This is the story of George Orwell’s first wife, 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,’ he remarked that night, ‘that’s the kind of girl I would like to marry.’ 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, the couple’s narrow escape from the destruction of their London flat during a German bombing raid, and their adoption of a baby boy, this is the first account of the Blairs’ nine-year marriage, up until Eileen’s untimely death in 1945. 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.
The first account of this extraordinary woman offers a completely new perspective on one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
The book is built on original research supported by the Orwell Estate and Orwell Society, with all recent biographers of Orwell lauding the book. Peter Davison, the editor of the 20-volume set The Complete Works of George Orwell, provides a foreword.
For fans of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Vera: Mrs Nabokov by Stacy Schiff, Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom by Brenda Maddox.
Extract From Eileen : Chapter 5: A WHIRLWIND COURTSHIP
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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
At their next class together, Eileen told Rosalind that she had found Orwell “very interesting.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
Sylvia Topp has worked in publishing since college, starting as a copy editor on medical journals, then moving to freelance editing at major literary publishing houses. She was the long-time wife and partner of Tuli Kupferberg, a Beat poet who later was a co-founder, in 1964, of the Fugs, a legendary rock and roll band. Together Sylvia and Tuli wrote, edited, and designed over thirty books and magazines, including As They Were, 1001 Ways to Live Without Working, and Yeah! magazine. Sylvia joined the staff at The Soho Weekly News and later The Village Voice, before finishing her publishing career at Vanity Fair. Eileen is her first book. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.
Eileen: The Making of GEORGE ORWELL -SYLVIA TOPP.
‘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’Peter Stansky, co-author of Orwell: The Transformation
A most interesting biography … it 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’Gordon Bowker author of George Orwell
‘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