Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life, by Anna Funder, Viking, 464 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-0241482728
Eileen O’Shaughnessy married George Orwell in 1936 and remained married to him until her unexpected and untimely death in 1945. Anna Funder’s Wifedom is primarily an analysis of that nine-year marriage, which Funder concludes as having been throughout to Eileen’s disadvantage, an ‘arms race to mutual self-destruction: she by selflessness, and he by disappearing into the greedy double life that is the artist’s, of self + work’. The Orwell that emerges from this account was variously exploitative, neglectful, hypocritical and adulterous, not to mention a tepid and unremarkable lover and, who knows, a tortured and in-denial homosexual. Separate from his life with Eileen he was an inept seducer, occasional stalker, and, on at least two occasions, thwarted rapist.
In contrast, Eileen gave up her promising career in educational psychology to share his spartan lifestyle in a shack in Wallington. There she toiled at the mundane while he worked endlessly on writings that paid little, at least during his and her lifetime. She looked after him both when he was ill with tuberculosis and when he had been seriously wounded in the Spanish Civil War, saved his life (and his manuscript) in that same war, supported him financially in the early 1940s, suffered his affairs, typed and edited his writings, and co-authored his breakthrough work Animal Farm. It is, says Anna Funder, a contribution that has to date gone unrecognised, both by Orwell himself and his many biographers (about whom more to come and plenty).
Wifedom sets out to make good this seventy-year oversight, alert us to the casual inequality in Orwell’s marriage to Eileen, and, more generally, to the enduring inequality of marriage as an institution, and wifedom as a status. And yet, curiously, it ends up being mainly a book about Orwell. Eileen is discussed almost solely in the context of her famous husband, primarily in order to show that this was a relationship that gave her little and him a lot. Rarely, indeed, is an opportunity missed to show, by fact, anecdote or conjecture, how deeply flawed a person Orwell was and it is this flawed Orwell that is the book’s abiding afterimage. The result is a kind of evil twin to Christoper Hitchens’s Orwell’s Victory (2002), a work in which barely a word of criticism – quite possibly not a word at all – is offered of its subject. Indeed, Wifedom may well prove the biggest blow to Orwell’s reputation since the revelation, some twenty-five years ago, that he named the names of suspected communist sympathisers for the Information Research Department. It might even lead to his being ‘cancelled’, made unmentionable in enlightened circles. To her credit, Funder says that is not her intention. Cancellation and the threat of it are to her ‘a new kind of tyranny’ signalling the end of art. The art and the artist, she maintains, are not the same. In the case of Orwell, we should cherish the work while being wise to the man, just as he was with Kipling and Ezra Pound. Not everyone, alas, will see it that way. Wifedom, despite its author’s best intentions, could yet contribute to Orwell’s being unpersoned.
In describing the Orwell/Eileen relationship, Funder mixes conventional biographical writing with a kind of fictionalised biography that sometimes repeats or reinforces her various speculations. Early on, for instance, a fictional version of Eileen is imagined musing on her new husband’s sexual history and latent sexuality. Later, she is described saving the rough work for Homage to Catalonia from confiscation by the Spanish police. Although these made-up moments are throughout clearly identified as such, it is likely that some readers will, over time, conflate them with the book’s more conventional biographical content so that, for a few minds at least, the impression of Orwell and Eileen that Wifedom leaves will be at least in part an imagined one, as with a biographical film. Indeed, it could be that the fictionalisations – vivid, characterful scenes with dialogue and description – last longer in the reader’s mind than the relevant source material.
Although Funder draws on a wide range of sources there are several surprising absences. The twenty-volume Complete Works (1998), for instance, is largely overlooked in favour of the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, a four-volume selection published in 1968. There is surprisingly no reference to Daphne Patai’s The Orwell Mystique, a hard-hitting feminist critique published in 1984, nor to more recent critical studies such as Robert Colls’s George Orwell: English Rebel or Scott Lucas’s Orwell. On the other hand, Lydia Jackson’s various reminiscences and the half-dozen letters Eileen wrote to her friend Norah Symes Myles are given considerable and, arguably, disproportionate attention.
