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A photo of a woman on a grey background. Her eyes are covered by a orange smudge, occurring her face.

Image: Eileen Blair, via Canva.

The overlooked literary wife is a figure of great feminist appeal: overworked, unpaid, sometimes plagiarised and not infrequently abused. Her allure lies in both her obscurity and her (thwarted) potential—and her potential to be saved from obscurity through the medium that made her husband a household name. Books about this woman have been published for decades—Diane Johnson’s The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and Other Lesser Lives was published fifty years ago—but by the early 2010s, they were practically their own genre.

Anna Funder was part of this renaissance, publishing a fictionalised account of anti-Nazi activist and socialist Dora Fabian’s life and exile to London in her award-winning 2011 novel, All That I Am. In doing so, Funder swept aside Fabian’s more famous lover Ernst Toller, in whose biography she has previously been supporting cast. The decade that followed saw multiple books on these forgotten women, including two on Zelda Fitzgerald in the same year. The deluge has abated but not stopped, its latest iteration coming in the form of Funder’s biography-cum-counterfiction, Wifedom.

In 2005, six letters written by Eileen Blair (née O’Shaughnessy) to her friend Norah were discovered. Eileen was George Orwell’s first wife and these letters, spanning the length of their marriage, gave new life to the woman otherwise obscured by his shadow. In 2020, partly inspired by these letters, Sylvia Topp published the biography Eileen: The Making of George Orwell, and although Wifedom closely follows the life story as laid out by Topp, Funder’s interest is in more thoroughly disarticulating the woman from the man she stood behind.

The overlooked literary wife is a figure of great feminist appeal.

For Funder, the discovery of Eileen’s letters meant that a ‘novel was impossible’ because, as she writes, it would ‘devour’ them as ‘material’ and ‘privilege [Funder’s] voice over [Eileen’s]’. Instead, Funder decided to figuratively excavate Eileen from where she was buried—first by her husband, and then by his successive biographers—via novelistic retellings from Eileen’s perspective and literary close readings.

These close readings are both assiduous and thorough. Almost a hundred pages are dedicated to carefully scrutinising Homage to Catalonia to find the woman hidden between its carefully worded sentences, revealing ‘the way the text buckles and strains to avoid her’. But this also illustrates the book’s consequent failure: we most often see Eileen through her husband. Wifedom is, more accurately, a feminist revision of Orwell. It even ends with his death, rather than hers.

Funder is a great writer: deftly in control, brisk and efficient with her words. A cat is described as ‘a silver thing that knows its own mind’, Orwell’s eyes as ‘blue, with laughter in them’ and plane trees as ‘throwing their shapes around’. There is, unfortunately, less of this kind of writing in Wifedom than one would like, sidelined as it is by anecdote and reflection, forced to wind around the figure of Orwell.

Funder wanted to write Eileen from the letters alone, including them in the form of italics and then ‘supply[ing] only what a film director would, directing an actor on set—the wiping of spectacles, the ash on the carpet…’ But this has left Eileen with little interiority, no texture. Her thoughts spiral around her husband, and there is an uncanny resemblance between her inner world and Funder’s own. When Funder describes her decision to investigate Eileen’s marriage, citing that not doing so would be to accept that ‘male animals are more equal than others’, Eileen matches the idea less than ten pages later when she is thinking about her unequal marriage and ‘trying not to behave like an animal, but of course she is one; some are just more so’.

Wifedom is, more accurately, a feminist revision of Orwell. It even ends with his death, rather than hers.

There is a clear and deliberate parallel drawn between Funder and Eileen. The wifedom of the title is theirs and although Funder is wary of being too harsh on her own husband, she is eager to prosecute Eileen’s. And Orwell is a terrible husband: insensitive, demanding, selfish, and—seemingly most egregious to Funder’s mind—unfaithful. Funder never fails to remind readers of his cruelty, sometimes repeating stories, other times embellishing the narrative for effect. Her tendency is to interpretations that consolidate Eileen’s victimhood in relation to Orwell: although Topp suggests that Eileen may have been infertile due to a long illness in girlhood, Funder nonetheless blames Orwell for the couple never having biological children, even as she also writes at length about Eileen’s serious uterine problems.

While she frets that Orwell ‘might risk being “cancelled” by the story [she’s] telling’ (even though Eileen ‘has been cancelled already—by patriarchy’), Funder is nonetheless committed to avenging Eileen as a wife. She takes a particular interest in Orwell’s sex life and in refuting biographers’ claims about the couple’s open marriage (there is evidence, for example, that Eileen had an affair in a spy’s report and a letter, and Topp hints at Eileen having had other lovers, although Funder chooses to brush this away). She does, however, spend much time revealing how biographers have sanitised Orwell’s sex life, and this is valuable and necessary work: in Wifedom, many readers will learn for the first time that Orwell sexually assaulted several women.

