News & Reviews

Anna Funder interviewed by Raymond Bonner

Anna Funder, a self-described “privileged white woman,” abandoned a career as an international human rights lawyer to become a writer, and she has not been timid when choosing what to write about. 

In her first book, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, a literary nonfiction masterpiece, Funder excavates the psychological devastation wrought by the East German secret police – the Stasi – who turned neighbour against neighbor, child against parent, to create the ‘perfect’ Communist society. A few years later, she gave us All That I Am, a compelling novel about love and courage based on the lives of four women who resisted Hitler.

What is it about you?” Funder’s husband asked one day. “First you take on the Stasi. Then you take on the Nazis. Now it’s patriarchy.

Patriarchy is the leitmotif of Funder’s new book, Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life. Her publisher describes it as “genre-bending.” It definitely is.

It is part biography and part memoir; it might be shelved in a bookstore under literary criticism or gender studies.

But above all, it is a scholarly-researched, powerfully and gracefully written disquisition on systemic misogyny. Informed by the life and works of George Orwell.

It takes considerable literary courage to take on Orwell. He is one of the most prolific, influential and celebrated political writers of the 20th Century, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and hundreds of essays, reviews, and articles. “The Conscience of Our Age,” the Wall Street Journal declared recently in a review about yet another Orwell biography.

Wifedom has 399 footnotes, some quite lengthy (perhaps because Funder is bracing for the critical scrutiny anticipates from Orwell scholars). Paradoxically, and daringly, Funder has mixed fact and fiction.

It is ‘fiction that tries not to lie,” she writes. The fictitious scenes and dialogue are derived from the letters written by Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy.

Funder is honest about what she is doing. The fiction sections are indented, and as she artfully puts it, “I supply only what a film director would, directing an actor on set – the wiping of spectacles, the ash on the carpet, the sweet dog’s chin on her knees,”

Funder does not want us to think less of Orwell’s work. It is “precious to me,” she says. “I do not want to take it, or him down in anyway.”

But she does want us to think more about patriarchy – it has been around for five thousand or ten thousand years, she says — and what it means for women. “There is not one place on the planet where women as a group have the same power, freedom, leisure or money as their male partners.”

Funder’s mother emerges from these pages as having had a profound impact on her daughter’s feminism. A psychologist, her mother was paid half of what men were, and was forced to stop working when she got married. “I should be warned,” Funder recalls her mother telling her. “A wife was an unpaid sexual and domestic worker.”

This leads Funder to observe that “generations of us, it seems have been trying to get our heads around wifedom.”

When Anna’s mother died, of cancer at 56, a friend sent Anna a letter she had received from her mother years ago. “Anna will be a writer,” she had written…

Growing up in Melbourne, Funder, now 57, knew when she was six years old that she wanted to be a writer. But back then, she tells me, smart girls (she was dux at an elite Catholic girl’s school) from upper middle-class families went to law school. At the University of Melbourne law school, she was inspired by another woman, Hilary Charlesworth, who taught human rights law (she is now a judge on the International Court of Justice). Funder was provocative even then, writing a 10,000-word thesis on the subject of women and human rights, DeMinimis Non Curat Lex: The Clitoris, Culture and the Law. It was the beginning of a “life-long refusal to see the rights of women as less than human rights,” she tells me.

After law school, she worked for a couple of years for the government in Canberra, negotiating the inclusion of women’s rights in international treaties. “It was an ideal job,” she says. But the law was only a “digression.” She still wanted to be a writer; she was always taking notes about people, gathering material for the novels she knew were to come.

“I left the dream job, the dream boyfriend, and everything else, and went to Berlin, to write,” she says. Once there she found she couldn’t not write.

Stasiland and All That I Am followed, as did a reconnection with her boyfriend, who is now her husband. They moved to New York, for three years. Returning to Australia, in 2015, she was shocked by the sexism and misogyny. At a barbeque, she recalled, the men were all gathered outside around the grill. The women were all in the kitchen. “Everybody was laughing about it,” she said.

A decade after Orwell wrote his first novel, Burmese Days (based on his time in Burma as a colonial police officer); after Homage to Catalonia; after Animal Farm; after hundreds of essays, reviews, articles, poems, he penned an essay “Why I Write.”

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ “ Orwell explained. “I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention.”

That, too, is Funder’s motivation. “And so I write, as Orwell put it, because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention. Or, as it happens a person.”

That person is Eileen O’Shaughnessy. An Oxford graduate, who had studied Chaucer and aspired to be a writer, she gave up everything for herself to do everything for Orwell — walking his goats; saving his life; typing his manuscripts. She was the inspiration for Animal Farm becoming a satirical novel, Funder tells us. And she receives no credit.

She becomes the invisible wife; the erased wife. Like the woman put in the magician’s box to be sawed in half, but isn’t there when the box is opened. She has been ‘disappeared’ by Orwell in his writings. She is slighted, if mentioned at all, by the Orwell biographers — male biographers, it goes without saying.

“Orwell’s biographers are seven men looking at a man,” as Funder puts it.

