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Susan’s Bookshelves: Wifedom by Anna Funder

Anna Funder is Australian and this book was recommended to me by a friend who lives and reads in Brisbane. “It’s making a lot of waves here” she said. Well maybe I haven’t been paying attention but I haven’t seen much about it in the UK where it should be making even bigger waves because it’s an intelligent, thoughtful and original analysis of George Orwell’s wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and her role – or fate.

Much as I’ve long admired his work, until now I knew very little about Orwell’s life – simply that he was an Etonian, who worked in Burma went to Spain for the Civil War and spent time in Paris. Most of what I knew was deduced from his books which are, as Funder makes clear very selective in what they reveal. When I was in my teens and twenties his widow, Sonia who died in 1980, was around, managing (or mismanaging) the Orwell rights and his estate. I had no idea that he married Sonia in hospital just three months before he died.  To my shame, I’d never heard of Eileen to whom he was married from 1936 to 1945 when the poor woman, who suffered appallingly from what was probably endometriosis, died during an ill-judged hysterectomy. She was 40 and left an adored young child, Richard, whom she and Orwell had adopted.

It isn’t, I gather, unusual not to know about Eileen. Orwell hardly mentions her in the books although, for example, she was actually in Catalonia with him working very hard at managing the office in Barcelona which was often attacked. Orwell’s several biographers give her pretty scant mention or credit too although, a clever woman with an Oxford degree in English, she probably had a big hand in Animal Farm. And she certainly typed and edited his manuscripts.

Funder sets out to “find” Eileen and she succeeds. But this isn’t a biography although Funder tells us a lot about what Eileen does. She weaves in speculative fictionalised conversations, reflects on the difference between the Orwell marriage and her own 21st century one and gets pretty cross about the amount of cooking, mending and housekeeping Eileen was expected to do as well as everything else. She is also pretty critical of the biographers and of Orwell himself for leaving Eileen out of their accounts so often. She accuses the biographers of hagiography. Funder’s discoveries about Orwell, who was a rampant womaniser, present an unattractive, querulous, hard-to-like man in denial about his declining health. It’s yet another example of separating one’s appreciation of the work from the life of the creator – as with Eric Gill, Richard Wagner, Carlo Gesualdo, Charles Dickens and many more. Funder, like me, is a resolute admirer of Orwell’s writing.

The research is immaculate and irrefutable. There are reference numbers  on every page which link to 45 pages of end notes after the text. She has uncovered letters and so much other evidence of Eileen’s life that you emerge from this book feeling that you really have met this woman who worked so hard and suffered so much – put upon, taken for granted and exploited.

My friend was right. It’s well worth reading.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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