"Now that is the kind of girl I would like to marry!" George Orwell told a friend, the night he met Eileen O’Shaughnessy in March 1935, at a party he had uncharacteristically suggested hosting at his flat on Parliament Hill. Orwell was 31 at the time, the author of three not particularly successful books, still using his birth name, Eric Blair. Eileen was 29, an Oxford graduate, vivacious and exceedingly pretty, with what Orwell described as “a cat’s face”.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appShe had a mischievous sense of humour. Her friend Lydia Jackson recalled that, when she told you something amusing, her “eyes could dance… like a kitten’s watching a dangling object” even as “you knew that she habitually embroidered her stories”. She had “Irish colouring: dark hair, light blue eyes and [a] delicate white and pink complexion”, and was “rather gawky in the way she moved”.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appRecounting the evening to a friend, Eileen said she had been “rather drunk, behaving my worst, very rowdy.” Within a few weeks, Orwell had proposed. Eileen joked to Lydia: “I told myself that when I was 30 I would accept the first man who asked me to marry him. Well… I shall be 30 [this] year.”
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appShe gave up her postgraduate degree in psychology at the University of London and went on to share nine more years of a sometimes joyful, sometimes gruelling life with Orwell: at first subsisting happily with him in a Hertfordshire village where they grew vegetables and tended their own goats and chickens; then following him into the dangers of the Spanish Civil War; nursing him in Morocco after a severe bout of tubercular bleeding; surviving the Blitz with him; and all the while typing – and improving – his manuscripts. She believed completely in his genius as a writer, and their partnership through those years produced some of Orwell’s greatest works.
“Eileen was a dreamer. To marry Orwell and share his curious life-style [...] she had to have a streak of mystical dream,” concluded one of her UCL friends. Since her teenage years, she’d admired missionaries and saints, espoused self-denial and rejection of worldly greed. Orwell constantly pushed himself beyond what his body could stand – one old girlfriend remembered that he was always trying to be a “he-man” – and Eileen, too, tried to ignore her own sickly constitution, “a woman careless of creature comforts”, as her friends recalled. (David Astor, a friend of the couple, thought it was “occasionally uncanny… how much they seemed alike and how much they spoke alike”.)
Their dream was to subsist on their own produce, far from sophisticated city dwellers. Still unmarried, in early 1936 they found a tiny cottage, only 11 feet deep, 35 miles from London, in Wallington, a village in Hertfordshire. It was, as Orwell put it, “rather a pig in a poke” and had “absolutely no conveniences”. A four-mile walk from the nearest train station, the cottage was not wired for electricity, the outdoor privy – with a poorly functioning cesspool – “was a ramshackle-looking place” with ivy growing inside, the only running water came from a single cold-water tap, and the fireplace smoked. The doorway, variously remembered as three feet nine inches or four feet six inches high, was an obvious annoyance for Orwell, who stood at six foot four inches, and the whole structure was topped by a corrugated-iron roof. The garden, he reported, was “a wilderness of tin cans… I have dug up 12 boots in two days”.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appNeither Eileen nor Orwell were churchgoers, yet they agreed on an old-fashioned wedding at the village church – albeit, unconventionally, on a Tuesday. On the morning of June 9 1936, they walked hand in hand along the dirt lanes. They were two brilliant, privileged children who had always been treated as beloved heroes at home. Now, through romantic and self-inflicted hardships, they believed they were setting up a life independent of what Orwell called “the money-god”.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appFrom the beginning, Eileen had agreed that Orwell’s writing was the core around which all cottage life would revolve. In fact, she was at first disappointed not to be helping him more. For years she had acted as an assistant to her brother Eric, an eminent doctor, typing and editing his medical books (since, as she told a friend, he “had difficulty in putting his findings into clear language.”) Eileen was an exceptional typist – she could turn out a five-page letter with very few mistakes in utter darkness – and she soon convinced Orwell that he could be more efficient if he let her do some of his typing during the hours when he was tending the garden and looking after their goat, Muriel (named with Eileen’s sense of mischief after one of Orwell’s aunts, and later namesake of the goat in ).
