In 1934, Eileen O’Shaughnessy’s futuristic poem, ‘End of the Century, 1984′, was published. The next year, she would meet George Orwell, then known as Eric Blair, at a party. “Now,’ he remarked that night, ‘that’s the kind of girl I would like to marry.’ Years later, Orwell would name his greatest work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in homage to the memory of Eileen, the woman who shaped his life and his art in ways that have never been acknowledged by history, until now.
From the time they spent in a tiny village tending goats and chickens, through the Spanish Civil War, the couple’s narrow escape from the destruction of their London flat during a German bombing raid, and their adoption of a baby boy, this is the first account of the Blairs’ nine-year marriage, up until Eileen’s untimely death in 1945. It is also a vivid picture of bohemianism, political engagement, and sexual freedom in the 1930s and ’40s.
Through impressive depth of research, illustrated throughout with photos and images from the time, this captivating and inspiring biography offers a completely new perspective on Orwell himself, and most importantly tells the life story of an exceptional woman who has been unjustly overlooked.
Title: Eileen: The Making of George Orwell
By: Sylvia Topp
Published By: Unbound
Publication Date: March 5, 2020
Page Count: 560
This was my second nonfiction read of the year, and, it was such a good way to continue my nonfiction reading!
This is a terrific novel highlighting a woman that has been slightly forgotten in the shadow of her husband, but, no matter what, each person has their own story and Topp gives us Eileen’s story.
She was Orwell’s first wife and really in many ways the only wife he really knew [his second wife, Sonia, was only married to him for three months before he passed away].
Topp’s level of research is impressive, she has dug through tons of known and unknown Orwell ‘vats’ of knowledge to form this story.
I will admit the first 4-5 chapters are a bit of info-dumping, Topp is giving us the background of Eileen’s family but so little is known about certain relatives that it felt a lot like conjecture, however, after that? Smooth sailing. I found myself totally engrossed as we focused on Eileen and her story of meeting, marrying, and caring for Orwell.
Eileen was a strong-willed woman, educated, quick-witted, and sharp, her extrovert manners helped to balance Orwell who was not always the best with socialising. Not only that but we find out, for those of us who didn’t know, that she helped edit and type up his works, in particular, Animal Farm, and this was fascinating to read about.
She was a woman who saw greatness in her husband, in fact, one may argue that’s why she married him, she saw something in him and his writings and wanted to help him become all he could be as a renowned writer.
One thing Eileen was not, was a victim of her husband in many ways, they seemed to have an open marriage and she always downplayed her own illnesses, constantly putting Orwell and his works first. But, it was a breath a fresh air because Eileen made this choice, not to say that she was never hurt or a victim of his choices at all, but that she went in knowing what he was like and it makes a nice change of pace.
We learn how Eileen changed careers easily more than once before marrying Orwell, and she was up for any adventure he wanted. Even over the years of being married she had her own fascinating jobs and adventures, working for the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Food, and ever helping her brother and her husband type up their works. This was a woman who could roll with the punches without complaint and still chose the traditional way of cooking and entertaining guests after finishing work.
Eileen was truly remarkable in her own right and Orwell knew he had a partner in her and that she could have been a writer had she chosen so, sadly, Orwell may have taken advantage of her at times but there’s no doubt he deeply felt her loss, dying so young.
Topp has a bright and informative writing voice and it relays information easily with the flare of a storyteller.
Four cups of coffee from me! Thank you to Anne and Unbound for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion as part of the blog tour.
About the Author
Sylvia Topp has worked in publishing since college, starting as a copy editor on medical journals, then moving to freelance editing at major literary publishing houses. She was the long-time wife and partner of Tuli Kupferberg, a Beat poet who later was a co-founder, in 1964, of the Fugs, a legendary rock and roll band. Together Sylvia and Tuli wrote, edited, and designed over thirty books and magazines, including As They Were, 1001 Ways to Live Without Working, and Yeah! magazine. Sylvia joined the staff at The Soho Weekly News and later The Village Voice, before finishing her publishing career at Vanity Fair. Eileen is her first book. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.
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