Book review: Eileen – the Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp

Review by Les Hurst of Scarthin Books

In 1935 George Orwell, a struggling writer working in a second-hand bookshop, went to a party, met the friend of a friend, and declared that she was the girl he wanted to marry.

She was Eileen O’Shaughnessy; raised in South Shields, Oxford graduate, one-time owner of a typing agency, and, when she met Orwell, a student of child psychology. Their courtship consisted of country walks and bird-spotting on the South Downs.

In 1936, after Orwell had returned from his research in Wigan they married and settled in a tiny village shop in Hertfordshire. Eileen wondered if the marriage would last as they battled over their only oil lamp – George wanted light to write The Road to Wigan Pier, she wanted light to write to her friends.

They quickly became a pair, though, and at Christmas 1936 Orwell set off to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Eileen stayed and saw his book through the press, then followed him to Barcelona where she ran a political office. She saw the same things that frightened Orwell – there is a photograph of her with his platoon on the front-line, while later the two of them were hunted by the KGB as they fled Spain for France.

During World War Two she worked on the “Kitchen Front”, designing meals for a country living on rationed foods, and then, as Orwell thought about recent events, lying in bed at night discussing the development of Animal Farm with him.

Eileen having written a poem envisaging 1984 long before Orwell had written his novel of that year it is no wonder that Sylvia Topp says Eileen was the making of him, nor that her sudden death in 1945 should so have disturbed him.

This is the first biography of a fascinating woman who should be better known and full of fascinating detail.

Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, by Sylvia Topp (Unbound £25)