Eileen Blair to her mother from Barcelona (22 March 1937)

22 March 1937
Seccion Inglesa
10 Rambla de los Estudios
Barcelona.1

Dearest Mummy,

Eileen Blair visits her husband Eric Blair (George Orwell) near Huesca (Spain) in March 1937

Eileen visits her husband George Orwell at the front near Huesca in 1937. (Orwell is the tall man and Eileen is below him.)

I enclose a ‘letter’ I began to write to you in the trenches! It ends abruptly— I think I’ve lost a sheet—& is practically illegible but you may as well have a letter written from a real fighting line, & you’ll read enough to get the essential news. I thoroughly enjoyed being at the front. If the doctor had been a good doctor I should have moved heaven & earth to stay (indeed before seeing the doctor I had already pushed heaven & earth a little) as a nurse—the line is still so quiet that he could well have trained me in preparation for the activity that must come. But the doctor is quite ignorant & incredibly dirty. They have a tiny hospital at Monflorite in which he dresses the villagers’ cut fingers etc. & does emergency work on any war wounds that do occur. Used dressings are thrown out of the window unless the window happens to be shut when they rebound onto the floor—& the doctor’s hands have never been known to be washed. So I decided he must have a previously trained assistant (I have one in view—a man). Eric did go to him but he says there is nothing the matter except ‘cold, over-fatigue, etc.’ This of course is quite true. However, the weather is better now & of course the leave is overdue, but another section on the Huesca front made an attack the other day which had rather serious results & leave is stopped there for the moment. Bob Edwards2 who commands the I.L.P. contingent has to be away for a couple of weeks & Eric is commanding in his absence, which will be quite fun in a way. My visit to the front ended in a suitable way because Kopp decided I must have ‘a few more hours’ & arranged a car to leave Monflorite at 3:15 a.m. We went to bed at 10 or so & at 3 Kopp came & shouted & I got up & George3 (I can’t remember which half of the family I write to) went to sleep again I hope. In this way he got 2 nights proper rest & seems much better. The whole visit’s unreality was accentuated by the fact that there were no lights, not a candle or a torch; one got up & went to bed in black dark, & on the last night I emerged in black dark & waded knee deep in mud in & out of strange buildings until I saw the faint glow from the Comité Militap where Kopp was waiting with his car.

On Tuesday we had the only bombardment of Barcelona since I came. It was quite interesting. Spanish people are normally incredibly noisy & pushing but in a emergency they appear to go quiet. Not that there was any real emergency but the bombs fell closer to the middle of the town than usual & did make enough noise to excite people fairly reasonably. There were very few casualties.

I’m enjoying Barcelona again—I wanted a change. You might send this letter on to Eric & Gwen, whom I thank for tea. Three lbs of it has just come & will be much appreciated. The contingent is just running out, Bob Edwards tells me. The other message for Eric is that as usual I am writing this in the last moments before someone leaves for France & also as usual my cheque book is not here, but he will have the cheque for £10 within 2 weeks anyway & meanwhile I should be very grateful if he gave Fenner Brockway4 the pesetas (In case anything funny happened to the last letter, I asked him to buy £10 worth of pesetas & give them to Fenner Brockway to be brought out by hand. Living is very cheap here, but I spend a lot on the I.L.P. contingent as none of them have had any pay & they all need things. Also I’ve lent John5 500 ps. because he ran out. I guard my five English pounds, which I could exchange at a fairly decent rate, because I must have something to use when we—whoever we may be—cross the frontier again.)

I hope everyone is well—& I hope for a letter soon to say so. Gwen wrote a long letter which was exciting—even I fall into the universal habit of yearning over England. Perhaps the same thing happens in the colonies. When a waiter lit my cigarette the other day I said he had a nice lighter & he said ‘Si, si, es bien, es Ingles!’ Then he handed it to me, obviously thinking I should like to caress it a little. It was a Dunhill—bought in Barcelona I expect as a matter of fact because there are plenty of Dunhill & other lighters but a shortage of spirit for them. Kopp, Eric’s commander, longed for Lea & Perrins Worcester Sauce. I discovered this by accident & found some in Barcelona—they have Crosse & Blackwell’s pickles too but the good English marmalade is finished although the prices of these things are fantastic.

