Thursday 13th July
Q. In the opening pages of the book, Wifedom is called ‘a counterfiction’. Does this refer to the genre or the subject matter of the book? Or both?
It’s both. WIFEDOM has a fairly normal, narrative non-fiction strand about my life, and about what was really going on in Orwell and Eileen’s lives and marriage. The counterfiction is specifically the scenes which Eileen is writing the actual letters that she wrote to her best friend Norah (I was fortunate to get permission to use them.) I know where Eileen was when she wrote each letter, I know that he was off with another woman (and she knew it), or that she was very ill. I can make a scene in which the reader comes to understand what was going on for her, including what she is not telling Norah. So, this counterfiction, based on her own words, is designed to counter the ‘official’ version of Orwell you might get from reading the biographies.
Once I realised how much of women’s accounts of Orwell was omitted, trivialised or doubted in the biographies of him – when women often knew him extremely well– it seemed to me that those accounts, all written by men, could be thought of as ‘fictions of omission’. For instance, when Eileen noted that he had a ‘remarkable political simplicity’ one biographer simply changed that quote to give him a remarkable political ‘sympathy’ instead. When a girlfriend said that the reason he didn’t like women much was because he was a sadist, that observation just stayed on the cutting room floor (literally, in the biographer’s archive). Or, more fundamentally, the fact that his intellectual inheritance came through his maternal line –—his mother and aunt who were left-wingers, Fabians and suffragettes (his Aunt Nellie even got arrested with the Pankhursts!) and they were interested in sexual politics— is never really seen as causal, as having constituted him as the politically engaged writer he was. And then of course there is the constant minimising of his many ‘pounces’ as the biographers often call them, on many, many women. And his affairs, his torturing his wife by sleeping with her close friend, or asking her ‘permission’ to sleep with others and so on. I needed a counterfiction to counter the fiction that passes for reality in patriarchy, making men central and women peripheral, or invisible.
I recognised a systematic pattern of omission: first, of what women did for him, and secondly, of what he did to them. The biographies seemed to tell a one-sided story of a self-made genius. The story of a ‘decent’ man, a tyrant-slayer, a truth-teller for the underdog – when in fact he behaved like a strange tyrant in private, and treated his extremely talented wife like an uncredited underdog.
Eileen’s letters were found in 2005, after all the biographies were written. I was absolutely smitten with her from the first paragraph of the first one. She tells her friend Norah that she would have written earlier, but she and George had fought so much during these months she’d thought she’d write just one letter to everyone, ‘once the murder or separation was accomplished.’ But the biographies paint these months as the happiest of George’s life! ‘Conditions’ they say, were ideal for him. I thought, here is another view: that of the woman who made those conditions.
And that’s the point of view I’m living in too – in a much less extreme way. I am a writer, but I also have the lion’s share of the job of making the conditions for everyone else’s life: the wifework. I thought, if I look at this brilliant, hilarious woman and how she has been erased, I might be able to see more clearly the ways that the vital work of life and love that women do is, still today, taken for granted, and made invisible.
Q. On the surface, the book is about George Orwell and his marriage to his first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy, but more generally it is about the condition of ‘wifedom’, the ultimate sacrifice of the ‘wife’ in a creative partnership, indeed in any partnership. Is that how you would define ‘wifedom’?
I was stunned at how Eileen’s intellectual work, her practical work, and her saving Orwell’s life had been written out of his life story. And I was curious about why this resonated with me – a privileged woman married to a kind man in the 21st century. It was as if not only Orwell, but his biographers, too, all took for granted that a wife would work in the service of her husband for no recognition, ever.
Globally, in societies of all races and cultures, women do more domestic and unpaid and care work, as well as doing work for money around those obligations, than their male partners. The statistics are irrefutable: women everywhere have less money, less power, and less leisure time than men. If the unpaid work of women globally, on which the world depends, were to be paid for, it would cost, in a UN estimation of 2019, US$1.9 trillion.
Women do so much more work than men, especially the work of life and love and care that sustains families. This work is transmuted into part of what it is to be a woman, a wife, a mother. If it is part of your ‘nature’ to do this work, then you don’t need to be asked, or thanked, or remembered in a biography. We see this for instance, in thinking about a core value of Orwell’s, ‘decency’. To be a good (or decent) human being if you are female, involves caring for others – by which I mean not a feeling, but the work of care. However, you can be a ‘decent’ man without caring for anyone else.
