Eileen – The Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp – the woman behind the scenes

 

This is certainly the book which will form the definitive biography of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, first wife of the author who adopted the name George Orwell. It is definitive because it has taken every scrap of information that can be probably found about a woman who died at the tragically early age of thirty – nine, who had packed a lot into those years. An Oxford graduate in the early days of women being tolerated at University, and able as a writer and typist, she turned her considerable literary talents into helping, editing and promoting the work of two Erics, her brother who was a noted surgeon, and Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. 

 

This book puts forward descriptions of this attractive and intelligent woman who chose to subsume her own talents under the pressure of the career of the author of such books as “Animal Farm” to which she may well contributed ideas just before her death.  She undoubtedly was the person who worked hard to ensure the well being and writing of a husband who demanded trying living arrangements while struggling with his own health. She was the first to type up the manuscript of “The Road to Wigan Pier”, and she was part of Orwell’s Spanish adventure which was behind the book “Homage to Catalonia”. Much more than merely a muse or inspiration, she took on the job of working on the text of the books, typing, suggesting and improving manuscripts. Topp is to be congratulated on her sterling work in tracking down every scrap of information about this brilliant woman, and combining it into an immensely readable book. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this extremely successful book.

 

This book looks at the immediate ancestors of Eileen, the places she lived, and the influences on a girl who was typically Head Girl and House captain at school. On going to Oxford in 1924, Topp has tried to capture what it was actually like for the tiny number of women attending the University in this period. She has gathered all the available comments on her academic work, showing that she was certainly gifted and hard working. Her life after graduation lacked a certain direction, but she was generally admired and succeeded in every post she held, even running a typists’ agency. Her fateful meeting with the slightly strange Eric Blair was certainly memorable for him, as he apparently decided that she exactly fulfilled his requirements for a wife, despite his other attachments to various women. He is shown to be self centred and demanding, though undoubtedly quickly devoted to his vivacious and much admired young woman. Their wedding challenged expectations, as well as the demands of the somewhat primitive cottage that they embarked on sharing with many visitors. The rigid timetable that Blair/ Orwell adopted meant a lot of hard physical work, which she only abandoned when she chose to follow him to a dangerous war torn Spain. While it is highly likely that she did not live a lonely life in Barcelona according to Topp’s painstaking investigations, she was extremely active in transporting the badly wounded Blair from a dangerous Spain where he became a hunted man. Her life when they returned to Britain was obviously sadly affected by the outbreak of war and the loss of her much loved brother Eric. When in became obvious that the couple were unable to have children naturally, the adoption of a baby, Richard, added to the pressure on a woman already in weakened health. Her much mourned and sudden death obviously had a stong effect on a man who was established as an author, significantly resulting from her efforts. 

 

This is a book which is the product of so much painstaking research, yet the insightful writing makes it a pleasure to read. I recommend this book not only to those interested in Orwell, but also those interested in women who were subject to the challenges and changes of the mid twentieth century.     

 

This is a fascinating book and has been quite a weighty tome on my excellent book trollies, which have given me the opportunity to store my books to read and review in a sensible way. Thanks to Harry who tracked them down and presented them for birthday and Christmas presents ( They are from Hobbycraft by the way – mint green by choice!)  


4 thoughts on “Eileen – The Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp – the woman behind the scenes

  1. I’ve seen a review of this in The Sunday Times and it suggested to me that too much was being made of her involvement in his work. It sounded as if the author was speculating in many cases or exaggerating – was that your sense too?

    1. I think that the author has spent a lot of effort recovering every trace of Eileen, and she has apparently found manuscripts with her writing on making suggestions and editing. I imagine it is really difficult to say at this distance what her exact contribution to each work was. She certainly made it physically possible for him to write and would have had some effect if only through proximity. Looking at her previous work, her degree studies and other evidence, I would suggest that she had some real input into pre Animal Farm books etc, and would certainly have been first reader if only because she probably prepared the typescripts.

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