After seeing George6 I am pretty confident that we shall be home before the winter—& possibly much sooner of course. You might write another letter to the aunt7 some time. I have never heard from her & neither has Eric,8 which worries me rather. I think she may be very sad about living in Wallington. By the way, George9 is positively urgent about the gas-stove—he wanted me to write & order it at once, but I still think it would be better to wait until just before our return, particularly as I have not yet heard from Moore about the advance on the book.10 Which reminds me that the reviews are better than I anticipated, as the interesting ones haven’t come through yet.

I had a bath last night—a great excitement. And I’ve had 3 superb dinners in succession. I don’t know whether I shall miss this cafe life. I have coffee about three times a day & drinks oftener, & although theoretically I eat in a rather grim pension at least six times a week I get headed off into one of about four places where the food is really quite good by any standards though limited of course. Every night I mean to go home early & write letters or something & every night I get home the next morning. The cafes are open till 1.30 & one starts one’s after-dinner coffee about 10. But the sherry is undrinkable—& I meant to bring home some little casks of it!

Give Maud11 my love & tell her I’ll write some time. And give anyone else my love but I shan’t be writing to them. (This letter is to the 3 O’Shaughnesseys,12 who are thus ‘you’ not ‘they’.) It is a dull letter again I think. I shall do this life better justice in conversation—or I hope so.

Much love
Eileen

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Notes:

  1. Offices of the POUM journal, The Spanish Revolution.
  2. Robert Edwards (1906—), unsuccessful Independent Labour Party parliamentary candidate in 1935, was a Labour and Co-operative M.P. from 1955 to 1987. In January 1937 he was Captain of the ILP contingent in Spain, linked to the POUM. He left Spain at the end of March to attend the ILP conference at Glasgow, but was unable to return because of the government ban on British nationals’ participating in the Spanish civil war.
  3. Eileen started to write ‘Eric’ but overwrote ‘George.’ Her brother, Dr. Laurence Frederick O’Shaughnessy,  a distinguished thoracic surgeon,  was called Eric (a shortening of his second name). His wife, Gwen, was also a doctor.
  4. Fenner Brockway (1888-1988; Lord Brockway, 1964) was General Secretary of the ILP, 1928, 1933-39, and its representative in Spain for a time. A devoted worker for many causes, particularly peace, he resigned from the ILP in 1946 and rejoined the Labour Party, which he represented in Parliament, 1950-64.
  5. John McNair (1887-1968), was an indefatigable worker for the cause of socialism all his life. He left school at twelve, and ran into trouble with employers because of his left-wing sympathies. He was General Secretary of the ILP (1939-55) and the first British worker to go to Spain (he remained from August 1936 to June 1937) and served as the ILP representative in Barcelona. A constant contributor to The New Leader, the weekly organ of the ILP (later The Socialist Leader), he wrote the official biography of James Maxton, the leader of the ILP, The Beloved Rebel (1955). In a footnote to Homage to Catalonia, Orwell gives the purchasing value of the peseta as ‘about fourpence’ (pre-metric currency); 500 pesetas would be about £8 6s 8d or $41.00.
  6. Eileen again began writing ‘Eric,’ over which she wrote ‘George.’
  7. Almost certainly Orwell’s aunt Nellie Limouzin, then living at The Stores, Wallington, the Orwells’ cottage.
  8. Eileen must here mean her husband.
  9. Before writing ‘George,’ Eileen wrote ‘Eric,’ but crossed it out.
  10. The Road to Wigan Pier.
  11. Possibly an aunt of Eileen’s whose second name was Maud.
  12. Eileen’s mother, her brother, ‘Eric,’ and his wife, Gwen.

Source: CW11-363

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