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Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s first wife, has always been something of a black hole at the centre of Orwell Studies. Sylvia Topp’s painstaking researches have breathed life into this enigmatic figure, and all Orwell fans owe her a huge debt of gratitude
D. J. Taylor, author of George Orwell: The Life

Eileen: The Making of George Orwell

Sylvia Topp
Status: published
Publication Date: 05.03.2020
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Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s first wife, has always been something of a black hole at the centre of Orwell Studies. Sylvia Topp’s painstaking researches have breathed life into this enigmatic figure, and all Orwell fans owe her a huge debt of gratitude
D. J. Taylor, author of George Orwell: The Life

This is the never-before-told story of George Orwell's first wife, Eileen, a woman who shaped, supported, and even saved the life of one of the twentieth century's greatest writers.

In 1934, Eileen O'Shaughnessy's futuristic poem, 'End of the Century, 1984', was published. The next year, she would meet George Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, at a party. 'Now that is the kind of girl I would like to marry!' he remarked that night. Years later, Orwell would name his greatest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in homage to the memory of Eileen, the woman who shaped his life and his art in ways that have never been acknowledged by history, until now.

From the time they spent in a tiny village tending goats and chickens, through the Spanish Civil War, to the couple's narrow escape from the destruction of their London flat during a German bombing raid, and their adoption of a baby boy, Eileen is the first account of the Blairs' nine-year marriage. It is also a vivid picture of bohemianism, political engagement, and sexual freedom in the 1930s and '40s.

Through impressive depth of research, illustrated throughout with photos and images from the time, this captivating and inspiring biography offers a completely new perspective on Orwell himself, and most importantly tells the life story of an exceptional woman who has been unjustly overlooked.


As Eileen and Lydia walked up Parliament Hill Road to the last house before the climb onto Hampstead Heath, Lydia slipped and her knee started bleeding. So she was in “a far from festive mood” as they neared the house where the party was being held. But that was not uncommon for her. Her husband had recently left her for another woman, which had shocked and depressed her, and Eileen might even have had to persuade her friend to venture out that night. Eileen, who would turn 30 soon, hadn’t yet found anyone she cared enough about to marry, and she’d been intrigued when Rosalind had promised they would meet some published authors at the party. Being occasional writers themselves, she and Lydia were curious enough to make the long trip, although neither of them had heard of the two authors mentioned, Richard Rees and George Orwell.

The party soon spread from Orwell’s small room into Rosalind’s larger quarters across the hall. When Eileen and Lydia entered what Lydia remembered as a “sparsely furnished and poorly lit” room, they noticed in particular, among the dozen or so guests, two very tall men “draped over an unlit fireplace” in deep conversation. Lydia was not at all impressed with their appearance, saying, “Their clothes were drab and their faces lined and unhealthy.” Russian was her native language, and she went on to elaborate that they looked, “in Chekhov’s immortal phrase, rather ‘moth eaten.’ ”1 However, the description “moth-eaten” does not appear in the English versions of any of Chekhov’s plays. It has recently been suggested that this was Lydia’s own translation of “oblezly barin,” as used in The Cherry Orchard, meaning literally a “shabby-looking gentleman.”2

One of these tall men stopped in mid-conversation to admire Eileen as he watched her for a moment from across the room. He then quickly approached her and introduced himself as Eric Blair, the name Orwell still used with his friends and for all his writing except his novels. Orwell must have been remembering this electric moment when he wrote, a few years later, that some beautiful images in Yeats’s poetry could “suddenly overwhelm one like a girl’s face seen across a room.”3 Lydia didn’t record what she did the rest of the evening, but Rosalind noticed that Orwell “paid a good bit of attention to Eileen,” and that Eileen welcomed it.4 It’s significant, considering later events, that when seeing the two women for the first time Orwell immediately chose Eileen. Perhaps his first preference for her helped shape Lydia’s early distaste for the man.

