him to accept the gift of a handgun.)
A week before her death, Eileen had written him a long and, in places, anguished, letter in which she informed him that she had a “growth” (in fact “several rapidly growing tumours”). Regarding her forthcoming surgery she weighed up what people always had to weigh up back in those pre-NHS times—what it was going to cost (forty guineas plus seven for the time in hospital, so £50 or thereabouts, some £2,150 in today’s money).
I suppose your bronchoscopy would have cost about forty guineas too ‑ and I must say it would have been cheap at the price, but what worries me is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money. On the other hand of course this thing will take a longish time to kill me if left alone and it will be costing some money the whole time.
She had discussed next to nothing of this with her husband, not wanting to prevent him travelling. And months before, she had downplayed her symptoms lest a cancer diagnosis stop the adoption.
“As the years went on,” writes Sylvia Topp, “Eileen increasingly understood how important Orwell’s work was, and she came to believe that it was even more important than her own health.” Throughout this book she makes a compelling case that Eileen, one of the first women to graduate from Oxford, typically set aside anything she might have wanted for herself the better to help “Orwell fulfil his destiny”, be that writing, adopting a child, or moving to the Inner Hebrides.
Had she not taken up with Orwell, she might have found success, if not fame, in her own right, possibly as an academic or a child psychologist. Her loss was Orwell’s gain, something neither he nor the majority of his biographers have properly taken on board. In abandoning her own ambitions and instead supporting those of her husband, Topp argues, Eileen made George Orwell, or leastways helped to make him.
Eileen Blair was born Eileen O’Shaughnessy in South Shields in 1905, to an Irish father, Laurence O’Shaughnessy, and an English mother, Mary Westgate. Orwell rarely mentioned Ireland, a country and people about which he had mixed feelings, occasionally hostile. (Hostile mainly during the war years on account of Irish neutrality, but otherwise not unsympathetic ‑ he largely accepted the republican narrative of Irish history, for example, referring to “the English occupation” of Ireland and describing the summary executions following the Easter Rising as “a crime and a mistake”.)
Orwell’s relative silence on matters Irish is puzzling for a number of reasons, but especially because he had, through Eileen, a substantial and direct link to the country, and to Irish people. And yet, to the best of my knowledge, he never once mentions, even in passing, his wife’s Irish background. Not once in scores of letters and diaries that fill hundreds of pages in the twenty-volume Collected Works does it crop up. And several Orwell biographers have been similarly quiet. Bernard Crick, say, who writes that Eileen was “of Irish stock” and leaves it at that, or Michael Shelden who says she was “from a proud Irish family who had come to England in the early nineteenth century and settled on the Tyneside”. Sylvia Topp, in contrast, has properly researched Eileen’s Irish family and here gives a fascinating account of it.
Eileen’s grandfather, Edward, was born in Limerick in 1827. In 1848, he joined what would eventually become the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Topp acknowledges the significance of that year, 1848 ‑ a Famine year and the year of the Young Ireland rising. She also gives some sense of this police force that Edward O’Shaughnessy joined ‑ that Irish Catholics like Edward, though they constituted the vast majority of recruits, tended not to rise high in it (in O’Shaughnessy’s time no higher than “full constable”, which doesn’t sound that high to me). There is a hint too of the force’s paramilitary nature ‑ more gendarmerie than police, its officers based not in police stations, as in England, but in police barracks. RIC officers could not serve in the county of their birth, nor marry a woman from that county. To be effective at what they did, they had to be of Irish Catholic society but disconnected from it. All in all this was an alien force, an innovation of the Westminster government that never quite took, that was never fully respected in the communities it policed, even though ‑ or perhaps because ‑ its rank and file was drawn from those communities.
Eileen’s father, Laurence O’Shaughnessy, was born in Co Kerry in 1866 and did not move to England until the 1880s, where he did well for himself, going up the grades in the Customs Department. It was an established and successful O’Shaughnessy that settled in South Shields with his English wife. By then he had become an Anglican and his children, Laurence junior and Eileen, were raised as Anglicans. (And I have been told that the O’Shaughnessy family of South Shields came to be regarded as the last word in middle class respectability.)
Laurence senior had six siblings, one of whom died in infancy. A brother, Edward, became London correspondent for the Irish Independent in 1905, its founding year. Another, Michael, became a prominent member of the London Irish community, prominent enough to warrant an obituary in the local newspaper in 1930. And one of his sisters, Margaret, became a nun in Texas, helping to found what is today the University of the Incarnate Word. Two other sisters ‑ Lizzie and Marianne ‑ remained in Ireland, where Eileen’s grandmother lived into the twentieth century. (She features in the 1901 census, still living in Valentia, in the household of her daughter Lizzie O’Shaughnessy, now Lizzie O’Donoghue. The census records that Eileen’s grandmother was a gaelgeoir). The upshot of this is that the Eileen O’Shaughnessy who married Eric Blair/George Orwell in 1936 was not Irish at some distant remove, but was generationally close to what was a typical Irish family, some of which was still in Ireland and some expatriate.
What is interesting, though, is how little contact there appears to have been between Laurence senior’s family in South Shields (his wife, Mary, and Laurence junior, and Eileen) and his Irish siblings, whether expat or still in Ireland. Laurence, for example, did not return to Ireland for his mother’s funeral in 1905 although this might have been because he was at that time based in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. As for Eileen, there is only one instance in this book of her having had any contact with the Irish side of her family. This was in 1925 when, aged around twenty and still an undergraduate, she stopped off in London to attend her cousin John Kingston O’Donoghue’s (Catholic) wedding. (O’Donoghue was the son of Eileen’s Aunt Lizzie, who had remained in Valentia and with whom Eileen’s grandmother Mary was living at the time of the 1901 census. There is no evidence that Eileen ever went to Ireland to visit her family there.)
Topp wonders if Laurence senior might have become alienated from his Irish family, perhaps because he was working for a branch of the British government. Or because he had married a Protestant, become one himself and had raised his children as Protestants. I suspect that if there was alienation, it was down to religion rather than career choice. An RIC family like the O’Shaughnessys could hardly have objected to a public servant in the family, and might well have welcomed his success.
Topp, however, includes the following, somewhat odd comment: “Even though John [Kingston O’Donoghue, the Irish cousin whose wedding Eileen had attended] worked in the British Civil Service, he kept his Catholic religion, unlike Eileen’s father.” There was certainly anti-Catholicism in Britain at the time but surely not enough that Catholics in the civil service would have felt obliged to convert, or even to conceal their religion. (Being a Catholic certainly didn’t hold O’Donoghue back. Researching him, I found that he went on to have a distinguished career in the British foreign service, one that included time in the Berlin and Washington embassies and that saw him feature three separate times on the New Year Honours List. Born before Eileen and, indeed, Orwell, he outlived them both, surviving until 1976).
If the Foreign Office was not markedly anti-Catholic, Orwell was notoriously so ‑ one of a number of his prejudices (“The Primrose Quarterly”, runs a burst of scornful third person indirect narration in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, “one of those poisonous literary papers in which the fashionable Nancy Boy and the professional Roman Catholic walk bras dessus, bras dessous”). And yet he married a woman whose family, on her father’s side, was Catholic and whose aunt, Margaret, was a nun, and quite a senior one. We cannot now know how Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who had been brought up in the Church of England (and like Orwell was buried according to its ritual) thought about Catholicism, which was the religion of much of her family. Certainly Orwell never mentioned this side of her, any more than he mentioned her Irishness. All in all, his wife’s background seems to have been a definite no-go for him.