Lydia Jackson (born Lidiia Vitalevna Zhiburtovich in Russia in 1899) knew and admired Eileen, whom she had met when both were psychology students at University College London. She was later of the view that Eileen could have done better than Orwell and that in marrying him she had had to abandon her career for a life of domestic drudgery (‘Eileen did all the work, prepared the meals and served them, and answered the shop bell when it rang’). Jackson’s view of Orwell did not improve when she became one of the women he pursued and pestered for a sexual relationship. By her own account, she did not entirely discourage him, more she claimed out of pity than enthusiasm, but soon felt guilty about it and tried to keep him at bay.
The letters to Norah are difficult to assess in terms of how seriously they should be taken. The first of them is the most interesting. Writing in autumn 1936, a few months after the wedding, Eileen tells Norah that she and Orwell ‘quarrelled so continuously and … bitterly’ and he put in such long hours writing that she considered ‘murder or separation’. This might be heartfelt or it could be breezy banter between old friends, or somewhere between the two. The letter, which includes a wicked sketch of the Blair family, ends with Eileen saying that she and Orwell are of similar temperament and that his mother and sister were wrong to pity her for marrying him, which could indicate that if there was an awkward ‘murder and separation’ phase in the weeks after the wedding, it was now over.
Funder’s other principal sources are Eileen’s biographer, Sylvia Topp, and Orwell’s several biographers. Sylvia Topp’s Eileen: the making of George Orwell (2020) is the first and, to date, only biography of Eileen O’Shaughnessy. If Eileen was hitherto obscure in the Orwell story – and I think she was – it was Sylvia Topp who rescued her from that obscurity all of four years ago. Topp’s book was greatly and publicly welcomed by many people with an interest in Orwell, including his biographers, critics and academic commentators, as well as by dedicated Orwell readers generally. That in no sense implies that Topp was sparing of Orwell’s reputation. Like Wifedom, her book highlights the sacrifices Eileen made for Orwell and her contribution to his work, not simply supportive and administrative, but creatively as well. And Topp is critical of Orwell for his neglect and infidelities. In her biography Eileen comes across as a multitalented person who gave up a great deal and got precious little back for it, her early death denying her a share in Orwell’s fame.
Funder acknowledges Topp’s work, its parallels with her own (‘As serendipity would have it’) and the new material it brought to light. While she says that she was ‘thrilled’ to read the biography she also states that she and Topp have their differences, regarding the ‘murder or separation’ letter to Norah, for instance, or how much store should be set by Lydia Jackson’s reminiscences.
Funder sets out these points of difference and her work in an endnote. Indeed, of the fifty or so references to Topp’s book that feature in Wifedom, only a handful are in the main body of the text. The rest are in the endnotes. ‘When women can’t be left out altogether,’ she writes (of the Orwell biographers – I will get to them presently), they are, among other things, ‘reduced to footnotes in 8-point font’. But in Wifedom, Sylvia Topp features mainly, not even in the footnotes, but the endnotes. Footnotes and endnotes, the distinction is not pedantic. The two differ in terms of the likelihood they will be seen and read, footnotes being the more likely. While few readers will overlook some additional text at the bottom of the page, even if it is in 8-point type, many will happily ignore endnotes (which, to be fair, are often purely informative in a dull but worthy sort of way).
The Orwell biographers are Funder’s other main source. There are seven of them who, between them, have produced six biographies. In chronological order: Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, who collaborated, in the 1970s, on a two-volume account of Orwell’s life up to 1939; Bernard Crick (1980); Michael Shelden (1991); Jeffrey Meyers (1999); Gordon Bowker and DJ Taylor (both 2003 – Taylor has since written a new biography of Orwell but it was published after Funder had completed her research). ‘I am deeply indebted to them,’ she comments, as indeed she is, as is everyone who studies Orwell. The indebtedness is expressed both in an endnote and in the acknowledgements section that comes after the endnotes and the bibliography. But there is little sense of it in the book proper. ‘[S]even men,’ writes Funder, ‘looking at a man … all of them minimise the importance of the women in Orwell’s life. In the end, the biographies started to seem like fictions of omission.’
