Anna Funder, the author of Stasiland, is a premier-league writer who can roll fiction, reportage, criticism and memoir into glinting prose, her sentences like handheld treasures you keep turning over, admiring their graceful contours and crafted precision. Lately she’s published little. In fact Wifedom is a book wrenched from the swirl of domestic duties that drown out women’s voices – the lifeline, in this case, being a chance find at a moment of ‘peak overload’ when she stumbles on a rare edition of George Orwell’s collected non-fiction.
Diving into his essay ‘Why I Write’, she looks for self-recognition and pauses over a sentence. Orwell contrasts people who ‘live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery’ with ‘the minority of gifted, wilful people [he means writers] who are determined to live their own lives to the end’. He may as well have been describing men and women. But what if someone is both? The struggle of the female artist to rise above drudgery in order to create work is real to Funder, and exhausting. Yet it was a privilege Orwell enjoyed at the expense of his first wife’s unending labours.
Funder wants to better see Eileen O’Shaughnessy. But Eileen is one of the smothered, ‘buried first by domesticity, then by history’. It irks Funder that all Orwell’s biographers (seven; male) make her disappear beneath things that Orwell ‘came across’ or ‘were procured’ for him; how they take his word over hers when first-hand testimony attests differently. Funder wants to rescue this droll, warm-hearted woman from oblivion and in the process wrench herself back into hard-won artistry.
Teasing Eileen into visibility, Funder teaches herself to read between the lines and behind the passive voice the biographers deploy to hide her subject’s agency while exonerating their hero from any kind of culpability, chiefly his blinkeredness to the feelings of others (Orwell’s friend Richard Rees said ‘he never really looked at another human being’) and his sense of entitlement.