Inside Story

Buckle and strain

In probing the shortcomings of George Orwell’s biographers has Anna Funder fallen into traps of her own?

Patrick Mullins Books 14 July 2023 3459 words

Obscured presence: Eileen in 1938. Orwell Archive/University College London

“To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of the Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority,” writes Deborah Levy, in The Cost of Living, the second volume of her autobiography, “is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.”

In Wifedom, Anna Funder — award-winning writer of the non-fiction Stasiland (2003) and novel All That I Am (2011) — strips everything from the edifice on which George Orwell’s reputation has stood and finds beneath it his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy: unthanked, unloved, neglected and certainly exhausted. She was also, as Funder relates, an intelligent and discerning woman whose energy and promise were fed upon and ultimately drained by her husband.

A graduate of Oxford who started her own typing agency while studying for a master’s degree in psychology at University College London, Eileen married a moth-eaten and prematurely aged Orwell in 1936 after they met at a party at a friend’s house. For the next nine turbulent years, she worked to financially support his writing while keeping house for him and directly aiding his work by editing, typing and advising.

While doing so, she bore an enormous number of indignities. Almost without exception, Orwell gave his needs and desires higher priority than hers. He rarely lifted a finger around the house and his work kept them on the edge of penury. He was repeatedly, callously, unfaithful. He also persistently erased her contributions.

Much of this was evident from the earliest days of their marriage when they settled in a damp, cramped cottage in rural Hertfordshire. In the seclusion of a room upstairs, Orwell wrote and wrote and wrote, and Eileen — despite having a thesis to finish — was kept on her feet from dawn to dusk, cooking, cleaning, attending to the shop they purported to run, and editing her husband’s work at night — by candlelight — while he, upstairs, made use of the only paraffin lamp.

Then Orwell decided to go to Spain to join the socialists in their bitter civil war against the fascists. His experience as a soldier provided a hideous scar for his neck and the material for Homage to Catalonia, and also became another conspicuous occasion on which Orwell wrote Eileen out of history. Bored by the prospect and dreading the back-breaking labour required to keep the Hertfordshire home running, Eileen followed him to Spain.

Formally she was a lowly typist in the offices of the Independent Labour Party; in reality, her duties required her to lift her eyes much higher than the keys of her Olivetti. She worked variously as an organiser, banker, logistics manager, newspaper and radio editor, writer, producer and more besides. It was work every bit as dangerous — if not more — as Orwell’s, particularly as the tide of the civil war changed; quite likely it was more important work than his, too. Nonetheless, despite her saving Orwell’s life and enabling their escape from Spain, Eileen’s presence and contribution were all but expunged in Homage.

Back in England, Eileen worked at all manner of jobs to make ends meet, including a lengthy stint at the information ministry during the second world war. She continued to keep the house, and she continued to carry the load of her husband’s whims and sometimes callous wishes, including his affairs with her friends and the couple’s adoption of a child, Richard, in 1944. She provided invaluable advice on her husband’s writing during the period when he produced Animal Farm and a succession of essays that became classics, while suffering from tumours that caused her to bleed and faint at disturbingly frequent intervals. During an operation to remove those tumours, she died, aged thirty-nine.

Orwell, who was in Europe reporting on the war, quickly cast about for a new wife — or, really, a replacement live-in servant. He proposed to at least four women and began writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in the Jura house that Eileen, in one of her last acts, had arranged to rent for them. That book was the death of him but the birth of his enormous reputation: seven months after it was published, he died, aged forty-six.

Most of the facts of Eileen’s life make for grim reading, and they are of a kind with the lives of other women with famous writer spouses. The question Funder poses about Eileen is one that could apply just as easily to Jane Welsh (wife of Thomas Carlyle), Catherine Hogarth (wife of Charles Dickens) and Elizabeth Howard (second wife of Kingsley Amis), among others: why did an intelligent, brave and insightful woman become so ground down? In crude terms, how did Eileen not tell Orwell to take his aspidistra and fuck off to Wigan Pier?

Funder’s answer, in short, is patriarchy. It is her awareness of its insidious influence in her own marriage — in how the equal share of the work of life and love has become unbalanced, with the result that her sense of self was being crushed — that prompts her to turn to Orwell’s writing in the first place. She admires his work, the way he illuminates power and its dynamics, servants and masters. “I would read Orwell on the tyrannies, the ‘smelly little orthodoxies’ of his time,” she writes, “and I would use him to liberate myself from mine.”

