Many things contributed to the making of George Orwell — his awful prep school; then Eton; then his service with the Indian Imperial police in Burma, which opened his eyes to what imperialism meant; then his resignation from the police and self-imposed penance, chronicled in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). So Sylvia Topp’s claim that marriage to Eileen O’Shaughnessy was the making of him is unduly grandiose. All the same, her book is a revelation, because it sees things from Eileen’s viewpoint and shows that Orwell persistently failed to do so.
Eileen, born in 1905, came from a well-off family in South Shields. She became head girl at Sunderland Church High School, wrote poetry and won a scholarship to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she read English. She wanted to be an academic, but got only a second-class degree, so drifted through various jobs, started her own typewriting agency and signed on for an MA in educational psychology at University College, London. It was at a party in the spring of 1935, given by another psychology student, that she met Orwell, and they were married on June 8, 1936.
Orwell was not a happy man, but he was marginally happier when away, preferably far away, from his fellow human beings. The marital home he chose for himself and Eileen was a dilapidated cottage in a remote Hertfordshire village. There was no electricity; the only running water was a cold tap; the lavatory was a lean-to earth closet. The kitchen flooded, the fire smoked, the stove malfunctioned. The corrugated-iron roof made a racket when it rained. Orwell was very happy there, and Eileen very busy. It was understood that her husband’s writing took precedence over everything, so she did all the cooking and household chores, as well as helping with the goats, chickens, ducks and vegetable garden, which were components of Orwell’s sternly self-reliant ethos. When he was ill, which was often, Eileen managed everything.
Eileen married Orwell in 1936
Eileen married Orwell in 1936
Orwell’s published writings project the image of a deeply moral man, a kind of puritan saint. But that image is misleading. Although he referred to his union with Eileen as an “open marriage”, it is not clear that she allowed herself extramarital affairs, whereas he unquestionably did. Perhaps he banked on their not having any long-term consequences, since he believed he was sterile — without, apparently, bothering to seek any medical evidence. From the few accounts that remain, it seems he was an inept and clumsy lover, liable to make a sudden lunge in the middle of ordinary conversation. His love letters could be oddly formal (“I would regard it as a privilege to see you naked”), while enjoining secrecy, lest Eileen got wind of them (“be clever & burn this, won’t you”).
As he became more famous and successful — a presenter at the BBC, an editor on Tribune — he seems to have regarded secretaries as fair game. Some of them resisted, apparently, some not. A woman friend recalled him speaking “almost contemptuously” about an affair with one of them. When he and Eileen had been in Morocco for the sake of his health, during the winter of 1938-9, the “exquisitely beautiful” Berber women attracted his admiration, and he begged Eileen to allow him to visit a local prostitute. She apparently consented. But since he later boasted to Harold Acton that he had “never tasted such bliss as with certain Moroccan girls”, he might have interpreted Eileen’s one-off consent more generally. “There is no evidence,” Topp remarks, “that he noticed or even considered how Eileen might feel.”
Her courage and devotion had been evidenced during the couple’s six months in Spain from January to June 1937. When Orwell joined the anti-fascist militia in Barcelona, she quickly followed him, and her presence of mind saved their lives when the secret police were on their trail. The personal qualities everyone who knew her remarked on were cheerfulness, good humour and a habit of witty exaggeration. Topp argues persuasively that these traits start to show up in Orwell’s writing soon after they met. She detects them especially in Animal Farm (1945), which seems to have been almost a joint production. Eileen typed it, as she did all his manuscripts, and covered the back of each page with suggestions. They would laugh over its jokes in bed together.
Frequently ill himself, Orwell seems not to have noticed, or not to have wanted to notice, how tired and ill Eileen was becoming. She was shattered by the death of her brother Eric, a brilliant chest surgeon and army medical officer, killed in the retreat to Dunkirk. In the immediate aftermath she was bedridden for weeks. But Orwell’s demands on her time and energy did not let up. He even offered her typing and editing services to friends. She knew she should have an operation, but put off consulting a surgeon, because Orwell wanted them to adopt a son, and if she were found to be seriously ill adoption might not be allowed. Orwell opposed the very idea of an operation, and she felt obliged to ask his permission, and apologise for wasting his money. Almost unbelievably, instead of staying with her and their newly adopted son at this perilous moment, he accepted an assignment from The Observer to go to Europe as a war correspondent for two months, leaving on February 15, 1945. On March 29, Eileen died while being anaesthetised prior to a hysterectomy.
It is fair to say that, despite the outstanding merits of Topp’s book, its first three chapters, about Eileen’s ancestry, schooldays and undergraduate years, are tough going, full of trivia and unlikely conjectures, and best skipped. But it quickly improves once she has met Orwell. It draws on new and out-of-the-way sources, including some from Peter Davison’s The Lost Orwell, and Davison, the editor of the great 20-volume The Complete Works of George Orwell, provides a moving introduction. Topp’s enterprise was crowd-funded by 372 people whose names appear at the end. They should feel proud.
Eileen: The Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp
Unbound £25 pp495
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