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Anna Funder has a habit of writing about humans in extremis: under the Stasi, then the Nazis, and now, she's taken on the patriarchy in her new book Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life.

Anna Funder is Her Own Wife

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Anna Funder has a habit of writing about humans in extremis: under the Stasi, then the Nazis, and now, she's taken on the patriarchy in her new book Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. It's an act of resurrection for Eileen O'Shaughnessy, the brilliant woman who married George Orwell, contributed to his work and was erased from his story.


Reading list:

Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life, Anna Funder, 2023

All That I Am, Anna Funder, 2011

Stasiland, Anna Funder, 2003


Burmese Days, George Orwell, 1934

Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945

1984, George Orwell, 1949


Anam, André Dao, 2023

Restless Dolly Maunder, Kate Grenville, 2023


Socials: Stay in touch with Read This on Instagram and Twitter

Guest: Anna Funder

Read Transcript

TITLE: Anna Funder is Her Own Wife

DESCRIPTION: Anna Funder has a habit of writing about humans in extremis: under the Stasi, then the Nazis, and now, she's taken on the patriarchy in her new book Wifedom: Mrs Orwell's Invisible Life. It's an act of resurrection for Eileen O'Shaughnessy, the brilliant woman who married George Orwell, contributed to his work and was erased from his story. 





ANNA: I've been wanting to look really closely at what it is to be human and to do that I've looked at humans in various kinds of extremis – first under, you know, Stalinism and then the Nazis and now patriarchy, as my husband says, he says to me, ‘First you take on the Stasi, then the Nazis, now patriarchy’, he said, ‘Are you done?” I’m like, ‘Nahh, I dunno, maybe?’

MICHAEL: Late capitalism next, bring it down.

ANNA: I’ll be done when it’s over, you now?

MICHAEL: When there’s no more tyranny.

ANNA: When it’s fixed.


Anna Funder’s Stasiland is a modern classic. It won the prestigious Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, and has – in the 20 years since its publication – gone on to be a bestseller, published in 28 countries in many editions and languages, adapted for radio and stage and taught widely.


Her followup, the novel All That I Am, won the Miles Franklin Award.


Anna is an author who writes into the spaces of what accepted history tells us. And she’s done it again with her third book Wifedom, which is out now.   


It tells the story of Eileen O'Shaughnessy – an extraordinary woman of significant historical and cultural impact whose story has been largely untold. She was George Orwell’s wife, but, if you read any of Orwell’s writing – or any one of the six major biographies written about him – she barely rates a mention. Only when you know she is there are you able to see the outlines of her at all. 




From Schwartz Media, I’m Michael Williams with Read This – a show about the books we love and the stories behind them.



MICHAEL: Anna Funder, kick us off by telling us your memory of when you first read George Orwell. 


ANNA: I think I read Animal Farm at school. Probably also in 1984 at that time. And I think it was very formative for me to see someone who could make really important political statements into an art form. 


MICHAEL: The kind of relationship between his fiction and non-fiction I think is really interesting with Orwell and his journalism, as distinct from his kind of other essays. You're a writer who’s…ever since the start of your career played with those lines between non-fiction and fiction, thought about how to tell a story whose story it is to tell. How influential has Orwell been on your own work before this point? 


ANNA: You know, that's such a good question because it looks as if he might have been very influential, but actually he wasn't. I mean, apart from, you know, loving him and reading him. But I hadn't read the essays and I hadn't read…I think I'd read why I write, which is very, very beautiful, but nothing much else until I came to be looking at it for this book. And when I was writing Stasiland, I deliberately didn't read 1984. And then when Stasiland was done, I did read it and I thought, Oh my Lord, it's so prescient. You know, it reads like a manual for what those old men running the Stasi regime were doing. And in fact, some of those old Stasi men had told me that Orwell was contraband in the GDR and that Erich Mielke, who was Big Brother, he was in room 101. He called his office room 101 like room 101 in 1984. He had a copy of it that he kept in some sort of locked trunk or something. So they were using 1984 as a kind of inverted manual and I looked at 1984 with astonishment and a weird kind of pleasure in seeing somebody who had such foresight, you know, to look at that regime that way or that precursor regime that way.


