In defence of George Orwell

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In defence of George Orwell

Eileen Maud Blair (née O'Shaughnessy) and George and Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell


In Henry James’ “The Lesson of the Master” (1888), a great author explains that marriage interferes with the sacrificial quest for artistic perfection and that a man endangers his work if he devotes himself to personal rather than to intellectual passions.  A younger writer asks, “Are there no women who really understand—who can take part in a sacrifice?” He is told, “How can they take part?  They themselves are the sacrifice.”  Delmore Schwartz put it more succinctly: “Poets’ wives have rotten lives.”

In June 1936 George Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905-45), and they moved into a primitive cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, 42 miles north of London.  It had a corrugated roof, cold water, no heat or electricity and an outdoor privy.  His bohemian Aunt Nellie, in residence, made things even more difficult.  They didn’t have a cat, so battalions of mice, standing shoulder to shoulder, pushed the china off the shelves. They kept goats and hens and, like Robert Graves in postwar Oxford, made an unprofitable attempt to run a village shop.

At first, since Orwell would not let his work be interrupted, they quarrelled bitterly.  Their harsh life was a bitter contrast to the magnificent home of Eileen’s doctor-brother in Greenwich, with its cook, maid, nanny and handyman, where she often took refuge.  Why didn’t Eileen persuade Orwell to find a more comfortable place or at least try to make their crude conditions more tolerable?  She loved him, was loyal, wanted to please him and saw—as no one else did—his great potential as a writer.  A comrade in Spain later recalled: “She worshipped the ground he walked on.  She’d do anything for him.  Anything Orwell did, he was the greatest.”

Eileen was attractive, bright and capable, but in her new biography (Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life, Penguin/Knopf, 451 pages, £20/$32), Anna Funder describes her heroine as exceptionally thin and gawky, short-sighted and squinting, untidily dressed in drab and shabby clothes.  She graduated from Oxford in 1927, at a time when few women did.  Only three of the 15 leading 20th-century British women writers — Iris Murdoch, Rosamond Lehmann and Ivy Compton-Burnett — were university graduates.  But Eileen failed to get a First and didn’t finish her Master’s degree at University College, London.

Before her marriage Eileen worked as a secretary and owned a typing agency.  During the Spanish Civil War she ran the Barcelona office of the Trotskyite Independent Labour Party, allied to the Spanish POUM (Unified Marxist Workers’ Party), and sent food and supplies to their men, including Orwell, at the front.  She never even noticed that three Stalinist agents worked closely with her in the office.  During World War Two she toiled in the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, overwhelmed by “inconceivable dullness,” and in the Ministry of Food.  Nothing special.  But Funder, trying to justify her book, credits Eileen with “intellectual brilliance” and a “steel-trap mind.”  She even claims, quite absurdly and without a shred of evidence, that Eileen was “no less gifted than Orwell.”  Her graduate supervisor said she merely had “more than ordinary aptitude.”

In Barcelona in May 1937, the Stalinists attacked POUM, their supposed anti-fascist allies, and began a civil war within the Civil War that led to their own defeat.  Orwell was in the losing faction of the losing side.  While he was fighting at the front, the Stalinist police searched Eileen’s hotel room.  She was not arrested, and even managed to hide their passports and checkbook under the mattress while she remained in bed.  Funder says Orwell “abandoned” Eileen by returning to the front, but he went to Spain to fight the fascists, not to take care of her.  It is true that when he was shot through the throat, she devotedly nursed him.  In July the Stalinist secret tribunal condemned Orwell and Eileen to death for espionage and high treason, and they barely managed to escape with their lives into France.

Funder, extremely imperceptive, says she’d read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) twice without realising that Eileen had been in Spain with him.  Though there are in fact 37 references to Eileen in his book, Funder, determined to put a malign interpretation on everything Orwell does, states that she’s scarcely mentioned and never named and that he wrote her out of the story.  She doesn’t realize that Homage is about Spain, not Eileen, and that his sense of privacy and decorum prevented him from naming her.  (Orwell would have been sickened by the current dedications “To my beautiful and brilliant wife” that are deleted in the post-divorce edition.)  More important, after being convicted of treason and condemned to death, he feared he could be murdered by Soviet agents whom he knew were operating in England, and wanted to protect Eileen from dangerous reprisals by hiding her connection to POUM.  Funder repeatedly calls his very real fear “paranoia”.  But millions of people were murdered in Stalin’s Purges of 1936-38 and Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940.  The Communists continued to murder their enemies for the next 80 years.  Recently, Sergei Skripal was poisoned in England and Yevgeny Prigozhin was blown up for opposing the present Russian dictator.

