By Sylvia Topp
The never before told story of George Orwell’s first wife, a woman who shaped, supported and even saved the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.
Friday, 13 April 2018
Three Orwell Family Members Speak Out About the Importance of Eileen
Richard Blair is the son Eileen and Orwell adopted in 1944
Why My Mother, Eileen, Matters
Sylvia Topp’s minutely researched biography of my mother, Eileen Blair, has been long overdue. Here was a woman whose influence over one of the great writers of the twentieth century has been overlooked, for reasons that are difficult to understand. There is no question that she was instrumental in guiding him when he was writing Animal Farm; they would discuss what he had written by day and she would make her comments, thus producing a book that has stood the test of time and been reprinted time and time again.
But her influence goes back to the day they met at a party and he told a friend that “this was the sort of girl I want to marry.” When they did marry, in June 1936, Eileen had to endure a degree of poverty and hardship that few people would have put up with. That she did was testimony to the strength of their love, albeit not necessarily in the conventional sense. When Orwell went to fight in Spain, Eileen joined him and experienced some of the privations he endured. She nursed him through his neck wound and his bout of tuberculosis. There is no doubt that she encouraged Orwell to continue writing whenever he could. At times, by all accounts, it was a stormy marriage, but she was always loyal.
During World War II, when working for the BBC, she became depressed at the death of her brother, Lawrence, but she also was very run down. In spite of this, she was persuaded by Orwell that they should adopt a baby, and this came about in May 1944. There is also no doubt that she very quickly became devoted to me, but sadly motherhood was cut short by her death in March 1945. So ended the life of a woman who has been ignored by successive biographers over the years, and we have to thank Sylvia Topp for addressing this serious shortfall, in her biography, Eileen: The Making of Orwell.
Quentin Kopp's Aunt Gwen was married to Eileen's brother, Eric O'Shaughnessy. Quentin was born in 1947, and his father, Georges Kopp, was Orwell's commander in Spain.
My family is closely connected to Eileen through her brother’s marriage to my Aunt, Dr. Gwen (Hunton) O’Shaughnessy. There have been many wonderful biographies of Orwell. There is a common feature of them all, which is that they have paid little attention to Eileen and the impact she had on Eric Blair, the man, and George Orwell, the author.
My Mother, Doreen Hunton, who married Georges Kopp, Orwell’s Commander in Spain, often spoke about Eileen. In addition to saying what a warm, friendly and very intelligent person she was, she spoke about her influence, in particular on the genesis of Animal Farm as an allegory. She also spoke about her influence on the development of Orwell’s rightly lauded plain clear English. Orwell is noted as the master of expressing complex ideas in accessible English.
My aunts and family friends who visited the family home on Croom’s Hill, Greenwich, all spoke about the warmth of the welcome and the lively conversations they had with Eileen, who spent a lot of time there, both before and after her marriage.
Sylvia Topp’s biography addresses these points and fills the gaps left by Orwell’s biographers. More than that, Sylvia’s indefatigable research over several years has uncovered all sorts of fascinating information of relevance to Orwell as well herself and her family’s history. Echoing my Mother, I would say that it is not possible to gain a full understanding of Orwell without understanding Eileen and her impact upon him as a person and an Author.
Catherine Moncure is the daughter Eileen's sister-in-law, Gwen O'Shaughnessy, adopted in 1943.
First and foremost I think that Eileen mattered just because she was the wife of a prolific writer who became the most highly regarded author of the 20th century. She enabled him to become that writer because she understood him, how he worked, and what he needed in order to achieve that greatness. She enhanced his writings by reviewing his manuscripts and encouraging (or influencing) him to add a more human touch to the characters. I want to say she brought “a softness” to his works.