MICHAEL: I'm fascinated by your choice, though, to avoid it then, you know, recognising that it was a shadow cast over your subject matter. What's the relationship for you between the idea and the form in which you tell that idea? And has it been consistent across your books, or is that something that evolves each time?


ANNA: Each book when I look back, it has been an attempt to honour the people in it, and so the subject matter. So when I started to write Stasiland, I was in Germany and I was finding these unbelievable stories of so-called ordinary people who had resisted that regime. A school girl who tried to climb the Berlin Wall or a housewife who said, I will not inform, even if you don't give me access to my sick baby on the other side of the wall. So I was finding these stories of extraordinary human courage where people basically said, I don't care what you do to me. I'm actually not going to betray everyone. The first story I found was Miriam's, who was going to go over the wall when she was 16, and I thought, ‘Fantastic.’ I came back from Leipzig on the train. I said to my flatmates in Berlin, I've got the story, I've got the book. It's all great. They looked at me very sceptically and said, ‘This is your first story. What do you think you're doing?’ And I said, ‘No, I can make a novel out of this.’ And then I tried to and it was so awful. My first attempt, as well as the aesthetic problems, it had moral problems with it. And I think that there were other things that were bothering me. It was not my role or task to be making fiction out of the life of someone who was walking around Leipzig with her story untold and with no justice done in any other sense either. So I realised that I was going to have to do that book in non-fiction. With All That I Am, everybody was dead. So I was…I felt freer in a way to bring them back to life. I felt that was the only way to make them real and live again was to make it a novel. But it's a novel with footnotes. So you can sort of see the fragments of dinosaur feather and bone, you know, that I found out of which I made this homage to them, which is in the form of a novel.




ANNA: With Wifedom, it was really, really hard. And I'm just in my postpartum recovery mode right now. But I read Orwell's work and then I read the journalism and letters. I was completely sort of bewitched and enthralled by that. And then I read the six biographies in which it's very hard to find reference to his wife. But when you do, you think, ‘Oh, right. So actually, it took two people to make this amount of work. And I wonder what that was like for her.’ And then I came across these five letters or six actually, from his first wife, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, to her best friend from Oxford days, Nora. And they were published in a sort of add-on addition to the collected works when they were found in 2005. And the first of those letters, this woman, Elaine, writes to her best friend. It's November – she married Orwell in June – and she writes to Nora. ‘Dear Nora, I'm really sorry it's taken me so long to write to you, but we have quarrelled so continuously, so bitterly since the wedding day that I thought I'd just write one letter to everyone once the murder or separation was accomplished.’ And I read that, and I have to say that was the moment. That was when I was totally gone for all money. I thought, ‘Who is this person? Why did she  want to kill him? What were those marital negotiations that were going on between this brilliant Oxford educated woman and Orwell?’


The biographers say, ‘The first months of his marriage were idyllic for him. Conditions were fantastic. He produced all of this work. He'd never been happier. And he got to enjoy the company of Eileen.’ And then you see that for the person who was making those conditions in their very primitive rural cottage in Wallington, which was Eileen, they were perhaps not so ideal.


MICHAEL: But also the disconnect between the vitality of her voice. You know, even in that first letter, it's just there on the page, it's all…Any astute reader would be intrigued by that. And yet these successive biographers were willing to not only disregard that, but kind of paper over it. Orwell rendered her invisible and silent in his stuff. That absence, that must have been catnip for you as a reader. That must have been the moment where you went. Well, here's the question. 


ANNA: It was catnip. I think that it has to be said that the biographies came out from the 70s through to 2003. There were six major ones that didn't have the benefit of these letters, but there was a lot of material that they could have included about Orwell's female-led family and also about Eileen herself that really falls to the ground like scraps on the cutting room floor. They are, in a sense, taking Orwell's lead because he didn't mention her at all, really. He would say things like to his friends in letters, the manuscript is being typed. So the passive tense is extraordinarily useful in patriarchy to get rid of the work of women. 