A trope of Wifedom is that these seven Orwell biographers and their six biographies are rarely mentioned by name in the main text. Instead, there is a lot of commentary along the lines of the biographers claim this or that, or that one of the biographers – or some of them, or most of them – say such and such, with the relevant comment or comments then referenced in an endnote. This could suggest to readers that the biographers are of broadly similar outlook, one generally supportive of their subject and protective of his reputation, which is not how the Orwell biographers generally are. Far from being on the same page, for example, they frequently disagree with one another or, on occasion, sink to outright scorn. Crick had his reservations about Stansky and Abrahams and Jeffery Meyers, for example, and Shelden was not entirely happy with Crick. Nor are they especially reverential towards their subject or in any way sparing of his reputation, whether in general or with regard to his relationship with Eileen. Jeffrey Meyers, for instance, in his Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (1999), has the following to say regarding the diminished conditions in which Orwell and Eileen lived in the years following their marriage: ‘Orwell enjoyed this hair-shirt existence but Eileen, who did most of the work, suffered terribly.’ Likewise, Gordon Bowker (George Orwell, 2003) comments: ‘Eileen’s love for Orwell was highly sacrificial, putting her own career aside and devoting herself to caring for him. She believed in his great gifts and great potential and was prepared to suffer with him and, to an extent, to live with his neglect of her … He was probably unaware of the depth of her devotion to him until after her death.’ Bowker goes on to say that many (he names Lydia Jackson and Lettice Cooper) believed that Orwell’s neglect had contributed to Eileen’s death.
A story that reflects badly on Orwell has it that, while he was staying in Morocco with Eileen in 1938-39, he persuaded her to allow him to spend an evening with a local prostitute. The primary sources for this story are Tosco Fyvel’s 1982 memoir of Orwell and Harold Acton’s 1970 memoir of himself. These are primary sources only in the sense that they are the accounts of people who witnessed Orwell speak of the event. Orwell himself, in private writings (a diary entry and a letter published posthumously), merely describes some of the Moroccan women in a way that suggests he found them attractive but the references are coy and passing. Harold Acton, in 1970, recalled that Orwell had told him, in Paris in 1945, that he had slept with several of these women when he was in Morocco in 1938 or 1939. Peter Stansky and William Abrahams consider this revelation in their Orwell: The Transformation (1979). Funder writes that they ‘relegate’ the story to a footnote. They certainly put it in a footnote (and not an endnote), one that takes up approximately half the relevant page. It would be an incurious reader that could pass it by. In this footnote, Stansky and Abrahams are dismissive of the story. They do not deny that Orwell told it to Acton but suspect it was bravado. They find it unlikely that Orwell, who was ill much of the time he was in Morocco, and busy writing among other things Coming up for Air, and, crucially, with Eileen, could have found the time or the opportunity to slip away several times and pay a woman to sleep with him.
Three years after the Stansky and Abrahams biography, Tosco Fyvel’s memoir raised the possibility that Eileen had agreed to the arrangement, which was a more credible one-off. Fyvel recalls his wife, Mary, being told this by Orwell. He deals with the story in a couple of lines and is dismissive of it. He goes on to say that Orwell liked to tease Mary in a flirtatious kind of way and that this was an instance of that teasing.
Funder imagines this Morocco episode in one of the fictional passages in the book. She has her fictional Orwell speak in a put-on schoolboy voice. Addressing the fictional Eileen as ‘Mum’ (a possible reference to Flip, the all-powerful de facto headmistress at St Cyprian’s preparatory school) he asks if he can sleep with one of the local women as though he were wheedling for a second helping of jam roly-poly. She then depicts an obliging Eileen waiting, anxious, while Orwell has his time with the woman he has paid for. Funder makes clear that she is fictionalising but she believes she is fictionalising an actual event. It is, she alleges, an event the biographers have downplayed either by omitting the relevant evidence (that is the Acton and Fyvel memoirs) or discrediting it. ‘It is done by reducing the act, and so the woman (or girl), to a boast, a scheduling impossibility, or a mutual arrangement.’