Eileen and Orwell had both spent years deliberately disregarding expected conventions, and they liked each other immediately. Just her name, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, was delightful. Gwen, who had married Eileen’s brother, joked that his surname had been one of his main attractions. And their adopted daughter, Catherine, regretted having to give up the O’Shaughnessy name when she got married.5 Although Eileen grew up under her mother’s Church of England beliefs, her Irish Catholic father had a stronger influence on her personality. Besides inheriting his good looks, she had an Irish sense of playfulness. As Lydia noted, “One could never be certain whether she was being serious or facetious…. Her Irishness was revealed most clearly in the ease with which [rather outlandish] remarks rolled off her tongue … with a slant and a degree of whimsicality all her own.” 6 Orwell shared and appreciated her wry sense of humor. As one friend summed it up, “Orwell’s genuine streak of old-fashioned conventionality sometimes bordered on whimsy and you could not always be quite certain if he was serious or not.” 7

Eileen and Orwell spent the evening in earnest conversation. He had his three published novels to brag about, although he was still poor enough at 31 to be working part-time in a bookshop. And she had many Oxford tales to charm him with, including her in-depth knowledge of Chaucer, whom Orwell loved, as well as her interactions with Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, both of whom had become well-known since their time as her tutors. Their evening together was also punctuated with joyous laughter because, as Eileen told a friend, she was “rather drunk, behaving my worst, very rowdy.” 8 As Eileen revealed much later, in those early years she had a capacity for large amounts of alcohol, regularly drinking “four glasses of sherry, half a bottle of claret and some brandy.”9 Perhaps she was the first woman Orwell had met who really appreciated his dry wit. Her self-described party personality shows clearly the charm she could turn on with ease, and Orwell was love struck immediately.

When the party ended and he had returned from walking the guests down the hill to nearby buses and trains, Orwell excitedly told Rosalind, “Now that is the kind of girl I would like to marry!” Rosalind, who perhaps had this partnership in mind when she invited Eileen, “was delighted to hear this, as [she,] too, felt they had much to give each other.” She described Eileen as “a very attractive, very feminine Irish woman, with lively interests and [a] gay, infectious laugh.” Orwell was thrilled when Rosalind suggested inviting Eileen to dinner the next time she saw her at school.10

At their next class together, Eileen told Rosalind that she had found Orwell “very interesting.” 11 She was already reading Burmese Days, Orwell’s second book, most likely at his suggestion. His third book, A Clergyman’s Daughter, had been published a few months earlier, and although it had received more favorable reviews than he expected, Orwell was quite critical of it himself, while Down and Out in Paris and London, his first book, was a wild, original creation that he perhaps feared Eileen might not appreciate. Burmese Days had recently been published in America, though not yet in England, and Orwell had received very positive reviews for it. Geoffrey Gorer—a social anthropologist who would later become a close friend of the couple’s—wrote, “It seems to me an absolutely admirable statement of fact told as vividly and with as little bitterness as possible.”12 And Orwell’s Eton classmate Cyril Connolly recommended it “to anyone who enjoys a pate of efficient indignation, graphic description, excellent narrative, excitement, and irony tempered with vitriol.” 13 As she read this novel, Eileen realized right away that she had met a man with the potential of becoming a great writer.

Eileen agreed to meet Orwell again, and Rosalind remembered that “our small dinner-party two days after was a very gay affair. I left them quite soon (after the meal) in my sitting-room and went out to near-by friends.” 14 Left alone, as Rosalind had so wisely allowed, Eileen and Orwell continued to explore their initial intrigue with each other. Orwell realized that at last he’d met a woman who was his intellectual equal, perhaps the most intelligent woman he would ever know, a woman who had actually gone to Oxford while he had “wasted” those years as a policeman in Burma. She had the education and background to be able to take him and his writing as seriously as he did, one of his most important requirements in a wife.

Eileen was glad to have found a man who was not intimidated by her intelligence, a man with as complicated a past as her own. As one of her friends remembered, “She had the kind of mind that was always grinding. She was interested in most things, but especially in people.” 15 And of course Orwell also had an exceedingly “grinding” kind of mind. Eileen was just finishing her first year toward an M.A. in psychology, and the sometimes gloomy Orwell would have presented an intriguing personality to explore. She shared his humorous, skeptical approach to the inanities of the world, and they both loved twisting language in teasing ways. Although he was often deliberately provocative, Eileen was capable of countering with her own quips when his exaggerations were too extreme, and he enjoyed her attempts to outwit him. Her friends thought she understood people better than Orwell did, and had an equal and ubiquitous range of interests.