MICHAEL: If it's also why you want to kill your spouse several months in, if you're reduced to the passive tense that quickly. I was wondering if you could just describe Eileen to us, because the book is an act of resurrecting her and she's such a wonderful character. Canyou give us a little glimpse of what it is that you so love about her, who she was? 


ANNA: She was born in 1905, and she was extremely smart and got a scholarship to Oxford, so she studied English under Tolkein, actually. So she knew a lot about fables, and her contemporaries were the poets, McNeese and Spender. She worked at a secretarial agency, which at that time was a kind of place where people took, you know, anything that needed to be typed or printed to be produced. So it was kind of editing and secretarial. There was a woman there who ran it, who was tyrannical and used to kind of tease and harass and bully her employees till they were on the verge of tears. And Elaine, who was I don't know she was like about five, seven and very, very slim, small, soft spoken, very wry, not really kind of banner wielding in any way. But she organised all the staff and arranged a walkout in protest at this woman. So there's a lot to love about her apart from her humour. When she met Orwell at a party, which is a scene in my book. One of their friends wrote this down, so there's a lot of evidence about this meet cute as it were, or this coup de foudre. He fell in love with her immediately. Three weeks later he asked her to marry him. She has the vicar take out the word obey from the vows. I didn't realise that in marriage vows, traditionally the man promises to love and cherish and the woman promises to love, cherish and obey. So all the biographers or several of them mentioned, for instance – that the word obey was taken out of the marriage vows. Orwell writes a letter to a friend, actually an ex-girlfriend who he was continuing to pursue – writes to her the day after the wedding and says the vicar took out the word obey as an obscenity in the wedding service. And in that word and obscenity, Orwell doesn't think the word obey is obscene. That word obscenity is definitely Eileen saying, let's take out this obscenity that no one, not Orwell, and none of the biographers can put two and two together, which is the easiest thing to do here. Who would not be wanting to promise to obey? She would not be promising to obey. And she has it taken out. So all of those things made me enormously curious about her. And she's sort of heroic. I mean everyone loved her. They really liked her because she was such an extraordinary listener and she would take her time to listen to whatever was said to her and then give you an answer which had considered things not from her point of view, but from yours, and was really intelligent. So people absolutely loved her for that. But involved in that, being a really good listener and understanding other people's point of view, I wondered to myself, did she fail to fully inhabit her own? And that failure to fully inhabit your own point of view seems to me to be a very deep, abiding problem in patriarchy for women. So I was interested in resurrecting her to see as a homage, but also as a warning. 


Coming up after the break – Anna Funder’s own experience of balancing the domestic and the creative… 


ANNA: She said – I think after Stasiland came out, ‘Oh yes, for every baby you lose a book.’


That’s next. 




One of the most frustrating questions to hear an interviewer ask a creative woman is about balancing the personal and the domestic with their work. It’s intensely gendered and something almost never asked of men in the same field. For Anna Funder, the act of writing her new book Wifedom sprang from an interrogation of those imbalances, so I think – I hope – I was justified in asking her a variation on that question:


MICHAEL: Stasiland came out around the time that your first child was born. So for you, the relationship between being a mother and being a wife is kind of inextricably linked to your creative and professional arc. Do you think about that differently off the back of doing the work on Wifedom?


ANNA: What I think really is we are – and me absolutely included – we are kind of. Written by the scripts of gender that we have in patriarchy, and those are being expanded or exploded in our time, which is extraordinarily exciting. Yet to be a woman and a mother, I'm in my mid-fifties, it means and has meant a certain thing to me, even though I had a feminist mother, I had educated grandparents, grandmothers and so on. I had an agent once. I was actually an agent of my publicist said to me as I've been busy having babies, as I've been writing these books, she said, I think you have to start acting like that. ‘Oh, yes, For every baby you lose a book.’ And it's one of those things that’s completely stuck in my mind, partly because I was horrified at the idea that you could equate a baby with a book. Mostly, I think because I probably did, you know. So one of those things that hits you deeply. And you think, ‘Why am I so bothered by that?’ Yes, my eldest, who's now 21, came out…she came out…


MICHAEL: She was published for release date..


