What happens to all those women behind the celebrated literary men we hear about, who helped and sustained them along the way only to be discarded or abandoned—or simply written out of the record? It is a question that probably haunts every woman who reads or writes, reminding her of the precarious position she and her kind occupy in any account of talent or accomplishment. In her essay “Shakespeare’s Sister,” Virginia Woolf mused over the question of female talent and concluded that if the bard had in fact had “a wonderfully gifted sister,” she would have ended up committing suicide.
Now Anna Funder’s wonderful, genre-bending book Wifedom comes to the rescue, salvaging the life of one such overlooked woman: Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the first wife of George Orwell, and the only one he lived with. (We have heard so much about Orwell’s second wife, Sonia, who married him virtually on his deathbed and thus managed to make herself a key player in shaping his posthumous reputation, that it is easy to forget that anyone preceded her.)
Funder is a former international human-rights lawyer and the author of Stasiland, an account of the people who resisted the Communist regime in East Germany, as well as two works of fiction. She tells us that she came to this project by way of her admiration for Orwell’s writing, which she turned to at the end of the summer of 2017, when she found herself at a moment of “peak overload,” with three children to look after and a house to run. Although she and her husband had once imagined sharing “the work of life and love,” Funder has long recognized that “the lion’s share” falls to her, and decides that Orwell and his hatred of what he calls the “smelly little orthodoxies” of his time will help liberate her from her own tyranny: “the motherload of wifedom.”
Funder immerses herself in Orwell scholarship, reading six biographies of the writer that she describes as “fictions of omission” because there is so little in any of them about the women who dotted Orwell’s path to fame. “The biographers are helped,” she notes, “by Orwell himself erasing or obscuring the women in his life.” (Funder mentions a previous biography of her subject published just three years ago called Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, by Sylvia Topp, but only to say that she disagrees with Topp’s interpretation of the material.)
Through “scraps of facts,” letters, interview, persuasive novelistic renderings, and autobiographical insertions that cast a clarifying light on the machinations of patriarchy in O’Shaughnessy’s day along with our own, Funder succeeds in drawing a portrait of O’Shaughnessy—her “elusiveness, her whimsy, her lack of self-care and untended intellectual brilliance”—that is vivid and multi-dimensional and ultimately heart-rending.
In 1934, having gone to Oxford on a scholarship and worked at a variety of jobs for the next nine years, O’Shaughnessy was pursuing an advanced degree in psychology at University College London when she met 32-year-old Eric Blair, the man behind the nom de plume, draped over a fireplace at a party in Hampstead. She was tall and slender, attractive, with “dark hair, light-blue eyes and a delicate white and pink complexion,” indifferent to clothes and an “extraordinary listener.” He was tall and “thin as a folding ruler,” with “pale, piercing blue” eyes, dressed provocatively in “proletarian fancy dress.” A close friend described Orwell as “obtuse … perhaps because he never really looked at another human being.”
After attending Eton, Orwell had followed his father into the Colonial Service, working as a policeman in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel, Burmese Days. He had a second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, coming out and was writing reviews for a left-wing magazine when he met O’Shaughnessy. Within minutes, apparently, he knew he wanted to marry her. Funder proposes that O’Shaughnessy was the “embodiment of the ‘fundamental decency’ of human beings Orwell treasured. 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.” She adds: “It was a quality he would have liked to have had.”
The couple married in 1936 and moved to a dark, cold, and very narrow 300-year-old cottage in Wallington, a village of 100 people 40 miles north of London. Their sexual life left much to be desired. O’Shaughnessy thought he had had too much sex before marriage—make of that what one will. He seems to have preferred whoring and brief flings with adoring women.
Within minutes, he knew he wanted to marry her. Funder proposes that O’Shaughnessy was the “embodiment of the ‘fundamental decency’ of human beings Orwell treasured.”
Funder delves into the question of Orwell’s misogyny, quoting from a notebook entry made just before he died, in which he wrote of the “incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness” of women, as well as their “terrible, devouring sexuality.” She also touches on his possible homosexual predilections, hidden by his rabidly proclaimed homophobia.
While he wrote—“his work comes before anybody,” O’Shaughnessy told her close friend Lydia—she did the cooking, fed the hens, planted the potato crop, cleaned the outhouse, and looked after their run-down dwelling. “The sink would be blocked,” one visitor observed. “The primus stove wouldn’t work. The lavatory plug wouldn’t pull.” There were “battalions of mice,” as O’Shaughnessy described them, “shoulder to shoulder on the shelves, pushing the china off.”
She was also an astute editor of Orwell’s writing, which she gave herself over to, abandoning her own literary ambitions. (Some scholars attribute the title of 1984 to a poem O’Shaughnessy wrote called “End of the Century, 1984.”) Lydia, with whom Orwell first flirts and later makes overt sexual advances on, thoroughly disapproves of him as a husband and, after observing the couple when she comes for a weekend and can’t sleep because of the cold, thinks he takes his wife “too much for granted.”
In December 1936, Orwell went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, excited to “kill fascists,” although in his first three weeks at the front, he fired all of three bullets. He doesn’t seem to have discussed his decision with O’Shaughnessy, who joined him in Barcelona the following February. Funder excavates this crucial period in Orwell’s life with a mixture of imagination and on-the-ground research, although at times the chronology is difficult to follow. O’Shaughnessy is scarcely to be found in Homage to Catalonia, but it turns out that she was “at the heart of the operation.”
O’Shaughnessy stayed at the Hotel Continental, where she was targeted by Stalinist spies, and worked at the office of the Independent Labour Party, under whose banner Orwell fought, organizing “letters, telegrams and parcels” and finding “clothes, money, tobacco, treats (chocolate, margarine, cigars). And medicine.” She also worked in the “propaganda department” of the I.L.P., producing the party’s English-language newspaper and radio program.