Eileen sensed right away that Orwell “had something else, something other than literary genius, which made him a very remarkable man,” 16 as one of his closest friends thought. Eileen shared Gorer’s belief that Orwell “was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known. I was never bored in his company.” 17 Connolly said, “You have this feeling that you’re in the presence of a great man without being able to say why. I mean he’s just outside the ordinary human failings.” 18 And Eileen agreed. Even Lydia, who at first believed, “It must have been his outspokenness that attracted her,” eventually understood Eileen’s fascination. “George talked in a way that intrigued [Eileen], interested her, because he was an unusual person.”19 A friend of Eileen’s who didn’t really care for Orwell admitted that nevertheless he possessed an “intense charm that was difficult to define.” 20 He “projected more than most writers the image of a deeply moral man,” 21 another friend believed, the kind of personal morality that Eileen shared and highly valued. When Orwell summed up Dickens as a writer who “is laughing, with a touch of anger to his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry … a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls,”22 he could well have been describing the man Eileen quickly fell in love with.

These two extremely intelligent but restless people, immersed in their separate searches for fulfilling futures, had miraculously found each other at an auspicious moment. Before they met, they had each been drifting from mate to mate and from one life choice to another, but shortly after they met, they became an almost inseparable couple, with a combined and evolving life goal.

At first Eileen would meet Orwell on Sundays at his room on Parliament Hill, but there was very little privacy for them there. According to one friend, Orwell was not much of a housekeeper. His small room was “not merely dingy, but rather sordid. Half-eaten food lying around and very dusty.”23 His sister Avril complained that, when he got back from Burma, after getting used to having servants there, he would throw matches and cigarette stubs on the floor and expect others to sweep them up. 24 But, then, Eileen had always been messy herself, so perhaps she didn’t notice. Instead of worrying about the dust, Orwell would concentrate, as Rosalind remembered fondly, on “a butterfly in his room, or in the movements of a caterpillar he had found on his windowsill.” 25

The fact that Eileen and Rosalind were students in classes together would have made meeting at her apartment awkward, forcing them to whisper their developing love. So they began packing a rucksack on Sunday afternoons and taking the train to the country for the long walks so exquisitely recreated in the novel he was in the midst of writing, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. In his book, he romantically had Gordon and Rosemary, the two lovers, lie in each other’s arms on the bare ground, crushing the fragrant wild flowers in the woods. Apparently, he and Eileen often took “shooting sticks” with them on their walks, objects which opened up into small chairs, with one pointed end stuck deep into the earth—a rather prim contraption used by privileged people to avoid sitting directly on the grass.26 But Orwell and Eileen, within the privacy of the countryside, also spent enticing moments entwined on beds of wild flowers.

Eileen was an exceedingly attractive woman whom most men would notice right away. Orwell told people she had “a cat’s face,” which Lydia elaborated on, saying, “It was rather short, soft in outline, the nose slightly uptilted, the eyes large and round with a look of disarming innocence. Those eyes could dance with amusement, like a kitten’s watching a dangling object.” 27 There are very few photographs of Eileen, but after she came into Orwell’s life, many friends commented on her looks. Denys King-Farlow, an Eton classmate, described her as “pretty and dark-haired—I don’t know whether it was because her name was Eileen—I thought she had rather an Irish look.” 28 Connolly found Eileen “very charming … intelligent … and she loved him, and she was independent, and although she didn’t wear make-up or anything like that, she was very pretty,” 29 and Gorer remembered her as “one of those plain women who give you the impression of being beautiful—serene and yet vital, calm yet animated.” 30 Even sometimes critical Humphrey Dakin, the husband of Orwell’s older sister, thought Eileen was “a good-looking woman of character (not warmth) and assurance.”31 Dakin’s son, Henry, who lived with the couple for a few weeks in London during the war, took note of Eileen in the way a young man would, and he now recalls that when she decided to dress up Eileen could become “quite dazzling.” 32

