Yevgeny Zamyatin and South Shields
After the Orwell Society visited South Shields*, the birthplace of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and the other parts of Tyneside associated with the woman who was to marry Eric Blair (George Orwell) members continued their research. The novel We, which Orwell was to read with fascination and which inspired Nineteen Eighty-Four, was written by a man who had himself spent time on Tyneside. There is a chance that Eileen as a child met Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884- 1937), through her father who was an Inspector of Customs in the port while Zamyatin was in England for the Russian government supervising the building of icebreakers, including the icebreaker Lenin (as it was later renamed) in the ship yards of South Shields. A Soviet Heretic, a collection of Zamyatin’s journalism **, includes three short autobiographical articles, in the first of which he mentions being in Newcastle while it was bombed by Zeppelins. That phrase is sometimes found quoted online, less frequently if ever printed is the third account which mentions in passing his visiting South Shields:
“In England it was at first all iron, machines, blueprints. I built icebreakers in Glasgow, Newcastle, Sunderland, South Shields (among them, one of our largest icrebreakers, the Lenin). The Germans showered us with bombs from Zeppelins and airplanes.” (“Autbiography 1929”).
Alan Myers’ superb online article in three parts *** on Zamyatin and Tyneside, in its the second section, discusses Zamyatin and Orwell. The great discovery, though is in the third section where there is a discussion of Zamyatin and South Shields. Myers had found a recollection of British author Harold Heslop ****:
“On Heslop’s remarking that he preferred South Shields to Newcastle, Zamyatin whispered ‘South Shields… Sooth Sheels! I never learned to sing the Tyneside speech!’ These are not the words of the scourge of the Newcastle middle classes nor the glum introvert of the letters to his wife. Zamyatin’s affection for the ordinary Geordie and his informed interest in the local dialect is obviously genuine.”
If Zamyatin knew South Shields well enough to comment on its dialects he must have been there for a considerable time, probably proportionate to the size of the craft he was supervising being built. Perhaps we can make a great if imaginative leap based on that supposition: what sort of British official would have seen off the Russian ships when they left South Shields to sail to Russia? Would they not have been checked by customs before departure, especially as it was wartime? Could Eileen’s father, Lawrence, have met Zamyatin; the Customs officer liaising with the marine engineer? Mighty they even have met repeatedly? It is an intriguing possibility; an example of the small world hypothesis. It even provokes the thought that when Orwell learned of the existence of We he might have discussed it with Eileen and heard her say that her father had met its author, encouraging Orwell to seek out a copy of We in the months after she died as a memorial and a propitiatory act.
Eileen died in 1945 having returned to Tyneside for an operation. By a strange coincidence she was interred in Jesmond, not far from Sanderson Road, the thoroughfare in north Newcastle where Zamyatin had lodged in the earlier World War.
Struve, Orwell and Zamyatin
George Orwell first learned of the existence of We when Gleb Struve, an academic at the University of London, sent him a copy of his book 25 Years of Soviet Russian Literature early in 1944. In his letter of thanks, dated 17 February 1944, Orwell responded that he had not heard of Zamyatin before reading Struve’s book. If Struve had his own copy of We in any language other than Russian he did not lend it to Orwell, who took nearly two years to obtain a copy and then had to read it in French.
Orwell’s laudatory review of We, published in the first week of January 1946 and a follow-up article by Struve are on the Orwell Prize website.
Isaac Deuscher later claimed that Orwell plagiarised Zamyatin, but Struve was able to refute this from his correspondence with Orwell (something with which Christopher Hitchens much later agreed, in denying plagiarism). You can read part of a letter from Struve written in 1976, here.
We do not know how far George and Eileen read each other’s books but when Orwell died her library was found mixed with his. Might Eileen have read Orwell’s copy of 25 Years of Soviet Russian Literature in the last year of her life and mentioned the Russian engineer who visited South Shields in her childhood? It is an outside chance, particularly as Struve seems to have thought Zamyatin was a mathematician rather than an engineer, so she might have struggled to make the connection, but it remains a chance. It would have added an extra pathos to this novel, of lost love as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, that Orwell – as he read – realised not only the public-political significance of romance but of the close and personal companionship he would never again enjoy with Eileen who had shared the discovery of the book with him.
After more research, Gary Wilkinson reports that icebreakers were not built in South Shields, but in Low Walker naval yard near Wallsend. (i.e. on the opposite bank of the Tyne and up-river).
Map of ship yards on the Tyne, after 1949
This prompts the question, what was Zamyatin doing in South Shields?
* In 2015, ably guided by Gary Wilkinson
** Zamyatin and Orwell had more in common than just authorship of a dystopia. Zamyatin, like Orwell, was an admirer of both H G Wells and Anatole France, for instance, and wrote Introductions of translations of Wells’s books in addition to essays on both authors.
** Since March 2015, when the Orwell Society visited South Shields, this article has disappeared from the web. All credit to the author Alan Myers for his research. It was at URL: http://www.sclews.me.uk/zamyatin.html
*** Harold Heslop was one of the proletarian writers of the ’30s, but his works include his own thriller of paranoia, The Crime Of Peter Roper, which is discussed in Andy Croft’s essay on radical paranoid thrillers of the period. His memory of Zamyatin (Heslop spells it differently) is in his autobiography Out of the Old Earth (Bloodaxe Books). Part of an academic review can be read here.
Croft, Andy: “Worlds Without End Foisted Upon the Future: Some Antecedents of Nineteen Eighty-Four” in Norris, Christopher (Ed.): Inside the Myth: Orwell: Views from the Left (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1984)
Struve, Gleb: 25 Years of Soviet Russian Literature (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1944)
Zamyatin, Yevgeny; edited by Mirra Ginsberg, with an Introduction by Alex M Shane: A Soviet Heretic (London: Quartet, 1991)
by L J Hurst,
with thanks to Masha Karp and Gary Wilkinson.
3rd December 2016 19th July 2017