O’Shaughnessy is admired by all the men with whom she works, and one of them, Orwell’s commander, Georges Kopp, falls in love with her. She goes to the battlefront with Kopp in March for three days and has a fine old time, despite a small bombardment and a lot of machine-gun fire from the Fascists, writing home that she has “never enjoyed anything more.” When Orwell is hit in the neck by a bullet, O’Shaughnessy arrived within 48 hours of the injury.
After Orwell leaves Spain, O’Shaughnessy keeps an anxious vigil in increasingly dangerous circumstances in her hotel lobby, ordering food she doesn’t eat and chain-smoking. Her office is raided by the Spanish police, and, a short time later, her hotel room is ransacked by six uniformed guards. Luckily, she has the wits to hide their passports and checkbook as well as all of “George’s writing from every notebook, scrap of paper, toilet tissue he sent from the front,” which she has typed up and tied with red twine, hid under the mattress and covered with a folded newspaper. Thanks to her courage and guile, O’Shaughnessy saved her husband from “almost certain arrest” at the Continental. At the end of 1937, the two were back in their freezing cottage, in Wallington, where Orwell finished Homage to Catalonia in eight weeks, thanks in part to O’Shaughnessy’s unremitting labor on it. “I don’t know whether I can get away even for a day,” she writes to a friend,” because the book is late…and I keep getting his manuscript to revise.”
Making a Masterpiece
Orwell was sent to a sanatorium in Kent for six months after coughing up blood. O’Shaughnessy takes in typing to earn extra money and visits him every fortnight despite the length (five hours), expense, and arduousness of the trip. Warm weather was suggested for his recuperation, so the couple went to Marrakech, where O’Shaughnessy edited and retyped Coming Up for Air. “She knows editing is a thrill to him,” Funder writes, “the dangerous pleasure of having someone see you more clearly than you can.”
Orwell seeks out a teenage Arab prostitute in Morocco, and back in England he continues his somewhat klutzy womanizing—referred to by one biographer as “the Orwell pounce”—at the BBC, where he briefly works; at Tribune, where he becomes literary editor; and in the offices of Cyril Connolly’s influential 1940s magazine Horizon, which he writes for. O’Shaughnessy is “severely distressed by his behavior” and threatened to leave him but stayed put, continuing to assist him in all ways possible.
When World War II arrives, Orwell and O’Shaughnessy rent an apartment in London in keeping with her wish to be nearer to the fray. He is rejected for conscription on health grounds; she works full-time at the Ministry of Information. Meanwhile, Orwell writes Animal Farm in three months, the least typical of his novels in its poetic language and light touch. “The form of the book—a fable, novel, satire—was O’Shaughnessy’s idea,” Funder notes. “She steered him away from writing a critical essay on Stalin and totalitarianism, and … they worked on it together. In Animal Farm her psychological depth and sympathy met his political insights and made a masterpiece.”
Thanks to her courage and guile, O’Shaughnessy saved her husband from “almost certain arrest.”
Orwell’s continual ill health dominated their marriage, while O’Shaughnessy’s own fragile physical condition—frequent uterine bleeding (most probably endometriosis)—went largely unattended to. Eventually, weakened and thin, she collapsed in the street and was taken to Greystone, the luxurious family house where the widow of her brother, who had been killed in the war, lived. The couple had by that point adopted a son, Richard, at Orwell’s wish, although O’Shaughnessy was left to pick up the three-week-old baby by herself; she also went unaccompanied to the court hearing where the adoption was finalized. Nor does Orwell visit his sick wife, taking off for France instead.
A hysterectomy is arranged, which leads O’Shaughnessy to tally up the relative cost of going to London for the surgery as opposed to having it done locally at a much cheaper rate. She writes to Orwell an apologetic letter, one, Funder notes, in which “she must frame carefully the idea of spending money on her health,” although no such rationalizations were made about the medical care for Orwell’s tuberculosis. Amid this grim arithmetic, the sad truth of her abject lack of self-regard pops out. “What worries me,” she writes, “is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money.”
O’Shaughnessy died on March 29, 1945, at 39, having decided to go with the cheaper doctor, the one who didn’t think she needed any “fattening up” before her surgery. She had taken the hour-and-three-quarters bus ride from Stockton-on-Tees to the Newcastle nursing home by herself while Orwell was off in Paris, where he introduced himself to Ernest Hemingway, and Cologne.
She had written him long letters filled with colorful details and whimsical observations; he seems to have answered few of them. Her last letter to him was written from her hospital bed without any self-pity or attempt to guilt-trip her neglectful husband: “This is a nice room—ground floor so one can see the garden. ”
Wifedom is an incalculably affecting and intellectually arresting book. Funder is too sophisticated to simply enshrine O’Shaughnessy or pillory Orwell; what she has done is something much more interesting, which is to suggest the ways in which we are all, herself included, complicit in the sins of the patriarchy. (It’s time for a new word.) “The more I looked at Eileen and Orwell’s life together, the more I felt the long-ago dynamic reverberate, disconcertingly, in my own,” Funder writes.
The “doublespeak” of the heterosexual paradigm is that men can do it alone and that the woman behind the man, enabling his everyday life and work, is content (or not sufficiently discontented) with being an unpaid and unseen laborer. The system as we know it is conducive to this state of affairs, rewarding the “FAMOUS WRITER” that Orwell wanted to become from early on and leaving his gifted and self-sacrificing first wife to die alone, unacknowledged by him and invisible to the larger world. Until now.
Anna Funder’s Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life is out now from Knopf
Daphne Merkin is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of numerous books, including the memoir This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression and the novels Enchantment and 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love. She is currently working on a book about her experiences in psychoanalysis