Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life

Anna Funder

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life
Penguin Books Australia
4 July 2023

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life

Anna Funder

Looking for wonder and some reprieve from the everyday, Anna Funder slips into the pages of her hero George Orwell. As she watches him create his writing self, she tries to remember her own...

When she uncovers his forgotten wife, it's a revelation. Eileen O'Shaughnessy's literary brilliance shaped Orwell's work and her practical nous saved his life. But why - and how - was she written out of the story?

Using newly discovered letters from Eileen to her best friend, Funder recreates the Orwells' marriage, through the Spanish Civil War and WW II in London. As she rolls up the screen concealing Orwell's private life she is led to question what it takes to be a writer - and what it is to be a wife.

Compelling and utterly original, Wifedom speaks to the unsung work of women everywhere today, while offering a breathtakingly intimate view of one of the most important literary marriages of the 20th century. It is a book that speaks to our present moment as much as it illuminates the past.

'So, she will live writing the letters she did - six to her best friend, and three to her husband. I know where she was when she wrote them. I know that the dishes were frozen in the sink, that she was bleeding, that he was in bed with another woman - and she knew 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 knee.'


Anna Funder’s new masterpiece, Wifedom, is the story of the invisible life of George Orwell’s wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy. It is a brilliant work of counter-fiction that uses letters written by O’Shaughnessy during her marriage to Orwell, the many biographies written about Orwell, the only biography of O’Shaughnessy, and Orwell’s essays to piece together their marriage and her life. What we get is the story of a woman who has been all but erased from the story of Orwell’s success, despite her invaluable presence and contribution to his life and his writing.

If you weren’t aware of how involved she was in his success, you’re not alone. She has ‘often [been] obscured or rewritten to remove her key and vital involvement’ thus ‘allowing Orwell to become the writer that he is revered to be’. Wifedom brings O’Shaughnessy into the spotlight and reclaims her life as an individual who deserves to have her intellect and sacrifices recognised. Orwell would not have been able to be the writer that he was had it not been for O’Shaughnessy, and it is so important that this story is brought into the open.

Interspersed throughout Wifedom are reflections from Funder, inviting us into her own world and the challenges she has faced in maintaining her own identity as a writer while being a wife and a mother. Funder had initially intended to use Orwell’s writing to help her become ‘visible to [herself]’ again. However, it soon became apparent that his opinion of and approach towards women was that ‘he [saw] women – in terms of what they do for him’. This caused Funder to re-evaluate and ultimately change her approach, instead focusing on the life of his wife. And what a story it is.

As a fan of Funder’s previous books, Wifedom did not disappoint. I have no doubt that I will be recommending and re-reading this book in the years to come.

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