Eileen Blair

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Eileen Blair
Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy

(1905-09-25)25 September 1905
Died29 March 1945(1945-03-29) (aged 39)
Resting placeSt Andrew's and Jesmond Cemetery, West Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne
Other namesEileen O'Shaughnessy
(m. 1936)
ChildrenRichard Blair

Eileen Maud Blair (née O'Shaughnessy, 25 September 1905 – 29 March 1945) was the first wife of George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair). During World War II, she worked for the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information in London and the Ministry of Food.

She was born in South Shields in the northeast of England. Her mother was Marie O'Shaughnessy and her father was Lawrence O'Shaughnessy, a customs collector. She died at the age of 39 during a hysterectomy operation.

Education and early life[edit]

O'Shaughnessy attended Sunderland Church High School. In the autumn of 1924, she entered St Hugh's College, Oxford,[1] where she studied English. In 1927, she received a higher second-class degree.[2] By choice there followed a succession of jobs 'of no special consequence and with no connection from one to the next', which she held briefly, and which began with work as an assistant mistress at Silchester House, a girls' boarding school in Taplow in the Thames valley, and included being a secretary; a reader for the elderly Dame Elizabeth Cadbury; and the proprietor of an office in Victoria Street, London, for typing and secretarial work. When she closed it down she took up freelance journalism, selling an occasional feature piece to the Evening News.[which?] She also helped her brother, Laurence, a thoracic surgeon, by typing, proofreading and editing his scientific papers and books.[3][4]

In the autumn of 1934, Eileen enrolled at University College London for a two-year graduate course in educational psychology, leading to a Master of Arts qualification. Eileen was particularly interested in testing intelligence in children "and quite early decided upon that as the subject for the thesis she would be writing".[4] Elizaveta Fen (pen name of Lydia Jackson Jiburtovich), a fellow student who became one of O'Shaughnessy's closest friends, met her then for the first time: "She was twenty-eight years old and looked several years younger. She was tall and slender, her shoulders rather broad and high. She had blue eyes and dark brown, naturally wavy hair. George once said that she had 'a cat's face' – and one could see that this was true in a most attractive sense..."[5]

She was very close to her elder brother Laurence O'Shaughnessy,[6] a thoracic surgeon,[7] but even so, in a letter she described her brother as "one of nature's Fascists".[7]


The home in Hampstead has a blue plaque

Eileen met Eric Blair in the spring of 1935. At the time Blair was living at 77 Parliament Hill in Hampstead, occupying a spare room in the first floor flat of Rosalind Henschel Obermeyer, a niece of the conductor and composer Sir George Henschel and a friend of Mabel Fierz.

Rosalind Obermeyer was taking an advanced course in psychology at University College London; one evening she invited some of her friends and acquaintances to a party. One "was an attractive young woman whom Rosalind did not know especially well, although they often sat next to each other at lectures: her name was Eileen O'Shaughnessy." Elizaveta Fen recalled Orwell in her memoirs, Orwell and his friend and mentor Richard Rees, "draped" at the fireplace, looking, she thought, "moth-eaten and prematurely aged".[8]

Blair and O'Shaughnessy married the next year, on 9 June 1936, at St Mary's Church, Wallington, Hertfordshire (as Eric Arthur Blair and Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy; at this time he was known as Orwell only in his writing, his friends knew him as Eric or Blair; and he "never quite got around to changing it").[citation needed] Blair, though a non-practising member of the Church of England, "was sufficiently a traditionalist to wish to be married in it". They tried to have children, but Eileen did not become pregnant and they learnt later that Orwell was sterile, as he told Rayner Heppenstall, as Eileen confided in Elizaveta Fen.[9]

Spanish Civil War[edit]

Eileen joined Orwell in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Eileen volunteered for a post in the office of John McNair, the leader of the Independent Labour Party who coordinated the arrival of British volunteers, and with the help of Georges Kopp paid visits to her husband, bringing him English tea, chocolate, and cigars.[10]

Her job was described as a "French-English shorthand typist" for the ILP, but she also organised all logistics for the ILP men at the front, running, as Anna Funder says, "the supply, communications and banking operation for the entire contingent."[11] Eileen also worked in the propaganda department, producing the ILP's newspaper and radio show with Charles Orr.[12]

By June 1937, the political situation had deteriorated and Orwell and Eileen were under threat from Stalinists. Anna Funder believes that the Spanish experience is particularly revealing of Orwell's attempt to erase or minimise the importance of Eileen in his life and work:

Eileen got them both out of Spain by fronting up to the same police prefecture those men had probably been sent from, to get the visas they needed to leave. One biographer eliminates her with the passive voice, writing: 'By now, thanks to the British consulate, their passports were in order.' In Homage, Orwell mentions 'my wife' 37 times but never once names her. No character can come to life without a name. But from a wife, which is a job description, all can be stolen. I wondered what she felt as she typed those pages.[13]

After she got their passports in order, she and Orwell escaped from Spain by train, diverting to Banyuls-sur-Mer for a short stay before returning to England.