Eileen covered the back of her typescripts with manuscript emendations. She was a perceptive critic, and Orwell took her suggestions seriously. He later told friends that she could have been a writer herself. Eileen’s friends observed immediately that she was improving Orwell’s work. Lettice Cooper wrote “there was a noticeable increase of light and colour in his writing” after meeting Eileen. Lydia told people: “I am certain that [Eileen’s] logic, her feeling for accuracy in the use of words influenced [Orwell], perhaps without his being aware of it, in improving his style of writing, which in earlier years had a certain crudity and calculated exaggeration, detracting from its power to carry conviction.” Richard Rees, although he didn’t think to credit Eileen, noticed “a striking change of mood” in Orwell’s work in 1936, the year of his marriage: it was the first occasion, wrote Rees, “on which one feels that he really looked at, saw, and paid attention to another human being”.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appEileen liked challenging Orwell, who was prone to dramatically overstating his beliefs. “That’s the kind of statement an irresponsible journalist would make,” she would tease him. Orwell, noted a friend, “rather liked being made fun of by Eileen. I don’t think George was an easy man to live with, but they did get on quite well.”
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appOrwell insisted on certain gentilities, even in their primitive life. As one guest remembered, he would “go around looking like a damn tramp during the day, but when dinnertime came he’d go upstairs and he’d wash himself and do his hair and he’d dress, and you’d sit down to the linen and all the rest”. Another recalled Orwell objecting “solemnly that the marmalade should have been decanted into a jam dish”.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appOn December 23 1936, Orwell surprised Eileen’s family with the news that he was leaving immediately for the Spanish Civil War. “With a wry smile,” recalled Lydia, he told Eileen, “Shan’t be kissing you under the mistletoe this Christmas.” Orwell left her in charge of , telling his agent: “In the event of any alterations being required in my manuscript or proofs before publication, my wife has my authority to make them on my behalf.” This Eileen did with aplomb, but when she had finished, she decided that she would much rather be in Spain.
She got a job in Barcelona as an English-French shorthand-typist to the Independent Labour Party politician John McNair, who had, she told a friend, “an unfortunate telephone voice and a quite calamitous prose style in which he writes articles that I perhaps shall type”. However, “If Franco had engaged me as a manicurist I would have agreed to that too.”
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appEileen stayed at the front with Orwell for three days, sleeping with him in the outbuildings of a farm. She later told his agent how she “was allowed to stay in the front line dugouts all day. The Fascists threw in a small bombardment and quite a lot of machine gun fire.” She added, “It was quite an interesting visit – indeed I never enjoyed anything more.”
Back in Barcelona, she typed up the notes that Orwell sent her from the front, written on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, even toilet paper. Then, on May 20, at 5am, a fascist bullet got him clear through the neck. One American remembered Orwell whispering: “I’ve had it. I’m done for. Please tell Eileen I love her.” But then he quickly felt “a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well”. Eileen rushed to his side, and had him moved to a hospital near Barcelona.
On June 15, Orwell was well enough to head back to the hills to get an honourable discharge. His timing could not have been worse. On June 16, the POUM party that he had been fighting for was declared illegal by the communists, and many of their friends were jailed. A report, found in Madrid’s archives 50 years later, listed Orwell and Eileen as “rabid Trotskyists”, and contained more than enough to justify their arrest. Eileen endured a harrowing late-night visit by six plain-clothes policemen, who confiscated Orwell’s notes. (She was later able to help him reconstruct them when he came to write Homage to Catalonia.)
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appIn getting Orwell’s travel papers while he hid in ruined churches, Eileen probably saved his life. Only later did he admit that “My wife really had the worst time, being in the middle of that awful nightmare of political intrigue.” A friend who met Eileen in Barcelona later recalled that, in her, he saw “for the first time the symptoms of a human being living under a political Terror”. Eileen became a pacifist: “War is fun so far as the shooting goes and much less alarming than an aeroplane in a shop window, but it does appalling things to people normally quite sane and intelligent… Hardly anyone can stay reasonable, let alone honest.”
Back in their English cottage, in March 1938, in the middle of the night, Orwell started haemorrhaging profusely from the mouth. It had happened before, but this time it wouldn’t stop. Eileen called her brother, a lung specialist, who told her what ambulance to call and what procedures Eileen should take in the meantime. When Orwell was diagnosed with tuberculosis, or “phthisis”, as they called it, he was placed in a Kentish sanatorium over the summer. Eileen promised to make the five-hour trip to see him every fortnight, and almost certainly did his typing in between visits. “No wonder that by the end of the summer Eileen looked thinner than ever,” noted Lydia.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appHer doctor brother insisted they spend the winter of 1938 in French Morocco. Eileen arrived with a high fever, which she assumed was a reaction to the vast colonies of mosquitoes that had welcomed them, since “Eric has eaten the same things [as I have] but hasn’t been bitten to any extent whereas I look as though I were made of brioches.”
