(1918 - 1980)






From Volume 24 Number 8 | cover date 25 April 2002

Don't think about it

Jenny Diski

The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling. | Hamish Hamilton, 208pp., £9.99, 30 May 2002

  There must be people who, during their lifetime, get their minds right enough not to feel bitterness as the end looms and they realise that nothing much else is going to happen to them apart from death. I understand from reading and anecdote that some people do die with a smile and the words 'It's been a good life' on their lips. But not many, surely? It seems to me almost unreasonable, indecent even, not to feel some degree of regret as life winds down towards the end. And life, of course, has generally only just got properly started before it begins to show signs of not going on for ever. So when I read in David Plante's Difficult Women (1979) that Sonia Orwell in her final years complained to him, 'I've fucked up my life. I'm angry because I've fucked up my life,' it doesn't seem to me necessarily to imply a particularly tragic or wasted life. At least not necessarily more tragic or wasted than most. Unless you take the Chinese view, an interesting life is the best we can hope for in an existence which ends, for all of us, prematurely with illness or ageing and death.  

There can be no doubt that Sonia Orwell had an interesting life; vivid and complicated in her early years, drunkenly angry and anxious towards the end, but with friends who cared enough about her to put up with her and even, decades later, to write a biography designed, as Hilary Spurling's explicitly is, to stem 'the tide of venom that pursued her into and beyond the grave'. The venom was largely a result of the way, as George Orwell's widow, she managed the literary estate. She was deemed to be tyrannical, grasping and interested only in the income the estate generated. She was remembered - by men in particular - as having slept around copiously in her youth, though when you think of the 1950s and who was available in London and Paris to sleep with you can only wonder that she made time to do any work as an editor at Horizon. And as an older woman, she was feared for her vicious tongue. Hilary Spurling begs to differ, or at least explain.

The trouble with attempting to redress a blackened reputation is that in the process of countering the allegations you are always in danger of directing the reader's attention to the original criticism. In order to refute the general condemnation of her friend, Spurling acknowledges the difficult older woman David Plante knew: 'Fear, suspicion and hostility lay increasingly close to the surface. Insecurity or drink released an aggression that made her many enemies.' A nephew compared being on the receiving end of one of her public tirades to a drive-by shooting. But even then, Spurling says, 'beneath the trappings of the hardened old warhorse you could still see traces of the impetuous young thoroughbred, who had enchanted Leiris and others a quarter of a century before.' Well, yes. Most of us were easier to take when young, especially if we were beautiful, energetic, bright and eagerly ambitious, as Sonia Orwell clearly was. We should, however, be grateful for the transformation; young thoroughbreds, if they don't become old warhorses like the Widow Orwell, are inclined to prance unprettily about, all unaware of the effects of time, and set one's teeth on edge.

But we are in the realm of contemporary biography, and Spurling, with several lives to her credit, will not settle for a memoir of Sonia Orwell that merely has her decline into harsh disappointment through the effects of loss of youth. The heroine must be driven in some way towards the sad end made importantly tragic by a seed of self-destruction planted when she was very young. And indeed, Sonia Orwell was well equipped with potential demons in her youth. Her childhood was a colonial mess. Born in Calcutta, she had a father who died, perhaps by suicide, when she was a few months old, and a mother who remarried a year later a man who was at least a drunk, if not a psychopath. When she was six, she was sent, as if to complete the gothic theme, to the same awful convent school that Antonia White attended and wrote about in Frost in May. Vicious nuns, a minimal education for middle-class marriage and - something, at least - a powerful enemy to kick against. As an adult she would spit on the street if she saw nuns. Earlier, she had a more sophisticated mode of expression. 'I'm so bored I wish I'd been birth-controlled so as not to exist,' she announced in the hearing of a nun at a school hockey match. For this one moment of perfectly aimed revenge, she is, in my view, to be forgiven everything. The drive-by shooting began much earlier than her nephew thought. The tough old warhorse began battling young and was, it seemed, pretty well equipped for the fight. This may well be what people so resented about her. She doesn't look much like a victim at any point in her life, even when things aren't going so well. There is something very slightly diminishing about placing her in the role of a woman at the mercy of her circumstances and wronged.