In fact, only two of the Orwell biographies (those of Stansky and Abrahams and Crick) dismiss the story while three (Meyers, Taylor and Bowker) more or less accept it. Only Michael Shelden, whose coverage of the Morocco interlude is a brief six or seven pages, omits the episode entirely. It is probably significant that both of the dismissive biographies were written before the Fyvel memoir. Fyvel’s anecdote both corroborates Acton’s story and fixes certain of the details that make it implausible – multiple visits to local prostitutes are replaced by a single visit and Eileen is alleged to have consented to the encounter. These give the anecdote a second wind, despite the fact that Fyvel himself is sceptical of it. Funder notes this. She comments that Fyvel, ‘a male source’, undermines his own story by casting doubt on it. And she speculates, for good measure, that Orwell, in telling the story to Mary Fyvel, was angling for a fling with her (and how could he fail, telling her he had lately paid for sex!) My guess is that Fyvel cast doubt on the story because he genuinely disbelieved it. If he had suspected it were true and potentially corrosive of Orwell’s reputation, he would not, as a close personal friend, have first included it and then cast doubt on it. He would have gone the whole hog and suppressed it. In his memoir Fyvel includes it as an example of the various ‘bad boy’ tales Orwell spun to Mary – stories told to build an image of himself as something of a rascal – that he planned to fake his army medical and join up (this was during the war) or that he habitually ignored letters from the Inland Revenue.
Fyvel’s anecdote, if it were true in its entirety, might mean that Orwell and Eileen had some kind of open relationship. Funder denies that their marriage was of this type. It is the biographers, she says, or some of them anyway, who ‘would like to believe that Eileen and Orwell agreed to an open marriage’ and to this end they have tried to find evidence that Eileen and not just Orwell had lovers on the side. If only they can do this, it will make Orwell (‘their hero’) look better – not an adulterer but one of the parties to an unconventional relationship.
All of the biographers relate that Orwell was unfaithful to Eileen but, as far as I can see, Gordon Bowker is the only one to consider the possibility of an open marriage in any detail and he is on balance sceptical that Orwell and Eileen had any such arrangement. He allows that Orwell might have thought the marriage was open, or convinced himself that it was, or on occasion used it as a blatant lie in order to help persuade particular women to sleep with him. But that is all. Neither Bowker, nor any of the other biographers, give the slightest impression that they would like to believe that Orwell and Eileen had some kind of arrangement or that they are keen to find that Eileen had affairs of her own in order to confirm this belief.
Gordon Bowker is, along with Bernard Crick, the Orwell biographer most cited in Wifedom. His name appears just once in the text but many times in the endnotes. And many of the times he is mentioned, it is to illustrate the allegedly Orwell-friendly ways of the biographers as a group. This is surprising since Bowker seems to me the Orwell biographer whose way of thinking is closest to that of Funder herself. On the question of the open marriage, for example, he is, as noted, dismissive. He is also respectful of Lydia Jackson’s testimony, describing Orwell’s relationship with her as ‘a strange, one-sided affair conducted by an apparently self-deluded Casanova’. He goes on to record that, around the time Eileen’s brother Laurence was killed at Dunkirk, Orwell was writing to Brenda Salkeld, a long-time platonic friend (platonic despite Orwell’s near-lifelong persistence) suggesting that they meet for sex. ‘Astonishingly in the circumstance of his wife’s bereavement,’ Bowker comments, ‘Orwell was openly hankering after Brenda’. And when Brenda proved unwilling, Bowker writes that Orwell soon found other partners willing to satisfy ‘his wayward lusts’. This is not, to me, the language of approval.
It is Bowker who tells us that Orwell had a tendency to pounce on women, unexpectedly in the middle of what had been up to then a perfectly mundane conversation. He mentions this ‘Orwell pounce’ as though it were his stock in trade and he does so, not with some kind of all-the-lads-together awe, but, again, with unmistakeable disapproval. And it is Bowker who records that Orwell, aged around eighteen or nineteen, sexually assaulted Jacintha Buddicom, who had been a friend of his from childhood. Bowker was the first biographer to mention this attack, which was only then coming to light. Having reported it, he goes on to repeat a story, from Crick, that Orwell tried to force himself on an unnamed BBC colleague some time in the 1940s. It goes without saying that these incidents are, by a very long way, the most discreditable actions in Orwell’s life. Gordon Bowker’s biography includes both incidents and makes no attempt to doubt, explain away or excuse them. I hope that these examples are sufficient to show that Bowker – who died a few years ago – was a robust literary biographer of Orwell, Joyce and others, and in no sense a docile hagiographer.
