.. Each herself, but each the other
In a curious harmony,
Finding both a proper place
In the silken gown’s embrace.
Eileen O’Shaughnessy — closing lines of ‘End of the Century, 1984’
On occasion, I leaf through my journals, searching for a recollection of a particular occurrence. Sometimes, I stumble upon an entry that causes me to think, my goodness, can it be that long ago?
One such happened last week and prompted this reflection.
Some six years ago, I was one of the early contributors of funds to support the publication of ‘Eileen’. The biography by Sylvia Topp of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the first wife of Eric Blair or George Orwell as the world came to know him.
Most people who know of Orwell will think of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ or ‘Animal Farm’. A book many children read as part of the school curriculum. However, his work was much more extensive than that. In addition to his nine books, he wrote many book criticisms, articles for left-wing publications and comprehensive essays. As well as producing radio programmes.
I especially like two of Orwell’s essays: ‘ Decline of the English Murder’ and ‘The Moon under Water’.
‘Decline of the English Murder’ atmospherically conjures up English Sunday afternoons of the 1930s and 1940s and the swathe of people who settled down to read the salacious stories in the likes of the ‘News of the World’. There was always some comfort in reading about a murder.
‘Moon under Water’ is imagining a perfect pub that must possess ten essentials. One is that the Architecture must be Victorian. It must be a quiet pub with no radio or piano (Orwell wrote this in 1946). Finally, it must serve a creamy draught stout, ideally in a pewter pot. All very idyllic, and Orwell himself admitted no pub existed that had all ten. However, he knew of a handful that had eight. Although he did not share those pub names, many pubs now carry the name, ‘Moon under Water’.
It took two years to raise all the money required to produce Sylvia’s book. And a further eighteen months before the book came to print.
The wait was very worthwhile. Sylvia produced a substantive book that gives insight into Eileen’s creative talent and does much to recognise her beneficial influence on Orwell’s writing. That influence may even include the choice of ‘Ninety Eighty Four’ as the title of his dystopian novel. It’s very similar to the title of a poem, ‘End of the Century, 1984’ that Eileen wrote before she met Orwell. The inspiration for that poem was another dystopian novel, Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.
The research in Sylvia’s book is meticulous and takes the reader through Eileen’s productive yet sadly short life. From talented schoolgirl to a pioneering woman at Oxford. After meeting Orwell, she emerges as a politically engaged woman. Editing his work and broadening Orwell’s perspective while enhancing his creativity. Theirs was the love story of two independent-minded people living and working together. First on a smallholding. Then during his time in Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil war. After Orwell’s wounding, she helped him escape from Spain. Then nursed him to recovery.
Sylvia Topp also gives much insight into the Orwell’s decision to adopt a child when they realised they could not have children together.
Much is known of Orwell’s battle with the TB that would kill him. Poignantly Sylvia also conveys Eileen’s issue with ill health and her death, during an operation, at the early age of 39.
I’ve read the half-finished letter that Eileen began to write to Orwell after being prepped for that operation. He was in Paris as neither thought it was a procedure of significance. The short letter is matter of fact, and Eileen mentions she will pick up the pen again and complete the letter after the surgery. It is a temporary interruption. But, alas, that was not the case.
For so many of us, the moment of our death is a life interrupted. We leave with things unfinished. A half-completed crossword. An unwashed coffee cup. An unmade bed. A part-read (or written) story. We leave things unsaid too. There’s always later, or tomorrow.
Sometimes, however, there isn’t.