Each year Grattan selects its best books of the past 12 months as recommended reading for the Prime Minister and all Australians over the summer holidays. In this summer series, we discuss some of the works on the list with the people who wrote them.
In this special podcast, renowned Australian author Anna Funder discusses her literary non-fiction masterpiece, Wifedom, with Anika Stobart and Amy Haywood.
Read the full Prime Minister’s Summer Reading List.
Kat Clay: Each year Grattan selects its best books of the past 12 months as recommended reading for the Prime Minister and all Australians over the summer holidays. In this special summer series, we discuss some of the works on the list with the people who wrote them.
And today we are delighted to have author Anna Funder to discuss her book. Wifedom.
Anika Stobart: Anna Funder is one of Australia’s most renowned authors. She has written some of my favorite books, including Stasiland, which tells the tale of the secret police in East Germany and those who resisted them. This year, she published my personal favorite book of the year, Wifedom, Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life, which has made it onto Grattans in Grattan Institute’s Prime Minister’s summer reading list. My name is Anika Stobart, a Senior Associate at Grattan, and joining me is my colleague. Amy Haywood Deputy Program Director at Grattan. We are absolutely delighted to have Anna Funder herself join us today for an interview on her new book. Welcome Anna.
Anna Funder: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be with you at the Grattan.
Anika Stobart: So your new book tells the tale of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, George Orwell’s first wife, whose story has largely gone undocumented despite playing such a pivotal role in Orwell’s life. The six biographies on Orwell to date, barely mention her, and Orwell himself refers to her very little in his own work. You write, decided to go into the black box and get her out. You do this by piecing together what information there is drawing on letters that Eileen wrote to her best friend, and to Orwell, notebooks and writings by others. You fill in the gaps with your own pen, oscillating between fact and fiction, to uncover a fascinating and intelligent woman. For example, Eileen joined Orwell in the Spanish Civil War, financially supported the couple, while living in London for a time, relentlessly typed up his work, cared for him in illness, and even influenced the form of his iconic book Animal Farm. What I love so much about this book, and there are many things I love, how you use the story of Eileen as a powerful case study of the hidden lives of wives whose contributions are often downplayed or entirely disregarded. Weaving in your own personal experiences of what you call the phenomenon of wifedom. This book is so well written, incredibly poetic and insightful. It is a joy to read for that alone, it also touches on many interesting themes, including what it is to be a writer and what it means to write. Whether we should separate the artist from the art, it means to be a woman and a wife, how history is recorded and whether we can ever truly know someone to name just a few. To kick off, there are many, uh, people listening to this podcast who haven’t read the book. So could you tell us what inspired you to write it?
Anna Funder: So I really was quite a fan of Orwell’s. I’ve read a lot of, narrative nonfiction and personal nonfiction. Orwell, I guess the beginning. But then I was very influenced by Bruce Chapman and Richard Kaczynski, before, you know, many decades ago, before I wrote Stasiland. I really like the idea of using your own life and experiences. Essentially as a tool to look out from and being very explicit about that point of view. takes a kind of, awareness of synecdoche. You I do this in Stasiland and I thought Orwell was doing it in a lot of what he does. It also takes a kind of radical honesty to do that. You’re trusting that the reader knows that you are telling part of the story, but it’s a part that’s true of your own and it reflects then something bigger in the world. I started reading Orwell or rereading Orwell some time ago, and I on a kind of crazy Orwell reading jag, I read Animal Farm and 1984, and then I read his collected essays, journalism and letters. And they were such a joy because they were, that was a kind of, way of looking at him, create his writing self through time. So you see him developing this persona of the decent, slightly cranky, underdog, every man who’s very funny and fearless and acute. After that, I sort of kept going ’cause I’m always, as my children say, taking things too far and I read six biographies of Orwell, I loved. And then after that I kept reading and I came across six letters written by Eileen O’Shaughnessy, his first wife to her best friend from their time at Oxford together reading English in the early 1920s. That was a time when women had only been able to take degrees at all from Oxford, for the last four years. In fact, not at Cambridge, I think till the late forties or something crazy. So they were part of an early guide of extremely clever women And Eileen had been dux of her school and got a scholarship to study at Oxford and to live at St. Hughes. The first of these letters is written six months after Eileen married Orwell, and she and he have been living in a tiny, decrepit cottage a village called Wallington. 50 miles outside of London have got no electricity. One cold tap, outdoor loo, rats in the attic and so on, and she’s up for all of that. She’s someone who didn’t really care about material comfort, although I think she didn’t quite realize that she would be the one making what material comfort there would be to have. She came from a family kind of much better off than Orwell’s and so she was really having a down and out adventure, I think with him. But she writes to her best friend six months after the wedding. Her best friend’s name is Nora and she lives in Bristol. Eileen writes to her dear, this is actually the opening scene of Wifedom using the real letter. She says, dear Nora, I’m sorry it’s taken me six months to write to you, but we have quarrelled so continuously and really bitterly since the wedding that I thought I’d just write one letter to everyone once the murder or separation was accomplished. And I read that I just goosebumps.
