Historians back Sunderland link to George Orwell classic

Local historians have backed claims of a Sunderland link to one of the most famous novels ever written.

Sunday, 21st March 2021, 6:00 am

The poet Eileen O’Shaughnessy married George Orwell, real name Eric Blair, in 1936. She was born in South Shields in 1905 and attended Church High School in Mowbray Road, Sunderland.

In 2020 a biography about Eileen claimed that the title of Orwell’s most famous work was taken from her 1934 poem; submitted to her old school’s magazine to mark its 50th anniversary.

The poem, called End of the Century 1984 was written before Eileen met Orwell and looked 50 years into the future.

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Local historians say the George Orwell classic has its roots here in the North East.

It has long been suggested that Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was so-called because it was written in 1948 and that the author simply swapped the last two digits.

However, no evidence supports this claim and the Sunderland Antiquarian Society now have a copy of the magazine. They say in their latest newsletter that the poem is key to the novel. The society is keen to make the link more widely known.

They say the titles of the book and poem, which both have themes including mind control and personal freedom, are too similar to be a coincidence. They back the claims made in the biography.

Philip Curtis, secretary of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, said: “The school’s archives were donated to the society and include numerous documents, photographs and even an honours’ board, all of which help record the history of the school from its opening in April 1884, through to its closure.

This part of Church High school has now been converted into flats.

“Included in the archives is a copy of the school’s magazine, The Chronicle, from 1934 which was published to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary. The school had requested old staff and ex-pupils to contribute articles for the magazine.

“There must be a strong argument that Orwell took the title from the poem End of the Century 1984 that his wife, Eileen, had published in the Sunderland High School magazine in 1934.

“When Orwell completed Nineteen Eighty-Four he gave to it part of the title of Eileen’s poem.

“Eileen had died in 1945 and the book was eventually published in 1949.

Sunderland Antiquarians now have an original copy of the 1934 school magazine where the poem was first published.

"But it does seem more than likely that Orwell was well aware of the poem and Eileen most probably at some point must have discussed it with him.”

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