By Anna Funder

Hamish Hamilton 2023

ISBN: 978 9 14378 711 2

RRP: $36.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


From the time some ancient scribbler put the words of the Book of Genesis together, a woman, or the female of the human species, has been known as man’s sidekick. God is recorded in Genesis as having created man first, out of the earth, and only then did God make a woman using one of Adam’s ribs. That God created woman at all is reasoned to be because Adam needed a companion. A cute story but still it is a myth. For all that, this mythical explanation of the beginning of human life – that woman was made to follow man – has persisted over the centuries in vastly contrasting cultures. Modern age womanhood defines it as the patriarchy.

Anna Funder’s Wifedom – Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life tackles the dominance of patriarchy in human thinking in a novel and unusual way. She has avoided strident feminist lectures or analysis, choosing instead to search out the hidden life of George Orwell’s wife Eileen (nee O’Shaughnessy) whom he married on 9 June 1936. Where the eponymous Orwell with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm left works that defined and captured much in contemporary human psychology and the darkness in twentieth century politics, his wife Eileen who was no small part in his life and work seemed to have disappeared without trace.

In her search for Eileen, Funder discovers a lot more than one woman’s life story; she also finds that Orwell – or Eric Blair as he really was – had a strongly held view of the place of a wife. After Eileen’s death in March 1945, Orwell revealed this in his many letters to other women he offered to marry over a short period of time. It was as if he was urgently seeking a new employee, one that would cost him not a penny. As Funder puts it:

Part of the deadening effect of domesticity is that a man must earn money, the “logic” goes, to keep a wife. But outside of marriage the services she provides – sex, mothering, cleaning, cooking, editing, psychology, management – would be unaffordable, not to mention hard to arrange. … He is looking for another wife to create the conditions necessary for his productivity. Without that, he cannot work.

Wifedom is a complicated creation but one that Funder fashions with a deftness through numerous perspectives and voices. Her project begins in 2017 with an escape from her domestic routines into a 1968 first edition of Orwell’s four volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. She finds Orwell’s words on writers compelling, at one point singling out “the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class”.

Funder is inspired and sets out to liberate “myself from mine”, from “the motherload of wifedom”, by starting out and reading Orwell on “the smelly little orthodoxies” of his time. In doing so, Funder discovers not simply liberation but a man who would provide her with a perfect study of misogyny, paternalism and wifedom itself. At the centre of this stood Eileen Blair, the only wife Orwell ever lived with.

It is a passage written by Orwell shortly before he died in January 1950 that shifts Funder to a search for Eileen. In the passage, Orwell reveals a loathing of women and a contempt for wives – marriage seen as men trapped by sexually demanding women. In searching for explanations in the many Orwell biographies, Funder finds only attempts to disguise the truth of the passage – that Orwell could only see a wife in terms of what she could do for him. Funder asks: “How was it then for her? My first guess: too much cleaning and not enough, or not good enough, sex. This is how I moved from the work to the life, and from the man to the wife.”

As Funder searches for evidence of the elusive Eileen, she is often forced to imagine Eileen’s life with Orwell. His letters to various women before and after their marriage, even taking up secretly with her best friend Lydia Jackon, show that Orwell was conducting affairs/liaisons in secret all through their life together. His approach was to tell the women that he and Eileen had an “open” marriage, a notion not supported by surviving contemporary records of Eileen obviously upset at finding her husband is seeing other women.

The selfless Eileen left so little of herself – even evaluating how much Eileen influenced Orwell’s writing can only to be imagined or deduced from scraps of information. And it is clear that when working, Orwell shut himself off and only emerged to request food or some such need. He lacked ability to organise the most fundamental care for himself, and often attracted women by his very helplessness.