Spurling describes an accident that happened to Sonia Orwell when she was 17 and living with a family in Switzerland. She offers it as a defining, life-long trauma. A boat in which Sonia was sailing with three other young people overturned in a sudden squall. Sonia headed for the shore but returned to the boat when she realised that the others were not following. They couldn't swim. Two of them went down and she tried to save the last boy who struggled against her in his panic and tried to pull her down with him. 'Unable to save him,' Spurling says, 'pushing him away, fighting in his clutches for her life, she tore free as he went down for the last time.' According to her biographer, 'Sonia never forgot the terrible embrace of a convulsive male body stronger than her own, and its even more terrible consequences.' Clearly, a dreadful experience. But Michael Shelden, George Orwell's biographer and in Spurling's view one of those responsible for disparaging Sonia, has a slightly different take on the event. Interviewing her sister and half-brother, he claims that fearing for her life in the struggle with the boy she was trying to save, 'she grabbed him by the hair and pushed his head under water. She was able to hold him down for several seconds, and then she let go, thinking he would stop trying to fight her and would come to the surface. But he did not come up.' This is the story she told her mother and sister when she returned to England, and Shelden says: 'She later told the story to her half-brother, Michael, to whom she was very close, and she left no doubt in his mind that she considered herself responsible for the one boy's death: '"I held him under," she said . . . A few of Sonia's close friends knew about the incident in Switzerland, but they were generally led to believe that the tragedy for her was simply that she was the lone survivor. She seems to have left out the details about her struggle with the drowning boy.'

Perhaps Hilary Spurling was one of those friends who got the more helplessly guilty version and, writing the memoir, simply related what she was told. It's a terrible enough tale. But the stronger story, that she fought against the boy's life for her own so that she felt responsible for his death, does not do her a greater disservice. The will to live of most 17-year-olds is and should be very strong. It does, however, rather change the tone of the memory of that embrace of the 'convulsive male body, stronger than her own, and its even more terrible consequences'. She was dealing with something more than pure survivor guilt and she is not then or at any point as far as I can see a simple victim. Only in a very bi-polar world would that make her a simple villain.

Of course, the childhood Catholicism scored its troubling mark, as Spurling repeatedly insists. Her theory is that Sonia Orwell was permanently consumed with the crushing guilt that the Church is so adept at instilling: the kind of free-form guilt that just washes around waiting for any opportunity to overflow. The life is portrayed as driven essentially by revolt against her convent days, tempered by this guilt about which she could do nothing. Sex was one obvious way to kick against her upbringing, and she is known to have kicked vigorously. Spurling also suggests that her love, her worship even, of writing and painting was another form of rebellion against the conformity demanded by her schooling. Rebellion they might be, but sex and art are also sources of pleasure. There are worse ways of fighting back. But Spurling suggests that sex was not so much pleasure as weapon for Sonia. 'She would love many men, and sleep with many more but, for her, true love in its most intense and deepest form was not primarily sexual. On the two or three occasions when she broke this rule, the results were catastrophic.'

She left suburbia and found herself a world of arty glamour in Fitzrovia. She was the Euston Road Venus to William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore, Lucian Freud and other lovers who painted and adored her youth, her over-compensating fierceness of opinion, her looks and some mysterious sadness that she carried inside. She was an insecure, uneducated girl who glorified men who painted pictures and wrote books, who thought there was nothing better that could be done by a person, and who wanted to be part of their life. It wasn't hard for her. Older, very clever men were devoted to her. Cyril Connolly brought her into Horizon, where she learned fast and eventually, to the chagrin of some who were not used to receiving editorial decisions from 25-year-old women, more or less ran it, while its editors went off in search of love and sun. She went to France and was feted by the likes of Michel Leiris, Lacan and Merleau-Ponty - who became the lost love of her life when she couldn't accept the French distinction between love (his wife) and un amour (herself). Merleau-Ponty, before he tired of her demand that he leave his wife, was 'transfixed . . . by the sorrow underlying her surface gaiety'. He delighted also in her practical take on the intellectual life, such as her description of spending time with Roland Barthes and Dionys Mascolo from Gallimard:

They talked about civil war as one talks about a visit to the dentist. When they came to discussing how to make efficient bombs out of bottles with petrol, I could have knocked their heads together with rage, and I only refrained from screaming when they said any form of personal pleasure was a waste of time, because they were so busy getting tight and so pleased with the clothes they had bought on the black market that it became rather touching.