Orwell and Eileen’s time in Civil War Spain receives considerable attention in Wifedom. Funder writes that in his civil war memoir, Homage to Catalonia, he does not properly acknowledge Eileen’s presence, her contribution to the war effort or her centrality in enabling his and others’ escape to France. ‘I had read Homage twice,’ Funder comments, ‘and never registered that Eileen was in Spain. No one I have ever asked remembers her. How can you read a book and have no memory that a person was not in a place alone, but with their spouse?’
How indeed? I think it would be difficult to read Homage to Catalonia and not pick up that Orwell was in Spain with his wife. He mentions her often and she several times plays an important role in the story. It is she who whispers in his ear that he needs to make himself scarce when he returns from the fighting unaware that the situation has changed radically in his absence and that he is now a wanted man. And it is she who, in lying on the hotel room bed, prevents the Spanish police from confiscating their passports and other important papers. But all readers could be forgiven for not knowing that Orwell’s wife, who was with him in Spain, was called Eileen since he never refers to her by name, only as ‘my wife’. Indeed, so often does he refer to her as ‘my wife’ that it becomes noticeable and even slightly annoying. While few who read Homage to Catalonia would miss this ‘my wife’ person, they might wonder why she is never named or fleshed out.
Funder speculates that this is because Orwell was anxious not to be eclipsed by ‘my wife’ and therefore played down her role in Barcelona. He was a volunteer in the militia of the POUM, the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, rather than in the better known, Communist-affiliated, International Brigade. This was in part because Orwell had already started to annoy the communists back home but also because he had good friends in the British Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was the POUM’s UK sister party. The ILP had an office in Barcelona which was manned by John McNair, a leading party member and this was where Eileen found herself a job a month or two after Orwell had arrived in the city. Funder suggests that this made Eileen’s role more significant than Orwell’s own. ‘While Orwell is struggling to find a bullet to hit him,’ she writes, in questionable taste, ‘battling mainly boredom and vermin, Eileen is at the heart of the operation.’
Here is what I think. Ten years after he went to Spain, Orwell would comment that ‘sheer egoism’ is one of the reasons writers write. He put it top of his list and said it was ‘humbug’ to deny it as a motive. Inevitably, it is in memoir that the author’s ego tends to bubble about the most, and Homage to Catalonia is unexceptional in this respect. Other people step into and out of this Orwell-centric story but they are not the main event. The main event is the narrator, George Orwell, who tells us how he, a naive, not so young man joins the POUM militia, which turns out to be a shambolic outfit operating on a fairly shambolic front. But then the government turns on this ramshackle militia and its political backers, and turns on them with, Orwell suspects, greater force and better weapons than they ever deployed against the fascists. The result is that the naive, not so young man is altogether wiser by the end. He knows now that Hitler is bad news but so is Stalin and that if there is good in the world, it is the anarchic socialism of Barcelona and the scruffy militiamen who were willing to die for it. Eileen, and John McNair, Stafford Cottman (a youthful ILP member who would go on to work with Ken Loach on the film Land and Freedom), and the Duchess of Atholl, all enter and exit as required.
One event that Funder alleges has been written out of the story of Orwell’s time in Spain is how Eileen, at great risk, went in person to obtain, for herself, Orwell, Cottman and McNair the visa stamps they required to get out of the country and into France. Three separate stamps were needed – from the Catalan government, the French consul and the chief of police. The chief of police was the tricky one. He could have had all or any of them put in , where he had already put their friend Georges Kopp, an officer in the POUM militia. In going to see him to request a visa, Eileen too could have been put in prison.
Funder is correct to say that Orwell makes no mention of Eileen approaching the chief of police to get their passports stamped. In Homage to Catalonia, he says that he, Eileen, Cottman and McNair met at the British consulate in Barcelona in the hope that the consul could sort the passports out. From what I can make out, either the consul (or his staff) then went out and obtained the four stamps. In that way, the possibility that a zealous police officer might arrest Orwell, Eileen and the others was eliminated. With the consul on their case, the only real risk was that the chief would refuse. Orwell acknowledges this assistance: ‘Thanks to the kindness of the British Consul, who must have had a very trying time during that week, we had managed to get our passports in order.’
All of the Orwell biographers who mention it say the same – that the consul sorted out the passports. And Topp says it too in her Eileen biography (although she does write that Eileen took the lead in dealing with the consulate).
Funder is the only author I have read who has it that Eileen herself personally obtained the three stamps, including the high-risk stamp from the chief of police. She offers no new evidence for this claim. The nearest – nearest as in least far away – is when she quotes Sylvia Topp in an endnote: ‘There is no doubt that Eileen was responsible for saving all their lives.’ But Topp made that judgment in relation to the train journey to France when all four, their passports in order, were posing as tourists, reading poetry in the dining car. Having described Orwell slouching down to hide his potentially giveaway height, Topp comments ‘Having a British woman with them on the train added to their chances of avoiding suspicion. As they escaped safely from Catalonia that day, there is no doubt that Eileen was responsible for saving all their lives.’
Orwell’s apprehensions regarding the chief of police appear to have lessened once he had had his passport properly stamped since he then visited the chief in person in an attempt to help out Georges Kopp. Funder writes that this is ‘a quest that astonishes several of the biographers in its bravery though not one comments on Eileen having just been to the exact same place’. But the reason none of them comments on Eileen’s visit to the chief of police is because Eileen had not visited the chief of police. It was the consul (or his staff) who had done that, at absolutely no risk – as diplomats they were immune from the caprices of local officialdom and as diplomats for a great power the Republic was actively trying to cultivate as an ally, they were even more immune. Also, to be picky, none of the biographers expresses anything approaching astonishment at Orwell’s decision to visit the chief of police. The nearest are Stansky and Abrahams, who see it as courageous but also arrogant and entitled in a foolhardy, public schoolboy kind of way. What impresses all of the biographers who refers to it is that Orwell and Eileen together, and before they had had their passports stamped, went to visit Kopp in prison, a visit that could easily have ended in their own summary imprisonment.
Funder goes on to say that Eileen saved either the notes on which Orwell would base Homage to Catalonia or a preliminary draft or outline of that book. According to Wifedom, Eileen typed up Orwell’s notes and gave the typescript to John McNair for safekeeping. It was then safely smuggled out of Spain by Orwell himself on that train into France.
This contradicts Orwell’s own account, which is that he brought no writings back with him from Spain and Homage to Catalonia was therefore begun from scratch in England. Everything he had written when he was in Spain was taken by the police when they raided their hotel room. As a result, nothing, bar a couple of letters, survives from what Orwell wrote about Spain while he was in Spain. Orwell also claimed that the publisher Victor Gollancz more or less turned Homage to Catalonia down, not simply sight unseen but before a word of it had been written, before it even had a title. Gollancz had learned by word of mouth what the book’s political slant was going to be and was put off by it. It was eventually taken up by Secker and Warburg having been pitched to that publisher by an ILP delegation as part of a batch of ILP-leaning titles. Orwell did the actual writing in 1937-38.
Some of what Funder writes of the manuscript reflects the account given by Fredric Warburg – the Warburg in Secker and Warburg – in his 1959 memoir An Occupation for Gentlemen. He says that Orwell came to see him before setting out for Spain and pitched him his idea for a Spanish memoir, to which Warburg agreed. Orwell then went to Spain, joined the POUM militia and, according to the memoir, wrote the book in the trenches ‘on scraps, the backs of envelopes, [and] toilet paper’. Warburg claims it was then despatched from the trenches to the ILP’s office in Barcelona where Eileen typed it up into ‘a sizeable parcel’. Eileen gave this parcel to McNair to look after. According to Warburg, McNair told him, in a 1958 interview, that he had hidden the manuscript on his window ledge and that it had been found only when he was on the move with it and was stopped by the police. Fortuitously, McNair alleged, the officers who stopped him lacked the English to read it and he was able to persuade them that it was communist- rather than POUM-inspired. McNair, in his own memoir of his time in Spain (Spanish Diary, 1965) adds the detail that Orwell brazenly read the manuscript on the train as they were fleeing into France.
