Wife: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life
By Anna Funder
Button: 464 pages, $32
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Lately there has been a lot of discussion about the artist “in her own right”. The obituaries of Françoise Gilot describe an “own artist” and a lover of Picasso. A new book about the painter Gwen John focuses on her work, even if she is remembered as Rodin’s lover. The two books by the painter Ceila Paul, “Self-Portrait” and “Letters to Gwen John“She is grappling with her identity as a painter and is also Lucian Freud’s lover. Gilot, John and Paul are all artists, period. They are survivors too; They continued to work and live when many women artists either stopped working or died.
Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair did not survive. She died at the age of 39 under the knife of a total hysterectomy after years of excruciating abdominal pain and bleeding. Her young son was with relatives, her husband was in Paris visiting Ernest Hemingway. Letters to her spouse – about the cost of the surgery and whether her life was “worth the money” – went unanswered. While her family begged her to wait for a more experienced surgeon, she went to a cheaper doctor and died alone. She is buried under the epitaph ‘Wife of Eric Arthur Blair’. Eric Arthur Blair – better known as George Orwell.
Anna Funder’sWifeinvestigates these and other deadly deletions. As a writer and historian, as well as a wife and mother, she knows it well. She obviously loves Orwell’s writing. But in the course of their investigation, Funder comes across his unseen wife, Eileen, whose story is both necessary to Funder and personally instructive. “I would look under the burden of wifehood I had taken upon myself,” she writes, “and see who was left.”
With the precision of a historian, Funder stitches together sparse details to reconstruct a life. And with the imagination of a novelist, she speculates in clearly marked moments what that life was like. Some of the horrors she uncovers are vaguely known, but much was deliberately sidestepped by Orwell’s biographers or explained away by heightened misogyny. Eileen’s letters to her friend Norah Symes Myles were discovered in 2005. For the first time in this book, Eileen has a voice—her voice.
Eileen was educated (she went to Oxford) and politically motivated. She worked for Britain’s Independent Labor Party while Orwell was filming action on the front lines during the Spanish Civil War.
In a long section of the book, Funder describes Eileen’s dangerous work during this war and her essential help to Orwell. If you read Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s book on the war, you would hardly notice that Eileen was there, although she typed the manuscript and provided many of its anecdotes. Orwell was shot through the neck in a ditch and Eileen was nearly captured and executed as a spy. “Orwell spends over 2,500 words telling us about his hospital treatment without mentioning that Eileen was there,” Funder writes. “I wonder what she felt later on typing them.”
Funder gives us Eileen’s actual writings – a description of her life in Africa, where she stayed for a time hoping that the warm climate would benefit his health. Orwell used their description in his essay “Marrakesh”. Funder contrasts both versions and describes theirs as “succinctly alive”. In other words: Eileen’s writing style is better.
Orwell, like DH Lawrence, had a violent, sadistic relationship with women. Undertones of suppressed homosexuality appear both in the works and in the biographies of men. Readers will encounter several allegations of sexual assault on the part of Orwell, but also disturbing tell-tales like sleeping with Eileen’s good friends. He did not tell his wife that he was barren until long after their marriage; He also kept his tuberculosis diagnosis a secret, although he bled frequently, threatening the health of everyone around him, including his young adopted son.
He tried to join the war effort in 1939 but was turned down for health reasons. Working full-time at the Food Ministry, Eileen supported both of them even though their health was rapidly deteriorating. When her beloved brother was killed in battle, Eileen suffered cruelly. Orwell began writing Animal Farm based on an idea of Eileen’s and engaged in several sexual affairs. At the scheduled time of her adoption court hearing, Orwell was in France. “Bleeding, in pain, and alone, Eileen has to trudge into court to appear before the judge,” Funder writes.
Eileen appeared to have no writing aspirations, although she served as Orwell’s note-maker, first reader, editor, typist, agent, and more. Funder’s goal isn’t to show how great she was as a writer, but to show how a human being can be utterly destroyed and then obliterated. And how a beloved author could have been a vile human being. “Any author could find themselves caught in the gap between what a reader imagines them to be and who they think they are,” writes Funder. “And a woman could live there.”
Given how little information Funder has at his disposal, “Wifedom” is a spectacular feat of both erudition and raw emotion. The parts of Eileen’s life that Funder envisions have a decidedly Woolfian flair. But even after Eileen’s death, she keeps getting wiped out. If Eileen is nowhere in Orwell’s writings, then there is no Eileen.
When Funder learns that Orwell did not show up for the inquest into Eileen’s death and did not even read the coroner’s report, he uses his words against him: “Totalitarianism requires constant changing of the past and, in the long run, probably requires disbelief in it itself.” Existence of objective truth.”
She continues, “If he doesn’t read the investigative report, he can change the past with a story. … Perhaps his fear was not that he would find fault with the surgeon, but that he would find fault with himself.”
Wifedom asks not whether a woman has the right to be an artist “in her own right,” but rather whether the art created by men is worth the crushing domestic violence and deadly anonymity that their wives often endure. Not an artist’s right to exist, but a woman’s right to live.
Ferri is the owner of Womb House Books and most recently the author of Silent Cities San Francisco.