Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life by Anna Funder; Julia by Sandra Newman - review by Eileen M Hunt

Eileen M Hunt

Feminism vs Big Brother

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life

By

Viking 464pp £20

Julia

By

Granta Books 400pp £18.99
 

Orwell is having another moment in the age of Trump, Putin and #MeToo. Aside from the two books under review, five major works of non-fiction on Orwell and one novel inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four have been published in this calendar year alone. Anna Funder intends Wifedom to upset the dominant interpretive trends in non-fiction studies of Orwell by recovering the life and influence of his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair, from decades of male-dominated scholarship that marginalised her and the other women who shaped the famous author. Sandra Newman’s feminist retelling of Nineteen Eighty-Four – from the subversive perspective of its lead woman character, Julia – stands alongside Katherine Bradley’s novel The Sisterhood, published in March this year, as part of a wider Atwoodian resurgence of literary fiction and criticism that repurposes Orwell’s antifascist, anti-totalitarian politics for unapologetically feminist ends. 

Both authors make bold decisions regarding literary form. Wifedom is a mixture of creative non-fiction and investigative journalism. Funder interpolates her historical narrative with fictional scenes in which she dramatises and elaborates episodes from O’Shaughnessy Blair’s life and letters. Newman has written a woman-centred form of the dystopian novel. Both books should prove to be productively controversial in the world of Orwell studies, though while they are powerful, they are not impeccable. Wifedom contains blunders: as Rebecca Solnit, the author of Orwell’s Roses (2021), has already pointed out, Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) was not born in Burma, as Funder erroneously writes, but rather in Motihari, India, in 1903. In addition, Funder misrepresents Blair’s ethnic heritage. She claims that he came from a ‘mixed-race family’ when both his mother and father were in fact white British settlers known as Anglo-Indians. Along with her blurry reportage of Orwell’s genealogy, Funder incorrectly states that Orwell’s father worked for the ‘colonial opium-trading regime’ in Burma, when he had a career as an opium agent in the Indian civil service in Bengal.

That aside, Funder delivers a compelling narrative in her account of why and how the Oxford-educated poet Eileen O’Shaughnessy ended up with a largely ‘invisible life’ after marrying Orwell. Contra Solnit, who follows the dominant biographical tendency to uncritically treat Orwell as a ‘man of his time’ on issues of gender and sex, Funder refuses to steer clear of controversy. She charts a series of sexual assaults committed by Orwell between 1921 (when he attempted to rape his first sweetheart, Jacintha Buddicom, who ran from him bruised and screaming) and 1946 (when he cornered and kissed his young neighbour Anne Popham on his bed, without her consent, before she pushed him away in shock). Funder also tackles the troubling question of why Orwell (and his major biographers) covered up or downplayed O’Shaughnessy Blair’s contributions to his success as a novelist. As Sylvia Topp pointed out in her impressive biography, Eileen: The Making of George Orwell (2020), not only did she help to edit Animal Farm (1945), but she also proposed that it take the form of a fable. 

While Topp paints a romantic picture of this marital literary collaboration (reportedly undertaken while the couple cuddled in bed), Funder asks some hard questions about it. Why didn’t Orwell give his first wife the credit she deserved as his editor, especially since she died of a botched hysterectomy just a few months before the wildly successful publication of Animal Farm? In the thrilling finale to her book, Funder probes the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of O’Shaughnessy Blair in 1945 at the age of thirty-nine, less than a year after she and Orwell had adopted an infant son, Richard. Why did she seek a cheaper operation to remove cancerous tumours in her reproductive system in Newcastle when she could have had better medical care in London, with the help of her sister-in-law Gwen, who was a doctor? Did Orwell’s oppressive concern with money lead her to choose a riskier hysterectomy than her weakened body could handle, without the recommended pre-operative series of blood transfusions? Why didn’t Orwell go with her to Newcastle to help her through the operation and care for their child while she underwent it? Why did Orwell choose to go to the Continent as a journalist to cover the end of the war at precisely the time that his sickly wife was suffering from heavy bleeding and planning to have major surgery? Reading Funder’s painstaking analysis of the death of O’Shaughnessy Blair, all the way down to the coroner’s report, makes it hard to accept Topp’s argument that the marriage, tragically ended by medical malpractice, was a progressive literary partnership grounded on the mutual practice of free love. 

Funder reveals how O’Shaughnessy Blair self-effacingly supported Orwell intellectually, emotionally, medically and financially through the most challenging part of his writing career, the late 1930s and the early 1940s, when Orwell was suffering from tuberculosis. Again, Funder asks insistently, why didn’t Orwell do the same for his wife in her equally serious time of need? Her devastating answer is simply that Orwell’s patriarchal biases blinded him to the moral and political imperative to recognise and treat his wife as an equal.

As a novelist, Newman cannot be accused of making factual errors, but she can be charged with being too blunt in the way she handles the complex questions of how gender and patriarchy operate in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Julia, the woman narrator is a ‘final girl’ survivor par excellence. Newman transforms Julia into a sort of feminist superhero, capable of coolly betraying her illicit lover Winston Smith long before she defeats the rats in Room 101. Newman’s Julia even dares to meet Big Brother. With her uncanny powers, she would not be out of place in a Marvel-style Hollywood film. 

Newman gives us a striking visualisation of the dystopian world of a totalitarian Britain, including a sense of the political geography of Airstrip One that is more fascinating than anything Orwell offers. Julia takes a flight on a fighter plane, allowing her to see Big Brother’s Crystal Palace from above. Later she visits Big Brother there, with the help of the insurgents with whom she is forced to ally herself. They pull off a successful coup d’état and she discovers – a bit like Dorothy confronting the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain – that the overturned totalitarian dictator was but a shadow of the tyrant whom she had seen projected on the telescreens. 

This anticlimactic exposure of the impotence of Big Brother is ironic given Julia’s recollection of how she would masturbate to his all-engrossing image when she was a girl. Julia’s multiple sexual and political challenges to patriarchy make Newman’s novel a delightfully perverse and gripping read, especially in our bizarre cultural moment, when a plastic Barbie can be reified as an icon of feminine agency and self-possession. At the same time, Julia’s brute survival of domination against all odds tests the reader’s suspension of disbelief and makes one wonder if Nineteen Eighty-Four’s more dismal ending better captures the complexities of how gender and sexuality work under conditions of totalitarian oppression. With bleak realism, Orwell suggests that even the most passionate of lovers and dissidents – no matter their gender – would betray each other to the state that tortured them. 

Julia and Wifedom pair well together, each giving a different angle on the problem of patriarchy and the possibility of women’s (and men’s) resistance to it. Fiction is not a flaw in these works but rather an asset, allowing us to reimagine Orwell and his dystopias from marginalised women’s perspectives. Most importantly, we can see the unsung life and understudied death of his first wife through a clearer lens.

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