Return to England and Second World War[edit]

At the start of World War II, Eileen began working in the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information in London, staying during the week with her family in Greenwich. She was the main breadwinner for the Orwells at this time.[14]

Eileen's brother, Laurence, was killed by a bomb during the evacuation from Dunkirk,[15] after which, according to Elizaveta Fen, "her grip on life, which had never been very firm, loosened considerably". She was also increasingly unwell with uterine bleeding and left her job at the Ministry of Information in 1941. In December 1941 women were conscripted to work and she began working at the Ministry of Food.[16]

In June 1944 she and Eric adopted a three-week-old boy they named Richard Horatio. In one of her last letters to Blair, Eileen wrote of arrangements for renting and decorating Barnhill, Jura, the house where Orwell would write most of Nineteen Eighty-Four – but she died before she ever saw Barnhill.[17]


Eileen's brother, Laurence O'Shaughnessy, had married Gwen Hunton; Gwen had a property called "Greystone" near Carlton, County Durham, that had been left empty on the death of her maiden aunt. The Blairs stayed there on many occasions during 1944 and 1945. Gwen evacuated her children to the location when the "flying-bomb" raids began, and Richard went there when the Blairs had been bombed out of their flat in Maida Vale in June 1944.

In early 1945, Eileen was in very poor health and went to stay there. Joyce Pritchard, the O'Shaughnessys' nanny, said that Eileen had visited Greystone frequently between July 1944 and March 1945.[citation needed]

Eileen had been living with uterine bleeding for many years. [18] In 1945 she booked herself in for a hysterectomy with Dr Harvey Evers, against the advice of doctors in London who would operate only after a month of blood transfusions, as Eileen was anaemic. Eileen was worried about the cost of staying in hospital for long.[19]

Eileen died on 29 March 1945 in Newcastle upon Tyne under anaesthetic. She was thirty-nine. In the words of the inquest: "Cardiac failure whilst under anaesthetic of ether and chloroform skilfully and properly administered for operation for removal of uterus."[20] At the bottom of the report was the handwritten note, "The deceased was in a very anaemic condition." Harvey Evers did not attend the inquest. No one was charged.[21] Eileen and Richard had been living at Greystone at the time, with Orwell working in Paris as a war correspondent for The Observer. He reached Greystone on Saturday, 31 March.

Eileen is buried in Saint Andrew's and Jesmond Cemetery, West Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Influence on Orwell's writing[edit]

Some scholars believe that Eileen had a large influence on Orwell's writing. It is suggested[22] that Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been influenced by one of Eileen's poems, "End of the Century, 1984".[23][24] The poem was written in 1934, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the school she went to, Sunderland Church High School, and to look ahead 50 years to the school's centenary in 1984.[25]

Although the poem was written a year before she met Blair, there are some similarities between the futuristic vision of Eileen's poem and that in Nineteen Eighty-Four, including the use of mind control, and the eradication of personal freedom by a police state.[26]

Anna Funder argues that Eileen collaborated with Orwell "in a subtle, indirect way" on Animal Farm. Orwell originally planned to write an essay, and Eileen suggested it be a fable. They worked on it together in evenings, and the Orwells' friends can see Eileen's style and humour in the published work.[27]



  1. ^ "Director's odyssey over George Orwell's wife". Shields Gazette. 10 January 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2014. But see Quentin Kopps remarks at the bottom of the article, the son of Georges Kopp, he disputes some of the facts in that article.
  2. ^ Stansky & Abrahams 1994, pp. 104–105.
  3. ^ Stansky & Abrahams 1994, p. 106.
  4. ^ a b Fen, Elizaveta. "George Orwell's First wife". Twentieth Century. pp. 115–126.
  5. ^ Stansky & Abrahams 1994, p. 107.
  6. ^ Naef, A. P. (September 2003). "The mid-century revolution in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery: Part 1". Interactive Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery. 2: 219–226. doi:10.1016/S1569-9293(03)00130-0. Archived from the original on 8 July 2008. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
  7. ^ a b Taylor, D. J. (10 December 2005). "Another piece of the puzzle". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 January 2014.
  8. ^ Stansky & Abrahams 1994, pp. 100–101.
  9. ^ Stansky & Abrahams 1994, p. 179.
  10. ^ Letter to Eileen Blair April 1937 in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 1 – An Age Like This 1945–1950 p. 296 (Penguin)
  11. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. p. 116. ISBN 9780241482728.
  12. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. pp. 117–118. ISBN 9780241482728.
  13. ^ Funder, Anna (30 July 2023). "Looking for Eileen: how George Orwell wrote his wife out of his story". The Observer. Retrieved 15 November 2023.
  14. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. pp. 240–241. ISBN 9780241482728.
  15. ^ "O'Shaughnessy, Laurence Frederick (1900–1940). Royal College of Surgeons of England. Obituary
  16. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. pp. 274–278. ISBN 9780241482728.
  17. ^ Davison, Peter (2007). The Lost Orwell. Timewell Press. p. 244. ISBN 978-1857252149.
  18. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. ISBN 9780241482728.
  19. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. pp. 308–331. ISBN 9780241482728.
  20. ^ Crick, Bernard. Orwell: A Life. p. 476.
  21. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. pp. 341–344. ISBN 9780241482728.
  22. ^ "Hell Yeah George Orwell!".
  23. ^ "End of the Century, 1984", extract from Topp 2020
  24. ^ Peter Foster (4 January 2000). "Was 1984 inspired by Orwell's wife?". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 4 July 2023 – via arlindo-correia.org.
  25. ^ "www.k-1.com". k-1.com. Archived from the original on 22 July 2012. Retrieved 1 February 2014.
  26. ^ Stansky & Abrahams 1994, p. 151.
  27. ^ Funder, Anna (2023). Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. UK: Viking. pp. 290–293. ISBN 9780241482728.