An old story of all mouth and no trousers, I think.

It must have been a heavenly time, and if the great love didn't work out and later life couldn't live up to it, it was surely an enviable youth. The sorrow was there, but it was a necessary attribute for a girl who wanted to be loved by wiser, older men. They are suckers for sadness.

She turned Orwell down at his first proposal, as did the several other women he asked to marry him at the same time. She slept with him, but only once, then Orwell went off to the island of Jura to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Sonia as the model for the innately freedom-loving, contrary Julia: 'the girl from the Fiction Department . . . was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life . . . She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated.' Orwell asked Sonia again, not long after the split with Merleau-Ponty, and this time she accepted. He was dying by then and his reputation was rising, so according to Michael Shelden, Sonia accepted him with a view to becoming a rich, literary widow. Her friends say that Orwell wrote to her to say that he believed marrying her would prolong his life, so, she told Spurling, 'you see, I had no choice.' He made her his executor and asked her to refuse all requests for a biography. Clearly, she had proved herself enough in the world of books for Orwell to trust her to be his literary widow. If it was not a love match, it apparently cheered Orwell up in his last three months, according to Anthony Powell, though it greatly annoyed Stephen Spender, who resented being told by a snip of a girl to limit his political conversation with G.O. to twenty minutes.

Her next marriage was in 1958 to Michael Pitt-Rivers, who had been jailed four years earlier in the scandalous homosexuality trial that led the Wolfenden Committee to recommend legalisation. The marriage did not work out. Sonia was not a woman who married for love. Spurling doesn't dispute this, but says that she came to love both husbands and lost one while failing to convert the other. When George died, according to Natasha Spender, 'it was cataclysmic. She had persuaded herself she loved him intellectually, for his writing, but she found she really loved him.' As Sonia said to David Plante when he laughed about someone's dalliance, 'no one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn't anything to joke about. It really isn't.'

Both Plante and Spurling talk of her generosity, her capacity to turn up with small, delightful gifts to hearten the cheerless. She took on the even more difficult Jean Rhys in her old age and put up with no end of fuss and fume from her, recognising perhaps another talented beauty grown old and enraged. Plante found her refusal to talk about his deeper self painful. 'I wonder,' he asks her at lunch when she is complaining that one of her shelves is wonky, 'if I feel more isolated here in Europe than in America.' Her reply is deliciously Mad-Hatterish: 'You might as well ask if you'd feel isolated on Mars. The question doesn't have much consequence. No, no. Don't think about it. Now, I've got to get that shelf up properly, as I have some French house guests coming.' Self-absorbed, he calls her. A pairing made in heaven, I'd say.

The major complaints about Sonia Orwell come from those who wanted access to Orwell's papers, especially potential biographers. She was fierce in her control of the estate, or doggedly loyal to her husband's wishes. To Spurling, her attempt to retain control of the estate, and her failure to do so after a court case against the accountant who ran it, was the root cause of her death - a difficult one this, since she died of a brain tumour. At any rate, at the end of the 1970s she suddenly gave up the house in which she had held a literary salon and went to France, living in a bedsit and shunning her friends. Reading was her only consolation. 'But when I put them down or when I wake up, it's all there again . . . this terrible endless tunnel into which I've drifted which, naturally, I feel is somehow all my fault but from which I'll never emerge again, but worse [I feel] that I've damaged George.' Michael Shelden, on the other hand, sees her as battling to retain her rights and income.

Sonia Orwell was a good editor with a fine nose for talent, but she did not produce anything of her own. Instead, her life is an insight into the lives and times of others. According to Shelden, 'Orwell's widow, Sonia, who had married him only three months before his death and who was fifteen years his junior, had her opinions, one of which was: "He believed there is nothing about a writer's life that is relevant to a judgment of his work."' It seems her opinion was correct. Orwell himself wrote in an essay on Salvador Dalí: 'One ought to be able to hold in one's head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.'

