Homage to Orwell
Monday, July 14, 2003

10. ORWELL'S 77 PARLIAMENT HILL

Turning left from Booklovers' Corner and up a steep street we soon came to the bottom of Parliament Hill which veered right off the main thoroughfare. Our destination was 77 Parliament Hill, the house where Orwell lived after moving out of his room above the bookshop. It never ceases to amaze me - in all the reading I've done about his life - how much he challenged his weakened lungs. He almost always lived at the top, and in this case as usual, he was nowhere near the bottom. The odd numbers were on the left side of the street and they weren't getting higher as fast as the incline was. I said to Zoe as we started puffing for breath that now it was starting to feel like a pilgrimage to Orwell. But finally, at the very last house at the very top of the hill, we reached Orwell's house. I was amazed to see that it was next to a massive grass-covered park stretching up a rolling hill, which as I later put two and two together, was Hampstead Heath. That in itself is worth a visit all its own and so we didn't really pay it too much attention, not even taking a photo (which I regret). But I did take a photo of the house, thank heavens:

Parliament Hill Room

Notice the blue oval "Orwell Lived Here" plaque below the middle window.

Orwell moved to 77 Parliament Hill in mid-February 1935 when he was thirty-two years old. His literary mentor, Mabel Fierz, knew the lady who owned it and asked her if she would rent Orwell a room. She thought the fresh air from the heath would be good for his lungs.

Michael Sheldon describes it this way in his book, Orwell: The Authorized Biography:

"Rosalind Obermeyer was South African and had come to England in the 1920s. She was eight years older than Orwell and had already been married and divorced. When Orwell met her, she was taking an advanced course in psychology at University College, London, and was sharing her flat with another woman, a medical student named Janet Gimson. The two women and one man lived in the same flat for about six months, and maintained good relations throughout that time, each respecting the privacy of the other two. Orwell was friendly, but he led his own life and did not attempt to establish a close relationship with the women. Of the two, Rosalind came to know him better, though she later spoke of him as being rather aloof and not easy to warm to. She felt that 'something hadn't blossomed in him'."

Orwell entertained friends in his room, cooking for them on a broiler-grill he had. He had a girlfriend named Kay whom he'd met when she came into the bookshop just after he started work there. She liked talking to him about books and politics and taking long walks on the heath where he impressed her with his vast knowledge about birds and plants and trees and everything else to do with nature. Through his friend Sir Richard Rees, the aristocrat owner of the magazine Adelphi, Orwell was introduced to new people, one of whom, Raynor Heppenstall, became a lifelong friend and later a famous producer at BBC. They used to dine at small restaurants in Soho and talk about "highbrow" literature but Orwell also loved to talk about his collection of comic postcards and children's comic books. Another new friend of that time, a social anthropologist named Geoffrey Gorer, who had been invited to dinner by Orwell after writing him a fan letter about Burmese Days said about him, as described in Crick's biography, Orwell: A Life:

     "I found that he was one of the most interesting people I've ever known. I was never bored in his company. He was interested in nearly everything. And his attitudes were original. He didn't take accepted ideas. ...I would have said he was an unhappy man. He was too big for himself. I suppose if he'd been younger you would have said 'coltish'. He was awfully likely to knock things off tables, to trip over things. I mean, he was a gangling, physically badly coordinated young man. I think he felt that even the inanimate world was against him some times, I mean any gas stove he had would go wrong, any radio would break down. ...He was a lonely man - until he met Eileen, a very lonely man. He was fairly well convinced that nobody would like him, which made him prickly.".

Cyril Connolly - his best friend from boarding school days who went on with him to Eton - came back into Orwell's life at this time. They hadn't seen each other since 1922 when Orwell left for Burma. After reading a book review Connolly wrote of Burmese Days in The New Statesman and Nation Orwell invited him to Parliament Hill for dinner. Here's how Crick, in Orwell: A Life, describes their reunion:

"His greeting was typical, a long but not unfriendly stare and his characteristic wheezy laugh, 'Well, Connolly, I can see that you've worn a good deal better than I have.' I could say nothing, for I was appalled by the ravaged grooves that ran down from cheek to chin. My fat cigar-smoking persona must have been a surprise to him'."

