Genius writer, cruel husband: why we can never look at George Orwell the same way again

The afterlife of Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, the “wintry conscience” of his century, is almost as remarkable as our obsession with his masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Seventy-something years since his premature death in 1950, there have been several major biographies and “Orwellian” denotes an attitude to life, while Orwell himself has matured into a figure of myth whose dystopian vision still reverberates with prophetic urgency. The writer himself, however, eluding closer scrutiny, remains weird, mysterious and aloof, sequestered like a secular saint within the hairshirt of his rhetoric. “Newspeak”, “Doublethink” and “Big Brother” are now inseparable from the English language. Such is the biographical north-face Anna Funder addresses in Wifedom.

The acclaimed author of Stasiland is a 21st-century writer for whom Orwell’s crystal spirit makes him a much-loved mentor. In 2017, at a crossroads of “peak overload”, arranging everything from school uniforms to orthodontic appointments to a relative’s hospital care, Funder re-read his essay “Why I Write”, and felt it speaking to her distress. One passage, in particular, expressed a thrilling self-doubt that resonated like a summons. Writing, he’d observed, creates a private world where “I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life”.

Orwell could save her, Funder decided. She would “look under the motherload of wifedom”, and use him to liberate herself from “the smelly little orthodoxies” of her situation. It was then, as an overburdened wife, that Funder began to analyse the troubling, sad story of the first Mrs Orwell, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the shadowy figure who signed herself “Pig”. Eileen has long been in the silky shadow of Sonia Brownell, Orwell’s ambitious second wife, who later became Lucien Freud’s lover, attracting disproportionate literary attention. This may now change.

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