The Erasure of Eileen Blair from Orwell's Homage to Catalonia: Background information when reading Wifedom

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Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life

by Anna Funder

Wifedom by Anna Funder X
Wifedom by Anna Funder
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    Aug 2023, 464 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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The Erasure of Eileen Blair from Orwell's Homage to Catalonia

This article relates to Wifedom

Print Review

Homenatge a CatalunyaReaders might be forgiven if, in reading George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, they miss the fact that his first wife, Eileen Blair, was in Spain with him, working for the Republican resistance against Franco's fascist forces. As Anna Funder points out in Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life, when George does refer to her, he does not even use her given name; she becomes merely "my wife."

In a Guardian article, the author expands on this act of erasure. "In Homage, Orwell mentions ‘my wife' 37 times but never once names her. No character can come to life without a name. But from a wife, which is a job description, all can be stolen." Eileen's contributions to the war effort were not inconsequential, as she was constantly on the move: writing propaganda in support of their cause, coordinating medical supply deliveries and other provisions, and managing communications, all while staying one step ahead of Stalinist spies.

Based provisionally at the headquarters for the British Independent Labour Party (ILP) they both supported in Barcelona, Eileen also made frequent trips to the battlefront to bring her husband luxuries and necessities. She also came under fire. She breathlessly relates her excitement in one of the recently discovered letters to her friend Norah Symes Myles:

"I was allowed to stay in the front line dugouts all day … The Fascists threw in a small bombardment and quite a lot of machine gun-fire, which was then comparatively rare on the Huesca front, so it was quite an interesting visit—indeed I have never enjoyed anything more."

Eileen's visit to George at the front—a reunion ending more than 100 days apart—is never mentioned in Homage to Catalonia, almost as if she were never there. But she is there, working at the ILP headquarters that coordinated the small contingent sent from Britain to fight alongside the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), the latter of which included George at the front. He sends to her in Barcelona the writings that will form the basis for his future book, which she dutifully transcribes and types up. When George is shot in the neck, Eileen cares for him and saves his manuscript; during a two-hour Stalinist raid on their room she stays "in bed to conceal the passports and chequebook she'd hidden under the mattress, allowing them to escape."

Realizing the "monumental disappearing trick" George works on Eileen in Homage to Catalonia, Funder recognizes the methods of omission, the most insidious being the use of the passive voice, whereby "manuscripts are typed without typists, idyllic circumstances exist without creators, an escape from Stalinist pursuers is achieved, by the passports being 'in order.'"

Thanks to Eileen's delicate maneuvering, they both escaped Spain after the Republican cause failed. It is more the pity her husband did not give her the due she deserved in his otherwise brilliant book on the Spanish Civil War.

Cover of George Orwell's book Homage to Catalonia published in Catalan.
Photo extracted by B.N. Sanchez (CC BY-SA 4.0) from an image by Jerónimo Roure Pérez (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Peggy Kurkowski

This article relates to Wifedom. It first ran in the September 6, 2023 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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