Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life

Martin Tyrrell at the Dublin Review of Books: Eileen O’Shaughnessy married George Orwell in 1936 and remained married to him until her unexpected and untimely death in 1945. Anna Funder’s Wifedom is primarily an analysis of that nine-year marriage, which Funder concludes as having been throughout to Eileen’s disadvantage, an ‘arms race to mutual self-destruction: she by selflessness, and he by disappearing into the greedy double life that is the artist’s, of self + work’. The Orwell that emerges from this account was variously exploitative, neglectful, hypocritical and adulterous, not to mention a tepid and unremarkable lover and, who knows, a tortured and in-denial homosexual. Separate from his life with Eileen he was an inept seducer, occasional stalker, and, on at least two occasions, thwarted rapist.

In contrast, Eileen gave up her promising career in educational psychology to share his spartan lifestyle in a shack in Wallington. There she toiled at the mundane while he worked endlessly on writings that paid little, at least during his and her lifetime. She looked after him both when he was ill with tuberculosis and when he had been seriously wounded in the Spanish Civil War, saved his life (and his manuscript) in that same war, supported him financially in the early 1940s, suffered his affairs, typed and edited his writings, and co-authored his breakthrough work Animal Farm. It is, says Anna Funder, a contribution that has to date gone unrecognized, both by Orwell himself and his many biographers (about whom more to come and plenty).

Wifedom sets out to make good this seventy-year oversight, alert us to the casual inequality in Orwell’s marriage to Eileen, and, more generally, to the enduring inequality of marriage as an institution, and wifedom as a status. And yet, curiously, it ends up being mainly a book about Orwell. Eileen is discussed almost solely in the context of her famous husband, primarily in order to show that this was a relationship that gave her little and him a lot. Rarely, indeed, is an opportunity missed to show, by fact, anecdote or conjecture, how deeply flawed a person Orwell was and it is this flawed Orwell that is the book’s abiding afterimage. The result is a kind of evil twin to Christoper Hitchens’s Orwell’s Victory (2002), a work in which barely a word of criticism – quite possibly not a word at all – is offered of its subject. Indeed, Wifedom may well prove the biggest blow to Orwell’s reputation since the revelation, some twenty-five years ago, that he named the names of suspected communist sympathizers for the Information Research Department. It might even lead to his being ‘cancelled’, made unmentionable in enlightened circles. To her credit, Funder says that is not her intention. Cancellation and the threat of it are to her ‘a new kind of tyranny’ signalling the end of art. The art and the artist, she maintains, are not the same. In the case of Orwell, we should cherish the work while being wise to the man, just as he was with Kipling and Ezra Pound. Not everyone, alas, will see it that way. Wifedom, despite its author’s best intentions, could yet contribute to Orwell’s being unpersoned.

More here.

About George Orwell’s Animal Farm: Animal Farm is a beast fable, in the form of a satirical allegorical novella, by George Orwell, first published in England on 17 August 1945. It tells the story of a group of anthropomorphic farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, hoping to create a society where the animals can be equal, free, and happy. Ultimately, the rebellion is betrayed and, under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon, the farm ends up in a state as bad as it was before. (Wikipedia)

About George Orwell: Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950) was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic who wrote under the pen name of George Orwell. His work is characterized by lucid prose, social criticism, opposition to totalitarianism, and support of democratic socialism. (Wikipedia)