There is no doubt that Eileen was a source of ideas. Writers are magpies at purloining detail from those around them, and perspectives. That Eileen could have been much of the inspiration for the allegorical Animal Farm is reasonable especially given her sense of humour and ability to satirise life about her. But Funder can only guess at the extent. For all that, Eileen spent many stretches of the marriage separated from George – apart from Spain in 1936/1937, he spent months in a sanatorium at different stages with his tuberculosis and she moved to London alone to take up work at the Ministry of Information, in order to support them financially, during the early months of the war. After Dunkirk, where her beloved brother Lawrence was killed, Eileen enters some 18 months of depression. Meanwhile, George keeps his spirits up with other women.

Wifedom operates on two levels of consciousness in its exploration of Eileen Blair’s situation. There is the misogyny of her husband Eric/George and the misogyny of the social norms of the time. In spite of her success academically – a degree from Oxford, (albeit “only” a second), employment in various educational roles, author of feature pieces for newspapers, starting a secretarial business and enrolment in 1934 in a Master of Psychology at London University – Eileen abandoned her post graduate studies when she became Orwell’s wife. And it was her choice.

Eileen was lively and spirited in her resistance to social bullies and in the causes of the disadvantaged, on one occasion leading a walkout of employees at a typing agency in revolt at the female manager who took delight in humiliating her female staff. Yet, once married, something inside her told her she should dedicate herself to her husband, which she would do until her death. For all the attraction for her of his erudite projects which she worked on with him, he was a man who would prove to be something of an insensitive taskmaster.

Funder writes that, after Eileen’s death, Orwell wrote to four women he barely knew in just a year offering marriage and describing “its duties, its rewards, its start date and likely end date”. He did not mention that “the previous incumbent died of over work and neglect”.

Not that Eileen was totally submissive. Their supposed (according to Orwell biographers) blissful first year of marriage was in fact begun with weeks of quarrels such that in writing to her friend Norah Symes Myles six months after the wedding, Eileen describes these quarrels as continuous and bitter, adding, “I thought I’d save time & just write one letter to everyone when the murder or separation had been accomplished.”

Funder reveals that, in 2005, six of Eileen’s letters to Norah were discovered. These letters suggest aspects of Orwell’s life after his marriage have been covered up or missed in the various biographies on him as well as in Orwell’s writings or other recollections of the couple. It is these letters that set Funder off. What she has created in Wifedom – Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life is a depiction and analysis of another side to Orwell, achieved by tracing the life of his wife.

Funder digs into Orwell’s phobias in relation to women and homosexuality. At times he comes across as likely to have been “on the spectrum” in many ways. As well, Funder challenges earlier biographies as glossing over this disturbing side to Orwell by ignoring it or rationalising it. As if his greatness in uncovering the totalitarian nature of twentieth century dictatorship and its mind controlling terror excuses Orwell from any discussion of his own human frailty. In all of this, Eileen has been ghosted.

There are scant references to Orwell’s “wife” in Homage To Catalonia – his account of fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War from the end of 1936 till June 1937 when a bullet in his neck ended his war time action. The UK Communist Party Secretary General had rejected Orwell’s attempt to join the International Brigades believing he was unreliable. Instead, Orwell enlisted with an anti-Stalinist operation under the direction of the Independent Labour Party. Left behind in England by her new husband, Eileen refused to remain complacent. She organised her own arrival in Barcelona where she worked for the ILP central office contributing in no small way to the fight Orwell had signed up for.

As Funder writes: “While Orwell is struggling to find a bullet to hit him, battling mainly boredom and vermin, Eileen is at the heart of the operation.” No reader of Homage To Catalonia would have a clue as to this reality so little is Orwell’s “wife” (unnamed) mentioned in what would become a best seller, documenting the divisions on the anti-fascist side and its war with itself during the conflict. Funder’s account of Eileen’s Spanish war reveals the lie acutely with Eileen showing the resourcefulness under fire her husband lacked. Moreover, some of the important observations in the book are in fact Eileen’s, presented as Orwell’s.

