September 12, 2023 | The Millions
George Orwell was a man in need of a better half. Reserved and awkward, he was inept at manual tasks and perennially sick. For most of his brief life he looked like he was starving to death. Yet those aspects of his character do not complete the picture he presented to a would-be spouse. Although he could wield a fierce pen, he was known for his kind manner. Richard Peters, whom Orwell tutored as a boy in 1930, recalled that when working with students the great writer “had a slow disarming sort of smile which made us feel that he was interested in us yet amused by us in a detached impersonal sort of way. He would discuss anything with interest, yet objectively and without prejudice.”
“Without prejudice” is a revealing phrase. It forms part of the edifice of St. George that has built up since Orwell’s death nearly 75 years ago. His stature as an icon of British rectitude stems from widespread admiration of a figure known for being honest, brave, and willing to face unpleasant facts. Orwell has been the subject of busloads of critical appraisal, and the more astute commentators have attempted to let some air out of these impossibly full tires. In Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens—who did not believe in saints—prefaces his favorable assessment of the author’s oeuvre with Orwell’s biases against women, Jews, gays, and the poor. These prejudices, while common enough in Orwell’s time, have not aged well. Hitchens had his own blind spots in gender politics, but he was onto something in concluding that “Orwell wrote for a male audience.”
Orwell’s most glaring deficiency as a life partner—and most valuable asset as an author—was monomania. For him, writing was everything. He slipped easily into the threadbare garments of the poor novelist, living in squalor and enjoying the horrified reaction his penury sparked in others. Along the way he collected extreme experiences that he could report on and analyze in prose, assuming the mantle of tramp, traveler, and soldier, and writing vivid accounts in books such as The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London. Throughout, Orwell adopted the posture of a committed socialist with lingering upper-class fussiness: He liked the marmalade to be decanted before being placed on the rickety table. Finding someone to share this quixotic lifestyle took doing.
What sort of woman did such a man marry? Eileen O’Shaughnessy was, in a word, extraordinary. Her friend Lettice Cooper modeled a character in a novel after Eileen. “When you speak to her she generally looks at you for a minute before answering, and then answers very slowly, as though anything you said to her needed careful consideration and was of the greatest importance,” Cooper wrote in the novel Black Bethlehem. Others described Eileen as razor-sharp, sophisticated, and unusually empathetic; her few surviving letters are full of vivacious wit. She and Orwell met at a party and instantly took to each other, sharing a political outlook, a love of literature, and an inability to suffer fools. They were affectionate and equally committed to a life of impoverished striving; she occasionally punctured his overstated pronouncements. Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick wrote that Eileen’s friends “were puzzled that such an emancipated and forceful woman was so willing to play second fiddle to what appeared to be a rather self-absorbed and gawky minor novelist.”
Yet Eileen spotted Orwell’s talent for what it was and devoted her life to it. Such a decision rests uneasily in our modern understanding of feminism. Eileen both expanded her husband’s worldview and took on the roles of literary assistant and household manager to clear space for him to write. This seems as unfair a division of labor today, but was sadly unremarkable in 1936, the year they wed. Analyzing the arrangement requires both an attention to historical context and a contemporary understanding of the overlooked value of women’s work. Since time immemorial, great men have typed away in self-importance while their wives cleared the dishes and prepared supper. In this respect, a recent wave of books focusing on the yin-and-yang of literary partnership is welcome and overdue, including Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, Zelda: A Biography, and Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages.
“I would like a wife like Eileen,” the novelist Anna Funder writes in Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life. “But as a woman and a wife her life terrifies me” because of the self-abnegation it entailed. What Funder wants to know about Eileen is: “What did she give and what did it cost her?” To begin answering these questions, Funder examined Eileen’s correspondence and delved into the major biographies of Orwell, where she saw Eileen’s story elided. But then, “Orwell’s biographers are seven men looking at a man.” And all of them “slanted towards heroism and forgiveness.”
These points are provocative and worth exploring. Orwell’s sexism has long been known, and Eileen’s story is a fascinating one. Wifedom confronts both topics using a unique approach that intersperses narrative nonfiction with fictitious scenes, complete with dialogue, that dramatize Eileen’s inner life. An ambitious, challenging, yet ultimately flawed book, Wifedom is less a biography of Eileen—or even a portrait of two halves of a marriage—than an indictment of a writer that Funder has ceased to venerate. She insists she does not want to cancel anyone, asserting that “Orwell’s work is precious to me. I didn’t want to take it, or him, down in any way. I worried he might risk being ‘cancelled’ by the story I’m telling. Though [Eileen], of course, has been cancelled already—by patriarchy.” Nevertheless, Wifedom is scathing. Funder took up her pen, she asserts, because there was “some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention. Or, as I say, a person.”
