By utnvsea, on 28 June 2023
More than a decade ago, the family of Eleanor Jacques discovered a cache of papers hidden in a handbag in a garden shed. On the envelope was written ‘Letters to be destroyed’ and upon opening them, they found handwritten letters to Eleanor from George Orwell, who had been her next-door neighbour in Southwold, Suffolk.
At an event in 2018 to celebrate the discovery of these letters, another sensation was created when an audience member announced that she had at home letters from Orwell to her aunt, Brenda Salkeld, also a Southwold neighbour.
There had long been rumours of the existence of these letters amongst Orwell scholars, who hoped to uncover more correspondence with these long-standing female friends. Through serendipity, both sets emerged with a year and were purchased by Richard Blair, Orwell’s son. The letters have now been placed in the Orwell Archive in UCL Special Collections, catalogued and digitised for public access, with the kind permission of the Orwell Literary Estate.
What is so special about the letters?
The letters span a long range of time, 1931-1949, and continue throughout both of Orwell’s marriages – to Eileen in 1936 and Sonia in 1949. They reveal new details about Orwell’s life in the 1930s – including his overlapping romances, his love of ice skating, and his struggle to write and publish his first novels. They also show that the two women, whom he met while staying with his parents in Southwold, had a profound importance in his life lasting long after his romances with them appear to have ended. Eleanor would go on to marry one of Orwell’s best friends, Dennis Collings.
In a letter to Brenda in 1940, four years into his marriage with his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and as a German invasion appeared imminent, he wrote: “It’s a pity … we never made love properly. We could have been so happy. If things are really collapsing I shall try and see you. Or perhaps you wouldn’t want to?” Orwell also wrote to Brenda from his hospital bed (at University College Hospital), sending his last letter four months before his death in 1950, just as he was about to marry his second wife, Sonia Brownell.
The letters also reveal something of Orwell’s writing practice. D.J. Taylor, who helped to track down the letters and has just published an updated biography of Orwell, said:
“In terms of improving our understanding of Orwell’s work, I have a strong suspicion that his letters to Eleanor reminiscing about their country walks at Southwold may have inspired similar passages describing Winston’s affair with Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The collection is also notable for the playful drawings Orwell added in the margins of his letters to Brenda, something that is rarely found in his other correspondence. They include images of Billingsgate Fish Market, windmills and the infamous ice rink.
The bulk of the letters have not been publicly available before.
The George Orwell collections at UCL
The George Orwell Archive has been a cornerstone of UCL Special Collections for over 60 years. Deposited by his widow in 1960 and built up over subsequent decades, it is the main resource for Orwell scholars around the world. Comprising manuscripts and typescripts, diaries, notebooks, letters, photographs and family material, including the papers of his two wives, Eileen and Sonia. UCL also holds substantial book collections relating to Orwell, including books owned by him and rare editions of his works.