by DJ Taylor
The Guardian, 10 December 2005
George Orwell's first wife, who died tragically young, has always been an enigmatic figure. Now, writes biographer DJ Taylor, a previously unknown cache of letters has been found, shedding new light on her and on a crucial period in the writer's life.
For a writer who died in his mid-40s, leaving 11 fat volumes of letters and journalism and a host of garrulous friends, much of George Orwell's life is still curiously unnavigable. Even now, with half-a-dozen biographies on the library shelves and a near-archive of assorted recollection, there are great stretches of time of which hardly anything is known about what he was doing or even where he was. These gaps and fissures extend to many of his friendships and professional dealings: the people are dead, the trails gone cold, the mementos thrown away. All this is complicated by Orwell's habitual reticence, a personal caution that often extended to outright paranoia, an unwillingness to reveal more about himself than was absolutely necessary.
His friend Anthony Powell once declared that what you truly believed about yourself, and by implication the people around you, should be kept to yourself. Orwell, it is safe to say, was forged in the same Edwardian crucible. Nowhere is the dense emotional smokescreen that hung over his career more impenetrable than in his relationship with Eileen O'Shaughnessy, whom he met in the spring of 1935, married in the summer of 1936, and who died nine years later on an operating table during a hysterectomy while her husband was away in occupied Europe, reporting the closing stages of the second world war for the Observer and the Manchester Evening News.
Six decades on, Eileen is one of the larger silences in Orwell studies. Though generously recollected by Orwell's friends in the years after his death, there is a way in which she never quite comes alive in their reminiscences, finds her own voice or takes on a personality distinct from her husband. Of medium height, with a "heart-shaped face" and "Irish colouring", Lady Violet Powell remembered half a century later. The Powells were fond of Eileen while noting a "defensive side". "I never found Eileen at all easy to get on with," Powell recalled in a diary entry from the late 1980s. Another friend talked of her "curiously elusive personality". The file of compliments paid her by Cyril Connolly is horribly unrevealing: charming, intelligent, independent. Aren't we all? What, one wants to know, in the midst of this anodyne memorialising, was Eileen like? And what did she think of the author of Animal Farm, in whose conception she is thought materially to have assisted? Curiously enough, 60 years after Eileen's miserable death, we now have some kind of an answer.
A previously unknown cache of Eileen's letters came to light in the early part of this year. Written between 1936 and 1941, without salutations and signed off with the nick-name "Pig", they are addressed to her friend Norah Myles (née Symes) whom she had met at St Hugh's College, Oxford, in the mid-1920s.
Instantly a puzzle that has irked generations of Orwell-fanciers is solved. This is the reference in one of Eileen's last letters to Orwell from March 1945, in which she worries over who might look after their adopted son Richard in the event of her death. "Norah & Quartus would have him & bring him up but you have never seen either of them. Quartus is in India & I can't arrange it." "Quartus" is Quartus St Leger Myles, a Bristol GP, whom Norah married in 1933. But the Eileen-Norah correspondence has an importance far beyond the identification of bit-part players in Orwell's life (Norah, it turns out, met him twice and thought him "rather intimidating"). They illuminate Orwell's first marriage with an occasionally rather startling clarity. They also establish Eileen definitively as a person in her own right - witty, ironic, able to extract humour from the most unpromising situations, demonstrating almost from sentence to sentence why Orwell wanted to marry her.
Needless to say, from the biographer's point of view - especially the biographer who has already published his biography - all this is on the one hand tremendously exciting and, on the other, unbelievably frustrating. You spends four years or so trying to penetrate the carapace of someone who at the time remained resolutely impenetrable, only for new evidence to come rolling along to suggest a radically revised view of your subject. All you can console yourself with is the fact that this is a habitual drawback of the biographer's craft. That cache of long-lost photographs, that rapt, incriminating letter - these things invariably turn up 10 minutes after the page proofs have been signed off.