It was like my blood kind of stopped and reversed its course, and I just thought, who is this woman? You are so funny so hilarious. what have you been fighting about as you get used to this new state of Wifedom? You know, give me three guesses, and why do you want to kill him? Even in jest? And I went back to the biographies and I looked at them and I opened them up to the newlywed days. And I read things of variations on a theme of, the newlywed days were the happiest for Orwell that he had ever been and would ever be, conditions were idyllic for him. And I just thought, well, there we have the passive voice. Erasing the work and the woman who made those conditions for the woman and her work. So I, that’s when I really started the deep dive into finding out who she was and. Not only just who she was and what she did and what her contribution was to his life and to his work, but also I was very interested in these mechanisms by which the work and lives of women are erased and foremost among is this use of the passive voice so conditions have no creator.
Amy Haywood: It’s an extraordinary feat of a book. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it took six years to write, which is a lot of plus years. you can tell when you look through it just how much material you had to wade through.
There’s the biographies, George Orwell’s work, um, Eileen’s letters, et cetera, and then a lot of research that you also did. How did you, what was the process of writing and bringing all of that together?
Anna Funder: Every time I talk about it, when I talk about a process, it feels like you know, I’m making retrospective sense of something that, for which there was no roadmap at the time. Every book really for me is invention of a form which will best carry the kinds of truths I want to tell. And the first choice of that is whether it’s going to be fiction or non-fiction. So Stasiland is non-fiction, it wouldn’t have been right to appropriate those stories. weren’t being told at the time of people who resisted the DDI dictatorship and used them for my own devices. Really in, in fiction, all that I am, everyone was dead, so I needed to bring them back to life.
But that’s a novel that has footnotes, you know, so you can and see. What the real people in that did and said, and how that’s represented in the book. This one is, it’s not actually a mi, I mean it is physically a mixture of the both, but they’re not mixed. So the non-fiction parts are set out quite differently in the book from the fiction parts. When I’m talking about process, it looks like I knew what I was doing, but I’m only making sense of that in retrospect. So I can only tell you what my thinking was at the time and what I was trying to do, I think I thought. If I’m going to make a vivid portrait of Eileen using her own letters, I can write scenes where I know, for instance, that first letter she’s at staying with Orwell’s parents at her new in-laws for the first time what she describes as a very small house furnished almost entirely with portraits of ancestors. Once I had permission to use those letters, I could write these scenes where I’m in her head because I. I did so much reading that I felt to write off what she was not telling her friend. So first letter, she’s not telling Nora that Orwell’s about to leave her and go to Spain to fight fascists in the Civil War.