But not so for others. Virtually everyone who knew Eileen O’Shaughnessy/Blair and who has been quoted in an Orwell biography or similar manages to get in some reference to her being Irish. Charles Orr, say, a member of the Independent Labour Party who knew Eileen in Barcelona, remembered her as having “a round Irish face”. Or her friend, Lydia Jackson, who later recalled: “Her Irishness was revealed in the ease with which [rather outlandish] remarks rolled off her tongue … with a slant and a degree of whimsicality all her own’. Or Denys King Farlow, one of Orwell’s Eton classmates: “I don’t know whether it was because her name was Eileen ‑ I thought she had a rather Irish look.” Or Ibsen scholar Michael Meyer, who recalled Eileen as “delightful ‑ Irish and pretty”. And so on.
What Eileen herself thought about her Irishness is not recorded, which is a pity. Were the South Shields O’Shaughnessys proud of their Irishness, as Michael Shelden says, or was it something they did not make a big deal of? We simply don’t know. But Irish ancestry was not always something people were open about in England at this time, or later. Blake Morrison recalls that he did not know his mother, who was born Agnes O’Shea, was Irish until relatively late in life. It was not something that was ever mentioned in the home when he was growing up. In his memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Morrison writes that his father had persuaded his mother to call herself Kim rather than Agnes, “not so much to seem chic and fifties … as to erase her rural Irish past. She had shed her name, abandoned her country and buried her Kerry accent …”
Eileen herself was known as “Emily Blair’ when she worked at the Ministry of Food during the war. In fact, she became so well-established under that name that her friend Lettice Cooper said, in a 1980s interview, “I find it difficult now to remember her as Eileen.” Topp speculates that Eileen changed her name, in part, to be independent of Orwell, akin to a woman reverting to her maiden name. Calling herself Blair, Topp suggests, meant Eileen could not be mistaken for the wife of the author. But I have to say, this seems unlikely. What connected Eileen to Orwell was the name “Blair”, so calling herself “Emily Blair” would not have masked the Orwell connection. (The dogs on the street knew George Orwell was Eric Blair ‑ it was no big secret.) But using her maiden name, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, would have done the trick. You’d have had to have been really in the know to know that Eileen O’Shaughnessy was Eileen Blair and therefore “Mrs George Orwell”.
I would surmise that Eileen took to calling herself “Emily” for her wartime government job because she thought Eileen too much of a giveaway of her Irish background at a time when there was some public hostility towards Irish people on account of neutrality. (Remember that it was Eileen’s forename that made Denys King Farlow “see” her as Irish.) She already had a suitably English/Scottish surname – Blair ‑ and to this she perhaps added a more English-sounding forename to complete the picture.
“Since the Comstocks were genteel as well as shabby,” narrates Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, “it was considered necessary to waste huge sums on Gordon’s ‘education’ … Meanwhile Julia, who was five years older than he, received as nearly as possible no education at all … Gordon was ‘the boy’ and Julia was ‘the girl’, and it seemed natural to everyone that ‘the girl’ should be sacrificed to ‘the boy’.”
“Natural to everyone” that boys should have an education in preference to girls, but not to the O’Shaughnessy family in South Shields. Eileen received similar educational opportunities to her brother, Laurence junior. She attended Sunderland Church High School and from there progressed, in 1924, to St Hugh’s College, Oxford to study English literature. By the standards of the time, this was exceptional. Only a minority of young people in Britain in the 1920s made it as far as an elite university, and only a tiny minority of that minority was female. Women students were thin on the ground at Oxford when Eileen went up. They were based in separate women’s colleges, which would be the norm until the 1970s, still had to be chaperoned, and were subject to a curfew. It was only four years since the university had allowed women to graduate. Until then, while women students could study at Oxford, they had done so without formal recognition. (Or recognition from Oxford anyway ‑ other universities, including, from 1904, Trinity College Dublin, did confer degrees on women students, giving rise to the odd situation whereby a woman might be studying at Oxford but registered for a degree somewhere else.)