But Funder makes strange use of this new information, measuring Orwell’s wickedness against his extra-marital affairs, a puritan tallying that exonerates Orwell of his sexual assaults by positioning them on the scale of harms against Eileen. In one chapter, after describing Orwell attempting to ‘make violent love’ to a woman (a biographer’s euphemism), Funder side-steps the survivor to look myopically at Eileen, closing the story with ‘I hope Eileen never knew’. Later, when Eileen and Orwell are in Morocco and Orwell wants to sleep with a young Berber girl, Funder’s analysis does not linger on the underage girl, or on the exploitative global relations that allows him to satisfy that desire. Instead, she turns repeatedly to Eileen who did not wish for Orwell to ‘stray’ in this way. In considering how she would feel if her own husband was ‘pouncing on women in hospitals and parks and after parties’—referring to the instances that Orwell has sexually assaulted women and mobilising the euphemism used by biographers—Funder’s feelings mirror Eileen’s: ‘loyalty and love would be cratered, one woman at a time.’

Elsewhere, too, Wifedom struggles with an urge to protect Orwell’s work and literary reputation while giving Eileen her due. Eileen not only types up Orwell’s work but fills its margins with her corrections and ‘emendations’. Readers quickly understand that she was heavily involved in all his thinking and writing, including Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia (despite not featuring in it). She can even be given some credit, according to Funder and Topp, with inspiring Nineteen Eighty-Four, since the book shares its title with a poem featuring telepathy and futuristic mind-control that Eileen wrote before meeting Orwell. This is who I’m most interested in: the brilliant woman who made George Orwell her mouthpiece, who felt a soft spot for what she described as her husband’s ‘extraordinary political simplicity’ (a line which one biographer changed to sympathy), who knew she could shape it into something that would last. This might not have been the woman Eileen was, but neither is the Eileen of Wifedom, who so closely mirrors Funder, were she in the same situation.

Wifedom struggles with an urge to protect Orwell’s work and literary reputation while giving Eileen her due.

Funder’s cohabitation of the text marks a semi-autotheoretical turn starkly different from her previous work. Musings on patriarchy are instigated when her nine-year-old son, while watching the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, asks, ‘When did it all start? […] men doing this to women?’ Meanwhile, seeing the word ‘integrity’ in her son’s classroom leads her into a meditation on the privacy/decency dichotomy that she sees existing under patriarchy. Such anecdotes feel contrived, intended to set off the ruminations that follow but offering little ground from which to develop a stable argument.

And, indeed, Funder’s analysis is slight at best. On patriarchy, she references Beauvoir, Engels and Woolf but does not take a broad historical view, nor investigate the question from a contemporary intersectional feminist lens. Deep consideration loses out to reaching attempts at witticism: Eileen’s erasure from the historical record is a result of ‘male pattern blindness’; patriarchy is a ‘planetary Ponzi scheme’ and under it ‘women are supporting cast—or caste’. There are many clumsy metaphors about black boxes and magicians and even more strained references to Orwell’s work. ‘Doublethink’ does a lot of heavy lifting. Very little is said about the realities of contemporary heterosexual married life, and nothing at all about its future—if it even deserves one.

This may be because Funder is reticent to address marriage with intimacy: she admits to being reluctant to write about her own marriage, and aside from listing a few chores that seem to fall within her wifely purview, detail of her marriage is scarce. So too, is detail of her circumstances. She writes that she envies men for ‘their conditions of production’; that she would love a wife to create the same for her. Though she acknowledges that she has ‘unearned privilege’ because she is a white woman living in a rich Western country, she is carefully avoidant of the naming the specifics of that privilege—particularly as they relate to class—and seems not to notice that the conditions she desires are created for her.

It is not only that Funder herself is very wealthy. It is also because, especially in the West and Global North, our ‘conditions of production’ are made possible by the underpaid labour of those we happily ignore (and, like Orwell, happily write out of our work): indentured labourers making clothes so cheaply that we need not darn anything; underpaid and exploited drivers delivering us those clothes next day; precarious migrant workers making and delivering our food when we’re too lazy or too busy to cook.

Funder’s cohabitation of the text marks a semi-autotheoretical turn starkly different from her previous work.

Funder’s omissions in relation to her class privilege, which at times feel like deliberate obfuscation, are striking for two reasons. Firstly, in occluding the conditions of her labour in this way, Funder is acting not unlike Orwell when he secretes Eileen away in between his words. Secondly, Wifedom takes as part of its subject matter and, more importantly, as a source of its argumentation the life of its author and so promises an honest account. Call it the autobiographical contract, call it intellectual honesty: either way, more than a passing reference to ‘privilege’ is needed.

Funder’s discussion on gendered labour is well-trod territory, and although her use of terms like ‘cancelled’, ‘frenemy’ and ‘epic fail’ suggests at least a partial awareness of contemporary discourse, Wifedom repeatedly fails to look further than bourgeoise straight white women and their victimhood. In a book ostensibly concerned with patriarchy and gendered labour, much is being—intentionally?—left out.

As much is clear when Funder writes, ‘To my mind, a person is not their work, just where it came from. To want the two to be the same, on pain of cancellation, is a new kind of tyranny.’ The idea that ‘cancellation’ is a tyranny—or even a punishment—is a fundamental misunderstanding and oversimplification of the question and makes clear the book’s underlying conservative impulse. Funder’s desire to walk the line between ‘cancelling’ Orwell and revealing the man he was is a dubious one—as a wife, she can cancel Orwell the husband, but she will not, even as a feminist, cancel Orwell the genius.