Eileen Blair, formerly Eileen O’Shaughnessy, was born in South Shields on 25th September, 1905. She attended Sunderland Church High School before going on to receive a degree from Oxford University, and died tragically from heart failure at the age of 39. She is buried in St Andrews and Jesmond Cemetery in Newcastle. She was also the first wife of novelist, poet, journalist and critic George Orwell.
For a writer who left behind six novels and eleven volumes of letters and journalism, as well as a host of garrulous friends, much of George Orwell’s life remains remarkably unnavigable. Even less is known about his first wife – a woman who has since been credited with significantly influencing two of his greatest literary accomplishments: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
George – real name Eric Arthur Blair – is known among scholars for his habitual reticence, both in person and in print, and nowhere is this personal defence mechanism more impenetrable than in the relics of his relationship with Eileen.
The pair met in the spring of 1935 when Orwell’s landlady, Rosalind Obermeyer, invited Eileen to a party the pair were hosting. Two years younger than Orwell, talkative and lively, Eileen made quite the impression; Orwell informed his co-host that Eileen was the kind of girl he would like to marry, and after a whirlwind courtship, the pair tied the knot in the summer of 1936. December of that year saw Orwell leave for Spain to fight as a volunteer for the Republican army during the country’s Civil War, and Eileen later joined him there – working in the offices of the Independent Labour party in Barcelona under the management of British politician (and fellow Tyneside local) John McNair.
Orwell published The Road To Wigan Pier in the spring of 1937; by June the political situation had deteriorated so much that George and Eileen were under direct threat, and the couple fled to Banyuls-sur-Mer before returning to England. But they did not escape completely unscathed. Orwell had been shot through the throat by a fascist sniper (the bullet missing his carotid artery by just a few millimetres) and while he credited his experiences in the war for providing concrete validation of his belief in democratic socialism, the damage it wrought on his constitution was considerable. Orwell contracted tuberculosis and Eileen would spend the rest of her life nursing her husband.
But it would not necessarily limit her own experiences. At the start of the Second World War, Eileen began work at the Censorship Department of the Ministry of War in London, before moving jobs in 1942 to work in the Ministry of Food after the death of her brother at Dunkirk affected her deeply. But two years later, new life would come into the family: Eileen and Orwell adopted a three-week-old baby boy, who they named Richard.
What is most odd is that, for those of us living here in the North East, local lass Eileen Blair is a complete unknown – while her husband, born in British-occupied India, remains a household name. But were it not for Eileen, those texts many of us studied during our schooldays would not, perhaps, exist.
Locally-based playwright Laura Lindow has been delving into Eileen’s history as a source of inspiration for her latest play, which is set to have its first reading at Northern Stage in Newcastle on 8th September. Although taken from the grains of real life, Laura’s play is a work of fantastical fiction – largely because there’s little concrete fact to find about Eileen.
‘She curated his work, that was one of the things that most interested me,’ explains Laura. ‘I’ve imagined echoes of them both in a cottage on the isle of Jura, a place that she rented for them so that he could do his work.’ In reality Eileen decorated the cottage from her hospital bed, but she would never actually live to see it. ‘So, in my play, I’ve imagined two people with the ironic kind of affectionate love that they had (I believe) in their relationship,’ continues Laura, ‘and I’ve imagined three evacuee children coming to stay on this island with them.’
‘I believe she was originally painted by scholars as an austere character. You felt like if she’d been rubbed out, you would have been left with the outline of ‘housewife’. Then when her letters were unearthed, there was the sense that people were suddenly realising that she was witty and sharp and political, and that she was as engaged in the subject of his work as he was.’
Laura’s play is entitled Dear Pig in a nod to the potential scope of Eileen’s influence on Orwell’s writing – after a previously-unknown cache of Eileen’s letters, written between 1936 and 1941, came to light in 2005 and revealed that she used to sign off with the adopted nickname of ‘Pig’. It’s not difficult to make the leap from farmyard nicknames to the human-like creatures in Orwell’s Animal Farm.
And it seems her influence on Orwell’s work may not have ended there. As well as arranging and decorating the cottage in which he would eventually write Nineteen Eighty-Four, it seems Eileen also provided the inspiration for Orwell’s most famous novel.
In 1934, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the school she attended in Sunderland, Eileen wrote a poem that looked ahead in its subject matter to the school’s centenary, titled ‘End Of The Century, 1984’. Although the poem was written in the year before she met George, there are distinct similarities between the futuristic vision of Eileen’s poem and that in Orwell’s novel – including the use of mind control and the eradication of personal freedom by a policed state.
Eileen died from cardiac failure during an hysterectomy operation on 29th March 1945, in Newcastle. She was 39 years old. Orwell was working in Paris as a war correspondent at the time. In what was a tragically short life which remains, to this day, enigmatic in its detail, Eileen not only sourced, designed and decorated the environment in which Orwell would write his most celebrated literary works, but was also heavily involved in their inception. She was his carer, companion and confidant throughout their lives together, and remained an integral part of his working process in death.
‘From her hospital bed, Eileen started writing a letter to George, but she tails off halfway through it – it’s unfinished,’ explains Laura. ‘The last word in that letter is “clocks”, which features in the first sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four. George went to Jura and wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in his grief. You just get the feeling that he stitched her in, in a way that I find quite beautiful.’
Dear Pig will be read on 8th September as the last reading in The Royal Court Writer’s Group: North series at Northern Stage, running between 4th–8th September.
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