Eileen had risked death not only by joining Orwell in Spain, but also by living with him during his tubercular hemorrhages.  During her difficult life in wartime London, she also became seriously ill.  She had endometriosis (a disease of the uterine tissue), cysts, anemia, heavy bleeding and severe pain.  Orwell thought he was sterile, but he never had a medical test and there is no proof.  It’s more likely that Eileen’s own serious medical problems prevented her from conceiving a baby.  In May 1944 they adopted a three-week-old infant and named him Richard, after Orwell’s father.  After trekking across London to fetch him, Eileen said “it would have been easier to have them send the baby to her in a basket downriver, Old Testament style,” in which case they could have named him Moses.

In March 1945 Eileen had what she called a “minor operation” for cancer of the uterus.  The operation was essential and the London surgeons were not, as Funder claims, “against it”. There’s no evidence that Orwell “was angry about the expense of her operation”; it was Eileen who worried about the expense.  On March 29, while surgeons attempted to remove her uterus, she died unexpectedly at 39 of cardiac arrest.  It’s terribly ironic that Eileen—after her difficult, austere and impoverished life in Wallington, Spain and the London Blitz—should die after adopting Richard and inheriting family money, and only five months before the astonishing success in August of Animal Farm.

Never missing the chance to condemn Orwell, Funder states that he took off, bolted and disappeared, during Eileen’s illness, to be a war correspondent for the Observer in February-May 1945.  But Eileen, who minimized the seriousness of her illness to avoid worrying him and was glad he wasn’t with her—“It’s a mercy George is away”—had urged him to take the valuable job.  Funder also falsely states that “the reporting he does from Europe is unimportant”.  In fact, during the time that Orwell sent 18 dispatches from Europe and the allies fought their way into Germany, momentous events took place.  Mussolini was killed by the partisans, Hitler committed suicide, Berlin was captured, the Third Reich collapsed and victory was declared on May 8.

Orwell’s friend Cyril Connolly, echoing Henry James, famously declared, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”  But this was not true of Orwell, who adored Richard and refused to give him up after Eileen died.  His most tender photos show him taking great care of his son.  When Richard visited the tuberculosis sanatorium, Orwell had to keep his distance and exclaimed, “I am terrified of his getting this disease I have.”



Funder’s book demands a sharp rebuke.  She devises negative interpretations of Orwell’s most innocent statements, makes absurd speculations and then repeats them as if they were facts. She emphasises three of them on the dust wrapper and repeats them throughout the book.  But Eileen is not “his forgotten wife.”  Her “literary brilliance” did not “shape his work.”  She was not “written out of their story.”  Funder repeats  no fewer than seven times that Eileen was “invisible” and “erased”, though her title erases Orwell’s first name.  She was trained as a lawyer, but her repetitions are not persuasive and her arguments would be thrown out of court.

Eileen may be invisible to the deliberately blind Funder, but everyone else can see her quite clearly.  Funder discusses the six unnamed biographers of Orwell as if they were all alike, marching in a phalanx like the mice in Wallington and written by the same evil man.  All biographies are equal, but some are more equal than others.  The women in Orwell’s life are certainly not “wickedly erased” by a “nasty trick.”  Funder wrongly insists that these biographers all minimised the importance of Mabel Fierz, Orwell’s early patron, and reduced her to an “opinionated middle-aged woman.”  Au contraire, I interviewed Mabel’s son, discovered that she had also been Orwell’s lover, and described her as “maternal and flirtatious, sympathetic, attentive and supportive”.

My interest in writers’ wives goes back to my book Married to Genius (1977), about the marriages of nine modern authors, a subject that has been followed by Mary Kathleen Benet, Phyllis Rose, Katie Roiphe, Carmela Ciurara and others.  My biography, far from ignoring Eileen, discusses her background, character, marriage, difficult life in Wallington, dangers in Spain, living with Orwell’s tuberculosis, visit to Marrakech in Morocco, austere life in the London Blitz, wartime career, motherhood, illness and death.  Like most of his biographers, I include a close-up photo of Eileen and one with Orwell at the Aragon front.

