She was a ‘brilliant, independent’ South Shields woman

Westgate House, Beach Road where Eileen spent most of her South Shields life.
Westgate House, Beach Road where Eileen spent most of her South Shields life.

As mentioned yesterday, author George Orwell had a major driving force behind his success – a fellow writer from South Shields named Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

Today biographer Sylvia Topp, who has just completed a book about her, entitled Eileen: The Making of Orwell, which requires a bit of extra funding to be published (contact http://unbound.com/books/eileen for more details), continues her profile of this “brilliant, independent woman”.

Sylvia Topp outside The Customs House, South Shields where Lawrence O'Shaughnessy (Eileen's father) worked.

Sylvia Topp outside The Customs House, South Shields where Lawrence O'Shaughnessy (Eileen's father) worked.

Sylvia said: “Eileen was 29 when she met Orwell at a party, and they fell in love immediately.

“She had earned a degree in English Literature from Oxford University, had published some writing of her own, had run a typewriting agency for years, and was editing her brother’s medical articles.

“But then, even as she was on her way to a successful career in psychology, Eileen shocked her friends and family by suddenly choosing to devote her own creative and intuitive talents to helping this man she hugely admired.

“Orwell, age 31, working part-time in a bookstore and still calling himself Eric Blair, had published three novels, none of them widely read.”

Eileen and baby son Richard.

Eileen and baby son Richard.

But, as Sylvia explains, things suddenly started to change.

“He quit his job and began devoting all his time to becoming a successful author.

“As Eileen began helping to type his work, she would add occasional suggestions for improvement on the back of each page, and he paid attention.

“Eileen was Orwell’s wife for nine years, and with her at his side, he went on to write most of his best-known and greatest essays and novels.

“It became very clear to me that her profound influence on his creative work had been neglected.”

Eileen died in 1945, just before Animal Farm was published, and therefore just before Orwell became world famous.

“As a result, some scholars minimised her importance in his life. However, family members today insist that framing Animal Farm as a fable was Eileen’s idea.

“Friends from the 40s remembered her regaling them with scenes from the book each morning at work, scenes that she and Orwell had been laughing about in bed on the cold winter nights as they worked on the book together.

“And Animal Farm is indeed suffused with whimsical sections that reverberate with the playful prose evident in Eileen’s fanciful letters, a type of humour not seen in Orwell’s other work.

“Even some of the most remembered lines seem more likely to portray the outlook of a clever woman than a man.

“‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’, one of the most remembered lines in Animal Farm, is a thought women have often shared.”

As Sylvia says, Orwell himself later credited Eileen with playing an important role in the writing of that book.

But when it was finished, “he had referred to it in an off-hand manner, apparently unaware of how important a work it actually was”.

Sylvia contends that Eileen’s outgoing personality helped guide Orwell through his basic shyness, and she struggled alongside him as they lived in creative poverty.

After Eileen’s sudden death, Orwell survived just six years.

“Eileen’s futuristic poem, End of the Century, 1984, was published the year before she met Orwell, and the title of his final great novel was a tribute to her.

“There is no doubt that, had she been there to type the last draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four, at his side, with her continued devotion, Orwell would have survived at least a few years longer.

“Eileen never regretted her choice to dedicate her talent to helping Orwell develop his.

“As I looked more and more deeply into Eileen’s choices and sacrifices, it seemed to be my task to finally get her the recognition I knew she deserved.

“And I’m extremely proud to now be praised as the person who has ‘not only brought Eileen in from the shadows, but has given her full credit for her contributions to Orwell’s late great novels,’ as one Orwell biographer recently wrote.”