Because Orwell had always chosen intelligent girlfriends, a more important requirement for him than physical beauty, one friend claimed he had an “incredible taste for ugly girls, not just plain girls, but absolutely downright ugly girls, with warts, pimples, anything going.” 33 But, in fact, Orwell’s girlfriends were never ugly. He was “absolutely not seduced by second-rate glamour,” Sonia Orwell said years later. Instead, he was “attracted to character and performance.” 34 But the fact that Eileen was pretty certainly didn’t bother him. When Lydia was surprised by Eileen’s “exceptional thinness,” she said, “I felt sorry for her and wondered what kind of man would lust after a body as ethereal as that.” 35 But, according to another friend, one woman Orwell had been seriously attracted to before Eileen “was a little trollop he picked up in a café in Paris [who] was beautiful and had a figure like a boy … and was in every way desirable.”36

Gorer believed that “Orwell was a lonely man until he met Eileen, a very lonely man. He was fairly well convinced that nobody would like him, which made him prickly.” 37 Muggeridge thought the “division between the romantic lover and the wry realist made [Orwell’s] relations with women difficult.” 38 And, indeed, Orwell always claimed he was unattractive to women. But that was likely a ploy for sympathy, since he never had any difficulty finding girlfriends. He was the kind of shy, slightly awkward man whom many women are drawn to. “You mustn’t underestimate how attractive he seemed—so tall, so austere, so withdrawn, so puritanical, so unlike most of the other men who overdid it, who overwooed,” Sonia Orwell—the woman whom he married shortly before he died—said, “so gnarled, so totally sexy without trying to be in any way.” 39 He had a rare ability to convince his girlfriends that he found them special, almost hypnotizing them with the haunting, piercing blue eyes that gaze out from his photos. And, contrary to some assumptions, he was very careful about his personal looks, choosing just the right sort of casual clothes, wearing his Sean Penn hair rather long and unruly, and sporting that thin Hollywood-style moustache of the thirties popularized by William Powell and Clark Gable. Throughout his adult life, Orwell continued to order custom-made clothes from the family tailor in Southwold: pairs of flannel trousers and sports jackets—even pajamas and overcoats—all fashioned from the best materials. As the tailor recalled, “It dates back to the 1920s when we first made clothes for him here,” and “from that time we went on making clothes until he died. He kept in touch all the time.” He continued, “We kept patterns for him here so if he wrote in and said he wanted anything specially made, well they were just … sent off to him.” 40 Unfortunately, “He was one of those people who put on a suit and don’t look well-dressed even when they put it on new,” 41 his tailor recalled. This man assumed that Orwell wasn’t as poor as he claimed, considering how much he spent on clothes. Perhaps his family continued to pay his clothing bills as they always had, and somehow that didn’t count to him as part of being self-sufficient.

One girlfriend said Orwell was good company on their walks, often discussing unusual topics, although, she added, “he could be a bit boring at times.”42 Perhaps Eileen, at least at first, found him constantly fascinating. Orwell was at that time engrossed in composing an epic poem inspired by his love of Chaucer, 43 and Eileen, with her degree in ancient English, was able to admire as well as critique his efforts. She had learned to love Wordsworth’s poetry at Oxford, and Orwell resembled in many ways Wordsworth’s glorious description of a poet as a person “endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind.”44 Eileen had her early poetry printed in school magazines, along with a few humorous articles in the London Evening News, and she had just published her poem “End of the Century, 1984” the year before. She was justifiably proud of it and certainly gave it to another aspiring poet to read. It contained pessimistic projections about the future that Orwell shared, and her talent and ideas impressed him. He later told friends that she could have had a successful literary career on her own.45 This poem was not discovered until 2001, after many Orwell biographies had gone to press. So those authors weren’t aware of the obvious connection between the title of her poem and the title of his great last novel, 1984. Scholars were forced to come up with wild guesses about why he had chosen that title, including the idea that he had simply inverted the numbers of the year 1948, one of the many years during which he had worked on the novel. But, with this new knowledge, it’s hard today not to accept that Orwell’s final choice of title for his final book was a tacit tribute to Eileen’s memory.

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