Funder condemns at least six times the biographers’ use of the passive voice to obscure the importance of Eileen.  But in her prefatory note, repeated in the text, she also cunningly uses the forbidden passive: “In 2005 six letters”, from Eileen to her best friend, “were discovered.”  In a significant “erasure” of her own she does not say that Orwell’s great editor Peter Davison discovered them and published them in The Lost Orwell (2006) and George Orwell: A Life in Letters (2013).  These letters, published 17 years ago, have also been discussed in Sylvia Topp’s much better book Eileen: The Making of George Orwell (2020), to which Funder is heavily indebted, and in D. J. Taylor’s Orwell: The New Life (2023).  In any case, these letters, the basis and justification of Funder’s book, do not contain new revelations but merely confirm familiar material.  Funder also criticises the biographers for fobbing off the vital help of their wives with an inadequate acknowledgment.  But she does exactly the same thing: “Most of all I’m grateful to my husband.”

Funder maintains that she “always loved Orwell,” but her discussion of his work is feeble.  The Road to Wigan Pier is “wonderful.”  Coming Up For Air is “expiating some terrors,” which she does not define.  She treats Animal Farm, “an allegory about the Russian Revolution,” to a two-page summary suitable for schoolgirls.  Even worse are her astonishing howlers and ignorance of the most basic facts.  Orwell was born in India, but after years of study she thinks he was born in Burma.  It’s not true that “his family couldn’t afford to send him to university.”  Twenty-five years ago I quoted his Eton contemporary Christopher Hollis saying, “There is no doubt that Orwell could have gone to Oxford or Cambridge without costing his father a penny.”  Orwell was 6 feet, 2 inches, not six feet, four inches.  He served in the Burma Police, not in the colonial service.

Funder contradicts herself by stating that while working in the Hampstead bookstore he was free to write in the mornings and nights, and was also free in the afternoons.  She says “no one seems to know what Eileen means by ‘Dellian’.”  It refers to the Greek island of Delos where the famous oracle answered difficult questions.  She states that the climate on the Scottish island of Jura was “mild” and suitable for an invalid.  In fact, as Orwell said, “it rained all the time.”  The sea was icy, the winter was “bleak, dark and gloomy.”  He was far away from medical assistance, and if he had had another hemorrhage he would have been (to use his word) a “goner”.  Funder concocts a fantastic story about the death of Eileen’s beloved brother Lawrence, a doctor during the British retreat from Dunkirk.  According to Funder he was sitting in a café during a bombing raid, repeatedly refused to take shelter in the cellar and was killed when a bomb hit the café.  This suicidal and unheroic act would have prevented him from serving as a doctor.  In fact, in June 1940, while treating the wounded, Lawrence was killed when a piece of shrapnel pierced his chest.

After making all these embarrassing howlers and serious errors, missed by the editors, Funder glorifies their “phenomenal editorial brilliance, publishing wisdom and personal generosity”, their “dazzling intellectual insight and meticulous care.”  But she conned these female editors into publishing this derivative and fundamentally worthless book, as well as the reviewers who were completely unaware of her deceitful argument.  The anonymous Economist critic (August 12, 2023), for example, blindly agreed that Eileen was “erased” and “written out of his story.”  Sarah Bakewell in the New York Times (August 26, 2023) agreed that Orwell “erased” Eileen and “makes women disappear.”  Funder puffed her own book in the Times Literary Supplement (August 21, 2023) without any critical doubts from that journal’s editors.  No one today questions the fashionable theme of oppressed women.

Funder did not use Peter Davison’s superb 20-volume edition of Orwell’s Complete Works, which has 190 references and many pages on Eileen.  Instead, she foolishly praises as “magisterial” Sonia Orwell’s four-volume edition of Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1968).  Sonia, a model of mendacity, outrageously claimed “we have excluded much of the journalism and many letters. . . . There is nothing either concealed or spectacularly revealed in his letters. . . . There was so little that could be written about his life. . . . With these present volumes the picture is as complete as it can be.”

Eileen, the exact opposite of Sonia, had joined Orwell in Spain and visited him on the Aragon front.  Most dangerously, she went to see Orwell’s commander Georges Kopp in prison and helped Orwell escape from Barcelona.  She got no benefits from Orwell’s late success.  Sonia never visited Orwell’s sanatoria nor went to Jura.  Instead, she bought an expensive engagement ring and married him on his deathbed to get his money.  She was drinking with friends the night he died, and queened it up for the next three decades as his famous widow.