There are good reasons for doubting pretty much all of that. For one thing, Orwell, when he set out for Spain, was contracted to Gollancz and had no reason to want to break that contract. His then most recent book, The Road to Wigan Pier, had been selected for Gollancz’s Left Book Club, which more or less guaranteed him high sales (in the event, it was the biggest seller of Orwell’s career up to that point, with sales which would not be equalled for close on ten years) and he had no particular political difference with the publisher. (Gollancz had written a gently critical introduction to Wigan Pier in which he suggested that the Labour movement was perhaps not quite as ‘Mr Orwell’ would have it – alive with cranks of every kind – and that birth control should not be lumped in with all that crankery). Arguably, Orwell and Gollancz were closer than ever in late 1936 – both socialists now, both of the view that the parties of the left in Britain, communists included, should ally and try to oust the National Government at the next election, and both of the belief that the Spanish Civil War was a straight fight between democracy and fascism, a now or never opportunity to put fascism back in its box. When he set out for Spain at the end of 1936, Orwell would have had every reason to expect that Gollancz would publish his Spain book and, who knows, maybe even make it another Left Book Club selection. Only after he had been in Spain did Orwell diverge politically from Gollancz, most markedly after the May events in Barcelona in 1937 when the government cracked down on the POUM and its supporters.
Orwell, as noted, said that all of his Spanish writings were taken by the police. But if anything had survived or was being held by someone else, such as McNair, it would have been foolish to try to smuggle it out of the country, let alone read it nonchalantly on the train. Orwell, Eileen, McNair and Cottman had had a narrow escape from Barcelona. Now they were trying to pass themselves off as tourists on the way home and could not have predicted if and how thoroughly they might be searched on their journey. A ‘sizeable parcel’ of notes for a book critical of the government would have been highly incriminating.
Nor is it clear why Eileen, having typed the manuscript, would then have given it to McNair. Why would she have thought that he, the ILP’s main representative in Barcelona and therefore a marked man, would have been better able to keep it safe? And if there was a typescript that became Homage to Catalonia, that made it all the way from Spain back to England despite the high risk involved, where is it now? Is it feasible that, having brought it all that way, Orwell would have binned it once he was done with it?
In discussing Orwell’s time in Spain, Funder gives authority to two sources that are usually treated with some scepticism. The first of these is Bob Edwards. Edwards was Orwell’s superior in the POUM militia and, it is fair to say, was no great admirer of him. He is cited in Wifedom for his recollection of Orwell shooting at a rat in their trench on the Aragon Front, a carelessness that supposedly brought a hail of Francoist gunfire their way not to mention an improbable aerial bombardment that took out a canteen and some vehicles. I suspect that it is cited because it is yet another anecdote that shows Orwell in a poor light, one that has, to boot, not made its way into Homage to Catalonia, implying that Orwell was selective about what he included. Edwards’s reliability is not considered (or the utter improbability that one careless shot prompted the Franco side to send out bombing planes). Edwards maintained for much of his life that Orwell had come to Spain in order to write not to fight, that he was, as he put it, a ‘bloody scribbler’, always taking notes and keeping himself aside from his fellow militiamen. In this respect, his account differs markedly from that of almost all the other people who knew Orwell in Spain, not to mention Orwell himself, who say either that he went there primarily to fight or that if he went to write he was very soon signed up for the fighting, from the first day or near enough. I can think of no witness to Orwell in Spain, aside from Edwards (and Frank Frankford whom I will discuss shortly), who denies the author’s combatant role or his seriousness about it. Orwell’s commitment to the war was such that it was recognised by his fellow militiamen who made him a cabo, a non-commissioned officer. So engaged was Orwell in the struggle that, frustrated by the lack of action in Catalonia, he was willing to join the International Brigade if that meant a transfer to Madrid. Funder finds it odd that Orwell would want ‘to join the communists’ and that he persisted in this even after Eileen had explained things to him (sic). But Orwell did not want to join the communists. He wanted to join the International Brigade despite its being under communist control because he thought he could do more good that way, putting another able(ish) body in the path of Franco’s stubborn advance. Edwards’s sour take on Orwell’s desire to move to the Madrid Front was that it would give him more to write about. It would certainly have done that provided he survived the experience, which was far from guaranteed.
