There were two bona fide Mrs Orwells: Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a psychology MA whom he married in 1936 and who perished on the operating table nine years later; and Sonia Brownell, maid of all work on Cyril Connolly’s literary magazine Horizon, wed by means of an Archbishop of Canterbury’s special licence in her husband’s hospital room three months before his death in January 1950 and who survived him for all of 30 years.
To these formal unions can be added a whole tribe of significant others: girlfriends, mistresses, brief flings and flickering torches held studiously aloft, a three-decades-long repository of ardent desires, fond hopes and, occasionally, unrealisable aspirations: Brenda Salkeld and Eleanor Jaques, his two lost Suffolk loves from the early 1930s (Brenda taught gym at a Southwold girls’ school, Eleanor was the local dentist’s daughter) to both of whom he proposed and each of whom pretty summarily turned him down; the three (at least) girls whom the traumatised widower auditioned for the role of Eileen’s replacement in the winter of 1945/6.
And so the list winds on: Sally McEwan, his Tribune secretary in the mid-1940s; a woman called “Edith Morgan”, to whom he may or may not have been briefly engaged; the writer and diarist Inez Holden (we think), who presided over the famous dinner party at which Orwell quarrelled with H.G. Wells and received a post-prandial note urging him to “read my early works, you shit”; Jacintha Buddicom, the teenage sweetheart with whom he went picking mushrooms in the hills above Henley; half-a-dozen more besides.
Married sex; extramarital sex; and, it has several times been suggested, bought sex. Did the young Eric Blair, as he was then known, consort with any of the prostitutes who were such a feature of the Burmese townships in which he served as an Imperial Police Officer between 1922 and 1927? If the evidence is, in the end, inconclusive it has to be said that Flory, the hero of Orwell’s novel Burmese Days (1934), has a native mistress, and that one of the execrable poems he brought back from the East is about a brothel-goer forced to haggle over the price.
What did Orwell think about women, in the intervals of pursuing, marrying and being turned down by them? Most of the conversational remarks that have survived are deeply and unrepentantly odd. “Not a bad old stick,” he ruefully observed, in the aftermath of Eileen’s passing. The first words spoken to Sonia after she accepted his proposal in the summer of 1949 are thought to have been: “You must learn to make dumplings.” Connolly, with whom he had attended both prep school and Eton before re-encountering him in the 1930s, once declared that his old friend was “steeped in the worst illusions of 1910”. Undoubtedly some of these illusions extended towards the opposite sex.
When it came to women, Orwell was a traditionalist, a masculinist and a chancer, an eternal presser of his suit, keen to strike when opportunity allowed. The poet Ruth Pitter, first met in the late 1920s together with one of her friends, remembered Orwell telling her that his first thought had been “whether those girls would be difficult to get”. A letter to Brenda from 1931 notes that “even if we are only to be friends, you mustn’t mind my making love to you in a small way and occasionally asking you to go further, because it is my nature to do that”.
There are occasional hints that some of this ardour had a sinister side. Jacintha, whom Orwell later accused of “abandoning” him to Burma, alleged that he tried to rape her. An odd little incident from the Southwold days has Orwell emerging from a ditch near the River Blyth in pursuit of a girl named Dorothy Rogers who was making her way home over the common only for him to be chased away, and apparently beaten up, by her vengeful fiancé; Dorothy, it turns out, is the name of the heroine of his second novel. As for what may have been said in the course of these assignations, those on the receiving end remembered both obliquity and awkwardness. Connolly’s girlfriend Lys Lubbock believed that Orwell’s habit of dropping into the Horizon office to complain about its editor’s love of lunching with his grand friends at the Dorchester was his way of flirting with her. Anne Popham, to whom — greatly to her surprise — he proposed marriage a few months after Eileen’s death, recalled his making the altogether deathless inquiry: “Do you think you could look after me?”
A later letter canvassed some of the advantages of being a writer’s widow. If most of Orwell’s lady-friends came from his own social milieu — the genteel middle class — then age was no barrier. Mrs Mabel Fierz, who to some extent mentored his early 1930s arrival into the literary world, was old enough to be his mother; Dora Georges, to whom he presented a poem entitled “Ode to a Dark Lady” in the late 1920s (which Ms Georges regrettably failed to keep), was not yet 16.
And what, in return, did the women think of Orwell? Undoubtedly, most of them enjoyed his company, found him attractive — Lys Lubbock thought him better-looking than photographs made him appear — while acknowledging an unworldly, self-absorbed side that could transform most of the normal processes of life into a perpetual obstacle course. His mother, Ida Blair, and his sisters, Marjorie and Avril, are supposed to have occupied the hours before his wedding to Eileen in June 1936 by taking the bride-to-be to one side and remarking on the enormity of what she was taking on.