After Oxford, Eileen had a number of jobs, including running her own typing agency, while she also worked, unpaid and uncredited, as a kind of editor for her brother Laurence, thereby helping advance his prodigious career as a surgeon. In 1934, however, she embarked on a second academic career, enrolling as a postgraduate student in educational psychology at University College, London, in a faculty headed by Sir Cyril Burt. Burt is depicted favourably here, both as someone who had demonstrated, against the then consensus, that girls were intellectually equal to boys, and who had, in addition, argued that all children, male and female, should have equal access to education. From Topp’s account, he was impressed by and supportive of Eileen.
It was through her psychology course that Eileen met Orwell ‑ a fellow student, Rosalind Obermeyer, was his landlady. And it was on account of her relationship with Orwell that Eileen did not get to complete the coursework for her psychology degree. Having moved to live with him at rural Wallington she could not complete her research because there weren’t enough schoolchildren in the village to make a big enough sample. At any rate, her life seems to have quickly settled into a round of domestic chores. Their cottage at Wallington – “The Stores” ‑included a small village shop and a patch of land on which they kept goats and hens. Tending to the shop and the animals, as well as cooking and cleaning, and supporting Orwell’s writing (through typing his manuscripts, for example) ate into Eileen’s time. As Topp comments, this was a relationship that mixed the unconventional and the conventional. The unconventional part of it was that they were living a kind of self-sufficiency to supplement Orwell’s small income from his writing; the conventional that it carried a significant, and routine, workload, much of which fell on Eileen.
Orwell, from everything we know of him, might not have minded much the conditions at the stores. This self-sufficiency probably suited him. In his writing, he is generally disparaging of luxury and leisure, favouring a more basic life with plenty of hard work in it. Even when Animal Farm was making him rich, he was living a simple life on Jura. And at Wallington, he, like Eileen, milked the goats, planted vegetables, served in the shop and so on. But that was not all he did, or even the main thing he did. Unlike the fictional Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell was a dedicated writer, putting in long hours and writing so much ‑ novels, reviews, essays, letters, diaries ‑ that hardly a day of his time is unaccounted for. Writing, he would later say, was for him a kind of calling, that it was in his nature to write and an affront to that nature not to write. And at Wallington, however much there was to do, he got to follow that calling whereas Eileen did not get to follow hers, becoming instead ancillary to his. A psychology student at a prestigious institution, working on child development just as that area of psychology was coming into its own, and with a mentor who was one of the best known of all English psychologists, she might have found her niche, her own renown.
On those few occasions that Eileen did branch out on her own she appears to have done well. During the war, for instance, when she worked for the Ministry of Information and, later, the Ministry of Food, where a career might have been in the offing. Or in Civil War Spain, where she enjoyed a busy working and social life ‑working for John McNair, the Independent Labour Party’s man in Barcelona and relaxing with a circle of friends that included journalists and spies; perhaps too an affair with the enigmatic Georges Kopp. (If Barcelona was for Orwell his spartan collective made real, it may have offered Eileen a more personal liberation, and options she might not up to then have considered.) It was Eileen who organised her own and Orwell’s escape from almost certain assassination‑ the official file on them said both were “rabid Trotskyists”. Both were certainly political. Orwell, of course, but Eileen, too. You do not, in the middle of a civil war, work for the Independent Labour Party, and socialise with its members, without sympathy for its principles. And it was Eileen, not her husband, who joined the Peace Pledge Union at the end of 1938.
Topp also suggests that Eileen influenced Orwell’s writing, and for the better. There was, she claims, a marked improvement in Orwell’s work after his marriage culminating in the books that established his reputation ‑ Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. Unlike Eileen, Orwell had not gone to university. This limited his exposure to modern writers‑ he liked Joyce and Henry Miller and was persuaded by expatriate Dubliner Michael Sayers to give Yeats another look, but generally he seems more comfortable with the writers who were in vogue when he was a schoolboy‑ Dickens, Housman, Gissing and Kipling ‑ and with canonical authors like Swift and Defoe. These influences naturally affected his prose, the early novels especially where the knowing narration is somewhere between Dickens and Gissing.