Indeed, your biographers can find you to be a decent man only if they ignore two things: the enormous work of a woman which enabled you to write what you did and to live as you did. And, what you did to her, and to so many other women. It is as if a man gets to have his ‘private’ life – in all its possible treachery and tyranny – stay private. And this can happen because the women who work in that private realm or who he worked to death, propositioned, pounced on, or had affairs with are left out of the story.
Just on the word ‘sacrifice’. It makes me uncomfortable, because to be ‘self-sacrificing’, which on its face is a damaging thing, is a positive characteristic in a woman in patriarchy. It is positive because it serves the interest of men to define what it is to be a good woman in terms of what a woman does for them. I look forward to it being an outmoded value. Something that diminishes a human being’s personhood can’t be good. And when men and women have equal expectations of consideration and care for one another, for children and for the planet we will all live richer lives.
In WIFEDOM, I put it this way: ‘Self-effacement is a feminine virtue in patriarchy, but eventually it realises itself and looks like a crime.’ Against a person, as my book shows, and against women in general, as the UN figures tell us.
Q. Wifedom brings to light Eileen's contributions to her famous husband's work. Why do you think Orwell’s biographers barely mention Eileen and fail to recognise her pivotal influence?
I think there’s a largely unconscious, but deep-seated fear in patriarchal culture, that to say a man needed help to do his work will take away from his achievement. Orwell didn’t go to university; Eileen was awarded a scholarship to read English at Oxford in the 1920s, and studied under J.R.R. Tolkein, among others. She was an excellent writer, and wrote ‘emendations’ on the back of all his drafts, as well as retyping much of his work—and, in the case of Animal Farm, having the idea for the very form of it. If we are fortunate, we all learn from wise and talented people. If they are women, or wives, they shouldn’t be disappeared from history.
It has to be said that the biographers are following Orwell’s lead here, because he wrote her out of his life and work. For instance, Eileen went and worked for the head office of the ILP/POUM in Barcelona while Orwell was a soldier in the trenches of Catalonia in the Spanish Civil War. She did political work, knew everything that was going on, and saved his life. But you can read Homage to Catalonia and barely register she’s there. It took me a long time, and a vast amount of research, but I reverse-engineered Homage to Catalonia to show Eileen and her work in Barcelona, and also the methods by which Orwell both benefits from that work, and erases it. It was astonishing to me, chilling really.
Q. Wifedom is described as ‘a book that speaks to our present moment’. Can you elaborate on this? Have creative conditions in contemporary partnerships improved? Can you be both – the writer or creator in general and the ‘wife’?
Wifedom speaks to our present moment about the work that women do in caring for the generation to come, our children, and often the one before, our parents. I want to show how this work of life and love is made invisible, and make it visible, so that it can be better shared between men and women. If you think a woman is ‘caring’ and a ‘good person’ she will do all that work just as part of her nature, as if that’s not work, just an expression of her DNA or something. My husband has pointed out to me that this system means that men miss out too, on the intimacies and the responsibilities which come with them, especially with regard to relationships with children. That is a major loss in your life. To be better bonded with the next generation is a gift and links us with our responsibility to one another, the planet and the future – it can only be a good thing to share the care more equally, and not to expect one partner, because of her sex, to be the on-call school parent, the party organiser, shopper, medical organiser, cook, washerwoman, household provisioner, social arranger etc. I hope too, that we get to a time where it is not the woman who has to raise these issues, as if they were hers either to do or to delegate. Although contemporary heterosexual relationships have come a long way, we are still far from that equal starting point.
Of course it’s possible to be a creator and do the work of love and care traditionally mainly done by women. For me, that work (or some of it at least) is so linked with love for my family I can barely separate it. But I got overwhelmed by it, and wanted to explore that. My life involves loving those around me as a verb: it is a thing I express in the care I give, and things I do, as well as a feeling. These are the relationships that are the centre of my life, they make me what I am. So this is also who I am as a writer.
Q. Have you re-read any of Orwell’s work since you’ve written Wifedom? Has your opinion of him as a writer changed knowing better the man he was? Can you still love the writing and condemn the person?
