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Author Anna Funder on George Orwell's sexuality and society's serious problem with successful women

Eileen O’Shaughnessy's influence on her husband, George Orwell, has been unjustly swept under the carpet, argues Wifedom author Anna Funder

Illustration of George Orwell and Eileen Shaughnessy

Illustration: Laurie Avon

Anna Funder is a big shot. Always a clever clogs (she graduated college in Melbourne as dux), she was revered as an international human rights lawyer for the Australian government before her eloquent political essays were so widely published she decided to become a full-time writer.  

Her first book, 2004’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, a study of resistance and collusion during Communist-era East Germany, won almost every literary award going and flew onto school reading lists around the world. She followed that with a devastating novel, All That I Am, based on the true story of a group of young Jewish activists who fled to London during the rise of the Nazis. It too brought her international awards and plaudits. 

Whether chronicling fact or conjuring fiction, Funder has perfected an affecting marriage of form and tone which gifts great power and profundity to the stories she tells.  

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Reading a CV of her endless list of achievements you might expect her to be a lofty, intimidating intellectual in person. I certainly felt a trepidatious awe as I made my way through the Edinburgh Book Festival gardens to meet her. If she reads this, she’ll probably throw her head back and laugh at that – whether it’s her grounded Australian roots or just a natural unpretentious amiability, she’s as far from being a sniffy academic as Nadine Dorries is from being a serious novelist. Now 56, she has the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager, with a stylish, youthful wardrobe and raucous belly laugh to match.  

“Isn’t this wonderful!” she enthuses when I first encounter her in the writers’ teepee at the festival. “This is my first time here and I love it. What shall we do first?” 

Anna Funder sitting on a chair
Anna Funder

She has the infectious attitude of a rabid book fan (we march immediately off to see Damian Barr and Catherine Taylor talk about their respective memoirs; Barr later tells her he felt “so honoured” to see her in attendance). So it’s easy to forget she’s actually at the festival to talk about her own new book, Wifedom; a frank study of George Orwell’s marriage to his first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy. A combination of reportage and fiction, Funder’s revelations about George Orwell’s treatment of his ‘erased’ wife Eileen have sent ripples throughout the fiercely protective Orwell community (yes, there absolutely is such a thing). Anna Funder has clearly lost none of her ability to quicken hearts and heighten blood pressure. 

“People are very shocked and angry reading Wifedom,” she agrees. “I’ve had six years to get used to these ideas, but they’re very shocking when you first come across them. On the book tour I’ve been doing, I’ve seen male interviewers struggle with my pointing out what this man got from women – from his feminist, suffragette, left-wing mother and aunt, to his clever girlfriends. As if it’s going to take away from the reputation of Orwell to recognise that he owed women a lot, and that he may have treated them really badly in order to make himself feel more of a genius. Some people prefer to think he did all his work by himself and was a sort of solo genius and always a decent chap. 

“I think Eileen would have been an extraordinary academic and an extraordinary writer, or a fantastic psychotherapist who contributed to our understanding of child development. As a feminist, seeing her continually erased from history in order to elevate Orwell’s independent brilliance made me want to bring her back to life, at the centre of her own story.” 

As a devoted Orwell fan herself since reading Homage to Catalonia at a young age, had she any concerns about undermining his reputation?  

“I saw the story from Eileen’s perspective rather than his,” she says simply. “I was just gobsmacked that I could read Homage to Catalonia without realising that Eileen was there with him in Spain, let alone that she had this important political job [working for the Independent Labour Party coordinating the arrival and survival of British volunteers during the Spanish Civil War] and was in fear for her life. She saved his manuscript and passport and textbooks and then she saved his life getting him out. Unravelling the way he wrote her out of all of that was really shocking.  

“With Animal Farm, for instance, people are very wary about acknowledging her influence, although her voice – her whimsy, her education under Tolkien, her knowledge of satire and fable, is so utterly clear in that book that they worked on night after night together.”   

We’re talking generally about women’s creative work being undervalued, but to be more specific, Wifedom is about the wilful denial of the female influence on male talent. Anna Funder agrees that, until relatively recently, western culture couldn’t quite countenance the notion that there might be much high-quality male-free writing at all.  

Mary Shelley was an early victim of this myopia – the publication of Frankenstein was met with decades of speculation that her more famous husband was the true author. It still happens today when music critics imply that Taylor Swift’s hits were probably written by a man paid off by her record company. Our culture, Funder argues, still has a problem accepting that women might be equal or even more talented than the talented men they prop up. 

“We live in a society where all of these mechanisms work silently, in this dark, dirty, tectonic way, to make men seem central to themselves. If you have a woman in your orbit, you must be the star. And the central figures of that culture have to be men, who other men look at and think wow, look at him, he did it all alone.” 

She pauses thoughtfully. 

“I think there’s also a more sinister side to the George and Eileen situation, to do with the artistic ego. He’s quite sadistic to her; isolating her, controlling her, making sure she knew that he was being unfaithful with her friend. Asking her ‘permission’ in inverted commas to go and sleep with a Burmese girlfriend twice a year. 

“I sometimes wonder in my own heart whether that kind of behaviour, having that kind of power over someone so brilliant, made him feel more of an artist. That’s a very dark thought, but I think it applies to Picasso, who ruined very talented women in his life, and I think that might be somehow also at the base of this.” 

So where does Anna Funder, once such a passionate advocate for Orwell’s books, now stand in terms of valuing his work; warts and ellipses and ego-boosts and all? This, it turns out, is something she’s been grappling with since she began her research. But she does seem to have reached a conclusion. “I think it’s a mistake to think that artists, me included, are going to be as good as our work,” she says. “As Richard Ford put it, I put my best self into my work; I am not my best self. Ultimately, we need to treasure the work. I still absolutely love Orwell’s writing voice. I loved reading …Wigan Pier, I thought it was the most extraordinary and noble thing, how he revealed those appalling conditions of living. Animal Farm was a delight, and 1984, this kind of prescient horror – they’re all so wonderful.  

“But I’ll tell you what happened to me in the end,” she says conspiratorially. “When Orwell writes in his last literary notebook about the disgusting filthiness of women, especially wives – I thought, he doesn’t seem to be sexually attracted to women at all, with their terrible, devouring sexuality. I think he would have much preferred to have lived in a less homophobic age, to be able to express himself as a homosexual man. But he couldn’t live as a gay man in those times because there was such viciousness against homosexuals.” 

And with that casually knocked over can of worms squirming frenetically on the table, she sums up the ultimate goal of her writing, one George Orwell – and Eileen O’Shaughnessy – might well approve of. 

“I’m not really a journalist at all. I grew up reading Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Maya Angelou, George Orwell, and I always thought real life was in fiction. I want to make a work of art. For me, the pleasure and joy comes from finding the language which can make the story delightful or shocking or moving. If you just want the facts about the price of appeasement for German activists in London in 1935 (All That I Am), or the culture of fear created by the Stasi (Stasiland), German historians can do that, probably better than I can.  

“What I can do is to make you feel. It’s true, I’ve written about things which are hard to look at – disturbing, enraging. But I write because I hope that if we see these things, we might come to be liberated from them.” 

Wifedom book cover

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life by Anna Funder is out now (Penguin, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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