Anna Funder has managed an extraordinary work of biography, the effort of a history sleuth combined with imaginative portrayals alongside evidence of character where gaps can prove as valuable as facts. One of the difficulties for Funder is that Eileen left so little. American biographer Louisa Thomas – the author of Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs Adams took on the task of finding the real Louisa Adams, wife of the sixth US president John Quincy Adams. Like Eileen, Louisa Adams was another talented but ghosted wife of a significant public figure.

Thomas’ effort is a magnificent one but made a deal easier than finding Eileen Blair as Louisa left a thousand letters, diaries, three memoirs, novels, poems, three plays and miscellaneous other snippets all of which she completed without publication. They lay unopened in the archives. For Funder, Eileen left six letters and a handful of contemporary recollections in the memoirs of others. But, in finding Eileen, Funder has also found missing pieces of George.

Marrying Eric/George meant a loss of independence for Eileen in return for her husband providing for her material well being. In addition to her loss of independence, Eileen found herself living in a very small sixteenth century cottage in the countryside lit by oil lamps and with an outside privy she was required to clean out when George was ill. There was a primus stove that often did not work, a sink that blocked, stairs that were dark and booby trapped by piles of books they had nowhere else to store, along with what Eileen described as “battalions of mice, shoulder to shoulder on the shelves, pushing the china off”. They also acquired a goat and chickens to feed. Eton educated George had taken Eileen to what he saw as the noble life of the impoverished writer. All for the greater cause of his contribution to Western civilisation.

Before her marriage, Eileen had known freedom of a kind most women of her generation lacked – Oxford educated and owner of a small business and about to take up further tertiary studies. Her accommodation in London had been looked after by her noted surgeon brother Lawrence and his doctor wife Gwen who lived in a substantial home in Greenwich. But Eileen had fallen for an intellectual who challenged her mind while he had seen in her a liveliness and “ability to prick the absurdities of those around her” along with an “unshakeable integrity”, a quality which Funder writes Orwell treasured. She adds, “Over his career he came to realise this was the single most important quality that could save us from mindless capitulation to power gone wrong … It was a quality he would have like to have had.”

For a reader, it is enlightening to discover Orwell’s wife was no drudge although, unlike Louisa Adams, it is hard for Funder to leave her other than a victim. But it is the second level of consciousness in regard to patriarchy where Funder returns serve sharply to Orwell in his treatment of Eileen. Quoting Orwell from 1984, Funder explores “doublethink” – the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously. Where Orwell employed the term to explain how governments in totalitarian regimes use doublethink to manipulate citizens and control them, Funder turns it back on him analysing how a society where mistreatment of women in public is condemned could also be a society where a husband like George could misuse his wife in the privacy of the home. A decent person such as George could behave with impunity in a cruel way to his wife as part of the accepted social norms of his day, as Funder puts it:

In order for men to do their deeds and be innocent of them at the same time, women must be human – but not fully so, or a “sense of falsity and hence of guilt” would set in. So, women are said to have the same human rights as men, but our lesser amounts of time and money and status and safety tell us we do not. Women too must keep two contradictory things in our heads at all times.

It is a shock to read Funder’s clear analysis of the male and female doublethink, a doublethink that especially applied to Eric Blair/George Orwell. But it did define much of what happened to Eileen Blair. Trapped as she was in so many ways, her last letters to George are pitiful. This lively, intelligent, decent woman has allowed herself to be diminished to such an extent that she undergoes a hysterectomy for the time in an unsuitable physical condition. She dies on an operating table in the north of England, alone and with her husband unaware of it, far away in France on a war reporter’s mission.

Within months of Eileen’s death, Orwell is plotting a means to replace her. He is working on a new novel and needs someone to care for his adopted baby son Richard as well as fill the other gaps Eileen has left as his literary and personal manager, typist, proof reader, adviser, housekeeper and so on. The novel will become Nineteen Eighty-Four – a year that Eileen, before her marriage, had written of in “End of the Century, 1984”, a futuristic poem celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of her old school.

This is a remarkable biography that brings one woman back to life and broadens our essential understanding of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.