1 February 2024 Susannah

Mrs Orwell’s invisible life

Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life, by Anna Funder

I recently loved reading Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life by Anna Funder, about George Orwell’s long-suffering wife Eileen. It takes as a starting point some letters Eileen wrote to a friend, letters which were only found in 2005 and which reveal her unhappiness in her marriage. The book is part biography, part personal voyage of discovery for Anna Funder, and part analysis of George Orwell. I found it really fascinating, and it made me think about the omissions of biographers and how frequently wives and help-meets have been written out of the picture.

The book also made me think about other literary wives who have had a tough time. Sonia Tolstoy is a woman I’ve felt sorry for ever since reading Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy by Anne Edwards. She is thought to have copied out War and Peace by hand eight times over, and was in despair when her husband gave up writing novels in favour of going out to scythe with the peasants. He preached chastity while getting her pregnant with her thirteenth child, he demanded that she breastfeed her babies even though she suffered from terrible mastitis and was in agony, he turned some of her children against her and then famously left her, dying at a railway station where she was denied entry. Her ‘wifedom’ was difficult indeed!

I don’t think life was great for either of Thomas Hardy’s two wives, Charles Dickens kicked out his poor wife Catherine as part of a mid-life crisis and treated her abysmally, while Jane Carlyle poured out her frustrations into a diary which was found by her husband Thomas after her death (though possibly Jane wasn’t easy to live with either as Samuel Butler once insisted: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.”)

Do you have other suggestions for literary wives, or husbands, who have had to endure a great deal? Have you read Wifedom yet?

When you have read this book, I’d love to know what you thought of the ending. Tell me your thoughts about that, or any other aspect of literary wives by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- Anna Funder, https://www.annafunder.com/; & Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life, https://amzn.to/3Swrb6X

Comments (6)

  1. I dont think Arthur Conan Doyle first wife, Louisa had a very good time – But then in his defence I dont think he was thinking Marriage was all about, cooking, washing & ironing – I dont think Louisa liked the intimancy of married life.

  2. Catherine Patterson

    This sounds like an interesting, though sad, read. I thought I’d borrow it from the library. I just went online to put it on hold. Interestingly, I thought I’d share, that as of today, Saturday 17/2/24, the library has 98 copies of Wifedom, but 512 holds. I have never seen this number of holds for a book ever. Being slightly impatient I might look around for a copy to buy. Thank you Susannah for the recommendation : )

    • Susannah Fullerton

      My goodness, that’s a lot of reserves.You are welcome to borrow my copy if you are going to be seeing me soon.

  3. ‘Wifedom’ is definitely on my to-read list and now, too, is ‘Sonya’. I’ve always felt that if you want to the know the measure of a particular thinker or writer’s ideas, you should look at how he/she treats those who are closest and most vulnerable to him/her (usually wives and children). That’s not to say that people who act horribly can’t write good stories or have great ideas … but I prefer integrity where possible! It’s a challenge for us as human beings though!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I think what was especially intriguing was the ways in which male biographers had left Mrs Orwell out of the story. It is a fascianting book.

  4. John

    For a counterexample, Mary-Anne Disraeli, Disraeli’s wife, had a wonderful time with him. They adored each other. “Mr and Mrs Disraeli” by Daisy Hay is a fun read. I saw her talk about it in Bath.

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