It’s interesting, what we don’t tell our closest friends too is that because she thinks Nora. will try and intervene or will look askance at this man who’s leaving his wife after six months of marriage. Or is it because Eileen in fact wants to go too and she doesn’t want to have to say that to her friend. So I could write scenes in which Eileen writes these six letters and the six letters span perfectly this marriage that lasted nine years or so. But I really wanted to show these very sly methods. That are used in the biographies I suppose the biographical way of thinking. These seven men, one of the biographies is written by, two men together. The way in which women are described, left out reduced to footnotes, doubted. Vilified or passive voiced away were very interesting to me. And I think I taught, I took those biographies and those methods really as a way of looking at the world in which women are reduced to. Somehow a minority bizarrely and numerically impossible. Or, lesser or other, or a particular case or invisible, and especially the work of women, what we call, so kind of dismissively the domestic sphere. So the nonfiction part of the book needed to do that. Taking those techniques of. omission. I really, I came to think of the biographies as fictions of omission in a way. If you leave out the mother, the wife, the girlfriends, the patrons, the mentors, the wife, the intellectual kind of, and spiritual guides that this man had, you create a very false portrait of a man who appears to have done most things alone, to be sort of self-made, self-taught. Self fed, self loved and so on. and then I wanted her to live again. So that’s why we’ve got these fiction scenes, which are set in. So, you know, every time you’re going into the, the fiction it’s fiction, but also that the words of her letters are the words of her real letters. So it was huge, A huge undertaking. It was really like writing three books. And you know, one is a novel, one is a personal essay about Wifedom, and is a deep dive analysis of patriarchy using the biographies as the examples of methods of omission. So all of that makes it sound kind of more complicated than I hope it reads. it’s to do with wanting to represent different kinds of truths. one is an emotional truth of what it, I imagine Eileen to have felt in the circumstances of that marriage doing all the work that she did. And the other is an account of why and how these methods of sidelining women are still in play today. You know, we, I didn’t want this to be an analysis of a particular or extreme marriage of 80 years ago, which it also is, but I wanted the book to speak to that are still in play today.
Anika Stobart: I think that’s a, yeah, really interesting way to put it ’cause as a reader it’s, you kind of like going on this journey, dipping in and out of like the past, the, you know, coming back to the present and, know, seeing, characters from different points of view. And it just raises so many interesting questions as a reader. I guess just to dive a bit further into that, into the process is like, how did your understanding of Eileen evolve as you did your research and did your reading, like how were you able to get inside her head and like piece her together as a, a few, a full human. And you think, how well do you think you got to know her in that process?
Anna Funder: I feel like I have a pretty, pretty clear picture of her. had a lot of very interesting friends. So when she met Orwell, she was studying for a master’s in psychology at UCL as I suppose we call a a, a mature age student. She was in her late twenties. So the friends that she made there went on to be, so Lydia, her friend who was Russian Lived in England. Went on to be a translator of Chekhov and, psychologist and psychotherapist. When she worked during the war to support them both. She worked initially at the Department of Censorship in the Ministry of Information. Very Orwellian and useful job to have. Indeed Orwell set, the Ministry of Truth in her building in Senate House where she had worked. After that, she had a job in the Ministry of Food, and as you know, her colleague, there was a very clever woman, a bit her senior who’d also, been at Oxford, called So wonderfully you couldn’t put this in a novel, but. For someone who works at the Ministry of Food, her name was Lettuce Cooper. She was a novelist and she put Eileen in a novel and she also wrote an essay about Eileen. Lydia wrote about her in her memoir, and she also wrote an essay about Eileen. So she had these friends who looked at her very closely with enormous affection and admiration and who wrote portraits of her. And Lettuce’s portrait is perhaps the one that meant the most to me and was a very important in my imagining of Eileen, where she said, you know, when we, we first met Eileen, this is at the Ministry of Food, we thought she was affected because. We would say something to her, and she took so long to respond to us. We just couldn’t understand why. And eventually we realized it was because she was listening so closely to us. She was somebody who, looked through people she never looked at the outside of them. What she saw Lettuce said was their feelings as if their outsides were glass. So Eileen is such a good listener that people love her, and then she takes the time. As letter said, to see things with all of their myriad connections and then to respond to somebody from their own point of view, that’s a reasonably rare thing, although we, you know, it’s the basis of empathy and it’s the basis of love and all kinds of things. But She’s also unbelievably funny. So she had a very clear-eyed view of Orwell and she said things about him like, writing to a friend, George has a remarkable political simplicity. That was too much for one of the biographers, sir Bernard Quick, who ch simply changed Eileen’s words. So if you read his biography, he has her say that George has a remarkable political sympathy. I must say. It’s not often that they actually literally change. A woman’s words.
