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The South Shields lass behind George Orwell

Eileen and baby son Richard.
Eileen and baby son Richard.

Author George Orwell is famous the world over, but the woman behind the man – a South Shields lass – is less well known.

Which is why biographer Sylvia Topp has just completed a book about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, detailing her life and influence on the Animal Farm, The Road To Wigan Pier and 1984 author.

Sylvia Topp.

Sylvia Topp.

The book, Eileen: The Making of Orwell, is finished, but as Sylvia reveals, it still needs to be funded (though it is 91% there) before it can be published – you can find out more at http://unbound.com/books/eileen

In the meantime, here Canadian Sylvia tells “why Eileen matters” and why she wrote the book.

When I was 18,” said Sylvia, “I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying and immediately fell in love with George Orwell.

“His anti-hero, Gordon Comstock, a wild, intense, mad poet, was another representation of the ‘angry young man’ type I found attractive, just the kind of exotic boyfriend I was hoping to find.

“And I really admired Rosemary, Gordon’s girlfriend, too. She was an independent woman, not afraid to argue with and challenge her boyfriend’s assumptions.

“And she didn’t believe she had to wait until marriage to explore sex with a man, a literally forbidden thought in 1950s families like mine.

“When I learned that Rosemary was mostly based on Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Orwell’s girlfriend at the time, and later his wife, I was entranced. Just who was this Eileen? I wondered.”

Well, Eileen was born and educated in South Shields and Sunderland before going to Oxford University, and then marrying George Orwell.

But back to Sylvia for a more personal profile of the woman.

“I had raised my own family, and read all of Orwell’s books, before I seriously tried to answer that question as to who she was.

“A few of Eileen’s letters had survived, revealing a wise, whimsical woman with an ability to tease and to challenge conventional thinking.

“And the Orwell biographies detailed some quite heartbreaking notes she had written to Orwell in the weeks before her sudden, tragic death at age 39, in the middle of a botched hysterectomy.

“One biography had left an enticing quote for me to ponder: ‘One cannot emphasise too strongly the importance of Eileen O’Shaughnessy in the life of Eric Blair, and hence of George Orwell.

“‘Her influence upon him was profound, in his life and his work’.”

And so Sylvia pondered the question – where could she find the evidence for that?

“I asked Christopher Hitchens if he would recommend a biography of Eileen and, after telling me that none existed, he encouraged me to go ahead with this pursuit myself.”

During her six years of research Sylvia discovered a “brilliant, independent woman, one of the first female graduates of Oxford University, with a career of her own, a part-time writer who had published her futuristic poem, End of the Century, 1984, a year before she met Orwell”.

As part of her research Sylvia met Richard Blair, the son Eileen and Orwell adopted in 1944, at the very first meeting of the Orwell Society, in 2011, and “was thrilled when he immediately encouraged me to go ahead with the biography of his mother”.

Tomorrow: Eileen’s life with Orwell.