ANNA: She was published – that’s a hilarious faux pas – she was published six weeks before Stasiland. So my husband at that time was living about half the time away in China. So I was in Sydney where and you know I'm with a small baby and alone and not much money. And I did the publicity which I had no idea how to do with this baby. I remember going into the ABC and getting the taxi and I couldn't. The world for me with a baby. I was so besotted. The world then divided into people who had babies and people didn't have babies, because no one told me it would be like this. This is so incredible. So every taxi I got into, I said to the taxi driver, Do you have children? I mean, I would, but I was mad because I wanted to know who I was dealing with. And I got to the ABC and had to do drive time Adelaide, it was, I remember it really vividly and I had no one to leave my baby with. And I didn't know how to leave her because she was feeding every few hours. So I said to the technician outside the booth at the ABC, like, ‘Here, she's asleep, she’s going to be fine. Could you just give me 20 minutes or something? Could you just, like, keep an eye on her?’ The technician looked at me like I was so nuts. And said, ‘No way, I’m not going to do that.’ So I thought, ‘What do I do with this baby?’ So I thought, ‘There's a childcare downstairs in the ABC. I'll just go down there.’ I had no idea how childcare worked. Childcare thought I was completely insane. You have to enrol. You can't just drop your baby. So I thought, ‘What do I do with this baby?’ I had no idea. So I took her in with me and said to the producer before I went on air, ‘Just so you know, I've got my baby here. She's asleep. I think it should be fine.’ Of course, halfway through drive time, Adelaide, there’s all this sort of thing. And I'm getting the breast out and I'm sticking this baby on the breast. And then there's all this sucking noise. And then the poor drive time presenter had to say, .Yes, Anna is in, has company in the booth.’ I was so naive about everything. Books and babies. 


MICHAEL: I like that you thought there was a cloak check for you. I think it makes sense. It would be a much better world if you could just kind of put them in, get a little receipt, and then go and pick them up a bit later on. 


ANNA: If men had babies, we would have that. 


MICHAEL: That’s right they would be de rigueur, they’d be everywhere.


MICHAEL So one of the questions that runs through the book is the extent to which Orwell was a singular shit or whether this was a symptom of wifedom, whether this is the nature of patriarchy and how it functions, our understanding of the creative process, a kind of inevitable erasure that goes on. At the end of writing this book do you feel closer to a kind of position on that? 


ANNA: One of the things that was driving me in a kind of exciting but sort of also uncomfortable way was why is this issue hitting me now? I am an enormously privileged, you know, white perimenopausal, now post-menopausal woman writing about this. Why is it that this dynamic of a writer and his wife and of the invisibility of the work of women and I don't mean just domestic and care work, I also mean intellectual work. Why is that erasure hitting me so deeply? Why do I feel that? Why is it that, as it were, things in the rear-view mirror, you know, are closer than they appear? So I think that this is a function of patriarchy. I think that in patriarchy it's very easy to attribute to women things that are actually work, including the work of love and care, to being a good woman or to your personality. And if you don't do that work of love and care, you're not a good woman. And that little vicious nexus means that women don't make that visible themselves. They say, ‘Oh, I'll just do it,’ you know, And as if at some point it might be recognised, you know, but it may not be or it might be just in the preface to one of the biographers, many of the biographers work where they say, ‘ I'd like to thank my wife’, sometimes names, sometimes not for all of her support. Eileen, this book is structured around her letters, her real letters. So I have very fortunately got permission to use them. And I write scenes in which she's writing them to her best friend. So I know where she was when she wrote them. I know that she knew that he was off with another woman. I know that he knew that she knew and he didn't care. And she's writing to Nora and not telling her that. So I know what she's not telling Nora. And in those scenes I use the text of the real letters, which is really fantastic. But in one of them, I have her wonder in a fictional part whether anyone will ever find her here between the lines that she is typing to her friend. I guess it's a kind of Hitchcockian, a kind of Hitchcockian moment on my part. But it was extraordinarily exciting to find her because she's such a great character. And it allowed me also to see really clearly the work that I do, you know, I am my own wife. I mean, I have a really lovely husband, but I live in patriarchy and we are both written by the rules of patriarchy. 


