We caught up earlier this year with Anna Funder to discuss her upcoming book Wifedom, and how it explores marriage and art as a piece of 'counter-fiction'.
The response to Wifedom has been great so far, even pre-publication. When Penguin Random House posted it on Instagram, people were saying so many great things, they are so excited to read it. How does it make you feel to see this early hype for the book?
It’s a little overwhelming I suppose. I really hope people like it! And I hope it lives up to the hype. It’s nice. It’s been a long haul. It’s been six years writing this book, and I felt like I was writing two books at once in a way. I was researching Orwell and his life and his books, and then I was going behind all the books which reduce women to footnotes or don’t tell the story of the marriage. Going to the footnotes, going to the sources and finding out this whole other story and then weaving them in - showing Orwell’s story and then showing the story of the marriage, and then showing how it is that we don’t know this story of the marriage. The writing of it had moments of enormous excitement and I really hope that that carries into the text.
How do you separate the artist from the art and not conflate the two in your mind and still love Orwell’s work despite seeing this less savoury side of him?
Yes, that is really a question of our times. That is a question of ‘Me Too’ in lots of ways, particularly when we see an actor on screen or a writer that we love and then we find out that they were (in whatever way) unsavoury, or violent, or any number of things. I think, the centrepiece essay—there’s a tiny little essay of a few pages in the middle of this book that is really me grappling with that question in terms of my love for Orwell and how do I deal with what I know now about him. And I think the way that I do it is, the whole book benefits enormously from me having read Orwell’s work. The concept of ‘double think’ – which is an Orwellian concept – where you can hold two contradictory things in your mind at the same time without feeling, as he puts it; guilt. That’s a concept that applied to his life, so he was trying to be a decent man at the same time as he was monumentally unfaithful.
How do I hold those things in my mind? I think the way I do it is by saying that these words have enormous value to me and have brought me enormous joy. I don’t have to, nor do I want to, live with the man. I don’t want his story to be a story that silences the women, lovers, wives, sisters, mother in his life, and I can write a book that holds these two things in mind. So it’s both a celebration of his work, admiration of the man, but seeing very clearly the price that particularly his wife paid, and her contribution to his work.
It’s tricky, but I feel very strongly that I’m unbelievably far from perfect, and if somebody came a long and looked at my life and said ‘oh, well, here she’s doing all of these things, and really, she’s not so great after all…’ I think, good art possibly doesn’t come from incredibly nice people. We want art to show us things that we can’t see or that are unspoken or that we don’t talk about. And to do that, you’re asking somebody to look at them, and that may not be somebody who’s perfect or incredibly nice or incredibly well adjusted – I’m talking about myself here – so I don’t feel very judgemental about it. I feel very curious about it. And this book is an exercise in curiosity, admiration - I have moments of being completely appalled - but yes, you have to hold it all in. If we cancelled everybody because they said or did something you didn’t like, you might as well start with yourself, and that wouldn’t be very productive.
Eileen’s story is in no ways unique, women have been written out of history for ages. And even you were saying in your own marriage, you come to this realisation that it’s not 50/50 all the time. How do you hope that her unique story can inspire women everywhere?
This book is in part her unique story, and in part, I foreground my position as well and just say ‘why does her story ring so many bells with me?’ This is a story of a woman 80 years ago, albeit a highly educated woman from an upper middle-class background. I’m a highly educated woman from a similar kind of background. Why does it ring these bells? What does that mean about the position of perhaps women everywhere in heterosexual partnerships? Why is it that so much of what needs to be done to create the life of a home, a marriage, children, and in this case, a writer, or the work – which is the work of life itself. Why is that still so unequally shared?
It’s International Women’s Day today, and I heard on the radio on my way here that women end up with on average a million dollars less over lifetime earnings. That’s not unconnected from the massive amount of work that we are doing keeping everybody going psychologically. The generation before us, the generation to come—there’s a lot of care that goes into that. It’s not something that I don’t want to do, it’s not something that I don’t think is incredibly important, but it is something that I think should be more equally shared. So, when I was looking at Eileen’s life, it really seemed to me like things in the mirror are closer than they appear. And we’ve had people say, ‘we’ve had 10,000 years of patriarchy’, so in the last 100 years which is the blip we’ve come enormously far from, coming from not even being able to vote for who we want to govern us. 50 years ago my mother had to resign when she got married, and now we’ve had ’Me Too’. So we’re just working through enfranchisement, working rights, and now into the personal sphere and I think that this book is hopefully a small pebble in the pond or a contribution towards that.
In some ways, this book challenges our notions of literary history and the literary canon. How do you hope that this book can inspire people to think differently, or maybe be the thing that peels back the curtain and makes us see these great figures as real people?
I think what we might think of as – to use a term from my 80s childhood – unreal art is made by real people. People are capable of doing extraordinary things, that doesn’t make them morally extraordinary human beings necessarily. You need the insight into darkness in order to create great art.
In terms of the canon, my book doesn’t really affect Orwell’s place in the canon at all if you separate the man from the work, the work stays where it was. As I say in the beginning of this book that I’m partly writing out of envy for not having a wife like Eileen, who would do all of the things for me that she did for Orwell and I think his output, the extent of his output, (which was enormous) and the quality of it, particularly in the case of Animal Farm, really was the work of two people, and I think that in that way, there’s a slight adjustment to how we see the work. You can’t be as prolific as that, and run a household, and do your own shopping, and do your own travel, and organising, and deal with your own agent, run your own dinner parties and cook for them, deal with your own health, deal with your own relatives and so on and so forth. All the things that we women do disproportionately so much of.