Not long after Orwell and O’Shaughnessy were married, in 1936, he went off to the Spanish Civil War, as did thousands of workers, students, intellectuals, anarchists, communists, leftist idealists, who joined the International Brigades to fight against Fascism. It was the war that produced Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, and Picasso’s Guernica. He went as a journalist, but joined a militia on the front lines; and was seriously wounded.

Eileen was also in Spain. Not as a groupie. Not as Orwell’s wife (though she was married to him at the time). She was a partisan, like Orwell a member of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, better known by its Spanish initials as POUM, one of a kaleidoscope of leftist groups fighting for the Republic.

It was a dangerous job. Fascism wasn’t the only enemy. On the Communist left, it was the Stalinists versus the Trotskyites.

Stalin’s spies were everywhere, including in the Eileen’s office, and he ordered the liquidation of the POUM. Scores were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, executed.

At considerable risk, Eileen managed to secure the necessary papers for Orwell, and other POUM members, to get out of the country. When goons raided her hotel room, she calmly lay on the mattress under which she had hidden passports, pamphlets and other documents that would have led to her arrest, and torture, had they been found.

Safely back in the UK, living in a small, austere cabin, on New Year’s Day she writes her friend Nora:

‘You see I have no pen, no ink, no glasses and the prospect of no light, because the pens, the inks, the glasses and the candles area all in the room where George is working and if I disturb him again it will be for the fifteenth time tonight. But full  of determined ingenuity I found a typewriter, and blind people are said to type in the dark.’

She was typing his manuscript of Homage.

Funder imagines the scene:

“There’s still no electricity at the cottage. With the last of the daylight she stops typing…He’s upstairs also typing. It’s freezing. She puts her typewriter on the wobbly card table to be as close to the fire as possible. They’re out of candles, or at least she can’t find any down here. She has cut the fingers out of her gloves – much better for smoking, and typing.”

Eileen types “my wife” 37 times. That’s the number of times she appears in Homage, but it is as close as any reader will get to knowing her. She doesn’t have a name. She’s not “Eileen.” She’s “my wife.” Wifedom – a job description.

How must Eileen have felt, Funder wonders, when she typed what Orwell had written about ‘high-class brothels’ being de-collectivized? Is that where he had been in the dangerous moments? She knew he paid for sex, with young girls when he was in Burma. One of Orwell’s (white male) biographers even suggested Eileen had consented to Orwell paying teen-aged prostitutes when they were on vacation in Morocco.

Funder raises the obvious question.

“Why does she stay with him, working to support him financially, psychologically, intellectually, and in every other way – let alone go out to dinner with his new lover, fresh from their bed?”

The answer lies in patriarchy. “To be okay with something that harms your deepest selfhood seems to be the epitome of female conditioning in patriarchy. We are supposed to collude in a system that uses us, and then makes us say we agreed, or we didn’t mind, or even asked for it.”

Orwell gave Eileen little in the way or love or support, financial or emotional. She long suffered from ill-health — intense stomach pains, bleeding, debilitating anemia – and one day she collapses while they are walking down the street in London. It is 1944, and a few weeks later he goes off to cover the war in France, living in the Hotel Scribe along with other foreign correspondents including Hemingway. He doesn’t return when she has surgery, to remove uterine tumors, and a hysterectomy. She dies on the operating table. He does return for the funeral, but shows little interest in knowing how she died; he doesn’t talk to the surgeon, attend the inquest or even read the coroner’s report, which details her neglected physical state when she went in for the operation. Orwell later claims that he didn’t think her surgery would be serious.

He begins the search for another wife. He now had money, from Animal Farm, and in patriarchy, Funder writes, a man needs money to keep a wife, for “sex, mothering, cleaning, cooking, editing, psychological management.” Orwell “pounces on and proposes to at least four women,” Funder writes

He marries Sonia Brownwell, seventeen years younger who was an editor at one of the magazines for which he wrote. They never lived together, he continued to sleep with other women, and in 1950, at the age of 46, Orwell died of tuberculosis.

I have two long shelves of Orwell’s books (including signed first editions found at book shops during my travels around the world); most of the biographies about him; as well as “Why Orwell Matters” by Christopher Hitchens.

When I finished Wifedom, I sent Anna a short note saying I didn’t think I’d ever be able to read Orwell in the same light again. She replied that I should not have that attitude. You have to separate the art from the artist, she said, as Orwell himself did when writing about Dali and Dickens and Shakespeare, all of whom were flawed human beings, but great artists.

“Orwell’s work is precious to me,” she writes. She worries that in today’s environment he might be ‘canceled,’ that some censorious feminists might argue Orwell’s books should be removed from the shelves because of his treatment of women. That is not what she wants. “To my mind, a person is not their work, just where it came from. To want the two to be the same, on pain of ‘cancellation,’ is a new kind of tyranny. And from there, no art comes.”

In this genre-bending book, Anna Funder has given us more than art. She has given us a masterpiece that every woman will want to read. And every man should.

– Raymond Bonner


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