Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life by Anna Funder; Knopf, 464 pp., $32
Like Plato, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Franz Kafka, George Orwell is a writer so well known that he has become an eponym. Yet the sinister connotations of “Orwellian” are at odds with the admiration and affection that Orwell himself, the champion of clear writing and honest thinking, continues to enjoy across a wide spectrum of readers. The British historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft voiced a general sentiment when he wrote, “The secular saint of our time par excellence was George Orwell.”
Orwell expressed his own credo when, in an essay on Charles Dickens, he wrote, “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” Despite the humanistic clarity of his prose, however, Orwell himself was hardly an exemplar of decency. As Anna Funder, an Australian human rights lawyer–turned–author, writes, Orwell was a misogynistic egotist, a compulsive philanderer prone to pouncing on women and even, on occasion, raping them. (Funder quotes from an agonizing letter written by Orwell’s teenage girlfriend, Jacintha Buddicom, expressing disgust at Orwell’s attempts to force himself on her.) Funder claims to be able to separate the work, which she adores, from the man, who appalls her. To his diary, Orwell confessed a revulsion for women’s “incorrigible dirtiness and untidiness” and “their terrible, devouring sexuality.” In Wifedom, Funder uses Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, as a case study in patriarchal exploitation.
Vera Nabokov, Nora Barnacle, and Sophia Tolstoy notwithstanding, the wives of male writers are rarely the subjects of full-scale biography. Eileen Blair, as she was known after her marriage to Eric Blair (a.k.a. George Orwell) in 1936, received one in 2020, but the subtitle of Sylvia Topp’s Eileen: The Making of George Orwell frames her as an appendage to her husband. Funder sets out to write not another cradle-to-grave account of Eileen but rather an odd hybrid that combines the story of a marriage, fictional reconstructions, and Funder’s own anecdotes. She uses Eileen to expose patriarchy as “a planetary Ponzi scheme by which the time, work and lives of women are plundered and robbed.”
Although Orwell opposed any attempt to write his biography, there are, to date, six major attempts—all written by men. According to Funder, they effectively erase Eileen from her husband’s life. Yet, until her premature death on a surgeon’s table in 1945—she was just 39—Eileen was the couple’s primary breadwinner, through positions in Britain’s Ministry of Information and Ministry of Food. She also served as editor, typist, shopper, cook, charwoman, and nurse to the tubercular author. When Orwell, who was sterile, decided to adopt a child, it was Eileen who journeyed alone to retrieve the baby, and it was she who cared for him.
When Orwell went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Eileen followed him to Barcelona, where she managed the headquarters of the International Labor Party. After Orwell was shot in the throat and became the target of Stalinist assassins, she helped spirit him out of the country and saved his life. Nevertheless, Homage to Catalonia (1938), Orwell’s account of his experiences in Spain, does not mention Eileen by name even once. Funder imagines Eileen’s thoughts as she types up the manuscript: “She’s in this story only in a way no one will ever see, like scaffolding, or a skeleton, something disappeared or covered over in the end result. … She has typed herself out of the story.” Later, without much evidence, except that the novel “is an outlier in all of Orwell’s works,” unlike the others in structure and tone, Funder suggests that Eileen is the uncredited coauthor of Animal Farm (1945).
“In my own life,” writes Funder, “I feel pretty strongly that other people’s affairs are exactly that—theirs, and none of my business.” That admirable respect for the privacy of others is an absolute disqualification for writing biography. However, for most of the rest of Wifedom, Funder demonstrates intense, even prurient, curiosity about the affairs of a struggling author and his wife. She is intent on documenting Orwell’s visits to brothels and his attempts to seduce dozens of women, even his wife’s best friend. Funder reports that Eileen found sex with Orwell disappointing but never hazards a guess as to why, despite the misery, drudgery, and humiliation of her marriage, she elected to stay with him. After Eileen’s death, Orwell proposed to four women in quick succession. After he proposed to her twice, Sonia Brownell accepted, and the couple was married three months before the author’s death from tuberculosis.
Funder relies on a newly available cache of six letters from Eileen to her friend Norah Symes Myles but struggles to make visible what, in her subtitle, she calls “Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life.” For the most part, there is no record of what Eileen was thinking or doing at particular moments, so Funder hastens to fill the lacunae with her own invention. A long scene of panic over violent political purges in Barcelona is preceded by, “Something—not this, but essentially this—must have happened.” Describing a visit to Morocco in which Orwell announced to Eileen his intention to spend the night with a Berber woman, Funder writes, neither convincingly nor coherently, “I have imagined the details of this scene, but because this is what happened, there had to have been one.”
Wifedom is more intent on condemnation than comprehension. With no interest in Eileen’s life before Orwell, the book focuses on Eileen solely as an example of “how a woman can be buried first by domesticity and then by history.” Funder enlists her to buttress her assertion that there “is not one place on the planet where women as a group have the same power, freedom, leisure or money as their male partners.” That may well be true, but the uniqueness of Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair disappears amid the abstraction of “wifedom.” Appropriating her merely as an exhibit in a polemic against patriarchy is the same as erasing her.
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