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.
Monday, 5 March 2018
Why Eileen Matters
When I was 18, I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying and immediately fell in love with George Orwell. His anti-hero, Gordon Comstock, a wild, intense, mad poet, was another representation of the “angry young man” type I found attractive, just the kind of exotic boyfriend I was hoping to find. And I really admired Rosemary, Gordon’s girlfriend, too. She was an independent woman, not afraid to argue with and challenge her boyfriend’s assumptions. And she didn’t believe she had to wait until marriage to explore sex with a man, a literally forbidden thought in 1950s families like mine. When I learned that Rosemary was mostly based on Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Orwell’s girlfriend at the time, and later his wife, I was entranced. Just who was this Eileen? I wondered.
I had raised my own family, and read all of Orwell’s books, before I seriously tried to answer that question. A few of Eileen’s letters had survived, revealing a wise, whimsical woman with an ability to tease and to challenge conventional thinking. And the Orwell biographies detailed some quite heartbreaking notes she had written to Orwell in the weeks before her sudden, tragic death at age 39, in the middle of a botched hysterectomy. One biography had left an enticing quote for me to ponder: 'One cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of Eileen O'Shaughnessy in the life of Eric Blair, and hence of George Orwell. Her influence upon him was profound, in his life and his work.' Where could I find the evidence for that? I asked Christopher Hitchens if he would recommend a biography of Eileen and, after telling me that none existed, he encouraged me to go ahead with this pursuit myself.
Eileen was 29 when she met Orwell at a party, and they fell in love immediately. She had earned a degree in English Literature from Oxford University, had published some writing of her own, had run a typewriting agency for years, and was editing her brother’s medical articles. But then, even as she was on her way to a successful career in psychology, Eileen shocked her friends and family by suddenly choosing to devote her own creative and intuitive talents to helping this man she hugely admired. Orwell, age 31, working part-time in a bookstore and still calling himself Eric Blair, had published three novels, none of them widely read. But things started changing rapidly for him. He quit his job and began devoting all his time to becoming a successful author. As Eileen began helping to type his work, she would add occasional suggestions for improvement on the back of each page, and he paid attention. Eileen was Orwell’s wife for nine years, and with her at his side, Orwell went on to write most of his best-known and greatest essays and novels. It became very clear to me that her profound influence on his creative work had been neglected.
Eileen died in 1945, just before Animal Farm was published, and therefore just before Orwell became world famous. As a result, some scholars minimized her importance in his life. However, family members today insist that framing Animal Farm as a fable was Eileen’s idea. Friends from the 40s remembered her regaling them with scenes from the book each morning at work, scenes that she and Orwell had been laughing about in bed on the cold winter nights as they worked on the book together. And Animal Farm is indeed suffused with whimsical sections that reverberate with the playful prose evident in Eileen’s fanciful letters, a type of humor not seen in Orwell’s other work. Even some of the most remembered lines seem more likely to portray the outlook of a clever woman than a man. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” one of the most remembered lines in Animal Farm, is a thought women have often shared. Orwell himself later credited Eileen with playing an important role in the writing of that book. But when it was finished, he had referred to it in an off-hand manner, apparently unaware of how important a work it actually was.
Eileen’s futuristic poem, 'End of the Century, 1984', was published the year before she met Orwell, and the title of his final great novel was a tribute to Eileen. There is no doubt that, had she been there to type the last draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four, at his side with her continued devotion, Orwell would have survived at least a few years longer. Eileen never regretted her choice to dedicate her talent to helping Orwell develop his.
As I looked more and more deeply into Eileen’s choices and sacrifices, it seemed to be my task to finally get her the recognition I knew she deserved. And I’m extremely proud to now be praised as the person who has 'not only brought Eileen in from the shadows, but has given her full credit for her contributions to Orwell's late great novels,' as one Orwell biographer recently wrote.
I'm so proud to have three acclaimed George Orwell biographers praise Eileen: The Making of Orwell.
Gordon Bowker, who published his biography, George Orwell, in 2003, says:
Sylvia Topp has written a most interesting biography of George Orwell's first wife, Eileen. Her researches have turned up some remarkable material from various semi obscure sources. And she has made especially good use of the testimonies of Eileen’s friends and her BBC records. Ms Topp has written a book in a plain crystalline prose particularly suitable to her subject, and has not only brought Eileen in from the shadows, but has given her full credit for her contributions to Orwell's late great novels. An excellent read, especially rewarding for Orwell scholars.
D.J. Taylor, who published George Orwell: The Life, in 2003, says:
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.
And Peter Stansky, who co-authored Orwell: The Transformation, in 1980, says:
One cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of Eileen O'Shaughnessy in the life of Eric Blair, and hence of George Orwell. Her influence upon him was profound, in his life and his work. It's now splendid to have her biography.
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