But that reading of Orwell is not so freeing. She is disconcerted by a stray passage on the dirtiness of women and their “terrible, devouring sexuality.” That it appears to have been written about Eileen troubles her. That the six biographies of Orwell produced between 1972 and 2003 neither explain it nor even really explain Eileen causes Funder’s concern to harden into something approaching suspicion. She begins to wonder about why this woman has been pushed to the periphery. “In the end,” she writes, “the biographies started to seem like fictions of omission.” To what extent, she asks, are these biographies influenced by patriarchy?

With this question in mind, Funder uses these works, Eileen’s letters, and Sylvia Topp’s 2020 biography of Eileen to guide a new reading of her life and her marriage to Orwell. Funder studies how the weft of the facts — as they have been established, and can be established — combine with the warp of those Orwell biographies: what is left in, what is taken out, what the biographies disguise and downplay. Funder reads to see the gaps where Eileen might be apparent: “The way the text buckles and strains to avoid her is the way I can see the shape she left.”

The buckles and strains she notices are striking. Funder spotlights passages and techniques by which Orwell’s biographers portray a great man doing everything alone and women as little more than nursemaids or helpless victims, if they are acknowledged at all. Omission is one method; another is the manipulation of chronology, so that cause and effect are separated and the credit for action is denied to the women who act. The most pervasive — ironically, considering Orwell’s famous injunction on it — is the use of the passive voice. In Orwell’s biographies, this is frequently wielded to erase Eileen’s financial and domestic labour, which created the conditions in which Orwell could write, as well as her courageous actions. As Funder writes, “Manuscripts are typed without typists, idyllic circumstances exist without their creators, an escape from Stalinist pursuers is achieved.”

The outrageousness of Eileen’s erasure is compounded by the biographers’ apparent over-reliance on Orwell’s versions of events, most notably in his claim to have had an open marriage. Funder espies a convenient fiction that Orwell told and his biographers swallowed because it preserved an untroubled decency that they projected onto his character. The claim that Eileen also had extramarital affairs is another convenient story, Funder argues: “One revolutionary tryst would transform the Orwells’ marriage to an ‘open’ one in which infidelity was the deal. It wasn’t.”

For these reasons (and more), readers with only a casual acquaintance with Orwell’s life will find in Wifedom a brutal dispelling of any image of a virtuous and decent Orwell, a wizened Saint George whose “wintry voice of conscience” is still heard in debates over totalitarianism, bureaucratic obfuscation, social oppression and colonialism. It will, for those readers, be a harrowing account — yet another, to go up there with Carmela Ciuraru’s Lives of the Wives or Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives — of how a monstrous and entitled man took from a woman everything that he should not have. Deepening this tragedy will be the apparent complicity of Orwell’s biographers, and their willingness to consign Eileen to the periphery, if not the shadow, of the biographical spotlight.

Wifedom is a forceful and powerful book, relentless in its advocacy for Eileen and the horrifying injustices done to her. It is also salutary for biographers — a thumping reminder to broaden the spotlight of their inquiry, to peer more closely at the forces at work on their subjects and themselves, and to be ever more careful about the implications of their prose and the benefits they grant their subjects.

Yet for all its close reading, Wifedom is also curiously uninterested in what makes biography a uniquely charged genre to work in. While a biography is concerned with a single subject there is a tension in the simultaneous need to take in the people, institutions and forces that shape the life. A biographer’s sources are much less than everything and they can only work with what they can get, yet they must at some point decide they have enough source material to make a judgement.

Biography, for all its empiricism and evidential rigour, is subjective in nature. While there is a narrative tug to assume a god-like omniscience, there is also an ethical tug to admit to gaps, ambiguities and possibilities. It is axiomatic that no biography is ever definitive, yet it is less well understood that biographies have a shelf life which, if not quite as short as a carton of milk’s, certainly gives the same sour smell when it is exceeded.

Wifedom ignores much of this in its treatment of the Orwell biographies. After their first mention, Funder never again identifies the books or their authors by name except in her endnotes. In anonymising the biographies in the text of her book, she plasters them with a homogeneity that erases how their authors contended with the inevitable tensions and imperatives. One effect is to suggest that the biographers were entirely of the same mind and view and all had the same evidence to hand.

While the biographies are all written by men, and may treat Eileen with less than her due, they are also profoundly different in focus, depth and outlook, and deal with very different ranges of sources. They make for conflicting accounts, and indeed the writers have conflicted with one another. When Peter Stansky, the co-author of the first Orwell biography (1972 and 1979), was once approached at a conference by Bernard Crick, author of a 1980 biography of Orwell, he briefly wondered whether they would come to blows. Crick, however, pointed out that another Orwell biographer was soon scheduled to speak. “Shall we bury our hatchets,” he began, and paused, “… in Jeffrey Meyers’s skull?”

All these men had hatchets. None had an interest in upholding the Saint George figure canonised in Christopher Hollis’s enormously influential Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works (which goes uncited by Funder). That figure took root and went without an advocatus diaboli for a considerable period because of the unwillingness of anyone to challenge Orwell’s deathbed opposition to any biography at all and his second wife Sonia’s determination to uphold that wish.

Yet palpable across the six biographies published between 1972 and 2023 is a willingness to assail the saintly halo and draw attention to Orwell’s myriad flaws. None of the six biographers is reticent about Orwell’s infidelity, his potential repressed homosexuality, his chauvinism and his racism, among other matters, yet the strength of the criticism for him on these and other fronts increases noticeably in volumes closer to the present day. This reflects, I think, both the increasing size of the Orwell archive — which has just resulted in a new, expanded edition of D.J. Taylor’s biography (reviewed by Peter Marks for Inside Story) — and the new questions biographers have been spurred to ask by societal changes. If these biographies have not wholly dispelled the popular image of Orwell, it has not been for lack of trying.

They certainly have their blind spots, but they are not wholly blind to Eileen’s significance and Orwell’s treatment of her; nor are they uniform in what they do perceive. Funder admits this in a comment she consigns to her endnotes: “[Jeffrey] Meyers is the only biographer to address directly who did the work.” She quotes him, too: “Orwell enjoyed this hairshirt existence [in Hertfordshire], but Eileen, who did most of the work, suffered terribly.” Crick points to how friends and acquaintances understood Eileen:

Her friends are vehement that she understood people far better than George, and that her range of interests was almost as wide. They were not to be perfect together, but always a good match. She fought his fights and looked after him as well as he would allow — although she was a woman careless of creature comforts herself. She indulged, even enjoyed, his eccentricities. Brenda Salkeld thought well of her, believed her to be the kind of woman George needed. Some of Eileen’s friends, however, were not so sure that George was the right man for her, and 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.

In his 2003 biography, meanwhile, D.J. Taylor points out that Orwell obscured Eileen’s presence in their life: “One could read Orwell’s account of the time they spent together in Morocco — sedulous nature notes and climatic observation — without ever realising that another person was there.” Taylor was also aware enough to write that, in the retrospective glare of Orwell’s reputation, Eileen “never quite exists in her own right.”

One way that Funder has Eileen exist again is by extensively quoting a batch of letters, discovered in 2005, that Eileen posted to a friend during her nine years of marriage. Those letters formed the core of Sylvia Topp’s 2020 biography of Eileen (which reaches very different conclusions from Funder’s) and were also critical to Funder’s decision to eschew a novel about Eileen. “A novel was impossible now, because it would devour the letters as ‘material’ and privilege my voice over hers,” she writes. The solution was to have it both ways: to “make her [Eileen] live and at the same time reveal the wicked magic trick that had erased her.”

The latter half of this sentence accounts for the close readings of Orwell’s biographies and for the sections of first-person memoir-cum-travelogue-cum-polemic; the first half accounts for what Funder calls “a fiction that tries not to lie.” These are scenes, or vignettes, for the most part centred on the letters Eileen sent, quoting the letters and surrounding them with novelistic texture and evocation. Funder suggests that the imagination informing this — the flesh she adds to fact’s bones — is modest, built on factual knowledge of what was happening. “Mostly,” she explains, “I supply only what a film director would, directing an actor on set — the wiping of spectacles, the ash on the carpet, a cat pouring itself off her lap.”

