Why the story of George Orwell’s brilliant first wife Eileen Blair is important today

Eileen O’Shaughnessy married Orwell in 1936 and became Eileen Blair (George Orwell’s real name was, rather prosaically, Eric Blair). But she was virtually missing from Orwell’s own, often deeply personal, writing about his life. This was odd, Funder thought – especially since, as she dug deeper, she discovered a woman who was, according to seemingly everyone who knew her, a truly remarkable person.

Wifedom is the result of this digging. Eileen Blair was a woman who won a scholarship to and earned an English degree from the University of Oxford, at a time when women were barely admitted to higher education. (Orwell himself was not “recommended” by his school for university, and did not attend.)

A woman who published, in 1934, a dystopian poem called, significantly, End of the Century, 1984; who asked for the word “obey” to be removed from her wedding vows, and twice organised co-workers to stand up to bullying bosses in male-dominated workplaces. She was a woman who not only performed every skerrick of the domestic work in her life with Orwell, but also supported him financially for at least two years of their nine-year marriage; who saved one of his manuscripts from destruction in the Spanish Civil War, and was a crucial literary influence in his life. Eileen was the first reader – not to mention typist, rewriter, editor and political educator – of Orwell’s work. She was, Funder argues convincingly, especially important to the creation of Animal Farm and 1984.

How could Orwell have virtually erased her from accounts of his life? How could the man who wrote “in a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” have failed to tell the truth about his own wife? But equally unsettling was the fact that Eileen was also missing from almost all the biographical writing on Orwell.

While writing Wifedom, Funder began noticing this, not only in her own life, but also in those of her female friends: everyone colluding in the patriarchal aim of making female work invisible.

George Orwell, according to Funder, was a genuine truth-teller and defender of human decency. But he was also profoundly hypocritical: oblivious to both his wife’s achievements and her suffering, and monumentally blind to the sexism, even misogyny, of his behaviour towards women in general. When she was only 39, less than a year after they had adopted a baby boy, Eileen died during a hysterectomy, after years of ill-health. George Orwell’s response to her death was to “pounce on and propose to at least four women”, Funder claims, in the space of a few months.

All his advances were rejected, perhaps because the women knew, in Funder’s words, that the “previous incumbent died of overwork and neglect”. He did eventually remarry, an impressive woman called Sonia Brownell, three months before his own death of tuberculosis in 1950.

Source: 12ft | Why the story of George Orwell’s brilliant first wife Eileen Blair is important today

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