Eileen was known for her glittering intelligence and wild sense of humour. She smoked endless cigarettes, sitting at her typewriter in a silver haze, editing and proof-reading articles, radio plays and the work of her world-famous husband, George Orwell.
She was born in South Shields and went to Sunderland Church High School, where she developed a sharp interest in politics and a way with words. She was asked to write a poem to commemorate her school’s Jubilee and she composed a dystopian future with the title, Century’s End: 1984. She won a scholarship to study English among the spires of Oxford, then moved to London where she worked as a secretary and freelance journalist. She met Orwell at a party, chain-smoking in a lamp-lit living room. They fell in love and moved to a crumbling cottage in Hertfordshire, where they lived without water or electricity, keeping hens and goats and writing by candlelight.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out and Orwell went to Spain to fight fascists, as a member of POUM. Eileen joined him in arid, fractious Barcelona, where she volunteered as an assistant to John McNair, who also spent time in Tyneside and was the Independent Labour Party’s representative. Orwell sent handwritten notes for his next novel, Homage to Catalonia, to Eileen and she typed them up diligently; replacing words, rearranging sentences and checking facts late at night.
As Franco’s power grew, anti-fascist groups began to fracture and Orwell was almost killed when he was shot in the throat. Eileen visited him in hospital, reading the news in horror as POUM was declared illegal and people around them were imprisoned. The couple were under surveillance by pro-Stalinist Communists, yet Eileen managed to smuggle anti-fascist soldiers out of the country by making them pose as English tourists on the train. She stuffed their rucksacks with her Romantic poetry books, so when they were stopped and searched by police they looked innocent and inconspicuous.
Eileen’s stark political insight and polished writing skills made her Orwell’s closest collaborator. The true scope of her influence on his work is unknown, yet Orwell himself acknowledged that Homage to Catalonia would not have existed without her notes. He reportedly wrote Animal Farm under her guidance, after she advised him that the use of allegory would allow him more freedom to talk about political events and his seminal novel, 1984, is said to be derived from Eileen’s poem of the same name, written a year before they met. She lived and worked closely beside him, shared his political beliefs and was a highly-educated, opinionated woman with a flair for adventure and a hunger for words.
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