2017. The MeToo just burst and award-winning Australian writer and journalist Anna Funderwho obsessively rereads the work of his admired George Orwell and everything published about the author of 1984 in the last half century, he thinks he detects a strange absence. Something missing. Where is Eileen Blair?
Born Eileen O’Shaughnessy, she acquired the surname of Orwell – whose real name was Eric Blair – when she married him in 1936. She worked for both of them, paid for their revolutionary tourism in the Spanish Civil War, saved their manuscripts when they had to flee from Stalin’s Catalan henchmenHe typed and rewrote much of his essays, inspired his best-known novel, endured slights and repeated infidelities, and died in 1945 at age 39. And yet this talented and brilliant woman only comes up a couple of times in Orwell biographies, and her own husband never calls her by her name on the rare occasions he refers to her.
Anna Funder, author of Stasiland (Samuel L. Johnson Award, 2004) then began an investigation into Orwell’s first wife blurred of the story that has concluded this summer, six years later, with the publication of Wifedom: Mrs Orwell Invisible life. It is a hybrid of essay, biography and fiction that has already shaken Orwellian studiesstill convulsed by the accusations that were leveled against the author in 2003, when the twisted interpretation of some letters seemed to show him as the informer of 38 British communists.
More than one reader of this piece will be muttering right now: “Stop, stop a minute. What is that about Orwell’s first wife inspiring 1984?” Actually, the influences of the great dystopia of our time have already been well studied and point to a fundamental source, the novel Us from Russian Yeuvgeni Ziamatin, recently recovered in Spanish by Salamandra. But what I’m sure you didn’t know is that in 1934, two before she married Orwell and fifteen before 1984 (1949), Eileen O’Shaughnessy published in Sunderland High School magazine the poem End of the Century, 1984. Overwhelmed by the news that came from the totalitarian regimes of Italy, Germany and the USSR, the young philologist and irredeemable optimist imagined in those verses a date of hope in which the world will finally shed its ominous and violent all-encompassing power.
Who was Eileen Blair? In a delightful essay by the writer and sinologist Simon Leys collected in his Brief of useless knowledge (Cliff 2016), we discovered that, the day after her wedding with that budding writer, poor, sick and obsessed with socialism who had just assumed the pseudonym George Orwell, took her to live in a cabin in Wallington Woods. In his desperate attempts to become “an ordinary man” he rented that miserable shack with no water or electricity in order to open a store whose income barely paid the rent.