Is "Wifedom" fiction? Nonfiction? Yes.

It's almost impossible to characterize Anna Funder's book about Eileen Orwell, known — if she's thought of at all — as "wife of George Orwell." But this dazzling, infuriating book argues that she deserves a bigger place in history.

"Wifedom" is a sort-of biography of Eileen, but Funder intersperses historical accounts with fictional vignettes that imagine how Eileen might have reacted when, for instance, she read her husband's book of his service during the Spanish Civil War, in which he barely mentioned that she was there, that she was a spy who was in more danger than he was and that she saved his life.

Funder wants us to think about that, with this added detail: Eileen was the editor and typist of her husband's works, so it's not just that she saw herself written out of his accounts. She also codified his erasure of her. (Funder notes that George refers to "my wife" 37 times in the book without once using her name.)

It gets worse. It was often remarked that "Animal Farm" was nothing like George's other work, something Funder believes is because Eileen contributed so much to it.

The "1984" author had affairs, lots of them, and pretended he had an open marriage, except Eileen — often forced into uncomfortable dinners with George's paramours — never agreed to it.

When a "hail of bullets" endangers both Orwells, George ponders saving Eileen, but opts to run in the opposite direction.

George had tuberculosis, although he denied it and refused to warn those with whom he had contact. Oh, and Eileen died because her husband skipped town and couldn't be reached to OK a life-saving operation.

It can't have been easy to write a quasi-biography of someone who was Wited Out of the historical record, but Funder has the receipts, and she shows them. She quotes from six biographies of George Orwell — all by men — and shows how they deliberately avoided mentioning Eileen, sometimes even altering quotations so they could sidestep acknowledging her.

The decision to write about a brilliant woman who was overlooked because she lived in the shadow of a famous dude recalls Jill Lepore's brilliant "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane [sister of Ben] Franklin." But I've never read anything like "Wifedom," which is a biography, a critique of the art of biography, a witty essay and an act of rescue.

It's even more. Funder takes a look at her own marriage and at what it means to be a wife, even to a man who is — unlike Orwell — a great guy: "Wifedom is a wicked magic trick we have learned to play on ourselves. I want to expose how it is done and so take its wicked, tricking power away."

By: Anna Funder.
Publisher: Knopf, 464 pages, $32.