Orwell, only recently parted from his baptismal name of Eric Blair, met the then 29-year-old Miss O'Shaughnessy early in 1935, when he and his Hampstead landlady Rosalind Obermeyer held a party at their Parliament Hill flat. Mrs Obermeyer, then studying for an MA in psychology at University College London, invited several of her fellow students to make up the numbers. One of them - two years younger than Orwell, talkative and lively - made a striking impression. That, Orwell informed his co-host shortly after the proceedings drew to a close, was the kind of girl he would like to marry. Orwell being Orwell, no time was lost. His six-month stay in Hampstead, where he worked part-time in a bookshop while writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying, had already taken in several low-key romantic entanglements, but the seriousness of his intentions towards Eileen produced a whirlwind courtship. They went horse-riding at Blackheath, near the O'Shaughnessy family home in south London, and within three weeks he had as good as proposed. Intrigued, and perhaps faintly alarmed by this impetuousness, Eileen turned him down without absolutely discouraging a second attempt. Orwell, who informed his friend Rayner Heppenstall that "she is the nicest person I have met for a long time", continued to press his suit.
Like her suitor, whose CV included five years in the Burma Police and a stint as washer-up in a Paris hotel, Eileen had a varied career behind her. Born in South Shields, where her father worked for the Customs & Excise, she was unusual among women of her generation in possessing an Oxford English degree. Subsequently she taught in a girl's boarding school, took odd clerical and administrative jobs and then ran her own typing agency before giving it up to study at UCL. However enigmatic she may have seemed to Orwell's friends, and however ineluctable the qualities he found in her, there is widespread agreement among them that she cheered him up, took him out of himself and gave him confidence in his abilities. Her predecessor in Orwell's affections, Kay Ekevall, noted disinterestedly that "she was gay and lively and interesting, and much more on his level".
At the same time there was another man in Eileen's life, whom no potential husband could ever displace. This was her brother Laurence, a distinguished thoracic surgeon, to whom she occasionally acted as secretary and despite a billing in her letters as "one of nature's Fascists" remained devoted. Though Eileen eventually made up her mind to marry Orwell, she was aware that blood ran deeper.
"If we were at opposite ends of the earth and I sent him a telegram saying 'Come at once', he would come," she once wrote of Laurence. "George would not do that. For him work comes before anything."
The Orwells began their married life in June 1936 in the tiny cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, to which Orwell had enthusiastically relocated two months before. Even by the standards of the 30s it was inconveniently remote - Baldock, the nearest town, was three miles away - and uncomfortably primitive, high on damp and low on modern amenities. "They didn't even have an inside loo," one friend recalled. "You had to go to the bottom of the garden."
"The Stores", as its name suggested, had doubled up as a village shop, customers entering by way of the 4' 6" front door, and Orwell was keen to continue the tradition. Of the wedding preliminaries no record at all remains, except for a peculiar letter from Orwell to his friend Geoffrey Gorer, confiding that he and Eileen were telling as few people as possible in case their relations combined against them in some way to prevent it. What Orwell meant by this is anyone's guess: bride and groom were in their 30s, unencumbered, with no property settled on them and had been living independent lives for the past 10 years. One can only assume that some mild hint of unease blowing up from Greenwich, or down from Southwold (where Orwell's parents lived in genteel retirement), had appealed to his considerable sense of melodrama.
What did Eileen, a bright, spirited girl who had given up a master's degree to sit in a draughty hovel selling shillings' worth of groceries and watching her husband type, expect from her marriage? The first letter to Norah, sent from the Blair seniors' house in Southwold and dating from early November 1936, clearly follows a long silence.
"I lost my habit of punctual correspondence during the first few weeks of marriage," Eileen explains, "because we quarrelled so continuously & really bitterly that I thought I'd save time & just write one letter to everyone when the murder or separation had been accomplished."
The newlyweds' "trouble" had arisen in part because Orwell's Aunt Nellie Limouzin came to occupy the cramped spare bedroom for a couple of months. To add to this imposition, before the wedding:
" ... Mother drove me so hard in the first week of June that I cried all the time from pure exhaustion & partly because Eric had decided that he mustn't let his work be interrupted & complained bitterly when we'd been married a week that he'd only done two good days' work out of seven. Also I couldn't make the oven cook anything & boiled eggs (on which Eric had lived almost exclusively) made me sick. Now I can make the oven cook a reasonable number of things & he is working very rapidly. I forgot to mention that he had his 'bronchitis' for three weeks in July & that it rained every day for six weeks during the whole of which the kitchen was flooded & all the food went mouldy in a few hours. It seems a long time ago but then seemed very permanent."
