Eric, Eileen and Norah
Newly discovered letters shed light on the inner life of Orwell's wife, writes Jenny Joseph
Whatever is happening in the book trade, to publishers, booksellers and libraries, the Orwell industry, at least, is not in decline. The latest addition to the genre, The Lost Orwell, published by Timewell, may at first glance seem like one more journalistic recycling: not a bit of it!
This book is what should have been the 21st volume of the Collected Orwell, Secker & Warburg's major publishing project, which Professor Peter Davison has been editing for 25 years. At final copy stage Secker told him they had decided that publishing the final volume was economically unviable and withdrew from the project. Timewell Press, a small independent, took it over in January of this year. The book contains material that has come to light since the last of the Secker volumes went to press in 1997.
At first, it seemed a shame that this volume should not be part of the edition it was intended to be the finale to, but now I think it better as a free-standing book. It will, of course, be needed in 'learned libraries', but should be in public libraries above all. In this separate format it is more available to the general readership it has been produced for.
The contents are diverse: letters to, from and about Orwell; newspaper articles and reports; photographs not seen before or rarely reproduced. Some of the most valuable new material is in Davison's introductions to the items and the expanded notes in which he follows fresh leads into partly known material included or referred to in the Collected. Some of his scrupulous acknowledgements of how he came by the material read like detective stories. Where completely new stories come to light he can now anchor a previously isolated name, say, in its context in the whole dense landscape of Orwell's life, times and work.
The most exciting finds are two caches of letters rightly placed in the first sections of the book. They unfold poignant and important stories and are in themselves wonderful examples of letter writing as literary form.
First is the correspondence between Orwell (in 1934 still using the name Eric Blair) and RN Raimbault, the French translator of Down And Out In Paris And London, Orwell's first book.
We have both sides of the correspondence. Raimbault gets in touch with the author whose book he has translated to check some technical details. Each liked the way the other worked with words, drawing their decisions from deep, wide knowledge of books and languages. Raimbault had taught French literature and classics at the Lycée at Le Mans in Brittany. He had come to teaching, and then to translating, from his first trade as a wood engraver. (
In my capacity as a writer by vocation, a teacher by chance, and being dead broke by necessity, to me you are likable three times over, he wrote). Orwell responded with gratitude to Raimbault's informed enthusiasm for his work and interest in his novel Burmese Days.
A formal business correspondence becomes one of warm friendship. They send each other books and reveal more details of their lives and attitudes, so we too feel in the company of people we are getting to know. Then Raimbault is struck by a terrible blow. One of his twin daughters (
she was approaching 17 years of age and was life and joy itself) drowned off the coast of his beloved Britanny where the family were taking a holiday, which, as he had written to Orwell in his previous letter, he had been so much looking forward to.
He drops out of Orwell's sight and so out of ours. When Burmese Days appears years later in the French translation, Raimbault's name is not on it.
Orwell and Eileen O' Shaughnessy married in June 1936. They had met the year before at a party in Hampstead, where he worked in a bookshop. His landlady had invited some friends from University College London where Eileen was doing a postgraduate degree in psychology. There is much in the Lost Orwell that bears out what they found in each other at that first meeting. He told a friend she was the nicest person he'd met in a long time; to her, he was the most interesting person she knew.
It was as Eileen Blair that she wrote the six newly discovered letters that form the second section. Quite a lot was known and recorded about Eileen from this time, and all who knew her remembered a delightful, witty companion, a loyal and intelligent friend, and a marvellous letter writer. However comparatively few of Eileen's letters have survived. The first is dated by Davison November 1935. The recipient of these letters, Norah Myles, née Symes, a friend made in her youth, long before she knew Orwell. There are no letters from Norah.
Nothing was previously known about this close and loving friendship, which started when the girls went up to St Hugh's College in Oxford in 1924. Four days before she died while undergoing surgery, aged just 39, Eileen wrote to Orwell trying to make arrangements for the care of their adopted baby, Richard, in the event of her death (which was not expected. Orwell's state of ill-health had until then been treated as the more critical).
Norah and Quartus would have him brought up beautifully, she wrote. The most diligent editor has failed, until now, to find anything to flesh out these names. Now we know that they refer to Norah Myles and her husband.
Eileen heads one letter
I think it is nearly Christmas. Most are undated. Norah is never addressed by name. Among the many witty touches is Eileen's unique way of signing off, constructing a sentence which always ends with a nickname unknown to anyone else, even her own family, like this from December 1938:
give your mother my love, and your father even Quartus and yet uniquely Norah is loved by Pig.
The only reference to her real name is the 'E' after the postscript to the brief sixth letter:
Please write a letter. The difficulty is that I am too profoundly depressed to write a letter. I have many times half thought I could come to Bristol but it is literally years since a weekend belonged to me and George would have a haemorrhage. I suppose London is not a place to come to really but if you do ring NATIONAL 3318. My departmental head is almost as frightened of me as he is of making any decision on his own and I can get time off. Meanwhile give my love to everyone. E.
The letters were written between 1936 and 1939, but the time range is extended because Eileen and Norah knew each other in the 1920s, each unmarried and living with their parents. Norah was part of a large medical family living in Clifton, the thriving professional quarter of Bristol where many consultants set up practice at a time when Bristol Medical School was at the forefront of research. Norah's father, husband and father-in-law were all doctors and surgeons. Eileen's brother Laurence O'Shaughnessy (known to his family, confusingly, as 'Eric'), whom she was extremely close to and later worked for, editing and preparing his papers and books for publication, was a brilliant chest surgeon. It's possible that even in 1924 Norah's family might have known of him because he was a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons at just 21. Apart from the warm hospitality of the Symes's household, Eileen would have felt at home in that medical milieu.
Eileen's letters pitch straight in, conveying the immediacy of the situation she's writing from the paper she's using, the cigarette she's rolling:
A note to say I am leaving for Spain tomorrow (or I think so, but with inconceivable grandeur people ring up from Paris about it)
It is undated, but we feel the pressure of the hour, made aware of what is happening in the world as she writes, even if she's describing buying white handkerchiefs in a horrid shop.
After a page packed with racy information and hilariously conveyed perceptions about what she and George expect to be doing in Barcelona and the Arragon Front (Orwell was already on the front by this point, with Eileen's
full approval) she ends:
The dinner gong is going. Is it not touching to think that this may be the last dinner unrationed available to Pig?
Rushed as she is, outward bound for adventure, she finds time for this post-script:
Give everyone my love even yourself. Eric [her brother] is lecturing at Bristol but I think not till May. Hey Groves [professor of Surgery at Bristol] came to the heart lecture at the College of Surgeons and then invited him to talk to you, but the date isn't settled yet. He has some pretty pictures. I could have come with him perhaps after all I shall come with him. If you meet Hey Groves tell him to make the date after the war is over.
Could you tell Mary (not urgently) that I simply hadn't time to write separate letters to the two old Oxford friends which is simply true.
Before these letters were published, literary journalist John Ezard remarked of them:
I find [Eileen's] personality, which springs off the page, utterly captivating, intelligent in every nerve in its humour and self-irony and in the resilience and strength of the love the high amused love which she shows for [Orwell].
I was very sorry when the letters came to an end and there was no longer a sense of contact with her spirit I can't remember these qualities emerging from anything else I have read.
A writer who can produce that effect is a very fine writer indeed.
Jenny Joseph's most recent collection of poems is The Extreme Of Things (Bloodaxe). To buy a copy of The Lost Orwell (Timewell) call
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