But anyway, so Eileen was very funny. She used to, she didn’t care anything about clothes. She was kind of quite tall, thin, pretty mussed up hair, good quality, but apparently unbrushed suits. So outward things didn’t matter to her. She was an extremely good cook in the war, in the blitz, she was unafraid of bo, both of them unafraid of bombs used to go up on the roof and watch them, and she, they couldn’t afford to heat their flat.
So this Orwell’s nephew left this very vivid image of her cooking rolling pastry in the kitchen. in a black overcoat ’cause chains smoking that she and Orwell were both shocking chainsmokers. And talking all the time to people and she’d be rolling and if a bit of ash fell into the pastry, she’d just roll it on and keep talking. So she’s very interested in ideas and people, and happens to be a good cook despite the ash.
Anika Stobart: Yeah, Eileen comes across as such a complex character. So as you say, very witty, very intelligent, resilient. at other times she also seems so unsure of herself and her worth. I was particularly saddened by Eileen’s letter to George Orwell where she appears to not feel worthy enough for a more expensive and safer hysterectomy surgery. She writes what worries me is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money. Do you think she is a figure to be pitied, admired, or something else?
Anna Funder: I’m very wary of treating her as a victim in any way or in any way that would be outside the norm in general women in patriarchy, more than, than now. this still applies. So self-deprecation and self-effacement are perhaps particularly British virtues, they are also very strongly, attributes valued in women. And as I write at one point, you know, eventually self-effacement realizes itself and it looks like a crime. It looks like a crime against the self. So when she says, I really don’t think I’m worth the money. That is a heart-rending for someone who never foregrounded her own needs. to say so clearly she has been reduced by her situation, her husband, to this point where she’s been earning the money to keep them. She comes from a family with much more money than his, but she has been reduced to the situation where she has to ask his permission to spend the money. And has arranged all of his healthcare, which was rolled gold standard because her brother was a lung TB specialist and lung and thoracic surgeon. And yet, and yet, and yet we’re in this situation. I think it’s, you know, that is the really very tragic midpoint of, this book. But it’s something that’s not, it doesn’t strike me as, particularly out the ordinary, and I guess that’s also shocking.
Amy Haywood: I find it really interesting to compare the two, ’cause obviously you’ve gone in looking at Eileen, but this is also a book that’s a portrayal of George Orwell too. You know, he’s somebody who obsesses about being decent, but then also behaves very badly towards women, and particularly his wife.
On the same side, you know, in your book you are arguing for a separation between the man and what he’s done and his work. And I found that really interesting, Anna, from your perspective as an author yourself. And there’s, there was this one passage that really stuck out with me, and I’ll read a little bit of it where you talk about just being in the signing line, and as an author and you can see that other people are looking at you, expecting you to be the person from your own books.
then I suppose. Drawing a line that that’s not always the case. and you write, I’ve got it here. none of us is who we think we are. None of us may be decent. 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. It’s a very tight rope to walk in terms of revealing the man, but also then making sure not to cancel the man. and I wanted to, I was so curious what you think of Orwell now and if, how you feel about his books.
Anna Funder: Well, I think the books of particularly Animal Farm, which, has Eileen’s influence and voice, and genius all over it. For reasons that go into the, into, in, in the book. And it’s a total outlier in all of his work because of that and which he considered to be his best work. And many people agree that was the work of, of two of them. and 1984 is also important. He wrote that alone they’re very important. So the one is a, a kind of analysis of Stalinism and left-wing tyranny and in general, uh, and how power works. And the other,an analysis of the kind of geopolitics of totalitarianism or authoritarianism and blanket surveillance in a surveillance state.
So we live, as you would know very well from work at the Grattan in an age of rising authoritarianism and blanket surveillance you know, we have what Orwell would’ve recognized as a telescreen in our pockets at all times. You know, facial recognition on the streets and so on. So the work is really important. none of us have to live with the man, she did. So that’s revealing. I’m against canceling of just about any kind, although you know, it’s a word that’s bandied about. I don’t, I don’t think that that’s a useful thing to do in a culture. I think it leads down some very dangerous paths. The part that you read, I’m, what I think happens and it happens to me as well, or this is what I was trying to describe. It applies also to actors or comedians or directors or painters. You see a work. We, we, we want difficult, sometimes painful. We look at the what’s on television, you know, often violent things be delivered up to us in a form that is. also has delight in it or some kind of thrill and the safety of being between book covers or in a frame or on a screen. and if we’re moved by that we love it in some way, then that love for the work is then projected onto the act of the comedian, the director, the writer. But that is something that the reader or the viewer is responsible for. So projecting their own love for the work onto the flawed being who made it. it seems to me unfair, speaking as a flawed human being and an artist to, want the person, I mean, I understand it. I want this too, but to want that person to somehow be, Worthy of the love that you have projected onto the artwork because the things are different. But they’re connected in very interesting and important ways. And I think what happens in history, so the image that Orwell wanted to project of himself, the image that, uh, know, the Orwell society today, or, the biographers, although the biographers are well aware of everything that I write about, even if they downplay it or put it in footnotes because that’s where I got a lot of my information from. so Orwell, the biographers, the society and so on, want fictional version of Orwell, an airbrushed version of Orwell to exist as a, love object worthy of our love who does not have the qualities which are in fact necessary. For the artist or creator of a book, for instance, like 1984, 1984, which we give to ki my two of my kids have been finished school and they did it in their final years of school and so on a book which has quite early on Winston, fantasizing about raping a woman and slitting her throat at the moment of climax.
There are several scenes like that which are quite shocking, but. We forget them. We, we, we kind of just read on and forget them. It’s a book that’s paranoid by definition, and it’s sadistic with all of the rats and the violence. It’s grim. You know, his publisher, Fred Warburg, thought it was unbelievably sadistic and grim. and said, I hope I never read another book like it, but I’m sure it’s gonna be a best seller. So he’s, he is quite aware of this dichotomy. So to expect somebody who is a decent hail fellow, well met kind of every man, underdog, ordinary person to pull from himself or herself, a vision as sadistic, misogynistic, paranoid, and violent as 1984 is something that is Is unrealistic, and that’s where I think people get stuck. You know, we get stuck wanting the artist to be the kind of person who almost by definition could not have written a work as powerful and complex as he did.
Amy Haywood: You know, obviously the book’s focus is looking back at the past, but having that reference point of yourself and your experiences in the present day, and I suppose I also found there’s the, there’s a bit of a glimmer in looking to the future as well. Um,in some of the interactions.
There’s a couple that I loved where you’re talking to your children. Um, and there’s one, one very, very early on where you’re, you’re talking to your teenage daughter. I think. You come back in the house and you’ve decided you wanna look into Orwell, you have this lovely repartee where, you’re describing, you say, my daughter puts the knife down, takes a spoon from the drawer, and plunges that into the peanut butter jar.
Orwell must have known at some level that he was an asshole. She says. Which is why he was interested in this question. She looks at me squarely, a cautious smile, playing about her shiny lips. Why are you interested in this? Mum? I laugh again, taken aback at the insight into Orwell, into me. Maybe I’m an asshole, I say, I’ve never said anything like this to her before. She doesn’t miss a beat. Isn’t everybody?
Anna Funder: I know.
Amy Haywood: I love that bit, but it really made me think, you know, there’s this window into the past, there’s your experience in the present, but there’s also a look forward into the future. And so I was really curious, just, what would you hope, you know, your daughter would take from this book, and what’s the world that you think she’s growing up into?
