Anna Funder on liberating the wife of Orwell, Eileen O’Shaughnessy

Anna Funder on liberating the wife of Orwell, Eileen O'Shaunessy

Anna Funder is the author of the international bestsellers Stasiland (2002) and All That I Am (2012). Her third major work, Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life (2023) interrogates the historical record to uncover Eileen O'Shaunessy, the wife of George Orwell, and her influence on his writing.

Her books have won multiple literary awards: Stasiland received the the Samuel Johnson Prize (the UK's premier award for non-fiction and All That I Am the Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Originally trained as an international human rights lawyer, Anna is a former DAAD Fellow in Berlin, Australia Council Fellow, and Rockefeller Foundation Fellow.

Anna Funder on liberating the wife of Orwell, Eileen O'Shaunessy


ASTRID: Anna, thank you so much for joining me today, and congratulations on your latest work, Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life.

ANNA: Thank you. Thank you so much, Astrid.

ASTRID: Now, I was not sure what I was going to experience reading Wifedom, but I'm going to put it straight out there, I am a wife, although I never use that term. I prefer the term partner. And now that I have read this work, my husband has some assigned reading, the idea of what it means to be a writer and the ideal conditions of production that essentially a wife provides so many writers from the 20th century. Thank you for bringing this into my life, Anna.

ANNA: I think it's been a good experience in my own life as a wife, and I never used to refer to myself as that either, but I think that the gendered way in which we get almost unknowingly saddled with so much work, the work of life and love and so on, is, I don't know, it just struck me as remarkable at a certain moment in my life. I had this mother load of wifedom to do, and it seemed like the only way to describe it was in gendered terms because it was in gendered terms that that work was being made mine.

ASTRID: I think it is an experience that so many readers are going to discover as they read Wifedom. So today, I guess there are two broad areas I'd like to talk about with you. The first is Eileen O'Shaughnessy herself, the wife of George Orwell, for whom this book is about and, in a sense, I felt written for to reclaim her and bring her to a wider world. And it was also your story because you include yourself in this work as well, Anna. But before we go into those two broad areas, for those listening, would you introduce Wifedom to us?

ANNA: I find myself about six years ago, as I say, under this mother load of wifedom where I had two teenagers and a preteen, and I was almost literally dragging a French exchange student around with me who was sad because he had nothing much to do. I found myself behind a trolley in a soul-sapping shopping mall, dragging this poor French exchange student around with me and juggling the lists, endless lists in my mind of things that had to be done to keep everybody going. And I just thought, well, I don't think my husband, who's an extremely nice man and very involved in everything, really was juggling anything like that amount of keeping everybody's needs, both in the present and in the future in mind.

Instead of doing something more sensible like yoga or therapy, something which would've had proven results, I suppose, I turned to reading and reading Orwell because I had long loved him, and he's so good about power and who it works on, particularly from the point of view of an underdog. But I read my way through his work and then these six biographies written by men, all of them excellent works. And after that, I came across these letters that were only discovered after all these biographies were written from Eileen O'Shaughnessy, his first wife, to her best friend from their time at Oxford. And those letters were electrifying and hilarious and astonishing, and I couldn't understand two things. One, why I didn't know anything about her, and secondly, why I was both excited and a bit uncomfortable, I suppose, to discover that my hero writer had an underdog like me really.

ASTRID: It's a shocking moment. George Orwell is a writer who has meant a lot to me as well. I studied both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four in school, and I teach now, and I recommend Why I Write, his essay, to my students and I give them excerpts from that. Orwell influenced the way I think. And it wasn't until I picked up Wifedom that it occurred to me that there was someone else with him the whole time, not only typing it up for him but participating in his thinking and thoughts and life and creation as well. I guess Eileen, how did you find her in the archives? Because as you said, she's not really in the biographies.

ANNA: No. I had this wonderful moment of reading the first letter. There are six of them that came to light in 2005. And the first of them, she and Orwell are staying with his parents for the first time since they've been married. It's nearly six months after the wedding and they're staying in Southwold with their new in-laws, as it were. And Eileen writes to Norah, ‘Dear Nora, I'm sorry it has taken me so long to write to you, but we have quarreled so continuously and really bitterly since the wedding that I thought I'd just write one letter to everyone once the murder or separation was accomplished’.