They both disliked Marrakesh. “If you lunch in a restaurant the flies only show themselves as flies as distinct from black masses when they hurry out for a moment to taste a corpse on its way to the cemetery,” wrote Eileen. Orwell discovered a house they could rent about three miles outside of town, where he could write . The novel, which came out in June 1939, was a success. Eileen had been present throughout the whole process of creation, and her sense of fun in contemplating human nature is evident from the first page, with the narrator’s pride in his “new false teeth”, and goal of getting to the bathroom “just in time to shut the kids out”.
When they came back to England, Orwell began an affair with Lydia Jackson. He was never an advocate of monogamy, and Eileen understood that Orwell hadn’t promised to be faithful. She, in turn, had almost certainly had an affair in Barcelona with Orwell’s commanding officer, Georges Kopp, but Orwell had not reacted badly. He told friends that he did not suffer from sexual jealousy. Eileen, however, who suspected Orwell of concealing an affair, was “in a state of great frustration and anger”, according to Lydia.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appWhen war broke out, Eileen got a job in London at the Press and Censorship Bureau of the Ministry of Information. Her office was in Senate House, the 19-storey prison-like stone block that Orwell used as a model for the Ministry of Truth in , “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air”. Her experiences there over almost two years helped form some of the fears he later expressed in that novel. One of the first titbits Eileen passed on to him was, “It appears from reliable information that Sir O. Mosley [leader of England’s fascists] is a masochist of the extreme type in his sexual life.”
In June 1940, she learnt that her beloved brother Eric had died in Dunkirk. The gregarious Eileen “became almost mute,” a friend noted. “One saw in her visible signs of depression. Her hair was unbrushed, her face and body thin. Reality was so awful for her that she withdrew – the effects lasted perhaps 18 months.” Orwell tried to comfort her, but told a friend: “You know how it is, the seeming uselessness of trying to offer any consolation when somebody is dead.” In his diary, he wrote: “Now I feel so saddened… Everything is disintegrating.”
She still neglected herself in favour of Orwell’s health, talking “quite frankly” about what she called the “sweetish smell of decay” from Orwell’s “rotting lungs”, which was most intense in a confined room. When Orwell absent-mindedly ate both their rations of butter, Eileen didn’t mind. “It was most important for his health to have all the fat he could eat,” she explained.
But Eileen was deteriorating rapidly. “I have been ILL. Ever so ill. Bedridden for four weeks & still weak,” she wrote in December 1940. Her doctors were unable to discover her precise illness, and Eileen went on a playful rant: “They diagnosed cystitis and then they diagnosed nephrolithiasis & then they diagnosed Malta fever with ovarian complications & then they went all hush-hush while they diagnosed a tuberculous infection… They haven’t yet diagnosed cancer or G.P.I. [general paralysis of the insane], but I expect they will shortly.” Although it can’t be proved, it’s possible Eileen was suffering from endometriosis, about which very little was known in the Forties.
By 1942, things were looking up. Eileen had found a job she truly enjoyed, working as a liaison between the BBC, which broadcast Kitchen Front, and the Ministry of Food, which tested the programme’s recipes and edited the scripts. While at the BBC, Eileen threatened to resign to save a friend’s job. This rebellion against bureaucracy, a probable source for Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, was first fictionalised by Lettice Cooper in her 1947 novel Black Bethlehem, which she proudly acknowledged was a portrait of her friend Eileen.
For years Eileen had been urging Orwell to slow down his journalism. “I think it’s essential that you should write some book again,” she implored. In November 1943, he resigned from the BBC – “At present I’m just an orange that’s been trodden on by a very dirty boot” – and started work on Animal Farm. When Eileen got home from work in the evening, Orwell would read the parts he’d written to her and they would laugh together in bed – the warmest place in their London flat – as she came up with enthusiastic suggestions. There is a hint of her wit behind Mollie, the “pretty white mare” found “admiring herself in a very foolish manner” in the mirror, and Clover, “who had never quite got her figure back after her fourth foal”. And how many times had Eileen, with Orwell, suffered through a moment like the death of the carthorse Boxer? “A thin stream of blood had trickled out of his mouth… ‘It is my lung,’ said Boxer in a weak voice.’”