MICHAEL: You reflect on that early in the book in a chapter with the excellent and present comma tense, where you're just kind of doing that personal stocktaking of the division of labour in your marriage, of the relationship between your emotional self and your domestic self, and then your professional and creative self. And part of what I think is so lovely and surprising in this is you turn to Orwell because he's so good on tyranny. And so you're reading him because you think through his understanding of tyranny, you'll understand the tyranny of patriarchy. You don't go in looking for Eileen. She kind of jumps out at you during the process. 


ANNA: That's right. And it took me quite a while to sort of work my way into this intellectually and emotionally. But that's exactly what I was doing and that's what I put at the front. And that then leads to what happens in the middle of the book where I'm looking at that and I'm thinking how it's just sort of the chestnut of a writer that you really admire. And then you find out that he was sadistic, monumentally and kind of pathologically unfaithful, so how was I going to think about somebody whose work I really admired and whose work was very useful to me in thinking about tyranny? So either socialist tyranny, Nazi tyranny, and now I wanted it to be useful to me thinking about patriarchal tyranny, of which he was such personally a prime exemplar. So what was I going to do with that? And if you read his earliest novel, which is called Burmese Days, it comes out of Orwell's time in Burma. He didn't go to university, instead, he went to be a policeman in the back blocks of the opium trading empire in Myanmar, then called Burma. And he had to do a lot of horrible things. And he came out of that with an awareness of the tyranny of empire. Empire, he said, was a despotism with theft as its aim. So he understands as a young man that he's in this racist system that treats people with different coloured skin as subhuman. And that then leads, I think, if you trace it intellectually to his insight in 1984 into doublethink, because if doublethink is the capacity to hold in your mind two things at one at a conscious level, one at a slightly unconscious level. And the one enabling the other. So you hold, he says, for instance, that the white overlords in Burma could sit in a club denouncing in the most vile, racist terms the people that they were exploiting and still think of themselves as decent men. And then he comes to doublethink, which he elaborates in 1984, which is a way for people to think themselves decent, whilst still benefiting from the exploitation in a tyrannical system of whether its enslaved people, colonised people or I say also women. So his insights are enormously valuable to me, the writing is enormously valuable to me and I can then, as it were, take those insights and apply them to his work and life. So thank you Orwell, thank you.


MICHAEL: Well you’ve released Eileen and that’s definitely a gift so thank you Anna Funder.


ANNA: Thank you so much Michael.


Anna Funder’s new book Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life is out now. 


Buy it from your favourite independent bookstore. You will be so glad you did. 






Before we go – I wanted to tell you what I’ve been reading…


If you didn’t catch it when it came out a couple of months ago, Andre Dao’s debut novel Anam is well worth your time. Like Wifedom, it blends genres in fascinating ways – with the author and their personal reflections present on the page, engaging with history and fiction. Dao grapples with intergenerational trauma, migrant dislocation and the promises a family make to understand and share story. I often think it’s a bit of a wank when a book is described as a meditation on something, but this time it really does feel apt. It’s a beautiful and thought provoking book.


And staying with books that blend fiction and memoir, Kate Grenville is one of my favourite authors. (If you haven’t read The Idea of Perfection, which she won the Women’s Prize for back in 1999, you absolutely must). Since The Secret River she’s been firmly in historical fiction mode, more than once tapping into family history to do so. She wrote about her ancestor Solomon Wiseman, then her mother, and now, her latest, Restless Dolly Maunder is her grandmother’s story. Dolly Maunder is the kind of woman rarely immortalised in our history books or in our fiction and Grenville’s loving resurrection of her is glorious.


That’s it for this week’s show. If you enjoyed it, please tell your friends about it – and rate and review us. 




Read This is produced by Clara Ames and edited by Sarah McVeigh. 


Special thanks this week to Kara Jensen-Mackinnon.


Mixing & original compositions by Zoltan Fecso


You can find a list of all the books we talked about in our show notes.


Thanks for listening. See you next week.