And I read that and I thought, I love you. Who are you? And I thought, why are you quarrelling so bitterly since the wedding day? I found out, too, that Orwell said that they got married in their typical Anglican service, but the vicar had left out obey out of the wedding vows. But of course, she organised the wedding and it was her vicar who did it, and she would have asked him to leave out obey, which is something only a woman promises to do in traditional vows. This woman, who wouldn't obey, how were these beginning months of wifedom for her and why does she want to kill him even in jest?

I turn back to these glorious biographies and I turn back to the pages that describe these newlywed days, generally just a page or a paragraph, and they tend to say things like the newlywed months were the happiest of Orwell's life or conditions were idyllic for him and things like that. I just thought, you know what? Between the woman who's making these conditions and the man who finds them idyllic, there's probably room for a book or at least a look. I went down a rabbit hole for six years really to find her. And as you say, I found her in these letters, which I got permission to use really, fortunately, and was able then to write these scenes in Wifedom where she's writing to her best friend. And a letter to her best friend is such an intimate and wonderful thing for everything that's said in it, and also for all the things that are not said. Some of them are implied and some of them are just left out.

Orwell was monumentally unfaithful, and I know when she's writing to Norah at some points that Eileen knows that he's off with another woman and that he made sure that she knew that. That increased the pain of it. I thought I can write her back into life in a way that we understand both what she was saying and what she was not saying.

But then I just remained interested in these very sly ways, some of them conscious and some of them probably unconscious, that the biographers are writing their hero, Orwell, into being and how he becomes a decent man who owes no women anything, and the things that he does to women are minimised or put in footnotes or just omitted. I wanted to write a nonfiction narrative at the same time that says, look, these methods of omission or trivialising or inventing consent of all of these women retrospectively, how we have this picture of Orwell as a decent man and also as a man who made all of this wonderful work alone. I don't mean just the conditions of his life. I mean intellectually, she was enormously important to the making of the work. And I wondered too, how these things are still in play today because 80 years on, we think we've come a long way, and in some ways, we have, but in other ways, we've got a way to go.

ASTRID: Eileen herself, she was university educated, she was incredibly independent intellectually and professionally, and she was out there doing stuff. Her time or their time in Spain, she contributed and did so much more than Orwell, who managed to get himself shot on the front and feel sad for a while. I really enjoyed that chapter, that section of the book, Anna. For the listeners, can you kind of talk to some of Eileen's activities with Orwell but also just in and of herself?

ANNA: Yeah, you're right. She was incredibly clever and whimsical and energetic. She was very thin and didn't care about clothes at all and had hair that went all over the place. But she was an extraordinary listener, and I think that's what made people really warm to her. Almost everyone she met really liked her. I think she had the gift of imagining herself into someone else's point of view and then speaking to them in a way that meant that she had really understood them.

One of her later very good friends, Lettice Cooper, said, ‘She took so long to answer us when we talked to her that at first we thought she was affected, but then we understood that she was just listening so hard to everything that we said. It was as if she was seeing straight through us like glass to our emotions’. One of her other friends said, ‘She had the gift of seeing everybody around her like a character, including herself and George, and she used to tell funny stories about everyone as if they were characters in a novel’.

You can read his wonderful book, Homage to Catalonia, about fighting the fascists in Spain in 1936 to 1937, twice as I did, I admit, and not really realised that she's there. I read all the biographies and you wouldn't really realise she's there either. Then I went to their sources and footnotes and read what had been left out and then found other sources and then tried to, in a way, reverse engineer Homage to Catalonia so that at certain scenes where she must have been right in the centre, at the epicentre of the action, most notably a particular battle that takes place outside between her hotel and her office. And also in a raid on her room, there's a dawn raid, six policemen come into her room and she's alone in bed there. These events are there.

What happened was he went off to fight in Spain just after the first letter was written at the end of 1936, and she really wanted to go too, but they were living in this tiny, tiny primitive cottage with no electricity and one tap in a village outside of London, and someone had to stay to look after all the animals, but she found a way to get out of that and go to Spain, and she got herself a job in the headquarters of the political party, the independent Labour Party that Orwell was fighting for.

He was off in the trenches, as you say, bored out of his mind, literally trying to stick his head above the parapet to find a bullet to shoot him and said things like, he's very self-deprecating, and so he warned him, he says, ‘I'm a terrible shot’. He doesn't manage to hit anybody in the trench. He's got lice crawling all down his pants and all over his testicles, he says. He's funny. But she is working in propaganda about what's going on at the front, supply to the men with what they need, communications dealing with their letters to and from the trench. And she knows, too, that her office is full of Stalinist spies because Stalin was setting out to quash this revolution that he wasn't controlling.

She knows an enormous amount of everything that's going on. She visits him at the front. That doesn't appear in Homage to Catalonia. In fact, she writes to her, I think it's her mother, no, maybe his mother, that she visited him at the front and spent three nights there and that they came under enemy fire, which was apparently unusual, but that she had never enjoyed anything more, which I think rather puts domestic life at the cottage in context. So yeah, she had this extraordinary job, but he was sending back notes from the front for her to type. She typed them all up into the manuscript that then became the book, Homage to Catalonia.

But when they went back to London after she really saved his life in Spain, which is a whole other story, she typed up this book which she had informed and she was effectively typing herself out of it. I had to say I did wonder how that felt. I thought self-effacement is a feminine virtue in patriarchy but eventually, it realises itself and it looks like a crime.

ASTRID: It's truly extraordinary to read those pages in your work and consider her experience that was not passed on, writing herself and being written out of history. Orwell and Eileen were married from 1936, as you've mentioned, until her death in 1945. The letters that were rediscovered and that you include in Wifedom, they're all included in italics, am I correct in thinking they're the only things written by her in her own voice that survived from their marriage?

ANNA: The letters that I've chosen to use, most of them, I've got a few bits of other letters, they are these really most intimate ones from Eileen to her best friend, Norah. They had both read English. They worked since Hughes College in the early 1920s together at Oxford and both read English. Eileen studied under Tolkien. She had written a couple of feature articles. She wrote a lot of scripts for the BBC in one of the jobs that she was in to support them during the war. There are other letters from her to other people. She managed most of Orwell's correspondence with his publishers and agent.

So there is other material. There's nothing as intimate, I would say, as these. Very few letters from her to him and from him to her survived. I don't know why that was. They seem to have been quite cavalier and destroyed a lot of letters from one to the other. So it's lucky that these letters to Norah were discovered after her death in her nephew's belongings. I did feel incredibly lucky to get permission to use them to write the scenes.

ASTRID: This is not pure biography of Eileen. Obviously, it does function as nonfiction, and there is Eileen and Orwell throughout the pages as well as her letters, but there is also you, Anna. And before we get to how you've included yourself in the work, I wanted to ask you a craft question. How did you discover the structure here? There are almost imaginative scenes that briefly operate as fiction so we can feel what it was like for Eileen to be living at times.

ANNA: I love craft questions. It took me a very long time. With each of my books, I've approached real stories and real people. So in Stasiland, in non-fiction. In All That I Am in fiction, and here in this mixture, for reasons that are really to do with the subject matter itself and the effect that I want the book to have, the emotional impact and intellectual impact I suppose that I want it to have for a reader.

Also, they are in some ways interventions in history because all of them are stories that struck me as extraordinary often about women and that history wasn't telling. In Stasiland, there were very recent stories I was writing in the late '90s about the fall of the Berlin Wall in '89 and four brave people who had resisted that regime. And so I just felt I couldn't have written fiction because it wouldn't have been believable, their courage nor the perfidy of that unbelievably totalitarian surveillance regime.

In All That I Am, everyone is dead and no one knows how those resistors way before the Second World War died in the locked room of the flat they were living in, in London, so that had to be a fiction, but it's fiction with footnotes. In a way, that's a hybrid as well because I wanted people to enjoy the novel and then go, ‘Oh my, gosh. These people really said these things, did these things, and the world really did ignore them or the inquest was a whitewash and so on’.

And this one was a lot more difficult to find the form because as I just quickly touched on before, I wanted Eileen to live and to be alive as a real presence. Obviously, it's an imagined presence, but the words are her own in the letters than imagined by me. But I also wanted to look at their life together, look at what Orwell was doing, so the book does take you through chronologically from, with a little bit of background on both of them, basically their marriage. It's a portrait of a marriage, but I wanted to show these sly subterranean methods which are used to omit or trivialise or imagine the consent of women by the biographers because they seem to embody to me forces that are still at work today. And that's why I'm in there. I think I partly felt it was also only fair.

At the beginning, and it comes at the beginning of the book too, I found, when I say I found, I didn't discover, this is published, but in Orwell's last notebook written in the year before he died, he was extremely ill a lot of his life with TB. And when he was really very ill, he kept a notebook, which he called his private literary notebook, and he wrote about himself and his feelings in the third person and, kind of, as if to distance himself from sentiments that were quite hard to own, I think. And he wrote... The thing that they don't tell you about women as wives is about their disgusting filthiness and untidiness and their terrible devouring sexuality. In any marriage of more than a year standing, he thinks it's always the woman, he says, who wants it more and more and more, and always the man who's trying to get out of sex and away from this woman who despises him for his lack of virility.

And I found that so shocking and so sad that I thought even though I want to go into, as it were, their private life, this marriage, to have a look at what was going on, the work that she was doing. While she wants to kill him, I then also was disturbed by that feeling of his. He only ever lived with one wife. So those feelings are about Eileen. And for a while, I walked around the house drinking coffee or walked around the block just thinking, I don't want to go there. He would hate that invasion of privacy and I would as well.

But then I realised that not to go there would be to leave Eileen in this realm where whatever happened to her stays buried. It's a little bit like today or the notion that a man's time is his castle and what happens to the woman in it is seen as somehow lesser. So we still have this concept of domestic violence, for instance, as if violence done to a woman is somehow a lesser violence because it takes place in this private realm. I thought my way through that obstacle and then went into this private realm to find her and what was done to her. But I wanted to show those ways in which that realm was constructed and why that is. It's so that he can appear decent despite whatever he does to a woman and whatever he takes from her.

And then I thought, it's only fair if I really show my own conditions of production a bit. I was starting it off as a very privileged white perimenopausal woman having a minor meltdown in a shopping mall. It seems very trivial, but I thought if this is happening to me, it must be happening to many other women, if not most, in many other places, if not worse. The statistics bring me out on that we know about the gender wage gap. We know women in Australia, such a wealthy country, about a million dollars less on average than a man. We know that the UN says this happens in every society, every place on the planet. Women are doing the vastly disproportionate amount of this unseen and unpaid work of life and love that keeps everyone going. I wanted to demonstrate that.

And then there were these odd events through my life were I suppose relatively minor, I don't want to make light of things that have happened to me, but in perspective, they were not a big deal, but things that have happened to me or that I've noticed where nobody seems to notice and there's no place to take it. And it's almost as if the world conspires in this overlay of silence so that even if these things are not happening to you in a home and someone grabs your crutch or whatever they do to you in the workplace or so on, there was nowhere to take that. So it was almost as if no matter where you were as a woman, you kept these things private. I suppose that's what shame was for in pejorative. I really hope it's over.

I described very briefly sometimes things that my then teenage daughters were experiencing during MeToo or were thinking, and I suppose that's where hope lies for me or for everyone. There were just these tiny things that are trying to bring the bigger issues that I'm looking at 80 years ago in an extreme form up until the present day, saying these things are still with us and this invisibility about them is also still good.

ASTRID: Reading Wifedom has caused me to have a look at my bookshelves and consider my education and choices. I feel, and this is I guess my opinion, Anna, but the act of writing and publishing Wifedom is in a way a significant criticism of the way that we felt biographies should be published in the 20th century about famous people. Not just Orwell and not just all of what we used to consider the canon of writers, but all public figures. So many of them have a wife or have kids but they're never part of the story. I just look at the history books on my shelves and the biographies and now think, are they lying to me?

ANNA: Wow. I think they are telling a story that is partial in both senses of the word. It's only part of the story, and it favours the man because the women who are left out, they're left out either to make him look like he did everything alone and was, in the case of an artist, a soul and inspired genius, which is obviously almost never the case. We live in essential and meshed relationships with other people. It makes him into this, in Orwell's case, also a decent man, he wanted to be thought of, who did it all alone. He owed no women anything. And also, what they did to women. And you're absolutely right. I'm sure there are many, many, many men of great achievements in the thousands of years of recorded history that we have who did awful things to people, including women.

So to get this outstanding figure for the biography, and biographers are naturally enough in love with their subject, I still have quite a lot of love for Orwell, I have to say. That's how patriarchy also functions, to make men the centre of whatever story it is they're telling and women, peripheral. We still say women and other minorities in this sentence structure that is just bizarre, which is a sign of how patriarchy has taught us to think of women as somehow not central.

You can probably open any of the biographies on your shelves of a man and you will learn about his family heritage, his parents, and mostly you will learn about that through the male line. In Orwell's case, he comes from a line of Scottish players who way back when were slaves and had money and had no money. And his father was a lowly civil servant in the international drug running operation that was the British Empire in Burma and India. His father really had very few interests outside of golf and the cinema on Saturday afternoon. He was quite a snobby man who used to cross the street to avoid his tailor so that he wouldn't have to acknowledge him. And he was a little bit of a sex pest. Of course, that's not interesting to the biographers.

