A Q&A with Anna Funder on Wifedom
In her new book Wifedom, Anna Funder – the author of the award-winning Stasiland – explores the life of Eileen O'Shaughnessy, George Orwell's first wife. Drawing from Eileen's correspondence with a close friend, she paints a portrait of a fascinating woman – an Oxford graduate whose ideas, creative imput and tireless support for her husband have largely gone unnoticed in Orwell biographies. In this Q&A, Funder discusses their marriage and Eileen's influence on her husband's writing, as well as the question of why her presence in the famous author's life has all but been written out of history.
To start us off, can you give us a quick elevator pitch for Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life?
Orwell fell in love with Eileen at first sight. She said yes, eventually — but she took the word ‘obey’ out of her marriage vows. This is the story of the marriage behind some of the most famous literary works of the 20th century — and a probing consideration of what it means to be a wife and a writer in the modern world.
Wifedom is a look inside the Orwell’s marriage from her point of view. And it asks the question of all heterosexual marriages: what is it about being a wife that means that the work that we do continues to go unnoticed, unthanked, and unfairly distributed between men and women? To call the work of love and life that sustains human beings ‘domestic’ is an enormous understatement. In Eileen’s case, that work included saving Orwell’s life in the Spanish Civil War, supporting him financially by working at the Ministry of Censorship during WW2, and being closely involved in all his writing, especially Animal Farm. But you’d never know all this from reading biographies of him. How is this disappearing trick done? How are the women who nurtured, mentored or slept with Orwell erased from history, and why? Wifedom uses newly discovered letters from Eileen to her best friend to write her back into history — with her own words.
What was it like to write a book that became something vastly different from what you started out writing?
At the start I didn’t know what I was writing! I only knew that I needed to find some way to write Eileen back into history. Her letters are so funny, intimate and revealing. In the first one she tells her best friend that she and Orwell quarrelled so much in the weeks after the wedding she thought she’d save time and ‘just write one letter to everyone once the murder or separation had been accomplished.’ But the historical accounts tell us that for him, these newlywed months were the happiest of his entire life. What was going on?! Why did she want to kill him, even in jest? How was this brilliant Oxford graduate negotiating her wifedom, with this man who complained he’d only done two good days writing in the seven since the wedding, and who got sick every time she tried to visit her best friend?
This marriage gave me a chance to look closely at what seems to us now an extreme version of patriarchal marriage from 80 years ago and ask: given that in every society on the planet women still have less power, money and leisure than their male counterparts, is this something to do with this kernel of male privilege that entitles men to the work of women, that is holding us back?
How important did it become to you to tell Eileen’s side of the story?
It was very important to me to tell her story, because she was such good fun, so clever about people, and about Orwell. And so very brave—in peacetime and in war.
And in telling her story I could also show how it – and she – have been hidden. By simply being left out, or by the passive voice (‘the manuscript was typed’, 'the conditions (for him) were ideal’, ‘the visas were obtained’ (and so their lives were saved) and so on. Other times what women said or did was trivialised – by being doubted, by the woman herself being insulted by a biographer, or by being relegated to footnote (and doubted and insulted for good measure). We need to be aware of these methods of writing history, because they write women out of it.
How challenging was it to find Eileen’s voice when there is so little written about her and by her?
Eileen’s letters to her best friend Norah, and also to George and other relatives, have a very distinct voice. She is enormously insightful about other people, very self-deprecating and funny. She wrote from her job in the Spanish Civil War letters that show she was aware of being censored there. She wrote about being depressed during the Blitz in London, and she wrote very long, lovely letters to Orwell when, at the very end of the war, he left her to go and report on the retreat of the Germans in Europe.
Eileen also had very good female friends and colleagues who left accounts of her, and in some cases of her relationship with George. Her personality was so interesting to me – whimsical, honourable and brave, that it was a joy for me to write her into being.
After all you’ve learned while writing Wifedom, would you say you’re still a fan of George Orwell?
Yes, I’m definitely still a fan! Especially of Animal Farm, which he considered his best work. I do too, and I know that it has Eileen’s influence at its core, and on every page. He’d wanted to write an essay critical of Stalin, who was helping the allies win the war against Hitler. Eileen had better political instincts. She knew that wouldn’t be popular, and likely wouldn’t be published. She had studied under J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, at Oxford, and convinced Orwell to write an allegorical novel instead. They worked on it every night in bed to stay warm as the bombs fell on London. It’s the only one of his works that has an ensemble of characters, instead of a sort of underdog everyman Orwell stand-in at its heart. It’s whimsical, acute and funny. His friends were astonished by it.
I think it’s also important to recognise that one of the things art can do, is to show us, safely between covers, or in a frame, or on a screen, things that are frightening – tyranny and sadism, for instance, in Orwell’s case. To really go there, an artist or writer needs to feel those things in their bones. Otherwise they wouldn’t be interested in them, in the first place. Orwell certainly had streaks of tyranny and sadism in his personality. This is no reason to cancel anything or anyone. Cancelling is another kind of tyranny, and from there, no art comes.
Finally, what are some recent reads or authors you have enjoyed recently?
Oh, so many! I love Elizabeth Strout, Jenny Offill, Jenny Erpenbeck, Deborah Levy, Michelle de Kretser, Ceridwen Dovey, Delia Falconer, Joan Didion, W G Sebald, J M Coetzee, Les Murray, Sarah Holland-Batt, Evelyn Araluen. I go back to Chekhov all the time, and Alice Munro. It seems like such a random list, but these are all people who get to the marrow of things.
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