Married life offered plenty of examples of the level of detachment that Orwell was capable of maintaining in the course of his daily existence. Eileen once went out for the night leaving her husband’s shepherd’s pie cooking in the oven and a dish of jellied eels for the cat and came back to find that Orwell had eaten the jellied eels as the pie lay quietly incinerating. If this was only exasperating, then there were times when it gestured at a kind of emotional severance.
Eileen believed that the difference between Orwell and her adored brother Laurence, who died in the retreat from France in 1940, was that if summoned Laurence would come from the ends of the earth to her side; “George would not do that.”
Orwell’s silences and his deep-dyed domestic conservatism were often construed as simple patronage. Janetta Woolley, then the wife of his old Spanish Civil War comrade Hugh Slater, compared him to Connolly: quietly unimpressed by whatever the woman on the other side of the table had to offer. “Basil”, a character at least partly based on Orwell in Stevie Smith’s novel The Holiday (1949), offers the opinion that “girls can’t play”. Susan Watson, who looked after the widower and his adopted son Richard in their Islington flat and later on the Hebridean isle of Jura, was startled to find a half-finished letter on her employer’s typewriter volunteering the news that “I have a dear little housekeeper.”
There were allegations of stinginess: Stevie Smith, when taken out to lunch at a restaurant by her friend George Stonier, once said that she was glad her host wasn’t “the other George”, in which case they would probably have ended up at an Express Dairy. On the other hand, almost without exception, the female friends and ex-girlfriends kept up with him, wanted to hear his news and sorrowed over his afflictions. One of the last letters he wrote from the hospital bed in 1949 was to Brenda, hoping that she would come to visit him. Jacintha attended his funeral. Eleanor’s daughter remembered her mother bursting into tears when the news of his death came over on the radio.
But what was it like to be taken about by Orwell, to sit talking to him, to be bought drinks by him, to share his leisure and become an adjunct to the peculiar mental world he inhabited? “Basil” in The Holiday shares his part-model’s well-attested habit of lapsing into obsessional monologues (“he said that he happened to see an article in an American woman’s magazine about scanty panties, he said women who thought about scanty panties never had a comfortable fire burning in the fire-place, or a baby in the house, or a dog, or a cat or a parrot …”)
As for possible destinations, one of the signature marks of Orwell’s novels is their interest in plein air frolics. Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) inveigles his girlfriend Rosemary out into the Thames Valley verdure with the express intention of seducing her.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four Julia and Winston’s first dalliance takes place in the countryside, beyond the reach of the Thought Police’s telescreens and microphones. But Orwell’s letters to real people are just the same. A recently discovered cache of correspondence with Brenda and Eleanor is full of invitations to nature rambles across Southwold Common or summer saunters along the Blyth. If Orwell proposed a bird-nesting jaunt, you tied a mousetrap to your garters. “Have you ever had a woman in a park?” Orwell once cross-questioned his friend Anthony Powell. Powell, nonplussed, shook his head. “I have,” Orwell assured him. “You see, there was nowhere else to go.”
With the exception of Animal Farm (1945), each of Orwell’s six novels is essentially a projection of the inner world of the man who wrote them, a bleak little palisaded universe whose central character is being eavesdropped on and spied upon, who rebels against the forces that oppress him (her in the case of Dorothy, A Clergyman’s Daughter’s downtrodden female lead) and is eventually forced to reach some kind of accommodation with the conquering horde. How do the women get on here? What effect do they have on the writing of them? Do they appear in them?
In her newly-published Eileen: The Making of George Orwell (Unbound, £25), Sylvia Topp makes a plausible case for Eileen as Orwell’s muse, discussing his work with him as it proceeded, typing drafts of his novels (Coming Up For Air was written in the winter of 1938-9 in Morocco as Orwell recovered from his first serious haemorrhage, with Eileen in the role of amanuensis) and generally involving herself in his development as a writer. Animal Farm, according to Topp’s diligent research, is full of Eileen’s influence, Eileen’s humour and the hint of Eileen making her presence felt in her husband’s creative life.
Neither, too, should we forget a three-part futuristic satire entitled “End of the Century: 1984” that appeared in her old school magazine in the early 1930s and which Orwell would almost certainly have seen.
And what about Sonia, with whom he may have had a brief affair in the winter of 1945/6 and who seems to have become a significant presence in his life in the spring of 1947, just as he came back to Jura and settled down to completing a first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four? One of the longer letters in Peter Davison’s magisterial edition of the Complete Works is a three-page effusion sent from Jura in April 1947, inviting Sonia to visit and containing minutely itemised instructions on how to reach the island from the Scottish mainland (“Travel by bus to West Tarbert . . . Take hired car to Lealt”, etc).