But his mother and aunt were half French. They were suffragettes, feminists. His aunt had been arrested apparently with the Pankhurts and put into prison. They were Fabians, so they were left-wingers. His Aunt Nellie, who he was close to, ran a literary salon in London with very famous writers there, so HG Wells and Chesterton and so on. So for the boy who grows into the man who is Orwell, who is a left-wing man, who is interested in politics and sexual politics as well and in literature, and who sees things from this underdog position that he cultivated, that inheritance of left-wing politically active, intellectually active women who see themselves as underdogs because they're politically aware is by far and away the much more interesting heritage. But you hardly hear about it in the biographies.

When I'm talking about what he owes women, of course, I don't think for a second my children owe me anything at all. But if you're looking at the heritage of someone who becomes that kind of writer, the blindness to what is the important seeding ground for his life and work is incredible. And then during the marriage, we've got Eileen in a similar even more extreme vein. And then all of this, what one of the biographers calls pouncing on women, pouncing is a euphemism. I think the biographers are very uncomfortable about his pouncing. There was a lot of consensual and pretty much non-consensual sexual advances by him on women in workplaces, parties, parks, hospitals and so on. So both what a man owes and what he does has to be erased.

One of the more fundamental questions to me, I think, is also ... My friend who is writing an extraordinary book at the moment about artists in 20th century and women artists actually, but she looks also at this issue of the creation of the artistic self. And I'm interested in this book and the creation of the writing self because I say early in the beginning, I thought I lost my own, and I was reading Orwell to see how he created his own writing self, if you like. But to do that, it's helpful, I imagine, to be male, particularly in past decades because you can perhaps more easily imagine yourself as central to the culture because it's a culture that listens to you more than it would listen to a woman.

But that underbelly that has started to really bother me as I speak more and more about this book is it's a concern that underlies quite a lot of the writing of it. How much of that male ego, say in Orwell's case particularly because he was quite sadistic according to a woman who knew him very well, and I agree, how much of that writing ego is fed by knowing that you have this sadistic power and control over a woman who is at the very least your intellectual equal? So that has to, I think, in some weird way, I wish I had the word for, feed the artist's ego. I shudder to think what that says about me as well. I don't exclude myself from any of this. My husband says to me, quite riley, ‘You couldn't have written this book without me’. And it's a comment I find really funny, but it's also one that I'm slightly scared to explore.

ASTRID: My final question for you, Anna. Now that Wifedom is out, thinking about the global legacy of Orwell and Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm, which have entered Western thought in so many different ways, how do you think future Orwell scholarship or even the teaching of Orwell's works in schools and universities, how is there a way to update that to include the things that come out in Wifedom, not just Eileen but also other parts of Orwell that aren't that attractive?

ANNA: I think it's extraordinarily important to include them, and I would hope that Wifedom is that inclusion. And I say that without any grandiose ideas of being studied or anything. I just think it's very important to have the full picture. And that's not simply a feminist move or a way of saying we only have part of the history of this man. It's important to the work itself.

If you read Nineteen Eighty-four, written after the relationship was over, I'm constantly surprised that it's given to 15 and 16-year-olds to read everywhere because it is an extremely violent and sadistic book, as you know. It's also misogynist. But the main thing that sticks out to me is how violent it is. Early on, there's a scene where Winston imagines raping a woman and slitting her throat at the moment of climax. These are things that we are giving to our kids to read, because the book says so much, so well, so powerfully about surveillance and tyranny and the will to power, which in our day and age are, as we know, as important, vital as ever, and that's why we do it.

But to expect the man who wrote that book to be somehow a self-made, decent, uncomplicated, not sadistic, not liking violence, not slightly paranoid man is naïve. I think that this fantasy that we have is kind of childish that an artist who will produce this great work of looking into the human soul and finding not only the glories of it but the terrors and horrors of it will not have looked into themselves and be bringing that out of themselves.

I don't think this relatively vanilla image of Orwell is useful as a way of reading the books. It's not an understanding of what creativity is and where it comes from. It's naïve to think that a cape-wearing superhero who only had healthy thoughts would produce that book. We need to be able to bear two things in mind at the same time as Orwell discusses with doublethink. We need to bear in mind the man and the life and the wife on the one side and the work on the other. I think that's a much more creative and real discussion than the fantasy of the superhero author that we might like to have.

ASTRID: Anna, I agree, and once again, congratulations so much on Wifedom.

ANNA: Thank you so much. It's been a lovely discussion. Thank you so much.