July 2023


Anna Funder’s ‘Wifedom’

By Sean O’Beirne
Cover of ‘Wifedom’
Is the story of George Orwell’s mean and selfish treatment of his wife complete without the literary achievements his behaviour permitted?

George Orwell had, in some ways, an extraordinarily rare sensibility: in his books and essays (“The Spike”, “Down the Mine”, “Politics and the English Language”, Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four) he combined the very best of socialism and liberalism. He had a socialist’s awareness of how much conservatism and capital cause unnecessary suffering to destitute people, low-wage workers, and people of colour. But ­– and this is so rare – he had an equal amount of liberal sensitivity to the mistakes humans will make whenever they try to organise and fix something. Orwell saw that orthodoxy from the left could be every bit as bad as the injustice it tried to correct (and in the case of orthodox communism, murderously worse). We must, he wrote in his essay “Notes on Nationalism”, fight against all our emotional “nationalisms”, against our need to make varying and contradictory reality into one fact, one loyalty, one program, one campaign. We must, he wrote with special emphasis, make “a moral effort” against the continuous temptation of orthodoxy.

The shock of Anna Funder’s new book, Wifedom (Hamish Hamilton), is that it shows that Orwell imposed an especially mean, selfish orthodoxy upon his first wife, Eileen. Every biographer of Orwell has tended to see his life as pretty much the same as his writing: unusually considerate, unusually honourable. Funder has examined the evidence (interviews, letters, diaries) more accurately, and found a man who was, when it came to women, unusually small-minded, insistent and deceitful. He expected Eileen to be his editor, secretary, cook, nurse and cleaner, and paid her back by repeatedly trying to have sex with other women. Eileen visits him in hospital, he propositions one of her closest friends. Eileen’s beloved brother dies, he starts an affair with another friend, within weeks, while Eileen is still in deep mourning. And then, horribly, after years of overwork and neglect, Eileen suffers uterine bleeding and needs a hysterectomy, Orwell “disapproves”, Eileen has the operation done too quickly and cheaply, and, tired, thin, anaemic, has a heart attack and dies on the table.

Funder shows us a woman who sacrificed her own work and life to a man who took most of it for granted. The most affecting parts of Wifedom are where Funder brings a particular part of Eileen’s work and fate into sharp sudden view: she’s in a tube carriage, alone, the day Orwell has her go pick up their adopted baby; or standing, alone, before the mirror, the day she goes in to have that operation. And, Funder says, of course so much of this still goes on today: the essence of wifedom, the enormous injustice still at the core of our civilisation, is the expectation that she will always do more of the boring jobs (lists, pick-ups, clean-ups), and can become lost in that, disappear into that. All so he is free to do work that is more interesting, more creative, more valued.

The problem, though, is that Funder’s book doesn’t pay enough attention to the interesting, creative work Orwell was able to make. It might seem revolting to ask for more attention to this, once you find out the truth about Eileen and think about all the women who lived, and live, like her. Yet this may be exactly what we have to do now: hold the horrible truth about systemic prejudice, and the contradictory truth that good – good everyone can use – was made even within that prejudice. And Funder does say exactly this, she says that Orwell’s work is still “precious”, and that she wants to “hold” it all, “work, man and wife” together in a kind of “constellation”. But I don’t see how you can hold the work unless you include more description of its content – there should have been some paragraphs, here and there, describing at least some of what Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, or The Lion and the Unicorn or “Writers and Leviathan”. Just enough literary appreciation, even in a book about the very worst of a writer’s personal life. That could be dismaying to many readers who will want the main story of Wifedom – justice, finally, for Eileen ­– without having to read descriptions of what is most valuable in Orwell’s books and essays. But isn’t that the job, or shouldn’t it be? To tell a story, so paradoxical, so unsatisfying, of bad and good together? A story that is really unorthodox.

Sean O’Beirne

Sean O’Beirne is a bookseller and critic, and the author of the short fiction collection A Couple of Things Before the End.

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