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Important letters donated to the George Orwell Archive

6 December 2021

Richard Blair, Orwell’s son, has donated fifty letters to the Orwell Archive, housed at UCL Special Collections.

Sarah Aitchison, Head of UCL Special Collections, and Richard Blair at an event held at UCL to celebrate the donation

The letters 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, Brenda Salkeld and Eleanor Jaques, whom he met while staying with his parents in Southwold, Suffolk, had a profound importance in his life lasting long after his romances with them appeared to have ended.

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 is currently writing a second, 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 bulk of the letters have not been publicly available before. Eighteen of the 21 letters to Eleanor were first discovered more than a decade ago in a shed, stored in an old brown envelope upon which Eleanor had written that the contents should be burned after her death. The 29 Brenda letters surfaced in 2018.

The letters were donated by Richard Blair to UCL, having purchased the letters privately from the descendants of the two women at a substantial cost. He said:

“Just when we thought that there was nothing more to know about George Orwell, something startling turns up. I am so pleased to donate these precious letters to the Orwell Archive at UCL and to see them preserved together in a single place so they can be shared with all who wish to study George Orwell’s life and work.”

The Orwell Archive, housed at UCL Special Collections, is the most comprehensive body of research material relating to Orwell anywhere in the world, including manuscript notebooks, diaries, letters and other personal papers, and photographs belonging to the author.

The collection, which has been formally inscribed to the prestigious UNESCO Memory of the World International Register, features the first hand-written notes of some Orwell’s most famous words and phrases, such as “Two Minutes Hate”, “Newspeak”, and “War is Peace. Ignorance is strength. Freedom is slavery”.

Sarah Aitchison, Head of UCL Special Collections, said: 

“The Orwell Archive has been based at UCL for more than 50 years. It is one of our most highly prized collections and an important resource for researchers. We are thrilled at the addition of these two wonderful caches of letters which change our understanding of the author, revealing a great deal about his activities and interests at the time he was writing his early books and trying to establish himself as a writer.”

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Vanessa Thorp wrote about the letters in the Observer, 28 November 2021.