Was Mrs. Orwell Memory-Holed?

REVIEW: ‘Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life’ by Anna Funder

October 1, 2023

For no particular reason—save, I suppose, his continued literary excellence—George Orwell is the flavor of the month right now. Earlier this year we had D.J. Taylor’s revisitation of his earlier biography of him in Orwell: The New Life, and now we have Anna Funder’s examination of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Orwell’s first wife and, in Funder’s view, a brilliant woman and crucial influence on her husband’s life and work who has been unjustly airbrushed from history. As she writes early on, "She hasn’t really been in any of the biographies. Orwell’s biographers are seven men looking at a man."

This may come as a surprise to Sylvia Topp, who wrote a well-received biography of O’Shaughnessy, Eileen, in 2020. Under normal circumstances, most publishers would not consider it worth their while to release two books on the same subject so close together, but Funder—the acclaimed author of Stasiland—is an award-winning bestselling author, so cannot be denied. She mentions her debt to Topp in the acknowledgments ("I also learned a great deal from [her book], which I wouldn’t have found elsewhere"), but she is quietly dismissive early on, writing that Eileen "contained much material I hadn’t found, and was thrilled to read, though we interpret it differently, and so build differing portraits of Eileen."

Topp’s biography is classical in its approach: a cradle to grave study of a woman who studied English literature at Oxford, met Orwell at a party a few years later, married him, uncomplainingly became his secretary, helpmate, and amanuensis, and died in 1945 at the age of 39 during an operation to remove her uterus; her husband, already ailing with the tuberculosis that would kill him, would follow her to the grave a few years later. Funder has altogether grander ambitions, conflating Eileen’s struggle to emerge from under her husband’s lanky shadow with her own battle against the patriarchy; she writes early on that "if my three children … were going to emerge from childhood and see me for what I am, I would have to become visible to myself. I would look under the motherboard of wifedom I had taken on, and see who was left."

Orwell is a writer treated with caution by biographers. His literary talent may be undeniable, but, as Taylor’s new book suggests, his attitude toward those around him, especially women, was somewhere between diffident and deranged; he was almost certainly autistic, as might be seen by his writing, of an Edwardian murderer, of "the sympathy everyone feels for a man who murders his wife." Yet he is also regarded as a champion of freedom and the oppressed and has become a valuable ally for progressives in their fight against modish causes. Funder therefore sits on the fence, writing "Orwell’s work is precious to me. I didn’t want to take it, or him, down in any way … I worried he might risk being ‘cancelled’ by the story I’m telling." There is, naturally, an immediate riposte. "Though [Eileen], of course, has been cancelled already—by patriarchy."

From Catherine Dickens to Philip Larkin’s most significant partner Monica Jones, the literary world is full of women whose stories have been obscured and ignored in comparison to the work of the famous men in their lives. The argument made by (usually male) critics is that, yes, Dickens might have treated Catherine abominably, but he also wrote David Copperfield and Great Expectations. We must therefore forgive him for his personal transgressions, which matter little to posterity. Funder is having none of this. "Wifedom is a wicked magic trick we have learned to play on ourselves. I want to expose how it is done and so take its wicked, tricking power away."

Therefore, Wifedom is an ambitious combination of memoir, polemic, biography, and historical fiction, in which Funder takes the relatively meager documented evidence of Eileen’s life and extrapolates it with imagined scenes taking place between her and Orwell, her friends, and other figures in her life. For the lengthy section set during the Spanish Civil War—probably the book’s highlight, as Funder brilliantly reimagines a politically complicated conflict as an espionage thriller—this works well; at other times, it can feel like padding.

It doesn’t help that there is no revelatory new material here. Funder makes much of the correspondence from Eileen to her friend Norah Symes Myles ("a revelation … it is as if, more than half a century after his death, a door to Orwell’s private life has been opened, revealing the woman who lived behind it—and the man who wrote there—in a whole new light") but they have been available to critics and biographers since 2005, and Taylor, who describes them as "a series of highly revealing letters," uses them in Orwell: A New Life, albeit rather more selectively.

Where the book succeeds is its exploration of the relationship between the Orwells—or the Blairs, as they were more accurately known. Orwell, described by Funder as looking like "a ragged John the Baptist coming in from the wilderness, and [making] the jolly rich girls quiver in their furs," was someone of whom his wife would sigh, after remarking that her brother would travel to the ends of the earth for her, "George would not do that. For him his work comes first." A deeply unflattering portrait cumulatively emerges, of a man who calmly asks his wife’s permission to have sex with a teenage prostitute in Morocco while he is supposedly recovering from illness, or who blithely suggests that he would like a cup of tea made for him while Eileen is in the midst of cleaning excrement from the outdoor toilet. As the object of his unrequited lust Brenda Salkeld explains, "He was a sadist and that was why he had this feeling towards women."

The patriarch, then, is suitably damned, if not canceled. But what of his wife? Both Topp and Funder make a decent case for Eileen being unfairly written out of Orwell’s life, partly through his own complicity (in Homage to Catalonia, he refers to "my wife" 37 times, but never names her once) and partly through the impatience of biographers, who want to get onto Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the arrival of the second Mrs. Orwell, the unhappy, doomed Sonia Brownell. Certainly, Eileen emerges from Wifedom as a sparky, witty presence, unafraid to joust with her husband or to call out his self-perpetuated grandiosity; Funder makes the valuable point that a much-quoted remark about Orwell, referring to his "extraordinary political sympathy," is in fact a bastardization of Eileen’s more clear-sighted description of his "extraordinary political simplicity."

In a different world, could she have gone on to achieve greatness, leaving her husband in her wake? Perhaps. Funder offers a convincing case for her as a far more likeable and sympathetic presence than he was, being beautiful, gregarious, and witty. It is possible that a poem that she composed in 1934, "End of the Century, 1984," may have sown the seeds for her husband’s great dystopian novel, and that she may have had some involvement with the crafting of Animal Farm, though it seems a stretch to imply, as Funder does, that she virtually co-wrote it.

Yet the polemical and personal aspects of the book, which sometimes verge on the banal ("signing queues are a chasm of intimacy") often obscure Wifedom’s strengths. This is an interesting, at times fascinating, and flawed book: Had Funder thought to make her arguments with the subtlety that, in their different ways, Orwell and Eileen both displayed in their writing, this would have been a masterpiece.

Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life
by Anna Funder
Knopf, 451 pp., $32

Alexander Larman is a journalist, historian, and author, most recently, of The Windsors at War: The King, His Brother, and a Family Divided (St. Martin’s Press).