You described this work as a ‘counter-fiction’. Would you mind giving a brief description of what you mean by that for everyone that doesn’t know about the book yet?
Yes. What happened was, at a moment of peak ‘wifedom’ of my own, I skived off and disappeared in to Sappho's, the second hand bookshop in Sydney, and I found this second hand edition of Orwell’s collected works, and journalism and essays, and I went off and read it. I fell in love with him all over again, and then I was on an Orwell jag, so I went and read the six major biographies that are written by him. They’re all by men, and I really enjoyed them. They were all brilliant but after that I was twiddling around and I found that there were six letters from his first wife, Eileen, to her best friend, but were written from just after they got married to the end of the marriage. Those letters only came to the light in 2005, after these major biographies were all written – so the biographies didn’t have the advantage of them.
The first of them reads, as I said, Eileen is a young woman in her early 30s. She’s just gotten married to Orwell five months ago, and she’s writing to her best friend from Oxford college days, and she writes:
‘Dear Nora, I’m sorry I hadn’t written earlier, but I have been so busy. We have quarrelled continuously and so bitterly since the wedding that I thought I’d write just one letter to everyone once the murder or separation was accomplished.’
I read that letter and I just thought, who is this woman? She is hilarious, and also, what was going on in that marriage? What happened? And what was it like for her? So then, I reread all the biographies, and I saw that what she was doing was relegated to footnotes or left out altogether. For instance, the biographers might write ‘… in the early days of marriage’, days that I had just read, for her, were where she wanted to murder him or leave him. The biographers will write; ‘these were incredibly productive days for Orwell, they were fantastic. Conditions were perfect for his writing,’ and I just thought to myself, well who was making those conditions? How did she feel about it? My book is an attempt to look at who makes the conditions, and how we talk about the conditions of life in a way that erases the person making them, and their contribution.
Turning the lens now from Eileen and George Orwell onto yourself. What inspired you to become a writer?
Orwell says something that really resonated with me – he always wanted to be writer since he was really small. He said, between the ages of about 17-25, (between the ages of 19-25 he was a policeman in Burma), he tried not to be a writer, but he felt it was denying his true nature and at some point he would have to pick up a pen and actually do it. I think that I have always ‘wanted to be a writer’ is one way of putting it, or, this sounds so bizarre—I had just known that that’s what I had to be since I was about six, and I think it’s my way of making sense of the world in language, and working out what my thoughts are in a way that is clear to me. I try to write books that make people, or myself, understand something but also feel it. I think so much intelligence is emotional intelligence and that’s how I understand the world. I understand the world in story and I understand it best when I feel what it’s like to be someone else. I suppose this book is really an obvious demonstration of me trying to do both of those things.
Do you need to have a wife to be an artist?
Speaking as an artist and a wife, I think you don’t need to have a wife to be an artist. I don’t think so, because plenty of people who are artists or who are making great work are either not in partnerships, or they’re not heterosexual, or it’s just not the model. I think in traditional patriarchy . . . the ‘great white males’ of the past century really benefited from having wives who were often artists themselves who put their career second and worked really in the service of their husbands’ careers. I’m looking at a case of that, but I’m saying; how is it that they become so invisible? That she could, with no comment, marry this person? She’s coming out of doing a literature degree at Oxford and she gets married, and no one thinks to ask; what did she want to do with her life? Or, I wonder what this woman with an Oxford degree in English contributed to the work of this man, who had no university education? Why are the questions not even asked? They’re the logical questions. And it’s because the point of view of the narrative in patriarchy is from the point of view of a man, so we don’t want to ask that question, because we don’t want to owe anybody anything and his achievement looks bigger if we can imagine that he did it alone. But that is a false imagining.
Is there anything else you would like to add, or feel like we haven’t covered, or anything about your own background?
There’s one thing that I wouldn’t mind talking about, and that is, I talk in the book about my own life as a way of trying to say—this is where I’m coming from. This is the behind the scenes of the creation of Wifedom, in a way. So I am doing the school run, or the shopping, or driving myself crazy in the mall or whatever I’m doing, and that’s a way of saying; these are the conditions of my production of this work, and I am looking then at the conditions of the production that Orwell had to make his work. I’m trying to do both of those things.
Part of my conditions of production are that I am an extremely privileged white woman, in a really wealthy country. I had to think about that, and I’m heterosexual and I am married to a man. I’m talking in this book about what it is to be in a male/female partnership in patriarchy. There are other ways of doing it and people are trying other things, and there have always been other ways, but the male/female dyad is universal. It crosses cultural, colour lines, and class lines the world over. At a certain juncture I had a look at that and put it really briefly in the book, just to say – this kind of life and labour theft, and erasure mechanism of patriarchy, operates on you as a woman no matter how privileged you are. It’s different if you have less money, and different if you are in a really poor country, it’s different if you are differently-abled, but the basic dynamic of patriarchy which is to assume the entitlement of a man to that labour persists and it’s universal. So, I just thought – I will try (from my particular point of view) to say something of resonance for women and for men everywhere.
I’ve tried this book on my husband and friends of ours, and what I have found is that this is a book that will have an effect – even if people don’t read it. You can just leave it, with its big title on the coffee table and the men will suddenly, pronto, start doing things.
‘One of the most startling explorations of life-writing in recent times . . . a genre-bending tour-de-force that resurrects an invisible woman.’
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