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Posted on 5 Sep 2023 in Non-Fiction |

ANNA FUNDER Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s invisible life. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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Anna Funder reveals the significant and unacknowledged contribution of Mrs Orwell to the famous writer’s career.

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them … The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence guilt … it is a vast system of mental cheating.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

This is a book about George Orwell; and it is not. This is a book about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, Orwell’s wife; and it is not. This is a book about the marriage, or what Anna Funder refers to as ‘the constellation’ that was Orwell and Eileen as they orbited around each other; and it is not. This is a book about patriarchy; and it is not.

It is a book about the creative process, about the interplay between the personal and the public in the production of art. In Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s invisible life, Anna Funder uses the marriage of Orwell and Eileen and the contradiction, or doublethink, of Orwell’s personal and public lives as empirical data to develop an understanding of the creative process.

In 2017, Funder obtained a copy of Orwell’s four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1968), where she came across observations he had made concerning women: ‘One was their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness. The other was their terrible, devouring sexuality’ and ‘the sympathy everyone feels for a man who murders his wife’. This piqued Funder’s interest and she decided to explore Orwell’s relationship with Eileen.

Eileen and Orwell meet in 1935 and married in 1936; Eileen died in 1945, aged 39. In 2005, six letters were discovered that Eileen had written to her best friend Norah Symes Myles. Funder obtained copies of these and gathered other material concerning Eileen’s life – her letters, notebooks, the writings of others who were part of the couple’s orbit –and also read numerous biographies of Orwell.

Funder’s conclusion is that Eileen played a major role in the production of Orwell’s ‘precious work’. From the beginning of their marriage, Eileen was solely responsible for all domestic chores – cooking, cleaning, shopping, paying bills – with ‘the master upstairs, coughing, trying to spin gold from ink’. In addition, especially during World War II, she was the major breadwinner, obtaining various jobs as Orwell focused on his art. She also acted as his editor, commented on his work and typed his manuscripts.

Orwell participated in the Spanish Civil War, fighting on behalf of a splinter leftist group. Eileen also participated in the war, effectively running the office of this group in Barcelona. She nursed Orwell back to health after he was shot in the throat. She also obtained visas that enabled her, Orwell, and others to escape Spain after the Stalinists decided to kill off members of the splinter group. Homage to Catalonia (1938) is Orwell’s account of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. It ignores Eileen’s ‘central role’ in these events. Worse, Orwell incorporates events she told him about as if they had happened to him. Funder wonders what Eileen thought about this as she typed the manuscript of Homage. Is it a piece of reportage? Is it a novel? Is it fake news?

Funder points out that in 1934 Eileen published a dystopian poem called ‘End of the Century, 1984’. In the latter stages of World War II, Orwell decided he wanted to write an essay criticising Stalin for betraying the Russian Revolution. Eileen thought this was a terrible idea; Russia was an ally fighting Germany. Eileen suggested it should instead ‘be a novel, an animal fable of the kind she loves, and once wanted to write herself’. Funder regards Animal Farm as Orwell’s best work, describing it as:

an outlier in all of Orwell’s works. It has an ensemble of characters, rather than a main one who’s an Orwell stand-in … The form of the book itself – as fable, novel, satire – was Eileen’s idea.

Possibly the most intriguing part of Wifedom is the unpacking of Orwell’s predatory sexuality. He visited brothels during his days in Burma and when he was down and out in Paris (and, presumably, London). He was continually on the lookout for sexual conquests, even when suffering extreme attacks of TB. After he meet Eileen and proposed, he continued a series of affairs. He chased one of her best friends and asked Eileen’s permission ‘for just one’ little adventure when he was recuperating in Morocco, and a ‘special treat’ on his birthday. Funder sees Orwell’s continual flaunting of his need for other women as asserting control over Eileen. The worst part of his sexual behaviour was that it was forceful and bordered on or even crossed the line into rape. He had a strong sense of male entitlement. Funder points out that Orwell’s biographers ignored or used linguistic tricks to dismiss this dark side of his behaviour.

Eileen suffered badly during her periods, bled profusely, experienced substantial abdominal pain, was anaemic and underweight. In 1945 she decided to have a hysterectomy. The choice was whether to use London-based doctors, who told her she would need four weeks in hospital and a series of blood transfusions to build up her strength beforehand, or to have it done straightaway by a doctor in Newcastle. She chose Newcastle.

Orwell was in Europe working as a correspondent. Prior to the operation Eileen wrote to him, saying, ‘What worries me is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money.’ Orwell did not accompany her to Newcastle. During the operation she experienced a cardiac arrest and died.

In her introduction Funder says, ‘I’ve always loved Orwell – his deprecating humour, his laser vision about how power works, and who it works on.’ In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell wrote:

Power is not a means, it is an end … The object of power is power … power is power over human beings … above all over the mind … if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.

Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World (1932), wrote a famous letter to Orwell after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, saying:

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.

These two notions of power depict the nature of the relationship that existed between Orwell and Eileen. He asserted power over her, ‘above all over her mind’, and she learned to ‘love her servitude’. It was a sadomasochistic relationship. Eileen accepted such domination to the point of doubting she was worth the cost of an operation to improve her health. Orwell even stamped on Eileen’s face in death. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith, that final stand-in for Orwell, pleads for the woman he loves to be thrown to the rats in order to save himself.

Funder funnels their relationship through the lens of patriarchy.

Patriarchy is the doublethink that allows an apparently ‘decent’ man to behave badly to women … 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 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: I am human, but I am also less than human. Our lived experience makes a lie of the rhetoric of the world. We live on the dark side of Doublethink.

Anna Funder is an exceptional writer and provides insights on many issues. To give two examples:

            … democracy, like money, requires everyone to believe in it.


A kiss – especially a first kiss – is not just a kiss. It is a situation a woman must navigate. The options for her are prude/slut or humourless bitch/accomplice, and that slash that divides them is the slimmest of terrains in which a woman might first find, and then satisfy, her own desire.

Wifedom provides a detailed and compelling examination of how the private and public lives of a writer intersect, of how a great writer mercilessly exploited the woman that loved him, of how she was essential to the creation of his art. As Funder puts it:

To my mind, a person is not their work, just where it came from. To want the two to be the same, on pain of ‘cancellation’, is a new kind of tyranny. And from there, no art comes.

Wifedom will add to Anna Funder’s reputation as one of Australia’s leading authors. She has rescued Eileen O’Shaughnessy from being written out of history by both Orwell himself and his biographers, and acknowledges the important role she played in Orwell’s life and work. It is a superb and insightful work about George Orwell, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, their marriage, patriarchy and the creative process.

Anna Funder Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s invisible life Hamish Hamilton 2023 PB 460pp $36.99

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

You can buy Wifedom from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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