Book Review: ‘Orwell,’ by D.J. Taylor, and ‘Wifedom,’ by Anna Funder

by Joe Holman
Book Review: ‘Orwell,’ by D.J. Taylor, and ‘Wifedom,’ by Anna Funder

Their honeymoon was rocky; Eileen joked to Norah that the marriage might soon end in “murder or separation.” But they survived. When Orwell signed up to fight fascists in Spain in 1936, Eileen went too. Funder pieces together the extensive, often dangerous work she did there — managing supplies and communications for the cause, procuring visas and hiding passports so they could leave safely. Yet you would never know that from Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.” He mentions her 37 times, but only as “my wife,” and he makes it sound as though she did little more than sit in a Barcelona hotel room.

Similar obscurity covers the work Eileen did in the Second World War: Initially, she was the couple’s main earner, working first in the (very “Orwellian”) Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information, and then for the Ministry of Food. Orwell could not join up to fight, because of his deteriorating health. In fact, Eileen was also seriously ill. After suffering a series of hemorrhages, she was diagnosed with uterine tumors. Two doctors advised a hysterectomy; one thought she should wait for a transfusion to restore her blood levels first, while the other thought it better to operate immediately.

Eileen wrote a long, anguished letter to her husband, now away as a war correspondent in France. The letter is filled with her doubts, not so much about the operation itself as about the expense; she wishes she could have sought Orwell’s advice before spending “his” funds. She adds, “What worries me is that I really don’t think I’m worth the money.” This may be intended as a wry joke, but it is a revealing one. Taylor calls it “a terrible moment,” while Funder sees the whole 4,000-word outpouring as “the most terrifying letter.” It was not forwarded to Orwell promptly, so he knew nothing of what ensued, which was that Eileen took a bus, alone, to the hospital, to have the operation recommended by the second doctor. She died on the operating table.

Shocked, Orwell threw himself chaotically into trying to find a replacement. Over a short period, he asked four women to marry him, including Sonia Brownell. She turned him down the first time, but accepted his late-stage second try. Taylor wonders why, and is left with the quasi explanation Brownell herself once gave to a friend: “I don’t know. … I felt sorry for him.”

Both women remain a little enigmatic in Taylor’s narrative. For Funder, this is not enough; biographers are too willing to leave women as figures of mystery. Instead, she squeezes every drop from the sources, to make Eileen real. She does the same with other women in the story, notably Orwell’s vigorous “Aunt Nellie” Limouzin, a socialist and feminist who popped up throughout his life to help him with accommodation, jobs and literary contacts.

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