Anna Funder on her new book, Wifedom

Article | Jun 2023

Internationally bestselling author ANNA FUNDER is back with an original and fascinating book which sheds light on the erasure of women and their contributions in history. AKINA HANSEN chatted with her about Wifedom, and the remarkable woman at the centre of her latest book, Eileen O’Shaunessey.


Eileen O’Shaunessey was a wife and mother, but more importantly, she was a person in her own right. She was a brilliant woman who studied English literature at Oxford University and later psychology at University College London. In 1937 she fearlessly followed her husband to Spain where she worked at the headquarters of the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) during the Spanish Civil war and during World War II she worked at the Ministry of Information in London. She was an editor, thinker, and poet – a true intellectual who greatly influenced and contributed to arguably some of the greatest novels from the 20th century. And yet, she is largely unknown, and her contributions seemingly erased.

In the summer of 2017, Anna Funder, internationally bestselling author of critically acclaimed books Stasiland and All That I Am, found herself in a moment of intense overload: the visible and invisible labours of wifedom had caught up with her. And so, she took refuge in the pages of one of the great literary writers of the 20th century, Eric Blair, more famously known as George Orwell.

Born in 1903, Orwell was a novelist, journalist, essayist and critic whose works were informed by his political views; particularly his hatred of totalitarianism and his belief in democratic socialism. His most famous works include his 1945 novel Animal Farm which is a parable for Stalin’s betrayal of the Russian Revolution and his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which was inspired by his experience of Soviet-style surveillance and repression in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil war.

‘He is a writer who deals really wonderfully with victims of oppression. He’s always taking the side of the underdog. He’s very good at recognising visible, and apparently invisible tyrannies’, Anna tells me. ‘And so I read my way very happily through Orwell’s journalism, letters and through the biographies.’

But the reprieve that Anna initially sought from reading Orwell’s works and biographies, was quickly interrupted when she came across Orwell’s wife, Eileen O’Shaunessey.

Anna confides that there were only ‘tiny glimpses of her in the biographies’. But as she delved deeper into Elieen, she discovered what the biographers had not included and did not have access to: six letters written by Eileen to her best friend Norah Symes which were released into the public domain in 2005. These letters reveal a shockingly intimate and harrowing portrait of her marriage to Orwell.

These revelations ultimately led to Anna’s latest book, Wifedom, which sheds light on the physical, intellectual, emotional and even financial sacrifices Eileen made in her marriage to Orwell. Described as genre-bending, her book is a mix of biography, essay, and fiction. The book includes Anna’s academic research into Eileen’s life, her own reflections on the patriarchy and ‘wifedom’, and using the six letters, Anna chronologically recreates the Orwell’s marriage, through the Spanish Civil War and Word War II in London.

Anna’s research for this book was extensive.

‘I read biographies, I looked at their footnotes, and I read all their sources.

I went to the archive in London, I went to Spain on a tour with Orwell’s son, and the son of his commander and went to all the places that they had been. And the main sources today were, for instance, female friends of the couple, and of Eileen’s in particular, Lydia.

‘I realised that when I read those original sources, that none of those things appeared in the biographies and yet they were hugely interesting, not just about Eileen, but about him.’

Indeed, Wifedom paints a detailed picture of Eileen’s life and movements during this time. We learn that in 1936 Eileen O’Shaunessey and George Orwell married. And that despite being incredibly close with her brother Laurence, who also lived in London, the couple moved away to a tiny village in Wallington, Hertfordshire, where they lived in a run-down and isolated cottage. The move proved to be very difficult for Eileen who ultimately took on all of the domestic and agricultural duties. With limited resources and time, she ultimately had to abandon a possible career in psychology to keep up with her tasks at home.

On top of being buried domestically, her letters also reveal the extent to which she was providing Orwell with literary support.

‘She was helping him with his manuscript, she was actually editing, and writing on the back of it to make it better,’ Anna says.

Importantly, in examining Eileen, Wifedom illuminates how women today continue to take on the majority of both domestic and emotional labour.

‘So much work that women do is invisible and contributes to the wellbeing of the people around us. In Orwell’s case, his massive and important literary output. So, by making her visible, I wanted to make visible the ways work is made invisible, and then make it visible for me in my own life.

‘In Australia women are on average a million dollars poorer than men, in terms of lifetime earnings, that’s a lot. And that comes from the fact, time and lives, and energy are spent doing this other essential work that is invisible and is certainly financially invisible.’

