George Orwell, born Eric Blair, is celebrated for novels like Animal Farm and 1984, as well as for his political commitments, including fighting fascism on the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Like many men, he relied on the invisible labor of women to provide him with food, shelter, typing and comfort while he focused on writing. While much is known about Orwell’s personal life, no one person has vanished more definitively from his biographies than his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy.
Anna Funder sets out to correct this absence in her compelling hybrid biography Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life. Mixing historical detail with the immediacy of personal memoir, Wifedom brings readers into the personal life of O’Shaughnessy both with and without Orwell, while also detailing Funder’s own domestic discontent. By focusing on O’Shaughnessy’s diminished status in Orwell’s biographies, Funder reveals how the invisible and unpaid labor of domestic work erases women from history. Patriarchy’s narrative about literary genius tends to leave out the typist.
Did Eileen’s 1934 poem “End of the Century, 1984” play a role in Orwell’s own 1984? As Orwell’s typist, did Eileen shape Animal Farm? Funder convinces the reader that the answers are yes, maybe. Funder’s most impressive achievement is her revision of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a text documenting his time at the Spanish front that fails to mention O’Shaughnessy by name. In fact, as Funder demonstrates via archival evidence and imaginative reconstruction, O’Shaughnessy committed multiple acts of heroism in Spain, including extracting Orwell from potential imprisonment. But Orwell never acknowledged her or gave her due credit, as if admitting he needed help would have detracted from his own heroic narrative.
The memoir portions of Wifedom aren’t quite as captivating, but it’s clear why Funder wanted to embed her biographical scholarship within her own experiences. Making visible the extent of Eileen’s influence on Orwell’s life and work matters because the condition of “wifedom,” understood as daily unpaid care work, continues to be distributed unfairly, falling mainly on women’s shoulders. Yet this undervalued work is as necessary as what Funder does so well in Wifedom: retelling history to be more considerate and accurate.