One such scene has Eileen and Orwell sitting in an inn in the Atlas Mountains in 1938, eating stew and drinking tea. Orwell eyes some young Moroccan women outside, and then tells Eileen that he has been working so hard:

“I deserve a treat,” he says, blowing a thin stream of smoke away from her.

A small thing inside her turns to stone. He doesn’t mean her. She forgets to breathe, then does. Closes her mouth. He says he wants one of these Berber girls, “just one.”

“And from me you want?” she says.

“I just thought I should tell you.”

At this, I had a shudder of disgust so strong I had to close the book. The scene is excruciating — in the torment it evokes in Eileen, in the gross and dehumanised entitlement Orwell claims, and in the leaden weight it settles on Eileen while she waits for Orwell’s return afterward. It is an apt example of Funder’s power and formidable talent as a writer.

But this scene is also troubling for precisely that reason. It includes more than just some modest filmic details. The dialogue and Eileen’s reaction are all made up. Its power, especially in that dialogue and imagined reaction, is so enormous that it easily withstands the disclaimer that Funder immediately follows it with: “I am imagining these details, but because this is what happened, there must have been some kind of scene.”

Is it what happened, though?

Funder cites two sources. First are the 1982 memoirs of Tosco Fyvel, who wrote of Orwell telling his wife during the second world war of his attraction for “young Arab girls” and Eileen’s permission for him to “have one of these girls on just one occasion.” Second are the 1970 memoirs of Harold Acton, which recounted, in paraphrased terms, a conversation with Orwell in 1945 in which Orwell had spoken about the beauty of Burmese and Moroccan women and then “admitted that he had seldom tasted such bliss as with certain Moroccan girls.”

This is the sum of it: two recollections independently made twenty-five years after the event of paraphrased conversations about events taking place a minimum of five years before that. Only Fyvel’s makes a specific mention of the incident; the other alludes to something like it only. Fyvel’s also suggests some ambiguity: “True or imagined? It hardly mattered.”

Funder is scathing of that (“I bet it mattered to her,” she writes of Eileen’s reaction), yet there is a very real question to be asked: are these recollections strong enough to support the scene Funder writes? Are these strong enough to declare, as Funder does, that “this is what happened,” that this is “fact”?

Certainly they are strong enough, and of sufficiently grave import, to warrant inclusion and discussion in a biography, with evaluation from the biographer about how the reader can understand them one way or the other. And this is indeed the approach largely adopted by Orwell biographers Stansky and Abrahams (1972 and 1979) and Crick (1980), who had only Acton’s recollection to work with. All are sceptical, but don’t cast the matter wholly aside. Nor is Stansky and Abrahams’s “8-pt footnote,” as Funder calls it, quite as far banished and hidden as she implies: it is printed in the body text of the book.

What is also not noted by Funder is that the biographers after 1980, working with the benefit of Fyvel’s memoir, give the claim more credence. Meyers (2000) implicitly accepts that it happened, offers a rejoinder to Stansky and Abrahams’s caution, and grants an expansive ambiguity about Eileen’s reaction. “Eileen may have allowed Orwell to go with a prostitute,” he writes, “but it must have made her unhappy and hurt their marriage.” Gordon Bowker (2003) and Taylor (2003) implicitly accept it too, though Taylor suggests that Orwell’s disclosure to Fyvel gave “an odd gloss to an otherwise conventional relationship, the thought of shadowy, secret recesses stretching away beneath the surface of their public lives.” Funder is critical of this sentence, seeing it as an unwarranted attribution to Eileen of secret recesses, yet a plainer reading is that Taylor is merely relaying Fyvel’s projection of those recesses.

None of the Orwell biographers declares emphatically that it happened. None of them denies with the same feeling that it did. Nonetheless, Funder finds their treatment wanting, accusing them of trying to “excuse Orwell’s behaviour” and “transmute fact to a rumour.”

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” Orwell once wrote. Wifedom follows that advice to a tee. In its exploration of Orwell and Eileen it finds considerable evidence for a man undeserving of the pedestal on which he has been placed and a woman who has been unfairly cast aside. It will prompt a better reckoning for Orwell scholars and it will be salutary for writers working with other subjects. But, in time, it too will be seen as an instalment in an arc that ultimately bends towards greater illumination. •

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life
By Anna Funder | Hamish Hamilton | $36.99 | 464 pages