Connolly learned that Orwell hadn't been in touch with anyone from Eton. In an interview years later he said, "When Orwell came back from Burma he did not care for Oxford and Cambridge intellectuals, the easy livers, 'the Pansy Left' as he called them".

Over the years Connolly introduced Orwell to many new people and encouraged editors he knew to publish his essays. And as has been discussed earlier, it was Connolly who introduced Orwell to his second wife, Sonia.

But it was his landlady on Parliament Hill who introduced Orwell to his first wife, Eileen. It happened this way, as described by Sheldon in his book, Orwell: The Authorized Biography:

"In the spring Orwell decided to give a party, and asked his landlady, Rosalind, to join him in the fun by inviting some of her friends from University College. She agreed. It was not a large party - perhaps no more than a dozen people. Rees and Heppenstall were among Orwell's guests, and there were about five or six of Rosalind's friends, all of whom were either students or teachers in the Psychology Department of the College."

"One of these guests was a slender woman with broad shoulders and dark brown hair. She was nearly thirty and was a graduate student working on a Master's degree in educational psychology. Her name was Eileen Maud O'Shaughnessy, and Orwell was attracted to her from the moment she walked into the room. They spent much of the evening talking, and at the end of the party he walked her to the bus stop. When he came back to the flat, he went to Rosalind's room and announced to her that Eileen was 'the sort of girl I'd like to marry'."

"This woman, who would indeed become George Orwell's wife, was an exceptional person. She came from a proud Irish family who had come to England in the early nineteenth century and had settled on the Tyneside. The daughter of a Collector of Customs, she was born on 25 September 1905 in South Shields. There was only one other child in the family, her older brother Laurence, and she was devoted to him. Both children received excellent educations. He studied medicine at the University of Durham and in Berlin, and was the winner of four scholarships. At the age of twenty-six he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. She was educated at Sunderland High School, and then won a scholarship to one of the women's colleges at Oxford - St Hugh's - from which she received her degree in English Letters in 1927."

"Because she earned only a Second Class Honours degree, she did not attempt an academic career, but chose instead to accept the first job which was offered to her - a teaching position in a private boarding school for girls. She did not find the job to her liking, however, and left after only one term. Over the next three years she worked at a succession of temporary jobs, which reportedly included doing social work among London prostitutes. Then, in 1931, she assumed the ownership of a small secretarial agency in London - Murrells Typewriting Bureau - which was located in a basement office at 49 Victoria Street..."

"Eileen gave up the typing bureau when she decided to pursue a degree in psychology. She was encouraged in this ambition by her brother, whom she assisted in her spare time by editing and typing his scientific papers. ...From 1933 to 1935 he was Hunterian Professor at the Royal College of Surgeons and was at the forefront of research on heart disease and tuberculosis. In 1936 he founded a clinic at Lambeth Hospital for the treatment of cardiovascular disease, and also became the consultant surgeon to the Preston Hall tuberculosis sanatorium - which was an advanced centre of research and treatment operated by the British Legion. He gave lectures on his work to scientists in France, Germany and the United States, and he was co-author of two influential textbooks - Thoracic Surgery (1937) and Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Pathology, Diagnosis, Management and Prevention (1938). The astonishing thing about all this work is that it was done before he was forty. Of course, the fact that Eileen's brother was one of Britain's leading experts on tuberculosis was of no small interest to Orwell, and in the future Dr. O'Shaughnessy had in important part to play in Orwell's life."