The lie Funder seeks to expose is that George Orwell, paragon of decency, was not particularly decent toward women. She broadly builds her case around two types of transgression: Orwell was a womanizer and he undervalued Eileen. His extramarital pursuits are there in the historical record for all to see, some perhaps even entailing coercive advances: They do Orwell no credit. Funder rejects the open-marriage label that others have applied while conceding that Eileen may have had an affair of her own in the late 1930s. What Eileen made of Orwell’s philandering is harder to say. She gave permission for him to pursue certain assignations—reluctantly, Funder believes. The book includes a fictitious passage portraying Eileen as feeling “ashamed” of Orwell’s running around, “as if something had been stolen from under her nose.” Yet 30 pages earlier, Funder quotes from a friend who wrote that “Eileen was as free from jealousy or rancor as anybody I have ever known.”
When it comes to Orwell’s undervaluing of Eileen, Wifedom explores the fraught intersection of marriage and war. In the late 1930s, Orwell fought in Spain and wrote about his time in combat as well as the treachery of fascists and communists. The result was the book Homage to Catalonia. Funder faults Orwell for not focusing the narrative more on Eileen’s experience working in an International Labor Party office in Barcelona. Eileen proved resourceful and brave in the face of danger, and her story is worth telling. Yet this does not mean, as Funder implies, that Orwell wrote the wrong book. His subject was politics, as well as the sights and sounds he personally experienced, such as being shot in the throat. Orwell mentions his wife over three dozen times in Homage—Funder counted. Yet she finds that count wanting (and, in a striking application of present sensibilities to a bygone era, objects to the word “wife”). In Funder’s view the book is less a masterpiece of political writing than an act of personal erasure.
During World War II, Orwell reported for British newspapers on the end of the conflict in Europe. Traveling with Allied troops through France, Germany, and Austria, he encountered refugees, ruined cities, concentration camp survivors, and bodies. While he was on the continent in 1945, Eileen underwent an emergency hysterectomy and died during the operation. A few surviving letters provide a tragically intimate view into her final lonely days. Eileen’s husband should not have been away, Funder contends, and should not have returned to his war reporting after coming home to bury his wife. Fair, although debatable. But then in an astonishing claim, Funder flatly calls the work that Orwell performed in Europe “unimportant.”
Orwell was undoubtedly careless of Eileen’s health, and Funder’s critique that he always put his writing first is valid. But her assertion that his war reporting was unimportant warrants unpacking. It falls at the crossroads of Orwell’s personal life and his life’s work—without which, after all, there would be no books about George or Eileen. Funder’s claim not only disrespects the war dead and ironically overlooks an article Orwell published in April 1945 about women gaining the right to vote in France. More fundamentally, Funder betrays a misunderstanding of her subject. Throughout his life Orwell derived his authority on issues like fascism, imperialism, and poverty from firsthand experience. He would soon begin drafting the single most enduring book about totalitarianism ever written, Nineteen Eighty-Four. For Orwell to see the ravages of Europe with his own eyes undoubtedly influenced the nightmarish vision he would soon commit to print.
Another problem in Wifedom concerns the lacuna of Eileen herself. Scholars have found her an elusive subject by dint of personality and a scant historical record. Yet rather than acknowledge room for uncertainty, Funder fills the gaps with speculation. The book overflows with fictitious passages, writing in between the lines of Eileen’s letters, and imprecise crutches like “imagine,” “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “I wonder if.” This portrait of a stifled woman unhappily married to a jerk is ultimately an interpretation, and not an entirely persuasive one. Eileen believed in Orwell’s work more than anyone and committed herself to a literary as well as a romantic partnership. Whether she was right or wrong, who is Funder to waive her choice away? After all, it is not merely hidebound academics and Orwell disciples who have concluded that George and Eileen’s marriage was broadly content. Orwell’s leading biographer, the discerning and critical D.J. Taylor, summed up Eileen’s feelings for her husband as “affection, exasperation, solicitude.” Eileen’s only biographer, Sylvia Topp, concluded that the couple “had a true partnership where they both thrived.”
Hitchens was right: there is no such thing as a saint, especially when the sample set is male novelists of the early twentieth century. George Orwell was human and flawed, including—perhaps especially—when it came to women, both in his daily life and his writerly horizons. Yet he was more than the one-dimensional cad presented here, just as Eileen was more than a helpless victim. Both led rich, complex lives that were intertwined like a pair of willingly joined hands. Together their efforts produced enduring literature of great consequence. A reminder of all that Eileen sacrificed to see her husband’s writing succeed is welcome, as is an effort to add nuance to the figure of Orwell, whose bright halo can at times obscure the lines on his face. That does not make him a devil.