Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Books)
Why was this woman airbrushed from two of the twentieth centuries most influential books? Author
Author Anna Funder spent two years searching for the “voice” of the wife of George Orwell . . . and the result is an intriguing story of an extraordinary woman whose life is cut short too soon.
George Orwell’s actions may seem unfair today as he was writing in the 1930s when women had rattled the public cage of convention and won the vote.
Eileen O’Shaughnessy Orwell at the start of her 9-year marriage to George, (who penned “Animal Farm” and “1984”) gave her considerable support and dedicated editing of his manuscripts, unaware that she would be forgotten, unacknowledged by her husband and subsequently ignored by his many biographers.
When Eileen marries Orwell, he takes her to live in a county house with no electricity, running water or a suitable toilet, surrounded by animals that need constant feeding. Orwell sits upstairs in comfort working while Eileen cooks, cleans, shops and by night strains her eyes in candlelight to type his daily output, editing his finished manuscript and then sending it to the publisher.
It took forensic research and a stroke of luck by Anna Funder to unearth six letters from Eileen to her best friend, Norah Symes Myles in 2005, to discover what sort of person she was and her life with George Orwell.
None of Orwell’s biographers have bothered to consider her influence on his work, never alluding to the input of her light hearted humour, the animal characters they created in “Animal Farm”, the long bedtime discussions they had and her many suggestions on style and content.
Orwell had tuberculosis for most of his adult life and Eileen died young from cancer and an operation gone wrong, unable to enjoy the immortality the books bought her husband. These two books have never been out of print.
In Wifedom Anna Funder searches for scraps of Eileen’s voice, did George Orwell drop any mention of his wife?
Eileen loved Orwell and believed in his talent. He possibly loved her as much as his sexual exploits outside their marriage and self-belief would allow.
For Eileen all this doesn’t matter now she is married.
When Orwell casually announces he is off to fight in the Spanish civil war, Eileen sets about obtaining a job in the office of the revolutionaries as a secretary while Orwell sits bored on an inactive front line with a small brigade of left-wing Lenin/ Trotsky fanatics whom Stalin despises and vows to wipe out.
She types secret messages, attends meetings and as the months pass her name along with her boss John McNair is added to the Gestapo/Stalin list of those to be hunted, caught and executed.
Even this threat is no reason to leave without her husband, so she battles on using clever ways to hide the passports of her colleagues from raids by the Spanish authorities. She even finds time to type up Orwell’s notes on the war for his manuscript which becomes Homage to Catalonia, his account of his time in battle and then fleeing for his life.
Did he ever thank her for all she did? Probably not. Was he grateful for the way she helped him escape across the border back to England safely?
After Eileen ‘s death, Orwell finds he can’t talk to the surgeon to find out what went wrong with her operation, nor does he read the coroner’s report. Instead, he appears to have devised a narrative in his head he can live with – It is one in which he tells himself he did not mean to remain in Europe when he knew she was seriously ill, nor did he abandon her by focusing on his work for he believed her operation was minor. After her death he tells her friend Lydia, “at least she didn’t suffer, she never recovered consciousness.” Small consolation for not being a comforting presence at her bedside!
When the poet Stephen Spender writes to Orwell to say how sorry he is, Orwell replies;” Yes, she was a good old stick”. Spender is shocked. It may have been Orwell’s way of distancing his feelings for Eileen, for he was well aware that she held his world together.
As women do.
A thought provoking book.