Funder’s most pernicious technique is to imagine a scene that “must have happened” and then use it to condemn Orwell.  In one of her inventions, when Eileen is cleaning their disgusting outdoor privy, Orwell appears and says, “Tea time, don’t you think?”  Funder says this means that Eileen should extract herself from the shit and make the tea for him.  But he surely would have been calling her to have the tea that he’d prepared.

Funder’s book, which does not have an index, is crudely compressed into four layers: Eileen’s six letters, previously used in four books by Davison, Topp and Taylor; her description of Orwell’s life, compiled from the six biographies about him; her own boring imaginary flurries or “counterfictions,” which undermine the facts of his life and attempt, as in Nineteen Eighty-Four, to rewrite history; and her self-serving accounts of her family, which interrupt the narrative.  Frustrated by her household and parental duties that blocked her career, Funder perversely adopts Eileen as her alter-ego, using George as her whipping boy.  She offers trivial details — “Eileen rolls back her sleeves and stretches her arms” — and thinks it’s worth quoting her own teenage daughter, who twice calls people “arseholes” as she “licks peanut butter off the knife.”  Funder doesn’t notice the unfortunate excremental connection.

Funder insists, without providing any evidence from Orwell’s manuscripts in his Archive in University College, London, that Eileen profoundly influenced Animal Farm.

The real female influence was his second wife Sonia, the model for Mollie, the vain white mare.  She quotes his friend Richard Rees noting that when Orwell returned from investigating the coal miners in Wigan, Lancashire, which he described in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), “There was an extraordinary change in his writing and, in a way, also in his attitude after he’d been in the North and written that book.  It was almost as if there had been a fire smouldering in him all his life which suddenly broke into flame.”  Eileen, the first adult he ever loved, gave him security and self-confidence, and improved his character.  She typed his manuscripts, corrected his typos, grammar and facts, but did not write his work.  She confessed that she sometimes didn’t understand his manuscripts and that he was “wary of her suggestions”.

They both described a fly-blown funeral in Marrakesh, where he was recuperating from a haemorrhage, but he used his superior version in his essay.  He wrote his best essay, “Shooting an Elephant”, three days after their marriage and well before her supposed influence could take effect.  Funder also speculates, then repeats as fact, that Orwell used Eileen’s poem “End of the Century, 1984” as the title of Nineteen Eighty-Four (with the numbers spelled out).  But she does not quote this poem, which Eileen would have been reluctant to show him, and there’s no evidence that he ever read it.  According to this kind of fallacious reasoning, Funder thinks Eileen’s nickname “Pig” inspired the oppressive beasts in Animal Farm.

Funder makes many cruel accusations, with an astonishing lack of facts and sympathy.  She states that Orwell once ate Eileen’s wartime food, without mentioning that he generously gave away his limited rations so that other people, whom he didn’t know, would have more to eat.  She states, “No biographer deals plainly with the possibility of Orwell’s homosexuality.” The obvious reason is that he was not queer.  She calls Orwell a “blind tyrant” and “sadist”, and even exclaims that Orwell wanted to drown his niece and nephew when they got caught in the perilous Corryvrecken whirlpool on Jura.  She does not explain why Orwell, who helped to save them, would possibly want to kill them.

Funder assaults Orwell most viciously by quoting a passage, which he did not publish, from his Notebook of 1949, written shortly before his death.  He criticises women’s “incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness & their terrible, devouring sexuality… In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making . . . the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.”  Funder, with no understanding of the context, ignores the possibility that Orwell may have written this about a fictional character in the third person: “his experience…her husband.”  He also deliberately exaggerated it—“more & more, & more & more”—like his provocative pronouncements: “All scoutmasters are homosexuals. . . . All tobacconists are fascists.”  When Eileen called her beloved brother one of “Nature’s fascists”, she didn’t mean it literally either.  Eileen, as Funder says about her on another occasion, “would have laughed, then made him justify the remark”.

Orwell’s exaggeration certainly does not apply to all women, whom he pursued, often without success, throughout his life.  He praised the beauty of Burmese and Moroccan women, and even admired a boyish young prostitute in Paris.  It surely does not apply to Eileen, who was often ill and not sexually voracious.  Most likely, it means that at the end of his life tuberculosis made him unable to sexually satisfy women.  He then criticised their sexual voracity, which he would have welcomed when he was well.

