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The Crack Magazine

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Wifedom (Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life) by Anna Funder

I nearly didn’t read Wifedom because a critic and writer I respect, who shall remain nameless, gave it a right old lashing. Which, having hugely enjoyed this book, casts massive doubts on her critical faculties. Sure, Wifedom (Mrs Orwell’s invisible life), is a startling mix of fiction, biography, memoir and reportage, but the skill of Anna Funder to organise this into a credible whole proves once again what a brilliant writer she is. Taking a writer’s wife, barely mentioned in dispatches, barely mentioned at all, and doing the deep research, interviews and then writing a stylish and compelling biography is a great feat, because Eileen Orwell, “hasn’t really been in the biographies. Orwell’s biographers are seven men looking at a man…all of them minimise the importance of women in Orwell’s life. In the end, the biographies started to seem like fictions of omission.” Not for the first time or the last. Women are often omitted from the lives of ‘great male writers’ - Bruce Chatwin travelled with his wife, but you wouldn’t know it from his books - because they don’t fit the ‘great man’ narrative. Misogyny, sexism and patriarchy? In Orwell’s case a combination of all three, he doesn’t come out of any biography particularly well, he doesn’t here either. Eileen is the star of Homage to Catalonia, or would have been in a different era. She’s the one keeping the Orwell show on the road, organising his life (someone needed to because he was absolutely useless), editing and typing out his manuscripts and, as one of his biographers put it, “it is not just coincidence…that the major phase of Orwell’s career…should coincide with the beginning of his marriage”. Witty, charismatic, quietly driven with bags of intelligence, Eileen Orwell, nee O’Shaughnessy, has been reclaimed and given the agency sadly lacking elsewhere. Paperback of the year? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Wifedom (Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life) – Anna Funder – publ. Penguin - £10.99

Steven Long

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