Yes, definitely. The work is still delightful, funny, acute and beautifully written. That Animal Farm was written by him discussing it scene by scene with her every night for the 3 months it took to write, in bed to stay warm as the bombs fell around London only adds to the experience. I hear her voice in it, in the whimsy and humour. It has Eileen’s influence at its core, and on every page. He’d wanted to write an essay critical of Stalin, who was helping the allies win the war against Hitler. Eileen had better political instincts. She knew that wouldn’t be popular, and likely wouldn’t be published. She had studied under J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Hobbit, at Oxford, and convinced Orwell to write an allegorical novel instead. They worked on it every night in bed to stay warm during the Blitz. It’s the only one of his works that has an ensemble of characters, instead of a sort of underdog everyman Orwell stand-in at its heart. His friends were astonished by it.
I think it’s important to recognise that one of the things art can do, is to show us, safely between covers, or in a frame, or on a screen, things that are frightening – tyranny and sadism, for instance, in Orwell’s case. To really go there, an artist or writer needs to feel those things in their bones. Otherwise they wouldn’t be interested in them in the first place. Orwell certainly had streaks of tyranny and sadism in his personality. This is no reason to cancel anything or anyone. Cancelling is another kind of tyranny, and from there, no art comes.
It is possible to hold two people in mind at the same time, and two things in mind too. We don’t need our artists to be perfect, or even good to create good art. But it’s fascinating to look at its conditions of production, and the woman who made them.
Q. Do you find yourself reading other literary biographies of ‘great men’ now with the same keen eye, one looking at the spaces between the lines?
Yes! How did they get their work done? And so much of it! Why did they so often choose brilliant artist/writers as wives or partners – who would then put their careers on the backburner to ‘help’ the man? How painful this must have been for the women.
And it’s not only about practical help. One of the questions of my book is: in order to be an artist you must feel yourself to be central, whole, and have something to say to the world. It must help then, to have someone in your orbit: it makes you the star.
A woman artist probably usually has a bigger job creating the person to do the work, than a man usually has. He starts from a place where the world, at least, gives his selfhood centrality.
Q. As booksellers, we were wondering - who do you think would run a more successful bookshop, Eileen or Orwell?
Ha! Orwell admitted he was terrible at organising things. He did work in a bookshop – a job arranged for him by a former lover, in a shop owned by friends of his Aunt Nellie. On the surface it was the perfect job – in the bookshop in the mornings, living just above it to write in the afternoons. Also, it worked as a honeytrap for likeminded literary souls— he met a couple of girlfriends there. But he managed to complain bitterly about it. I think he probably quite liked to view the world from a position of outsiderdom; he was uncomfortable being comfortable. Maybe the job was too perfect.
Q. (Apart from Orwell) who are your biggest influences as a writer, both Australian and international?
When I was a teen I read anything and everything I loved Jane Austen, Christina Stead, Carson McCullers, Brecht, Auden, Mann. Then I was fascinated by the work of Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski writing apparently true stories, often in GRANTA, in an extraordinary way. I put WG Sebald in this category too. I was mesmerised by Raymond Carver for a while, I will be entranced by Alice Munro all my life. I read Flaubert, Tolstoy and Proust with great delight – I often go back to them.
Q. Where is your favourite bookshop in the world and why?
Oh so many! I visited an extraordinary bookshop in Tokyo this year, called Daikanyama T-Site. I could actually just move in there, live quietly in the whisky bar reading and come out as an old woman in 2050. I love Gleebooks, which is my local, it is etched into my heart. The opening pages of WIFEDOM take place in Sappho Books, next door. I love MacLeay Books in Potts Point, Berkelouws. Readings and the Hill of Content in Melbourne. Riverbend and Avid Reader in Brisbane, Fuller’s in Hobart. They are all places of great beauty, excitement, possibility and peace for me.
Q. Have you started work on another book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I only delivered this manuscript, after a year of editing, in May. I carried it around inside me for more than six years, and now that it’s out — a bit like having a big baby — I’m not even sure what shape I’ll be in when I get back to ‘normal’ without it. I’m going to write a novel, but it’s hazy to me right now. Which it needs to be: if I knew exactly what it was going to be I would lose the curiosity about it necessary to write it. Fiction is like magic, a very beautiful spell. Sometimes I can’t believe I get to do this.