Wednesday 22 September 2021

Mrs Orwell

I devoured George Orwell [L,L] when I was acquiring my very expensive education. This wasn't particularly subversive in the late 1960s because Orwell was nearly 20 years dead and his late public successes Animal Farm [two legs bad, four legs goat L] and 1984 were assigned reading in British schools. Animal Farm was allegory light, and was read as a children's story like, say, Charlotte's Web - another book in which a pig is the star. As a devastating indictment of corruption by totalitarian power, the cartoon format insulated the reader from looking critically at, say, the government of Britain. The success of the Cold War, which got in the pores of the first half of my life, was that it othered the Soviets and diverted our attention to Them and allowed us to be smug about Democracy. With hindsight, it looks like the welfare state - NHS, council houses, the dole, nationalized industry - was a sop to the under-class to prevent a revolution such as had changed the political landscape in the Soviet Union and the PRC. The fall of the Berlin Wall and dismantling of the Iron Curtain was co-incident with the ending of mainstream socialism in these islands: council houses were sold off to the current incumbents, industries were privatized, and inequality became far more extreme.

The Orwell books which I read more than once were Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London. From the Paris section I took on board the belief that plongeur was an heroic métier: I think it helped shape me as an infrastructure guy rather than a centre-forward. I've just finished Orwell's Nose a pathological biography by John Sutherland, which The Beloved snagged for me from Wexford County Library Service. 

The conceit is that Orwell was hyperosmic - reeling from the smells of the lower classes [the poor bugger was a scholarship boy at Eton] - the drains, the boiled cabbage, the oxters - while being patriarchally indifferent to his own contributions to the personal odourscape. Sutherland also indicts him for writing brutal lightly fictionalised portraits of people who went out of their way to support him: his parents, his younger sister, his teachers and most of his literary patrons. We also learn that Orwell was partial to outdoor bonking. The women of his circle applied NSIT not safe in taxis to Arthur Koestler; Orwell was more NSIH not safe in heathland.

The two women who did the most thankless skivvying for Le Grand Auteur were his sister Avril Blair and his first wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy [R from passport photo]. Eileen gave up her almost completed Master's in Psychology at UCL to become Mrs George Orwell and facilitated his fantasies about running an honest yeoman small-holding by doing all the mucking out and heavy lifting. Pausing only to bring Himself a cup of tea as he pounded away on his typewriter. She was afar better typist than him and made the fair copies of his works which were sent to publishers. Sutherland: "Heretical to say so but, from the small samples one has, Eileen often strikes one as the more vivacious writer of the two." She was no mere typist; at least an Oxford trained copy-editor who helped make the prose more lucid. For example, she midwifed The Road to Wigan Pier when Orwell ran off to fight in Spain. And she was a much better socialist than her husband. In many Orwell biographies Eileen shimmers, almost invisible, in the background doing the chores. It's looking much more likely that, like Mrs John Le Carré, she deserves co-authorship on much of Orwell's most productive and influential work

Eileen died of neglected cancer, aged 40 in 1945. George died of neglected lungs aged 46 in 1950.

No comments:

Post a Comment