Eileen's characteristic amalgam of irony and jauntiness is very difficult to separate out, but the air of exasperation is undisguised. "I thought I could come & see you," she continues, "& have twice decided when I could, but Eric always gets something if I'm going away if he has notice of the fact, & if he has no notice ... he gets something when I'm gone so that I have to come home again." Meanwhile, funds were running low. The money they had expected for Keep the Aspidistra Flying in October would not now be paid until April, while The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell's account of his journey round the unemployment blackspots of the north of England, undertaken earlier in the year, was several chapters away from completion. But Eileen professed to be enjoying her week chez Blair:
" ... the family on the whole is fun & I imagine unusual in their attitude to me because they all adore Eric & consider him quite impossible to live with - indeed on the wedding day Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, and Avril the sister said obviously I didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there. They haven't I think grasped that I am very much like Eric in temperament which is an asset once one has accepted the fact."
The Road to Wigan Pier was published in the spring of 1937, by which time its author was nearing the end of his third month as a volunteer for the Republican army in Spain. Eileen's next letter to Norah, undated but apparently written in the middle of February, heralds her own departure to Barcelona to work in the offices of the Independent Labour party. Desperate to join her husband on the Aragon front ("If Franco had engaged me as a manicurist I would have agreed to that too in exchange for a salvo conducto [safe conduct]"), she seems mildly amused by the privations Orwell was suffering in the trenches:
" ... the Spanish government feeds George on bread without butter and 'rather rough food' and has arranged that he doesn't sleep at all, so he has no anxieties."
Already there is a characteristic tone at work in Eileen's reflections on "Eric": affectionate, exasperated, its incidental comedy not always disguising straightforward annoyance and deep-seated anxiety over Orwell's health. The Blairs came back from Spain in the summer of 1937, nursing real and metaphorical scars. Orwell had been shot through the throat by a fascist sniper, the bullet missing his carotid artery by a few millimetres. Pursued across the border by Soviet-sponsored hit-squads keen to liquidate the Trotskyist militia for whom Orwell had fought, they were lucky to escape with their lives. The experience of Spain affected the couple in different ways. For Orwell it provided a spectacular validation of his belief in democratic socialism, while definitively undermining his constitution. For Eileen it had offered, among other enticements, a relationship with Georges Kopp, formerly her husband's commander but now languishing in a Republican jail, which is one of the great enigmas of her trip.
All these preoccupations jostle for space in a long letter dispatched to Norah from the Wallington cottage on New Year's day 1938. The usual domestic conditions apply. Typewritten in rapidly failing candlelight ("I have no pens, no ink, no glasses and the prospect of no light because the pens, the ink and the glasses and the candles are all in the room where George is working and if I disturb him again it will be the fifteenth time tonight"), the letter mixes routine gossip about the Wallington hens and their poodle puppy, Marx, with a determined spilling of the Spanish beans. "The difficulty about Spain is that it still dominates our lives in a most unreasonable manner." George is "just finishing the book about it [Homage to Catalonia]" and "always having to speak about it".
And there was the problem of Georges Kopp:
"He is still in jail but has somehow managed to get several letters out to me, one of which George opened and read because I was away. He is very fond of Georges, who indeed cherished him with real tenderness in Spain and anyway is remarkable as a soldier because of his quite admirable courage, and he is extraordinarily magnanimous about the whole business - just as Georges was extraordinarily magnanimous. Indeed, they went about saving each other's lives or trying to in a way that was almost horrible to me, though George had not then noticed that Georges was more than 'a bit gone on' me. I sometimes think no one ever had such a sense of guilt before. It was always understood that I wasn't what they call in love with Georges - our association progressed in little leaps, each leap immediately preceding some attack or operation in which he would almost inevitably be killed, but the last time I saw him he was in jail waiting, as we were both confident, to be shot, and I simply couldn't explain to him again as a kind of farewell that he could never be a rival to George."
Homage to Catalonia was published in April 1938. Shortly before this, one of Orwell's lungs haemorrhaged and he was rushed to the Preston Hall Sanatorium in Kent: the first steps along the serpentine path that led to his death from tuberculosis in January 1950. During a long convalescence, the doctors advised that his health would benefit from a winter out of England. Financed by a £300 loan from an anonymous benefactor (in fact the novelist LH Myers) the Blairs set out by sea for French Morocco in the first week of September.
Writing from their rented villa just outside Marrakech in mid-December, Eileen is understandably preoccupied by the state of Orwell's chest. Though now apparently "better", he lost 9lb in the first month of their stay:
" ... & coughed all day & particularly all night so that we didn't get thirty minutes' consecutive rest until November. He has put on about five of the pounds again now & doesn't cough much ... so I think he may not be much worse at the end of the winter abroad than he was at the beginning."