While Orwell’s six male biographers didn’t have access to Eileen’s letters, in Wifedom we discover how they, and even Orwell himself, chose to omit certain facts about Eileen from Orwell’s story.

In 1937, Eileen followed Orwell to Spain where he fought on the frontline in the Spanish Civil War. In the biographies, Eileen’s contributions in Spain are reduced to a secretarial volunteer position at the ILP and with supplying Orwell with cigarettes, margarine and chocolates.

‘Her role is seen as support for him, and she has no interests of her own’, says Anna.

Yet, as Anna dug deeper and examined the original sources, she discovered that there was far more information available on Eileen than appeared in the biographies. Interestingly, the six biographers – consciously or unconsciously – made the decison to not include the following facts.

‘It turned out that Eileen was working; writing the newsletter and the radio programmes in the office with Charles Orr, an economist who was technically her boss. They were effectively writing the propaganda of POUM (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification was a Spanish communist party), taking all the information from the front about what was happening and turning it into broadcasts and newsletters. She was also supplying the men with all of their needs and dealing with all of their mail. And she got her sister-in-law, a doctor, to ride from London with a car full of medicine. She lent money to the party, including the head of the party. So, to find out she was referred to as a secretary, vastly underestimates what was actually going on.’

While Orwell’s six male biographers didn’t have access to Eileen’s letters, in Wifedom we discover how they, and even Orwell himself, chose to omit certain facts about Eileen from Orwell’s story.

Even more astonishing is her almost complete absence from Orwell’s book Homage to Catalonia, which chronicles his experiences during the Spanish Civil war.

‘I was shocked that he completely ignored her in his book about the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, so much so that you can read that book and not realise that he’s not in Spain alone. Eileen is there most of the time, and she has this quite important job in propaganda in the central office of the party that he’s fighting for. She really not only typed that book, but hopefully informed and then saved it from the Stalinist’s secret police raid, and then saved their lives getting them out of Spain.’

When Anna began reading about Orwell’s life, she was again fascinated by what certain omissions in Orwell’s life story said more broadly about the erasure of women in history.

‘I think it’s very likely that women’s literature in the past has been subject to the same “invisiblising” forces in a macro sense. I’m looking at it in a micro sense. I looked at the way, for instance, we learn about Orwell’s life and time, which is mainly through his biographers. I look at the six biographies of him. And you look at how they write for instance about his family. It was a female dominated family. He had an aunt and two sisters who he grew up with. He didn’t really meet his father until he was about eight but the biographers will generally give you mainly his family history through the male line.’

These omissions extend to more intimate parts of Orwell’s life as well. At the beginning of Wifedom an extract from Orwell’s private notebook reveals misogynistic ideas he held about women – which was either left out or trivialised by biographers.

Wifedom exposes other uncomfortable truths about Orwell’s character and actions. From his many affairs during his marriage to Eileen to more disturbing accounts from other women such as Eileen’s friend Lydia, who report him ‘pouncing on them and so on’.

Anna points out that Orwell was engaged in ‘doublethink’. A term famously coined by him for his book 1984 which means to hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. Indeed, despite his incredible insight into power and systems of oppression, ‘he can’t afford to see it when it relates to the sexes, because he has too much to gain.’

There’s no doubt that George Orwell’s works have been highly influential in both popular and political culture. But Anna’s work does raise the interesting question of how we deal with artists whose works we respect, but who were morally questionable.

‘No-one is as decent or great as their work. My book is also looking at how hard it is to reconcile a writer with their work. Or whether that’s even the right question to be asking. I feel ultimately, as a writer, that we write as much out of our flaws, as out of our strengths. It’s our flaws, its Orwell’s flaws, and mine no doubt too, in a lesser way, that allow us to see all of the gaps between what we think is happening on the surface of things. And writing allows us to express what we think is really going on under the surface of society and under the surface of characters. That’s what literature is for, and if you’re going to look at that, you’re almost necessarily writing out of your own flaws as well.’

Wifedom is a fascinating book which shines a light on how the patriarchy has benefitted from women’s invisible labour and in turn has erased their contributions from history. Eileen’s story is moving, she was a remarkable person with incredible wit and intellect and whose contributions helped shape and inform beloved works such as Animal Farm and 1984. Anna Funder has done a remarkable job in returning Eileen’s voice to her.

Visit Anna Funder’s website

Author: Anna Funder

Category: Biography & True Stories

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

ISBN: 9780143787112

RRP: $35.00

Reader Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all reviews

The Latest List