It's a kindness to want to rectify the denigration of friends who cannot defend themselves. Spurling's memoir is plainly that, and good-hearted. As to the truth, who knows? Perhaps it is the best kind of biography. Orwell might have thought so. Because Sonia never wrote anything, nothing can be illuminated or misconstrued except the subject herself. But to admire the capacity for art in others must surely make one wish to produce it oneself. It may be that this was the final source of her sadness when life was coming to a close and someone else's work was all there was to fight for.

Jenny Diski's new book will be Stranger on a Train, about crossing America. Her eighth novel, Only Human, is out from Virago.


Sun 5 May 2002

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl from the fiction department by Hilary Spurling

Ministry of Truth

Andrew Crumey

Hamish Hamilton, £9.99

AS GEORGE Orwell lay dying of tuberculosis in 1949, Sonia Brownell finally accepted his proposal of marriage. A few months later Evelyn Waugh remarked, "George Orwell is dead, and Mrs Orwell presumably a rich widow." Orwell immortalised her as Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, but in the two decades since her own death, posterity has not been kind to Sonia Orwell. The popular image is that she was a talentless hanger-on who slept her way round London’s pre-War artistic circles, latched on to Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine, then saw a perfect opportunity in Orwell, spending the rest of her life cashing in on his fame and the mounting royalties from Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Even her chosen surname is held against her; for Orwell was of course only the author’s pseudonym.

Against such a barrage of criticism, some kind of balance is surely called for. And we now have it. Spurling was a friend of Sonia’s, and so her portrait is clearly sympathetic. It is not, however, merely flattering. Rather, Spurling makes an overwhelmingly convincing case, based on fact, that Sonia Orwell has been deeply misunderstood. In fact, one might even guess that the lasting view of her will be that of Stephen Spender, who described Sonia’s social gatherings at her South Kensington home in the 1960s as "the closest thing London possessed to a literary salon". Sonia had no great creative talent of her own, but she fostered the talents of many others, notably Jean Rhys. She is a figure in the background of numerous lives - not only Orwell and Connolly, but also her great friend and drinking companion Francis Bacon, and her best female friend for many years, Marguerite Duras. In an eventful life that saw her dating African rulers and nightclubbing with Jean-Paul Sartre, Orwell was a brief interlude, but a crucial one, not only for her posthumous reputation but also for the woman herself, since it was Orwell’s legacy, Spurling argues, that ultimately killed her.

In unpicking the legend, the first issue is the wealth that Sonia supposedly married. As Spurling points out, Orwell in 1949 was no great catch. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published to glowing reviews and became the best-seller that established Orwell’s fame, but the book only began to make large amounts of money in its later paperback editions, reaching sales of a million copies per year. The man Sonia married was no meal ticket. He was a widower with an adopted son, whose brief affair with Sonia was a somewhat desperate escape from loneliness.

The real love of Sonia’s life, she always said, was the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He, however, took the very French view of staying with his wife, while expecting Sonia to be his mistress. Merleau-Ponty had already driven a girl to her death, described by the girl’s best friend, Simone de Beauvoir, in Memoirs Of A Dutiful Daughter. Sonia did not go so far, but when Merleau-Ponty finally ditched her, she was a woman in need of some new purpose in life. Orwell, her brief companion from a couple of years earlier, was that purpose.

He believed that marriage to Sonia would cure him of tuberculosis. The plan was for them to go to a sanatorium in Switzerland, together with Lucien Freud. Orwell would write, Sonia would edit. She never loved Orwell; but one might argue that the deal she entered was all the more admirable, or else simply foolish, if neither love nor money were major factors. It doesn’t take a Relate counsellor to see that the marriage would never have worked; but in any case, four days before they were due to fly to Switzerland, Orwell died.

In his last months, Orwell’s affairs were tidied up in a way that ultimately proved harmful to Sonia. A company called George Orwell Productions was set up to handle all the royalties. