Monday 13 November 2023

Wifedom by Anna Funder review – a brilliant reckoning with George Orwell to change the way you read



Wifedom by Anna Funder review – a brilliant reckoning with George Orwell to change the way you read


Blending forensic research, fiction, life writing and criticism, Funder upends the legacy of literary triumph to reveal the woman behind it


Susan Wyndham

Thu 6 Jul 2023 16.00 BST


Wifedom may seem an old-fashioned word these days. But be assured that Anna Funder – the Australian author of Stasiland, human rights lawyer, decoder of doublethink – gives it a slashing edge. Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life is a brilliant, creative hybrid of life writing, feminist polemic and literary criticism, which upends the way we read.


In 2017, “at a moment of peak overload” in her family and stalled in her stellar writing career, Funder bought a first edition of George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. An admirer of this exposer of tyranny – most famously in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – she was provoked by his essay on the writer’s life to follow his trail back to her own, buried as it was under the “motherload of wifedom”.


What she discovered in her forensic reading was Eileen Blair, the talented, daring, stoical woman hidden behind the writing and life of Orwell, the pen name of Eric Blair. In her book, she argues – with Eileen as key witness – that patriarchy allows men to quarantine their professional and private lives, delegate and lie to the women who support them, and leave them out of the story.


Funder reads the six major biographies of Orwell, all written by men and all fictions of omission, which minimise the roles of women, use the passive voice to disguise Eileen’s agency, and blur Orwell’s infidelity and neglect. She goes back to the primary source material, crucially the “revelation” of six letters from Eileen to her friend Norah Myles, which came to light in 2005 – after the biographies were published – and give her a frank, humorous voice. The first, written six months after their marriage in 1936, reports that Orwell was annoyed the wedding interrupted his work, and that she had planned to “write one letter to everyone when the murder or separation had been accomplished”.


Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905-45) went to Oxford on a scholarship but dropped out of a master of arts in psychology at University College London, to move to a cold, unplumbed country cottage so her new husband could write. She ran their farm and shop, typed and edited his work, held paying jobs, cared for their adopted son, and nursed him when he was sick with tuberculosis and she with uterine tumours, until her death aged 39. The facts of her life were detailed by Sylvia Topp in a 2020 crowdfunded biography, Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, which must have given pause to Funder (who acknowledges her material), but lacks the synthesis and panache of Wifedom.


Funder’s narrative is a stylistic mosaic, which draws on skills developed in her previous books: the nonfiction bestseller, Stasiland, about East Germany’s surveillance of its citizens, and her Miles Franklin award winner, All That I Am, a novel about German pacifists fleeing nazism. Clearly Orwell’s work has been a beacon for hers.


Her tour de force here is a dramatic counter-account of his time volunteering for anti-fascist forces in the Spanish civil war, which he wrote about in Homage to Catalonia. Funder tells us that Eileen, having edited The Road to Wigan Pier and grown bored with walking the goat, took herself to Barcelona to work at the political headquarters of the Independent Labour party, where she was granted an insider’s view of the failed revolution and its propaganda. Although Orwell mentions “my wife” 37 times, he omits her name and actions: she visited him at the front, cared for him when wounded, saved his manuscript and their passports, protected him from arrest – while being watched by communist spies.


All biography is partial, but Funder makes an undeniable case for believing in Eileen. Careful not to overstate her input to Orwell’s writing, she sees an obvious reason for his creative growth after marriage. Certainly Eileen suggested making Animal Farm a fable; most likely her poem End of the Century, 1984, and her second world war work in the Ministry of Information, fed the dystopian masterpiece written after her death.


To fill gaps, Funder imagines nuanced novelistic scenes. In one standout, Eileen lies bleeding in bed while discussing Orwell’s essay about Salvador Dalí’s “repellent” art; the hypocrisy of her husband’s own seedy sexual behaviour hovers unstated. Funder enlivens her scholarship with interviews and travel, becoming least sure, even apologetic, about her frustrations as a working mother. She is, after all, a privileged, successful woman whose husband jokes that her book would not have been written without him. Yet, still carrying the load in her household, she writes for generations of women and her own daughter.


Wifedom is a dashing addition to a genre of books that bring out of obscurity the women (and occasional man) behind famous writers and artists. Funder’s scrutiny of previous biographies recalls Janet Malcolm’s 30-year-old classic, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, warmed by her own humane vision. She does not abandon her hero but holds him – and society – to account for his blind ambition.


Wifedom by Anna Funder (Penguin Books Ltd, £20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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