In contrast, Eileen, as a graduate in English, would have had a greater awareness of newer voices in English literature as well as a familiarity with concepts like structure and tone. Her awareness of these is something she might well have shared with Orwell, particularly as she read his work in draft. Where Orwell was largely home-made and self-taught in literature, Eileen was not, so I think that Topp is right to speculate that she had some impact on the direction of his writing after 1936.
Coming Up For Air was the novel Orwell worked on after his marriage to Eileen and in every respect it represents a marked step forward in his fiction. It was written over the six months Eileen and Orwell spent together in Morocco, a set-up likely to have promoted close co-working on the text. Topp points to the novel’s greater “light and colour” and better word choice. To this, I would add that, uniquely among Orwell’s novels, it has a first person narrator and one who is clearly not Orwell himself or even remotely like him. In Coming Up for Air, for once, Orwell imagines what life might be like lived in someone else’s skin. It is not something he had done previously or would do again. It is as if he has here consciously tried to break with past practice and challenge himself, or taken up someone else’s challenge.
Eileen’s influence on Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four is less clear cut. She certainly shared Orwell’s enthusiasm for the former. Lettice Cooper later recalled: “[Eileen] saw at once that it was a winner, the most attractive thing he’d done yet. And she used to tell us about it every morning when we were having our coffee.” Orwell himself wrote: “It’s 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.” “Planning” here seems vague and might allude to Eileen’s having persuaded Orwell to turn his growing concerns about Russia and the authoritarian potential in any socialist revolution into a fable. But the main influences on Animal Farm seem to have been literary. Gordon Bowker, in his Orwell biography, suggests: Thurber’s animal mini-stories (“The Very Proper Gander”, “The Owl Who Was God”, and so on); The Wind in the Willows; Ignazio Silone’s The Fox, which Orwell adapted for the BBC; and Gulliver’s Travels. I’d also suggest Gissing’s Demos, one of the earliest tales of an idealistic socialist commune taking a turn to the dark side.
As for Nineteen Eighty-four, I think Eileen’s greatest influence might have been her brief period working for the Press and Censorship Board at the Ministry of Information (the model for Nineteen Eighty-four’s Ministry of Truth). The board determined which newspapers could be exported and also scrutinised and censored post ‑ a massive surveillance operation. The board included a section with the suitably Orwellian name the Anti-Lie Bureau. This was charged with, among other things, finding and quashing rumours that might be corrosive of civilian morale.
Eileen did, as Topp notes, write a poem called “End of the Century, 1984”. And it does offer a markedly dystopian vision:
No book disturbs the lucid line
For sun-bronzed scholars tune their thought
To telepathic station.
Topp here detects a fear of technology and of clinical utopian societies, a fear that Orwell shared and gives full vent to in The Road to Wigan Pier. Elsewhere in her poem, Eileen has schoolchildren learning “useful sciences” in a “crystal palace”, all in a society where even the rain is regulated – “the rain that falls at its appointed season”. But this is more like Huxley’s dystopia than Orwell’s ‑ a contented and well-resourced society where everyone is healthy and yet also sick. Huxley is, in fact, referenced elsewhere in the text of the poem, which voices a scepticism towards the technology-driven future of a kind that was already widespread and already old. That Eileen’s poem references the year 1984 is, I think, coincidence. The poem was Eileen’s contribution to the celebration, in 1934, of the first fifty years of her old school in South Shields. It is for that reason that the poem looks forward to 1984, to the school’s centenary.
As for Orwell’s imagined 1984, only relatively late in the day did he settle on that year as the title for his work in progress (and Nineteen Eighty-four written out in full, not, he was apparently insistent, 1984). Prior to that, he had wavered between Nineteen Eighty-four and The Last Man in Europe. Winston Smith himself can only estimate that he is living in the year 1984. (WJ West, in The Larger Evils, argues that Winston has overshot and that the events of the book actually take place in 1982).
