O’Shaughnessy was born in South Shields, County Durham, in the north-east of England, the only daughter of Marie O’Shaughnessy and Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, who was a customs collector. Despite being very close to her older brother Lawrence, a distinguished thoracic surgeon, in a letter to a friend she described him as “one of nature’s Fascists”.
It was through her brother’s marriage to Gwen Hunton that she and Orwell had access to Greystone, near Carlton, where they stayed in 1944/45. Greystone had recently been left vacant following the death of Gwen’s maiden aunt, Mary Hunton.
O’Shaughnessy was also an amateur poet. She met Orwell in 1935 and married him the following year. Soon after their marriage she joined Orwell when he went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, returning the following year after he was wounded in the throat by a sniper.
On the outbreak of World War II, Eileen started work in the Censorship Department in London, staying during the week with her family in Greenwich. In the spring of 1942, Eileen changed jobs to work at the Ministry of Food.
In June 1944 Orwell and O’Shaughnessy adopted a three-week old boy they named Richard Horatio Blair. She died in tragic circumstances in the spring of 1945 in Newcastle upon Tyne whilst undergoing routine surgery, her death being caused by the anaesthetic. She and Richard were living at Greystone at the time, with Orwell working in Paris as a war correspondent for The Observer. She is buried in Saint Andrew’s and Jesmond Cemetery, West Jesmond, Newcastle.
Influence on Orwell’s writing
Some scholars believe that Eileen had a large influence on Orwell’s writing. It is suggested that Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four may have been influenced by one of O’Shaughnessy’s poems, “End of the Century, 1984”, although this hypothesis cannot be proven. The poem was written in 1934, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Sunderland Church High School, which she had attended, and to look ahead 50 years to the school’s centenary in 1984.
Although the poem was written a year before she met Orwell, there are striking similarities between the futuristic vision of O’Shaughnessy’s poem and that of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, including the use of mind control, and the eradication of personal freedom by a police state.