I am reading “Wifedom” by Anna Funder which is about the way George Orwell’s wife, Eileen has been given so few words in the biographies. Indeed, even in his own memoir about his experiences in Spain, “Homage To Catalonia”, Orwell scarcely mentions her.
Let me begin by saying that her basic view is completely sound: Women have been written out of most significant events, or reduced to the support role when frequently they were just as – or in some cases – more important than the man who is credited with the discovery, the art, the invention or whatever.
However, while reading Funder’s book, I couldn’t help but wonder if there might be a reason that Orwell left out her significant work apart from male vanity. In fact, I even wonder if it was on her insistence that she was reduced to “my wife” and that much of the action involving her was passively described in terms of the event without mentioning who was involved.
It’s easy to write about the distant past with detachment. If I confess to this or that or write that my housemates were all involved in shady activities, or, even worse, that I once voted for the Liberal Party, I am liable to suffer little consequence beyond a reader thinking less of me. “Homage To Catalonia” was written and published just before Chamberlain returned waving the agreement with Hitler and saying, “Peace for our time.” It’s entirely possible that Eileen and/or George decided that describing all the work that she had done fighting the fascists could have put her life at risk from a range of sources such as Fascists and Stalinists, the latter regarding those fighting against Franco as Trotskyists and therefore an enemy.
While I was wondering about this as a possible reason for leaving out her important work dealing with all sorts of correspondence and propaganda and keeping certain things away from the spies that were all around them, an alternate theory came to mind.
In the book, Funder describes how bravely Eileen sat on the bed to conceal the passports hidden under the mattress while the room was searched by the authorities, it occurred to me that this is not something that was independently verified. Then Funder describes how Eileen bravely waited for Orwell, even after her friends and associates were arrested, fearing that she too might be taken at any moment. She courageously went to the police to get visas stamped even though it may lead to her arrest.
And while I accept that she may have been all that Funder describes and that there’s no way of knowing this: What if she ratted them out in order to save herself and George?
It would make some sort of sense for someone who’s needs to wait till their husband returns, who’s in danger herself and who knows that there are spies all around her so there’s virtually no way that people didn’t know what she was doing to weigh up the options and make some sort of deal in order to enable her to escape.
And it would certainly make both her and Orwell think twice about describing her activities in any detail in “Homage To Catalonia”…
Ok, it’s not a hill I’m prepared to die on, but it’s always worth considering other alternative views… Unless you’re at CPAC where all the Conservatives agree that cancel culture is terrible and nobody should be woke… and certain books need to be banned because they encourage both those things!
Anyway, read Anna Funder’s book and make up your own mind. It’s certainly one of the more interesting books I’ve read.
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