Orwell was a dedicated Social Democrat, committed to fighting the twin evils of state oppression and inequality. This was the commitment that propelled him into fighting the Spanish Civil war, a campaign that would see him get shot through the neck by one of Franco’s snipers. However, for all his left-leaning credits it seems to be a truth not universally acknowledged that Orwell’s dedication to ending inequality was not something that always played out in his own life.
Orwell had a complicated relationship with women. In 1929, upon returning from Paris, Orwell met and hastily proposed to Brenda Salkeld, who rejected his offer but became a lifelong friend.
A few years later, Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy. The marriage was marred by suspicion about Orwell’s continued correspondence with Salkeld, and the writer’s engagements in Spain. Indeed, Orwell set off to fight a foreign war only a few months after the wedding bells had ceased pealing.
O’Shaughnessy died in 1945, aged only 39, with her husband across the channel in France. It is reported that Orwell’s response to her death was characteristically muted. “Such a shame,” he purportedly said, “she was a good old stick”.
Although one should be wary of psychoanalysing the dead, it appears that Orwell’s attiutudes towards women can appear less than savoury. His personal diaries recount a meeting with a certain Mrs M. This lady “as usual, does not understand much about politics but has adopted her husband’s views as a wife ought to; she pronounces the word “comrade” with manifest discomfort”. Reading this calls to mind characters from Orwell’s fiction. Julia, the liberated heroine of Nineteen Eighty Four is “only a rebel from the waist down”. Lying in bed with Winston, who is pouring over a copy of Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, she is thoroughly uninterested by the political revolution.
Mollie, the shallow, vain carthorse from Animal Farm, can also be read uncontroversially as an indictment of the female gender. Orwell’s work is intended largely to be observational. He imbues his fiction with as much insightfulness and animosity as he does his non-fiction. It seems at odds that such a staunch campaigner for social equality could overlook the bias that underpins some of his most influential work.
In seeking a reason for why Orwell might hold these prejudices, one is not attempting to excuse them. Mabel Fierz, a close friend of Orwell’s in his later years recalls that “he used to say the one thing he wished in this world was that he’d been attractive to women”. Following the death of O’Shaughnessy in 1945, a desperate Orwell made failed marriage proposals to four younger women before successfully courting Sonia Brownwell, whom he married shortly before his death in 1950.
This final lonely period shouldn’t necessarily be the lens through which we should read Orwell’s writing; it seems all too simple a narrative. Yet isolation was a fever that marked the writer’s life just as keenly as the Tuberculosis that eventually took him. Orwell flitted from job to job, often struggling to publish his work. Many of his friends have remarked on the self-consciousness that Orwell was afflicted with; an affliction shared by his characters Winston Smith from Nineteen Eighty Four and John Flory from Burmese Days amongst others.
It is sad, but perhaps fitting, that Orwell now rests as Eric Blair, in a graveyard not of his choosing, surrounded by those he never knew.