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Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life by Anna Funder

Eileen O’Shaughnessy ran home and farm, typed and edited his manuscripts, backed him financially and tended to his TB despite her ill-health

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life
Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life
Author: Anna Funder
ISBN-13: 978-0241482728
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £20

After tackling the tyranny of the Stasi in her Samuel Johnson Prize-winning Stasiland (2003) and of Nazism in her novel All That I Am (2011), Australian author Anna Funder turns her attention to more intimate — if no less systemic — oppression.

Overwhelmed by the “motherload of wifedom” — an endless to-do list eating into her working hours — Funder embarked on a deep dive into the work of George Orwell, whom she admired for “his laser vision about how power works”. Her ears pricked up, however, when she came across a dubious diary entry referring to the “incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness” of women and “their terrible, devouring sexuality”.

Funder then read a cache of letters that had been discovered in 2005 addressed from Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, to her best friend. “I lost my habit of punctual correspondence during the first few weeks of marriage,” O’Shaughnessy wrote to Norah Myles in 1936, “because we quarrelled so continuously & really bitterly that I thought I’d save time & just write one letter to everyone when the murder or separation had been accomplished”. For Funder, a human rights lawyer by training, the story of a man calling out tyranny behaving like a tyrant at home was irresistible.

O’Shaughnessy’s letters serve as a scaffolding of sorts for Wifedom, a blend of partly fictionalised biography, literary criticism and personal essay. Having read English at Oxford, O’Shaughnessy dropped out of an MA in educational psychology at UCL to follow Orwell to a cottage in Hertfordshire with “no sanitation, no heat or electricity” — part of his fantasy of the self-reliant, proletarian life. Although the word “obey” had been removed from their wedding vows, she ran their home and farm, typed and edited Orwell’s manuscripts, worked to support him financially, tended to his TB despite ill-health of her own and cared for the son they adopted a year before her death during a hysterectomy.


With Wifedom, Funder aims to fill in the gaps of the six major biographies of Orwell published between the 1970s and 2003, all written by men, which gloss over his mistreatment of women and serial infidelity. She finds no evidence of the commonly-held notion that the Orwells had an open marriage. She meticulously dissects her predecessors’ work to show the various ways O’Shaughnessy is erased or diminished, such as the use of the passive tense to suggest that things just happened, as if by magic. (Two more recent books — DJ Taylor’s updated biography Orwell: The New Life (2023) and Sylvia Topp’s Eileen: The Making of George Orwell (2020) — also draw on the letters to Norah, although Taylor is more forgiving of Orwell as “a man of his time” and Topp portrays Eileen as a joyful helpmeet.

Orwell’s own work minimised his wife’s contributions: Homage to Catalonia, which chronicles his fighting in the Spanish civil war, elides his wife’s work for the resistance. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much literary influence O’Shaughnessy had on her husband, Funder makes a case that it was she who suggested making Animal Farm a fable, having studied the form under Tolkien at Oxford, and that her wartime work in the censorship department of Britain’s ministry of information inspired the Ministry of Truth in 1984. Having left her alone with their child at the end of her life, his response to her unexpected death was to “pounce on and propose to at least four women” in the space of a few months, Funder writes. The proposals were rejected until he married Sonia Brownell, three months before his death of tuberculosis, in 1950.

Wifedom joins titles including Carmela Ciuraru’s Lives of the Wives, Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives and Nuala O’Conner’s Nora in examining the dynamics of literary marriages. We continue to grapple with how much the behaviour of the artist should affect our appreciation of their art, as Clare Dederer explores in Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. “I use Orwell’s own idea from 1984, called doublethink, which is holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.” Funder has said. “I can like and admire the work, but also have an accurate and not hagiographic idea of the man.” The more insidious doublethink is that of patriarchy, she argues. It’s what “allows an apparently ‘decent’ man to behave badly to women”.

Funder weaves her reflections on #MeToo and the burden of the “mental load” into O’Shaughnessy’s story. Despite her own husband’s good intentions, “I’d been doing the lion’s share for so long, we’d stopped noticing,” she writes. While reclaiming forgotten histories is important, Wifedom is not the homerun that Stasiland was. Billed as a “genre-bending masterpiece”, its genres are less bent than muddled. The fictionalised sections, told in the present tense, create frequent tonal shifts. As noble as the book’s aim may be and as infuriating as Orwell’s behaviour is, by speculating about O’Shaughnessy’s feelings, Funder ultimately risks the same bias error as the biographers who have effaced her — a fiction by addition rather than omission. While she points out Orwell’s homophobia, for example, his anti-Semitic remarks remain unmentioned.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic