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“Wifedom” – An Alternate View

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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  1. Elisabeth

    Not an idea that jumped out at me, and not the only place in which Eileen is left out of the Orwell narrative, the biographies etc. Funder’s Wifedom certainly caused me to re-think my view of Orwell. I particularly resonate with her early reference which she describes in the book during a conversation with her daughter about how hard the writing becomes. It’s painful discovering a once beloved writer could be an ‘arse hole’. ‘Aren’t we all?’ the daughter concludes. And I agree, but some of us know about this tendency toward ‘arse holery’ in ourselves, while others can’t see it even when it runs over them. Wifedom is a triumph of historical accuracy, imagination and memoir. And brilliant in the way it challenges our understanding of the way the past can eliminate people under the weight of their partners’ dominant stories. To quote another terrific memorist who sees the conventional with fresh eyes, Hannah Gadsby writes, ‘If you’re burdened by a classic idea of the artist as a figure to whom everything is owed and whose prerogatives are enormous and can never be challenged, forget it. That sort of person can only have a servant for a partner.’ Eileen O’Shaunessy joins the ranks of women who copped this role. And Funder illustrates it beautifully.

  2. Rossleigh

    Yes, like I said at the start, the narrative of the exceptional man tends to leave out all those whose shoulders he stood on to do what he did and see what he saw. And yes, Eileen O’Shaunessy is certainly ignored in the biographies.
    As someone once observed, “Behind every successful man is a surprised woman!”

  3. RomeoCharlie

    I just finished Funder’s book and I consider it a great read. I think she perfectly makes the case that Eric/George not only scrubbed her out, but was an utter shit in terms of his treatment of her. I don’t consider this in any way a hagiography of Eileen and was knocked out by the obvious extent of Funder’s research.even the references had essential, and corroborative, reading in them. I take your point about Homage to Catalonia but there were so many, many times when Eileen was glossed over or ignored as Funder exhaustively points out that it forms a pattern. The case she makes for Eileen’s primacy in the writing of Animal Farm is a case in point.

  4. Geoff Andrews

    Who or what does all the alternating?
    It must be quite confusing after a couple of cycles.

  5. Clakka


    I have no axe to grind in this situation, and books of diverse research, opinion and conclusion need to be written.

    I have experience of situations similar to that you describe – beguiling and dangerous, even if there’s no-one but oneself and one’s knowledge to protect – there are eyes and ears, differing intent and loose lips everywhere. I also have direct experienced of another (a researcher & promulgator) who had spouse and family to consider, and spouse was very well informed and connected and possibly in greater danger. They decided together on the way they would function. Such situations can be mightily complex.

  6. Terence Mills

    A review of the book in the SMH notes that :

    Wifedom is the result of this digging [by Funder]. Eileen Blair was a woman who won a scholarship to and earned an English degree from the University of Oxford, at a time when women were barely admitted to higher education. (Orwell himself was not “recommended” by his school for university, and did not attend.)’

    ‘A woman who published, in 1934, a dystopian poem called, significantly, End of the Century, 1984; who asked for the word “obey” to be removed from her wedding vows, and twice organised co-workers to stand up to bullying bosses in male-dominated workplaces. She was a woman who not only performed every skerrick of the domestic work in her life with Orwell, but also supported him financially for at least two years of their nine-year marriage; who saved one of his manuscripts from destruction in the Spanish Civil War, and was a crucial literary influence in his life. Eileen was the first reader – not to mention typist, rewriter, editor and political educator – of Orwell’s work. She was, Funder argues convincingly, especially important to the creation of Animal Farm and 1984.’

    A truly remarkable woman.

  7. leefe

    Oh, neat, fanfic on why a known misogynist might have minimised a woman’s role in major events. Never seen that before …

  8. Rossleigh

    Just to be clear, from what I’ve read, Eileen was a truly incredible woman and I think that they should make a film about her time in Barcelona based on Anna Funder’s book…

  9. frances

    I recently read the book and was unexpectedly impressed and disturbed by it, despite familiarity with Orwell’s writings and some biographies. Where evidence is insufficient or lacking Funder provides caveats and qualifies her hypotheses/speculations while at the same time manages to pull off a persuasive work of considerable literary power. Orwell’s neglect of Eileen (not to mention her surgeon’s cavalier attitude towards her during her final illness) ducking off to some political pow-wow or other and leaving her to manage major surgery alone (a hysterectomy) was a callous abandonment. Eileen ultimately bled out and suffered a fatal heart attack on the operating table because for some reason a pre-op transfusion was not considered necessary or was overlooked. No one around to care apparently. While the medical neglect can be relegated to a degree to back-in-the dayness there is nothing that can excuse such unloving unconscionable dereliction by Orwell.

    Funder’s sensitive and finely wrought story of these extraordinary people – the phenomenal writer and his loving partner – is necessarily ‘apsychological’. I now feel compelled to read all the available biographies of Orwell to get some sense of what demons got at him in his very beginnings, what sense of woman-as-mother, what other humiliations, may have determined his extraordinary – at times ruthless – selfishness and self-absorption.

    I agree that Eileen made her choices, it would be almost a libel to suggest otherwise. But there was an almost delusion level of (self-compensating perhaps) arrogance and sense of destiny in Orwell that assumed that – ironically – those who loved him would fall uncomplainingly in lockstep to it.

    So there’s the lurking hypocrisy that lies in wait for us all.

    Which brings me to Gadsby who, tending to hubristic overreach with their recent not universally well-received co-curated Pablo-matic show at the Brooklyn Museum, was busted for failing to research their subject before claiming per an outraged expletive-laden monologue in ‘Nanette’ that “pickyarsehole” had seduced an under-age girl (Marie-Therese Walter). While it’s old news that the great Picasso was a callous shite to women (a la Eric Blair and a squillion others in da patriarchy – and let’s face it, women can be callous shits too), for an art historian no matter how minimally qualified to concoct a tale of sexual abuse in order to cancel a dead bloke who can’t defend himself for the sake of melodrama is to come perilously close to hypocrisy.

    So I’ve cancelled Gadsby, so there.

  10. Douglas Pritchard

    Later in the book I may find out how Eileen earned the nickname of-“Pig”.
    I didnt come from Eric.
    Hardly flattering in any generation.

  11. Phil Pryor

    Ah.., Ah, I’ve never put anyone in a pit or on a pedestal, for the “famous” to us all are often impossible with just one other person , over time, in social or personal relationships, or even under better scrutiny. The “message”, whether from one’s heroes, villains, saints, sinners, idols or idiots, remains a constant shifting tidal position of mental navigation. I love so much, yet fear my stands at times. So, one might reflect, revise, reconsider; here, 1984 remains a vital work, along with thousands from possibly flawed people.

  12. Terence Mills

    There is another perspective that needs to be considered. The book talks about Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life but, of course, there was no Mrs Orwell ; there was no Mr Orwell, he was a creation of Eric Blair who was married to Eileen O’Shaughnessy and who adopted her husband’s family name when she married Blair in 1936.

    Can we see Blair and Orwell as separate entities and could this perhaps explain the apparent indifference of Orwell ?

  13. leefe

    *” … that “pickyarsehole” had seduced an under-age girl (Marie-Therese Walter). While it’s old news that the great Picasso was a callous shite to women (a la Eric Blair and a squillion others in da patriarchy – and let’s face it, women can be callous shits too), for an art historian no matter how minimally qualified to concoct a tale of sexual abuse in order to cancel a dead bloke who can’t defend himself for the sake of melodrama is to come perilously close to hypocrisy.

    So I’ve cancelled Gadsby, so there.”*

    Wow. Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Therese Walter is well documented. She had his child later, ffs. He was 45 and married when it started, and she was 17. He bragged about it himself. There is no question about the ages nor, to any reasonable person, about the massive power imbalance inherent in the situation. You don’t have to look any further than Wikipedia for the basics although, if you don’t trust that source, pretty well every art historian on the planet will tell you the same story.

    And your response is to shoot the messenger. To drag it into an article about other people and vent your spleen at a person for talking about it.
    No wonder we’re still dealing with this problem.

  14. Canguro

    leefe, the age of seventeen was within the age of consent and no illegality was committed. Irrespective of the power imbalance, Picasso was no committing any crime, and presumably Marie-Therese Walter was behaving with consent and willingness. It’s not a first time nor will it be a last, for middle-aged men to begin an affair with a much younger woman. In China, a revered scientist who developed strains of rice that could be grown in regions other than the subtropical south married his research assistant after his wife died – he was in his eighties and she in her twenties. No-one blinked an eyelid. Human behaviour is not text-book perfect and never will be, such are the urges of flesh and emotion. School-marmish scolding is unhelpful in this context.

  15. leefe

    As I said, no wonder that we’re still dealing with this problem.
    “She was legaly an adult; never mind that he was nearly three times her age, she must have consented.”
    No consideration of societal conditioning, of the potential for pressure, of the fact that she was still immature (the brain doesn’t mature until mid-20s), of the difference between ethics and decency on the one hand and legality on the other, just “it wasn’t technically a crime”.

    They should be blinking. It’s predatory. An adult with the status of Picasso and an unknown teenager … ditto with the scientist. Just gross.

  16. Geoff Andrews

    I don’t suppose there’s any chance that Marie-Therese could have seduced Picasso? I’m informed that in past eras rich, powerful, famous men, no matter how unattractive they may be, attracted females of all ages and beauty. I was either something to do with genetics of bragging rights as it always has been
    Of course, this doesn’t happen any more. The last mass assault of the famous was when girls & women of all ages wanted to have a lend of the Beatles’ seeds in 1964 in every capital city in Australia. The “Me Too” movement has also put all the rich & famous men on guard.

  17. leefe


    Oh, sure, it’s the teenager’s fault that an adulterous misogynist two-and-a-half times her age approached her in the street, asked her to model for him, and then initiated a sexual relationship. Entirely her fault. Said 45yr old adulterous misogynist was totally the victim of this calculating brat. nuclear eye roll

    Some people here are really telling on themselves with their quibbles about legality and who the predator “really” was.

  18. Geoff Andrews

    I would be interested, leefe, if you have any contemporary information that would support your nuclear eye rolling rejection of even the possibility of Marie-Therese being a willing participant in a sexual relationship with Picasso.

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