"At the time she met her future husband, Eileen was living at 24 Croom's Hill, which borders Greenwich Park. The house belonged to her brother and his wife, Gwen, who was also a doctor. It was a Georgian house with elegant bay windows on two of its three floors, and was originally the home of an astronomer at the Royal Observatory. Eileen was happy there, and enjoyed playing at least a small part in her brother's brilliant career, but she was also looking forward to having a career of her own as an educational psychologist. And then Orwell came into her life. He took her out to dinner not long after the party at Rosalind's flat, and, as Eileen later reported to her friend Lydia Jackson, he proposed to her. Lydia was stunned: 'What! already?...What are you going to do about it?' To which, Eileen responded, 'I don't know...You see, I told myself that when I was thirty, I would accept the first man who asked me to marry him.' Eileen would turn thirty in September, so time was running out. But Lydia did not take the comment too seriously. It was a 'typical' thing for Eileen to say, she recalled. 'One could never be certain whether she was being serious or facetious.'"

"It was this slightly mischievous sense of humour which attracted Orwell to her in the first place. She could appreciate his dry wit, and she was capable of matching it with her own quips. She was not intimidated by him, and she was not the kind of woman whom he could easily shock with his unconventional remarks. She was also one of the most intelligent women he would ever meet, and he was well aware of it. Having read widely in English literature, she could hold her own with him in discussions about poetry or fiction. And as her surviving letters show, she was an excellent writer, with a strong sense of style. Her friends thought that Orwell's marriage to Eileen was, among other things, beneficial to his writing. They believed that she was a perceptive critic and influenced the development of his style by reading his works while he was in the process of writing them, and giving him her honest opinions..."

"During the summer of 1935 Orwell and Eileen spent many weekends together, staying in Greenwich or making excursions into the countryside. He repeated his proposal, but she put him off for the time being, explaining that she did not want to marry until she had completed all the work for her degree. Orwell could not promise her an easy life if she accepted him; he did not have much money, and his literary prospects were uncertain. But he felt certain that Eileen was the right woman to be his wife, and wanted to marry her as soon as the time was right for both of them. He was so serious about marrying her that he wanted them to become formally engaged, but even that had to wait for a little longer. 'You are right about Eileen,' he wrote to Raynor Heppenstall during this period. 'She is the nicest person I have met for a long time. However, at present, alas! I can't afford a ring, except perhaps a Woolworth's one.'"

"He made good progress that summer on his new novel, and was hoping to finish it by the end of the year."

Crick, in Orwell: A Life, describes her influence this way:

"Eileen gave George a new optimism. So unsure of himself with people, he found it marvelous to be loved by a woman like this who did not nag him to look for a steady job, nor try to change his bohemian habits..."

"Perhaps Eileen's arrival in his life could account for the sudden, strange and rather ambivalent "happy ending" of Gordon Comstock's odyssey -- when he decides to take the soul- or poetry-destroying job in the advertising agency and marry Rosemary. Luckily Orwell did not himself do anything so drastic as look for a full-time job..."

"He moved out of 77 Parliament Hill in August, perhaps to gain more privacy. Grateful though he must have been to Rosalind Obermeyer for introducing him to Eileen."

And on that happy note Zoe and I also moved on from 77 Parliament Hill. I very much wanted to walk up to the top of Hampstead Heath and see how far it stretched beyond. But we had an appointment to keep at our next destination and every minute was important now so we commenced our descent down the way we'd come.

go next to 11.CANONBURY SQUARE or back to HOMAGE ORWELL

VISITING ORWELL'S WEDDING CHURCH

A. Orwell's Life in Wallington

EILEEN BLAIR'S GRAVE

Eileen Blair's funeral was on April 3rd and in "1984" Winston starts his diary on "April 4th". Also, Orwell may have been honouring Eileen when he named "1984" because she had written a futuristic poem in 1934 entitled "End of the Century, 1984", which was based on her recent reading of Huxley's "Brave New World". In her poem she describes the future fifty years down the road when,

'Shakespeare's bones are quiet at last,
...No book disturbs the lucid line,
For sun-bronzed scholars tune their thought
To telepathic Station 9
From where they know just what they ought,
...mental cremation that should banish
Relics, philosophies and colds'
poem from Inside George Orwell, page 382

Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

email: orwelltoday@gmail.com
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