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the novel Orwell was working on around the time he met Eileen. Its protagonist, Gordon Comstock, is a poet who is not so much struggling as heading into freefall, and frustrated that his girlfriend, Rosemary, will not have unprotected sex with him. In the poem he writes over the course of the novel, there is an oblique but scornful reference to the condom, “the sleek estranging shield between the lover and his bride”.
Orwell too held conservative views on contraception. He would publish Comstock’s poem under his own name and, in The Road to Wigan Pier, lumps “birth control fanatics” in with the rest of his catalogue of cranks ‑ vegetarians, teetotallers, fruit-juice drinkers, nudists and so forth. Later, in “The English People”, he seethes at childlessness, proposing that the government discourage it with some suitably punitive taxation.
It seems likely that Orwell considered sex to be legitimate only if it included the possibility of pregnancy (“You must take your chance,” Comstock says to Rosemary by way of inept seduction). In “The Art of Donald McGill”, “childbed and the scrubbing brush” are set up as a kind of womanly equivalent of manly battleships going down with all guns blazing. And in Animal Farm, Clover, the “stout motherly mare … who had never quite got her figure back after her fourth foal” is offered in positive contrast to the flighty Mollie.
Orwell believed himself to be sterile but declined to be tested because “the examination is so disgusting” (presumably because it would involve masturbation, adult male masturbation being another Orwell no-no ‑ for a tetchy anti-Catholic, Orwell had a decidedly Vatican I morality). Even hysterectomies displeased him (“I had a phase of thinking that it was really outrageous to spend all your money on an operation of which I know you disapprove,” wrote Eileen in that letter of March 21st, 1945 when she was days away from a late and potentially life-saving hysterectomy).
In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Comstock muses (awkwardly) “How many girls alive wouldn’t be manless sooner than take a man who is moneyless?” This alleged materialism of women is another of that novel’s refrains, though with no significant attempt to understand or contextualise it. And yet Rosemary, when having succumbed to Comstock’s charms, she becomes pregnant is, as Topp observes, willing to bring up a child on her own. She says she will raise the child herself if need be rather than marry Comstock or have an abortion. (Abortion was another of Orwell’s red lines. “In the England of the last thirty years,” he rants in “The English People”, “it has seemed all too natural … that abortion, theoretically illegal, should be looked on as a peccadillo …”)
Although Daphne Patai, in her sharply observed The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology sees Keep the Aspidistra Flying as a gendered and, indeed, misogynistic narrative, a kinder reading might be that Orwell is, in Gordon, lampooning his own worst self and depicting, too, the woman he had decided to marry. Eileen’s influence is as clear as Topp says. In part an update of Gissing’s New Grub Street, Keep the Aspidistra Flying lacks the latter’s depth but also its relentless bleakness. “As Orwell was writing [its] closing pages,” Topp writes, “he was becoming more optimistic in his personal life.” Gordon and Rosemary’s “violent argument” is really “a merry war” and Gordon himself, far from being heroic, is ultimately ridiculous ‑ either talentless or with a talent he is too lazy and too self-loathing to develop. It is no great loss when, with fatherhood imminent (“once again things were happening in the Comstock family”), he ends his sabbatical from the conventional world and returns to advertising. If anything, his return is almost a homecoming.
No, it is not Keep the Aspidistra Flying, I think, that bristles with misogyny so much as Coming Up for Air, Orwell’s next novel and the first to be written after he got married. Its central character and narrator, George Bowling, has been married to Hilda for some fifteen years. It has been an unhappy union, right from the start when Bowling admits to having considered killing his wife. Now ageing and nostalgic for the England of his childhood, he complains that women “don’t want to have a good time, they merely want to slump into middle age as quickly as possible. After the frightful battle of getting her man to the altar, the woman kind of relaxes and all her youth, looks, energy and joy of life vanish overnight. It was like that with Hilda … within only about three years she’d settled down into a depressed, lifeless middle-aged frump.”
