Soon after the wedding, she put a jar of marmalade on the table – she was about to serve him one of his beloved cooked breakfasts – only to be instructed by Orwell that its contents should first have been dish
W hen Eileen O’Shaughnessy married George Orwell in 1936, she was 30 years old, highly educated, and knew her own mind; before the wedding, she told the minister that her vows would not include a promise to “obey” her new husband. But obey him she nearly always did: feeding his chickens, tending his goats, typing up his manuscripts. After their ously lived (like the common people!) in a cottage belonging to Orwell’s aunt Nellie in Wallington, Hertfordshire, and it was within its dank walls that her husband swiftly established himself as a domestic tyrant. The house had no electricity and no indoor lavatory. Nevertheless, Eileen had to understand that the niceties were still important.
Orwell was not straightforward about women; his view of them, as of homosexuals, was tinged with disgust
The difference between choice and sacrifice in a marriage is inevitably moot, particularly in the context of feminism. It’s easy – too easy, sometimes – retrospectively to discount the agency of a wife, and all the more so if she was married, as Eileen was, to the kind of man who repeatedly cheated on her (once with her closest friend); who relied on her for hard labour and, sometimes, for money; and whose fantasies about proletarian life were so determinedly fixed, he would only allow his friends to drink dark ale in the pub, irrespective of what they’d ordered. But in the case of the first Mrs Orwell – the second was the more famous Sonia, who married the writer shortly before his death from tuberculosis in 1950 – there is, I think, no getting away from the fact that she knew exactly what she was doing; that some ardent part of her fully bought into his conviction that nothing mattered more than his career as a writer. As her biographer, Sylvia Topp, makes clear, moreover, her desire to be both his amanuensis and the digger of his potato patch existed alongside something far less meekly devoted. When she followed him to Spain in 1937, where he was fighting the fascists during the civil war, she had a fling with his commander, George Kopp, while he was away at the front. Other affairs would follow.
From the moment they clapped eyes on one another, George was convinced she was the sort of woman he would like to marry
This is the first biography of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who died in 1945, only a year after she and Orwell adopted their only son, Richard (she went into hospital for a hysterectomy and never came out). It’s highly detailed; Topp leaves absolutely nothing out, which is part of the reason why it makes for such a dispiriting read (she reprints in full, for instance, the reports of her subject’s tutors at Oxford University, where she studied English). However, there are other, graver problems at play here. Does Eileen really deserve a full-length biography? The book’s subtitle, The Making of George Orwell, rather suggests that she doesn’t; that the single most interesting aspect of her life – at least to us, at such a distance from her – was the fact of her marriage. Aware of this, Topp tries hard to show that she had a greater influence on Orwell’s work than his male biographers have so far allowed. But her arguments are unconvincing. I don’t buy her suggestion that Orwell based Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four on Eileen (that was surely Sonia). Nor do I believe she was behind what some regard as the major improvement in his work with the publication of Coming Up for Air in 1939. He was getting better anyway, as writers do over time.
None of this, of course, would matter too much if Topp had been able to bring Eileen into the room. After 400 pages, however, I could still see her only darkly; it was Orwell, moth-eaten and rotten-breathed, whose presence was the more vivid. Examining him through the prism of his clever, energetic wife, I was struck all over again by his ineffable peculiarity. Cyril Connolly, whom he knew at Eton, has him at a cocktail party glamorously “gaunt and shaggy”, a John the Baptist figure whose effect on women was instantaneous (“their fur coats shook with pleasure”). But as he appears in relation to Eileen, he strikes me as just another tedious sadomasochist. They both have to suffer, because he needs to suffer – and who knows precisely why. To what degree did his wife share this need? Were they co-dependents? I’m not sure. All Topp is able to tell us is that she never left; that she was apt to embrace his projects and his dreams, however inconvenient or crazy (the adoption was his idea, as was their planned move to the Scottish island of Jura, a fate from which she was saved by her early death).
But for whatever reason, he noticed Eileen. From the moment they clapped eyes on one another, he was convinced she was the sort of woman he would like to marry – and for a certain kind of girl, at a certain moment in time, this would really have meant something. If Eileen appears, touch planetromeo to us, to have given up her own life – after a series of dead-end jobs, she was studying for an MA in educational psychology when they met at a party – it was surely only in the cause of finding a role for herself; of landing a job that really seemed to matter. I don’t believe, as some of Eileen’s friends did, that Orwell was oblivious to his wife’s suffering. Nor do I think that she longed seriously to escape it. Such strife was somehow necessary to them both. It bound them together.