Eileen: The Making of Orwell is the first on this extraordinary woman who has been until now unjustly overlooked. It examines the Blairs' nine year marriage, from a tiny village where they grew vegetables and tended their own goats and chickens, through the dangers of the Spanish Civil War, nursing George in Morocco after a severe bout of tubercular bleeding, narrowly escaping the destruction of their London apartment in World War II, and even adopting a baby boy when it became apparent that they were unable to have their own child. And their partnership produced some of the greatest works in English literature.
“Now,” George told a friend the night he met Eileen O’Shaughnessy, “that’s the kind of girl I would like to marry.” The year before, Eileen had published a futuristic poem called "End of the Century, 1984." Later, George would name his greatest work, 1984, in homage to the memory of Eileen.
When Sylvia Topp fell in love with George Orwell, she became curious about Eileen, and was surprised to find very little information concerning his first forgotten wife. She asked Christopher Hitchens, a fellow Orwell admirer and co-worker at Vanity Fair, if a book on Eileen existed. "I'm pretty sure that field is clear: what an excellent idea," Hitchens said. Sylvia endeavoured to write the book Eileen’s life deserves. This is it.
The book is a vivid picture of bohemianism, poverty, political engagement and sexual freedom in the 30s and 40s, with an undertow of sadness. This touching story offers a completely new perspective on Orwell himself.
Chapter 5: A WHIRLWIND COURTSHIP
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
The poem "You, You, You," shown in full text below, is written by Tom Kelly, a poet who lives in South Shields, the town where Eileen grew up.
Tom writes, "I did not know of Eileen Blair prior to researching her life and times for Gary Wilkinson’s film, ‘Wildflower.’
I began to walk in her footsteps,
‘I see you as bairn in South Shields,
running into your father’s arms on King Street…
An Extract from Chapter 4: BETWEEN OXFORD AND ORWELL
Eileen’s high school in Sunderland celebrated their fiftieth anniversary, in 1934, with gatherings and dinners both on the school grounds and in London. In advance, looking ahead to the school’s one-hundredth anniversary, she wrote a poem which she titled “End of the Century, 1984,” and it was published in the Sunderland High School magazine…
These people are helping to fund Eileen: The Making of Orwell.