Opinions have differed as to how happy Orwell’s own marriage was after the initial glow (a glow that Keep the Aspidistra Flying possibly reflects) wore off.
Eileen’s friend Lydia Jackson would later claim, in her 1976 memoir A Russian Life, that “Eileen was not happy in that marriage from the very beginning” and that she had had doubts even before it. Jack Common, a writer and friend of Orwell, also thought the couple ill-matched. Topp, on the other hand, suggests that the first six months of the marriage were happy but that the Spanish Civil War got in the way (“Shan’t be kissing you under the mistletoe this Christmas” is how Orwell allegedly announced he was heading off to fight). Right up to the actual marriage Orwell continued a previous sexual relationship and for a time after the marriage he sent flirtatious letters to his long-time friend Brenda Salkeld (one of them opens with “Dearest Brenda” and ends “with much love and many kisses”, and at least one is a straightforward proposition). Lydia Jackson too would be propositioned by Orwell, via faintly unsettling correspondence. There were also affairs with the writer Inez Holden and Sally McEwan from Tribune, an alleged park bench tryst with Stevie Smith, and a story that he persuaded Eileen to allow him to visit a prostitute in Morocco.
That long letter Eileen wrote days before her death, suggests in places, a cathartic outpouring of disillusion long held back:
I don’t think you understand what a nightmare the London life is to me … every meal makes me feel sick … I can’t breathe the air …a ll these years I have felt as though I were in a mild kind of concentration camp … I like the Canonbury flat but I am suicidal every time I walk as far as the bread shop … I’ve been dressed every day since you went away but I’ve done very little else except give Richard most of his food and have him for his social between five and six …
But Orwell, in all the biographies, cuts a lonely figure once Eileen is out of his life, a man terminally ill and brooding at the way the world might go politically. There are sad stories of how he, rich and famous now, approached several women ‑ Celia Paget, Anne Popham, Sonia Brownell ‑ with (rejected) proposals of marriage before Sonia accepted on the second ask.
In the end, this book is a reminder, not just of how little we know of Eileen, but how much of her has had to be painstakingly excavated from the archive, and how much, even then, must now be left to speculation. There are photographs included here that Topp cannot say, with absolute certainty, are of her subject. Eileen might or might not have caught so-called Spanish Flu during the 1918 pandemic. As a student of English at Oxford in the 1920s, she might well have attended lectures by Tolkien and CS Lewis but there is no firm evidence. What little we have of Eileen’s writing suggests that she was capable of fine literary expression – “If you lunch in a restaurant”’ she writes in a letter home from Morocco, “the flies only show themselves as flies as distinct from black masses when they hurry out for a moment to taste a corpse on its way to the cemetery.” These are the same flies ‑ this is the same scene ‑ that opens Orwell’s well-known “Marrakech”: “As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.” “Taste a corpse” has the edge on this, I think, with its implicit blunt acceptance of the facts of death. In Coming up for Air, largely written at the same time, Orwell has Bowling favour a similar matter of factness about mortality when he fulminates at how modern suburbanites like their cemeteries well out of town and to talk euphemistically of passing away and falling asleep.
It wasn’t so in the old days. We had our churchyard plumb in the middle of the town, you saw the spot where your grandfather was lying and where some day you were going to lie yourself.
Eileen Blair is buried in the graveyard of St Andrew’s and Jesmond in Newcastle. Only with difficulty did a 2012 visitor discover the neglected gravestone. Perhaps, with the publication of this fine and engaging biography, that will change. That the book exists at all is because a few hundred people were prepared to crowdfund it. One reviewer has said they should all be proud of themselves. I second that unreservedly.
Thanks to Eileen McKeag, formerly of South Shields, now living in Belfast, who shared with me some very useful background information on Eileen and the O’Shaughnessy family. Martin Tyrrell’s five-week class on Orwell’s essays at Queen’s University, Open Learning, has had to be rescheduled and will take place after the current lockdown.