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Eileen Reviews

Eileen by Sylvia Topp

Eileen

The Making of George Orwell

Sylvia Topp

3.18 out of 5

5 reviews

Imprint: Unbound
Publisher: Unbound
Publication date: 17 Oct 2019
ISBN: 9781783527083

Zelda, Nora, Vera, and now Eileen - this is the story of George Orwell's first wife, a woman who shaped, supported and even saved the life of one of twentieth century's greatest writers

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
2 stars out of 5
Rachel Cooke
10 Mar 2020

"a dispiriting read with unconvincing arguments about her influence on his work"

It’s highly detailed; Topp leaves absolutely nothing out, which is part of the reason why it makes for such a dispiriting read (she reprints in full, for instance, the reports of her subject’s tutors at Oxford University, where she studied English). However, there are other, graver problems at play here. Does Eileen really deserve a full-length biography? The book’s subtitle, The Making of George Orwell, rather suggests that she doesn’t; that the single most interesting aspect of her life – at least to us, at such a distance from her – was the fact of her marriage. Aware of this, Topp tries hard to show that she had a greater influence on Orwell’s work than his male biographers have so far allowed. But her arguments are unconvincing.

Reviews

3 stars out of 5
Rachel Cooke
10 Mar 2020

"Topp tries hard to show that she had a greater influence on Orwell’s work than his male biographers have so far allowed. But her arguments are unconvincing"

This is the first biography of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who died in 1945, only a year after she and Orwell adopted their only son, Richard (she went into hospital for a hysterectomy and never came out). It’s highly detailed; Topp leaves absolutely nothing out, which is part of the reason why it makes for such a dispiriting read (she reprints in full, for instance, the reports of her subject’s tutors at Oxford University, where she studied English). However, there are other, graver problems at play here. Does Eileen really deserve a full-length biography? The book’s subtitle, The Making of George Orwell, rather suggests that she doesn’t; that the single most interesting aspect of her life – at least to us, at such a distance from her – was the fact of her marriage. Aware of this, Topp tries hard to show that she had a greater influence on Orwell’s work than his male biographers have so far allowed. But her arguments are unconvincing.

3 stars out of 5
Frances Wilson
4 Mar 2020

"The deluge of detail mars an otherwise moving and important book"

This biography is meticulously researched. Like a mathematician, Topp shows her workings and thus loads her pages with evidence of her time in the archives. For example, we get the transcript of every school report and every tutor report for all three years of Eileen’s English degree at St Hugh’s College (“Miss O’Shaughnessy has a sense of style and when she translates correctly her work is quite good” etc). It’s fun for the biographer to discover these titbits but they are less fun to read, and should be condensed or confined to the endnotes rather than displayed like a centrepiece.

4 stars out of 5
Ysenda Maxtone Graham
20 Feb 2020

"Sylvia Topp has brilliantly recaptured the flavour and texture of the Orwell’s marriage"

Yet there’s a real sense that these were two kindred spirits who found one another’s company perpetually stimulating. Topp’s subtitle for her book is The Making Of George Orwell, and she argues that it was thanks to Eileen that Orwell’s prose took on a fresh zip and wit. Many critics noted a new zestfulness in his writing after they met, though no one credited her. Orwell admired Eileen’s highly educated mind. They sparked off each other, keeping up a ‘merry war’ of words. She would pounce on his generalisations, such as ‘all Scout masters are homosexuals’ and ‘all tobacconists are fascists’, and would not let him get away with them.

4 stars out of 5
John Carey
16 Feb 2020

"her book is a revelation, because it sees things from Eileen’s viewpoint and shows that Orwell persistently failed to do so"

It is fair to say that, despite the outstanding merits of Topp’s book, its first three chapters, about Eileen’s ancestry, schooldays and undergraduate years, are tough going, full of trivia and unlikely conjectures, and best skipped. But it quickly improves once she has met Orwell. It draws on new and out-of-the-way sources, including some from Peter Davison’s The Lost Orwell, and Davison, the editor of the great 20-volume The Complete Works of George Orwell, provides a moving introduction. Topp’s enterprise was crowd-funded by 372 people whose names appear at the end. They should feel proud.