Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's invisible life
Hamish Hamilton, $35 pb, 407 pp
Wifedom is both an immovable and an irresistible book, an object and a force. Anna Funder, the author some years back of the bestselling Stasiland (2003), has written another great and important narrative of oppression and covert suppression, in this case of the first Mrs George Orwell, Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905–45). The oppression and suppression are or were the work of her liberal and emancipatory husband – the nearest thing we have these days to a lay saint – and of his six (male) biographers. While nowhere a nasty book (what the Americans would call ‘mean’), it’s a kind of St George and the six dwarves. What’s strange is the persistence of the old bromides. In a recent Guardian review of D.J. Taylor’s Orwell: The new life (2023) – the biographer’s second go-around – Blake Morrison refers to ‘the practical Orwell’ and ‘the complaisant Eileen’. He wouldn’t have said either thing if he’d been able to read Funder’s new book.
As the title would suggest, Wifedom amplifies effortlessly into the question of what it is that allows clever men, productive men, brilliant men, impractical men, to produce work, if not their invisible, misunderstood, neglected, and then effaced wives. To men, whether husbands or sons, brothers or lovers, old men or New Man, it will be more or less painful reading. To women, it will, I dare say, be shockingly familiar. When I read it – short sentences, plain language, and slashing conclusions – I was reminded that Anna Funder once trained as a lawyer. It has the lawyerly virtues: urgency, mobility, tenacity, consequence.