But Eileen is ominously matter-of-fact about her husband's prospects. In particular, her brother Laurence is represented as "lying" to Orwell about the exact nature of his illness ("they'd kept him at Preston Hall on a firm and constantly repeated diagnosis of phthisis for two months after they knew he hadn't got it ... ").
As for Morocco,
"Of course we were silly to come but I found it impossible to refuse & Eric felt that he was under an obligation though he constantly & justly complains that by a quite deliberate campaign of lying he is in debt for the first time in his life & has wasted practically a year out of the very few in which he can expect to function. However, now that we're hardened to the general frightfulness of the country we're quite enjoying it & Eric is writing a book that pleases both of us very much."
The book was Coming Up for Air, Orwell's elegy to a lost England gathered up beneath the shadow of the approaching war-planes. The rest of the letter is awash with local colour.
"Marrakech crawls with disease of every kind, the ringworm group, the tuberculosis group, the dysentery group; & 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."
Interestingly, this points the way to the opening line of Orwell's essay "Marrakech", published a year later in a volume of John Lehmann's New Writing: "As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant tables in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later."
The Blairs returned to England in March 1939. War was looming and the future uncertain. Denied military occupation on account of his ravaged lungs, Orwell moped in Wallington while Eileen took a job working for the censorship department in Whitehall. In the summer of 1940, as invasion threatened, he was appointed drama and film critic of the weekly magazine Time and Tide and the couple relocated to a mansion flat in Chagford Street NW1. There are two more letters, undated but, internal evidence suggests, written on either side of Christmas 1940. The first concentrates not on Orwell's health but Eileen's:
"I have been ILL. Ever so ill. Bedridden for 4 weeks & still weak ... 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 so that I couldn't possibly guess what they were testing for. They haven't yet diagnosed cancer or General Paralysis of the Insane but I expect they will shortly."
George, meanwhile, has
"written a little book [The Lion and the Unicorn, published in February 1941] ... Explaining how to be a Socialist though Tory."
Eileen's greatest misery goes unmentioned. Six months previously, her brother Laurence had been reported missing in the retreat to Dunkirk. Friends insist that she never got over this bereavement. Undoubtedly it lurks behind a curiously telegraphic final communication ("I am too profoundly depressed to write a letter") probably written in March 1941:
"Physical condition - much improved by air raids, possibly because I now sleep several hours a night longer than ever in my life;
"Mental condition - temporarily improved by air raids which were a change, degenerating again now that air raids threaten to become monotonous;
"Events since the war - daily work of inconceivable dullness; weekly efforts to leave Greenwich always frustrated; monthly visits to the cottage which is still as it is only dirtier;
"Future plans - imaginings of the possibility of leaving a furnished flat ('chambers') that we have at Baker Street & taking an unfurnished flat north of Baker Street to remain in George's Home Guard district, with the idea that we might both live in this flat - probably to be frustrated by continued lack of five shillings to spend & increasing scarcity of undemolished flats & perhaps by our ceasing to live anywhere. But the last is unlikely because a shorter & no less accurate summing up would be NOTHING EVER HAPPENS TO Pig."
Orwell, by his own admission, was unfaithful to his wife, but it was a durable relationship, characterised, at least by the male half, (Eileen's views are not recorded) as "a proper marriage", by which he seems to have meant one involving rows and disagreements but always redeemed by the underlying bond. Whether or not Orwell was, as he claimed, sterile, Eileen's gynaecological problems may have prevented her from conceiving. It is a measure of their intense desire to have children that, despite the precariousness of their life in London, they should have adopted an illegitimate Tyneside baby found for them by Eileen's medical sister-in-law, Gwen O'Shaugnessy.
The effect of Richard Horatio Blair's arrival on Eileen is attested to by her friends: although worried that she might not love him enough, Eileen "wanted to live" again. As it was, she died in the Fernwood House Hospital, Newcastle, on March 29 1945, with her adopted son nearly a year old and the publication of Animal Farm - and her husband's fame - five months distant. She was 39.
· The author would like to thank Mrs Margaret Durant, who owns the original letters of this correspondence, and Professor Peter Davison for their help in preparing this article.
· The letters will be printed in full in The Lost Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, published by Timewell Press early next year.
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