A biography of George Orwell’s first wife Eileen has long been overdue. Thankfully the wait is over. If only for finally putting into context Eileen’s influence as well as many contributions to her husband’s masterpieces, Sylvia Topp’s book has the feel of revelation. For it turns out without Eileen Shaughnessy at his side, Orwell might never have written Animal Farm or 1984, at least not as we know them.
Topp’s meticulously researched book brings to life a quite remarkable character in her own right. Eileen Shaughnessy, as her husband always remarked, could easily have been a great writer, but recognising the latent genius of Orwell, decided instead to support his writing career: editing, typing, proof-reading and plenty of feedback and criticism, Topp makes a compelling case that Eileen’s input into her husband’s cannon of work was very considerable.
Having shone at Sunderland grammar school Eileen earned a place at Oxford where she too excelled. Introduced to the shabby writer Eric Blair at a party held at 77 Parliament Hill, Hampstead, the pair hit it off immediately. ‘That’s the kind of woman I’d like to marry.’ Orwell uttered this famous remark upon setting eyes on Eileen that spring evening in 1935. Soon enough the pair became inseparable. For the next decade Eileen became Orwell’s rock.
Indeed what comes across in Topp’s book more than anything else is the woman’s stoicism. When, after having recently married, Orwell decided to fight in the Spanish civil war, Eileen dutifully followed. Theirs was a nomadic existence. However, thanks to her own attributes Eileen settled down well in Barcelona while her husband fought at the front – or what was supposed to be a front of sorts.
Uncomplaining to the end, Eileen comes across as a superwoman throughout this book. It’s almost impossible not to admire her. So when Orwell decided to pursue his dream of self-sufficiency in a dilapidated old cottage, despite any reservations she may have had Eileen made the best of it. Pursuing their rural idyll was not easy for the Blairs. Eileen’s response was to roll up her sleeves and share in her husband’s obsession with goats and chickens. A quite remarkable woman.
The couple’s Moroccan sojourn is also chronicled. Though suggested as a curative for Orwell’s notoriously bad lungs, the six-month trip turned into somewhat of a nightmare with Eileen herself for the first time showing signs of illness. Indeed, between the cottage, London, her family in Norfolk, his in Suffolk, the Blairs lived a peripatetic existence, one which the Second World War made even more chaotic. How on earth did she cope, Saint Eileen?
It comes as quite a surprise to realise ‘1984’ had been originally used in the title of a poem by Eileen and that one of her pet names she had was ‘pig.’ Without labouring the point, Topp reminds the reader that Eileen was something more than just her husband’s typist. Her imagination was fertile even if her body was not. The Blairs difficulties to conceive a child during their 10-year marriage was yet another cross they had to bear.
Topp also chronicles Orwell’s many affairs. It seems the couple had an agreement, an open marriage of sorts though it seems more his idea then hers (isn’t it ever?). Though not conventionally pretty, Eileen attracted plenty of male attention. One can’t help ask a question throughout this book: was she really unconventional or was this a woman going along with her husband’s many whims? Certainly, Orwell the man comes across much less sympathetically here than in the biographies of Crick (George Orwell: A Life) and Woodcock (Orwell: The Crystal Spirit).
Even for the keenest of Orwell fans, Topp’s book is full of surprises. Her work on BBC cookery programmes as an editor and producer during the war comes as a surprise – a role where her creative energy came into its own. Letters from the time reveal a woman brimming with vitality, ironic, playful and full of wit. No wonder Orwell felt he’d met his soul mate on that magical Hampstead night.
Eileen’s premature death at the age of just 39 was too tragic for words. Perhaps it was a natural Irish fatalism, but her final letters are unbearably prophetic. Writing from the sanatorium where it appears she was about to undergo hysterectomy, she effectively makes her last will and testament. Her last letter, written moments before the operation, considers the possibility of dying on the operating table . . .
Orwell, away at the time as usual, received the letters only after her death, which occurred precisely as she had envisaged - on the operating table. She had been much more poorly than anyone had realised – her husband included. Her withered body simply could not cope with the anaesthetic and her heart gave out.
This is not just a book about George Orwell’s wife. It is much, much more than that. This is a biography about a truly remarkable woman who sacrificed herself so her husband could achieve his destiny. Between them, this couple bequeathed a message for humanity, a joint effort. Thanks to Topp Eileen Blair can at last emerge from out of her husband's shadow.