If Edwards merely disliked Orwell, Frank Frankford was actively against him and others on the POUM and ILP side for he was almost certainly in the POUM militia on Communist Party business. Funder cites as fact Frankford’s reminiscence that Orwell was in the trenches regaling the comrades with tales of his times in the brothels of Paris when the Francoist bullet struck his throat like an express delivery of Marxist-Leninist karma. No Orwell biographer treats this story as valid. It is of a piece with Frankford’s other fabrications, such as that the POUM militia was actively fraternising with the Francoists who were supplying it with arms and provisions in return for subverting the Republican side. According to Frankford, it was Georges Kopp who masterminded this operation, which took place at night when few if any were paying attention, except for the vigilant Frankford. Frankford’s story served the Moscow line on the POUM, which was that it was a fascist false flag operation. In advance of suppressing the POUM, the communists demonised it as a Franco fifth column, hence the poster that had been put up around town showing the Partido as the socialist mask on a fascist face. Frankford, having been got to, was one of the demonisers. The usual account of Orwell’s near fatal shooting is that he was careless, that he put his head over the top of the trench once too often, and that this happened in the normal line of duty, with disastrous results. The person next to him was not Frankford but Harry Milton, an American Trotskyist.
I could go on. There is a lot more in Wifedom that I think is open to challenge. Who did what in Spain, and the matter of the Moroccan prostitute, and whether the Orwell/Eileen marriage was open or closed – these are only examples. Though Funder is generally and unfairly dismissive of the Orwell biographers, her own forays into biography are undermined by what seems like a need to depict Orwell in as negative a light as possible. And her account of those biographers, whom she respects in her endnotes but not in her text, does not always stand up to analysis. They are not, on inspection, the hagiographers and hero worshippers she at times suggests. They like Orwell, or are fascinated by him, but not to the extent that they are acritical, a series of advertisements blandly promoting the same tired old product. Each of them has tried hard to get closer to their subject, his lives and times, his work. More will follow and for as long as Orwell’s work resonates, even though, in at least one respect, their task is getting harder.
DJ Taylor, whose new biography came out last year, has said that there are now only seven people alive who knew George Orwell. And none of those seven were adults when they knew him. He is slipping out of living memory. When he said to Mary Fyvel that he had slept with a prostitute in Morocco and that Eileen had been fine with it, did he say it as a matter of fact or was he teasing? All who saw his face when he said it or heard the tone of his voice are gone. When he slurped his tea from the saucer in the BBC canteen, was it because that was the way he always drank his tea now, one of his faux proletarian affectations? Or was he merely out to shock an uptight colleague? Was that the type of him? And what was the type of him?
The twenty volumes of the Complete Works of George Orwell plus the supplementary Lost Orwell volume line up on my shelf like the Imperial Guard at Waterloo, or rather they would do so if I had not opted for the Kindle edition to save money, space and time – the time it takes to run back and forth through twenty-one books for a single, irritating reference that might not even be there. Hard copy or otherwise, they show Orwell in all his states and phases. And is that not the curse of the famous that their every word and action will be salvaged to be pored over and interpreted, the context imagined and debated; that their swings of opinion and scuppered forecasts will be archived and collected when the person who made them might have preferred to see them forgotten; that tales will be told, some of them true?
Martin Tyrrell is currently under contract to Athabasca University Press to complete a book on Orwell’s wars, from class war to Cold War. The project has been generously assisted by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland under its Support for the Individual Artist programme.