Eileen was not interested in claiming credit, but she confided to her family that Orwell had initially written a more traditional essay criticising totalitarianism and Stalin, an unpopular subject at that moment, since Stalin was helping the Allies defeat Hitler. It was Eileen who suggested rewriting it as an allegory.
On May 14 1944, Eileen and Orwell adopted an unwanted baby in Greenwich called Richard. Orwell took the tip of a burning cigarette to the birth certificate, attempting to obliterate his original surname, and they renamed him Richard Horatio Blair. David Astor believed that the couple “were renewing their marriage round their new child”. Lydia recalled visiting Eileen as she was “giving him his bottle. George was kneeling before her, entranced, rather in the manner of an adoring shepherd in a Nativity painting.” Lettice noticed that, after the adoption, Orwell “was transfigured with gentleness”.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appBut all the while Eileen was suffering from excessive vaginal bleeding that drained her energy. She told a friend that she was “in bed more than half the time”. Early in 1945, Orwell got an assignment from The Observer as a war correspondent and departed to Europe for two months. In early March, Eileen “was taken with a pain… I tried to have a drink in Selfridges but couldn’t and all sorts of extraordinary things then happened, but after a bit I got myself into the Ministry.” Her bleeding was so extensive and her condition so fragile that friends had to call for help. Eileen was finally ready to “deal with the grwoth (no one could object to a grwoth) I knew I had,” as she wrote to Lettice, using her typo for a stab at levity.
She decided she should send Orwell a telegram asking his permission to have a cheaper operation in Newcastle. “I had a phase of thinking that it was really outrageous to spend all your money on an operation of which I know you disapprove,” she wrote, and she wanted his “ruling”, since “I really don’t think I’m worth the money.” She was glad Orwell would miss “the hospital nightmare you would so much dislike”. As she told Lettice, “George visiting the sick is a sight infinitely sadder than any disease-ridden wretch in the world.”
On March 28, 1945 Eileen entered the Fernwood House nursing home in Newcastle all alone. She put on a brave face even though she received no mail from the friends she’d asked to write. In her final letter to Orwell, just before they wheeled her in for the operation, Eileen was still able to joke a bit, telling him she was “already enema’d, injected (with morphia in the right arm which is a nuisance), cleaned & packed up like a precious image in cotton wool & bandages”. Her writing then slurred as the morphine hit. “This is a nice room – ground floor so one can see the garden. Not much in it except daffodils and I think arabis but a nice little lawn. My bed isn’t near the window but it faces the right way. I also see the fire and the clock.”
This letter was discovered on the table beside her bed. Almost exactly 10 years after Eileen had first overwhelmed Orwell with her sparkling intelligence, she died on the operating table, of “cardiac failure whilst under an anaesthetic of ether and chloroform skilfully and properly administered for operation for removal of the uterus”.
“It was a terribly cruel and stupid thing to happen,” Orwell told his friends. “Things were just beginning to get better.” During the next two years he asked at least four different women to marry him. “It’s only that I feel so desperately alone sometimes,” he told one. “I have hundreds of friends, but no woman who takes an interest in me and can encourage me.”
He felt the loss of his tame typist, too. In 1948, when he came to write his next novel, Orwell was unable to find anyone willing to travel to the wilds of Jura in the middle of winter to finish typing his final draft. In the end, he decided to stay and do the “grisly job” himself. Propped up in bed with a fever, typing 5,000 words a day, he collapsed at the end, and in January 1949 he was taken to a sanatorium. He died a year later.
In 1934, a year before they had met, Eileen had published a poem called “End of the Century, 1984”. Only discovered in 2001, it begins:
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appSynthetic winds have blown away
Material dust, but this one room
Rebukes the constant violet ray
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appAnd dustless sheds a dusty doom.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appWrecked on the outmoded past
Lie North and Hillard, Virgil, Horace,
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appShakespeare’s bones are quiet at last.
2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appIt goes on to express Eileen’s distaste for sterile rationality, a modern world where “sun-bronzed scholars” without the need for books “know just what they ought”, leading to “mental cremation”.
When Orwell came to write his final and most famous novel, about a world in which the only accepted thought is prescribed by Big Brother, he gave it the title of Eileen’s poem. Nineteen Eighty-Four begins on April 4, the day after he had buried Eileen. In its opening sentence, he reprised the word “clock”, the last word in Eileen’s last letter to him.
Eileen: The Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp (Unbound, £25) is out on March 5. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the