Anna Funder: I have two daughters and a son and, I started this book in the beginning, sort of started reading around in the beginning of 2017. So that’s the beginning of Me Too and Although it’s not possible to say whether anything from Me Too will play out, legally, so that there are easier and better avenues for women to complain within organizations, corporations, about sexual assault, we don’t know about that.
Whether the rape statistics will, go from abysmal to better, whether women will feel more empowered. All of these things remain to be seen, but I felt that, me too was probably that one of the most extraordinary things that has happened in my lifetime. Sexual harassment in my case, you know, young lawyers or, people at university or whatever it was rampant, ubiquitous, uh, silent. It’s what Kate Mann calls in her brilliant book Down Girl. This is to paraphrase her wildly, but it’s the frontline assault. It’s like the infantry assault of patriarchy because it keeps women frightened, ashamed, and silent to be harassed in workplaces like that. And so you’re not gonna go for a job against somebody who’s done something like that to you. I felt that Me Too might really change that. And I think for my children and the Chanel Contos revelations here in, Australia and so on. Of what’s going on with really young people in schools. I think that that’s given me enormous hope because the language around, everything from mansplaining to sexual assault has really changed and young people feel, Not ashamed to talk about those things organizations have had to respond. Schools, hopefully churches, companies and so on. So I feel very hopeful about it and I was aware all the time writing this, that as I am with my, and I write about this in a book, you know, I don’t, I don’t want my kids to. Feel that the world is a bad place where all of these things can happen to you.
You know, they’re young and they’re hopeful, and the world is an extraordinary and wonderful place to be. But, other people, maybe not my kids, I, I want this book to function like an inoculation or like an intervention. You know, let’s have a look at. This deep dive into the mechanics at the linguistic level and the practical level and the social level of how patriarchy works. And so that if you can see it, you can say it. And if you can do that, you can stop it. So guess that’s where my, my interest is.
Amy Haywood: And I can see that, you know, that interest in language, it makes sense as an author. I used to be an English teacher. I did actually teach Stasiland once upon a time. And, just being able to see how you’ve looked at those biographies is really fascinating. And then seeing there’s a big language shift in terms of how we talk about things now.
So that’s fantastic.
Anna Funder: Yeah, yeah, there is. So, you know, the biographers can get, language is so important the biographers can get away with doing You know, changing quotes or sticking things in or whatever. But they can also get away with saying, with interpreting things in this bizarre way. So Eileen goes to Spain, gets a big job in the headquarters of the. ILP, the party Orwell’s fighting for. She saves his life once, probably twice. she’s in propaganda supply communication. She knows everything that’s going on. He has very little idea ’cause he’s off in a trench and yet one of the biographers DJ Taylor can write, well, she went to the Spanish, she, she went to the war. She wasn’t particularly political, forgive me the paraphrase now, but, she went to, work as a volunteer in the office and to find cigars, chocolate and margarine and other treats to send to Orwell at the front when she could full stop, end of story. So the sort of incuriosity seemed almost deliberate.
If you have someone working at the head office of the party that Orwell is fighting for, wouldn’t you go and find out more?
Amy Haywood: Well, we are very glad that you do have that curiosity and you did go to find out more. And as people who spend their time looking at research and putting together charts, we’re very glad that you followed the footnotes in those biographies. we wanna say theory. Very big thank you for taking the time to chat to us, but also for writing this book that we have so enjoyed and we know a lot of Grattan supporters will enjoy as well.
Grattan puts out every year a summer reading list of the best books that we recommend that the Prime Minister should read. And if people who are listening want to, uh, what the other books are other than Wifedom, please go to our website, which is grattan.edu.au.
And if you’d like to support us that way, you can also donate there as well. Happy Summer reading to everyone who’s listening, including the Prime Minister and thank you very much, Anna.
Anna Funder: Thank you so much. Such a treat. I love the work of the Grattan and it’s really an honor to be on your show. Thanks
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