It’s important to explain, not justify, Orwell’s wartime affairs, severely condemned by Funder.  She doesn’t mention that Eileen’s vaginal hemorrhages (like those of T. S. Eliot’s wife Vivien) must have made their sex life difficult, painful and unpleasant, and led Orwell to look elsewhere for satisfaction.  It’s well known that during the London Blitz people who might die at any moment seized the chance of pleasure whenever they could find it.

After Eileen died, Orwell was eager to find a wife to take care of him and look after baby Richard.  He made several desperate and rather sad marriage proposals in which he, not the woman, was “disgusting”, and they were all rejected.  Orwell’s letters, though not as extreme as Franz Kafka’s, resembled those that Kafka wrote to Felice Bauer, begging her not to destroy herself by marrying him.  Like Orwell, Kafka confesses the worst about himself and tests her ability to endure him: “I should want to drag you down to the dreadful decrepitude that I represent.  In spite of everything do you want to take up the cross?  I am prostrate before you and implore you to push me aside: anything else means ruin for us both.”  Orwell’s main attraction was that he would soon be dead: “What I am really asking you is whether you would like to be the widow of a literary man.” And: “If you think of yourself as essentially a widow, then you might do worse—i.e. supposing I am not actually disgusting to you.”  Sonia later saw that he was a “goner” with only a few more months to live and eagerly accepted her posthumous role.

Some background: in 1970 Nancy Milford launched the sub-genre of biographies of writers’ wives by turning her doctoral dissertation into the successful Zelda.  Zelda’s beauty, wildness, ballet career, novel, insanity and fiery death made her a worthwhile subject, quite apart from her tumultuous marriage to Scott Fitzgerald.  In the next fifty years women published biographies of Hadley Hemingway, Nora Joyce, Frieda Lawrence, Vera Nabokov, Sonia Orwell, Sophia Tolstoy and Pauline Hemingway, among others.  Since Marcel Proust had no wife, they published books about his maid and his mother.  But of these, only Zelda and Frieda justified their own biographies, apart from their husbands, by their characters, lives and achievements.  (Erika Mann, actress and writer; Iris Barry, lover of Wyndham Lewis and film historian; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist and brilliant screenwriter; and Edna O’Brien, Irish novelist, also deserve biographies.)

Funder’s Two-Minutes-Hate, prolonged throughout her book, praises Eileen and condemns Orwell, and even deprives him of his well-earned reputation for decency.  She discourages people from reading his books, whose greatness she ignores, and puts a malign interpretation on his most innocent statements, often invented in her own warped Counterfictions.  Funder not only thinks she has the right to tell Orwell how to portray Eileen in his books, but also assumes a position of moral superiority.  But if her life, like Orwell’s, were examined in minute detail I doubt if she would seem perfect on every occasion.  The only admirable authors who could survive such scrutiny are Henry James, Anton Chekhov and Stephen Crane.  As Orwell wrote about Malcolm Muggeridge’s study of Samuel Butler, her book “gives a false impression to anyone who didn’t know his work already”.

The slogan “politically correct” was invented after the 1917 Russian Revolution to enforce strict adherence to Communist ideology, and was ruthlessly adopted by the Nazis in the early 1930s.  The censorious enemies of free speech now want to force all writers to be as conformist and boring as they are.  When jackals and hyenas attack lions and leopards, attempt to denigrate Kipling, Picasso, Lawrence and Hemingway, and to suppress anything that is bold and alive in art and literature, they degrade contemporary culture.  After spending the whole book trashing Orwell, Funder insists that she does not want to cancel him, which would be “a new kind of tyranny”, but that is exactly what she does in her hate-filled polemic.  In his elegy on Yeats, Auden adopted a more humane attitude and urged readers to pardon Kipling and Claudel, pardon them “for writing well”.

The standing of Orwell, who has sold millions of copies of his books, would not be hurt if gullible students and feminists swallowed Funder’s devious attack.  The real losers would be discouraged readers.  Funder ignores, as Peter Davison observes in The Lost Orwell, “how greatly valued Orwell still is throughout the world—and how essential to our outlook on the world.”  Our society broke through the puritanical restrictions of the 1950s and was liberated in the 1960s—“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”—but we’re now in danger of returning to the old repressive censorship.

Jeffrey Meyers has published A Reader’s Guide to George Orwell (1975), George Orwell: The Critical Heritage (1975), George Orwell: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism (1977), Orwell: Wintry Conscience of His Generation (2000) and Orwell: Life and Art (2010).


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 96%
  • Interesting points: 96%
  • Agree with arguments: 92%
39 ratings - view all

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