Such is Orwell’s anxiety to communicate with the woman at the desk in London that he seems to have set pen to paper even before his luggage was properly unpacked (“I am handwriting this because my typewriter is downstairs”). There are thanks for purchases made on his behalf (“I’ve just remembered that I never paid you for that brandy you got for me.”) Clearly the man who signs off “with much love” having remarked that he “does so want to have you here” is desperate to have her by his side.
All this naturally encourages a suspicion that Sonia has something to do with Julia, who spends her working hours in a government department engaged on the task of mass-producing pornography for impressionable proles and her leisure time encouraging Winston to break every proscription in the Party rule book. In her biography of Sonia, The Girl From the Fiction Department (2002), Hilary Spurling maintains that Orwell returned to Jura in 1947 with the aim of “re-creating” Sonia as Julia and a determination to “take her as his model”.
To support this claim, there is the fact that Julia is approximately Sonia’s age (26 against 28), with a self-confident vocal style that approaches the bossiness Sonia was thought to bring to her editorial duties at Horizon. Julia’s declaration that “I do voluntary work three evenings a week for the Junior Anti-Sex League. Hours and hours I’ve spent pasting their bloody rot all over London. I always carry one end of the banner in the processions. I always look cheerful and I never shirk anything” sounds very like some of Sonia’s quoted remarks.
On the other hand, unlike her supposed model, Julia is resolutely unintellectual and falls asleep while Winston regales her with selections from Oceania’s legendary banned book, Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. Sonia, you feel, would have managed to stay awake for this juicy ideological treat. Meanwhile, there are other pieces of detail that call this identification into question.
A letter to Eleanor from September 1932 which recalls “that day in the wood along past Blythburgh Lodge … I shall always remember that, & your nice white body in the dark moss” is remarkably close to the account of Julia tearing off her clothes so that her body “gleamed white in the sun”.
As for Julia’s “swift, athletic movements”, it is worth remembering that Brenda held down a day job as a sports teacher and that in one of the few surviving photographs of her she is wearing a gym-slip. If there are traces of Sonia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, then there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Julia is more likely to be a composite portrait of half-a-dozen women met in Southwold, Hampstead and other places beyond.
But back to the question — one that can never be ignored for very long in Orwell’s work — of social class. At first glance his novels seem to be crammed with awful women — termagants, gossips, joy-quenchers, shabby-genteel tyrants — but a closer inspection reveals them to be almost exclusively drawn from the petit-bourgeoisie. If Mrs Semprill, A Clergyman’s Daughter’s ghastly sneak, Gordon Comstock’s vigilant landlady Mrs Wisbeach and the glacial Mrs Lackersteen in Burmese Days, have anything to unite them it is their relish of social position.
Every so often, though, there comes a moment in which a working-class woman steals forward into the limelight. One of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s most memorable, and least pessimistic scenes, finds Winston staring out of the window of the love nest he shares with Julia above Mr Charrington’s antiques shop and watching the prole woman singing as she hangs out the laundry. Inspired with a feeling of “mystical reverence” that is somehow mixed up with the pale, cloudless sky that stretches away over her head, Winston reflects that:
It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same — everywhere, all over the world, hundreds and thousands and millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same — people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.
In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), too, a working-class woman offers a pivot on which the narrative turns. Here, heading out of Wigan by train, Orwell passes a row of slum houses and catches sight of a young woman kneeling on the stones poking a stick up a blocked waste-pipe. Orwell has “time to see everything about her” — sacking apron, clogs, cold-reddened forearms. The girls looks up as the train passes: “She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen.”
As it turns out, this is not a precise recapitulation of what actually happened — Orwell’s diaries reveal that he was walking up “a horrible squalid side-alley” when the sighting took place rather than watching from a train-window — but the rest of the description is almost word-for-word. Some years ago, I sat on a literary festival platform with a feminist historian who proceeded to denounce The Road to Wigan Pier for concentrating on coal-miners while ignoring the gender oppression that, to her eye, was the real scandal of the pre-war industrial north.
But all this ignores the genuine imaginative sympathy that Orwell brought to the plight of the Wigan women — there are other descriptions of coal-gatherers, “dumpy, shawled women with their sacking aprons and their heavy black clogs, kneeling in the cindery mud and the bitter wind” — in his efforts to “connect”. In the end, Eileen and Sonia, Brenda and Eleanor, Sally and Inez, Dorothy Rodgers walking home across Southwold Common and the sacking aproned-drudge of the Wigan backstreets are sisters under the skin.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe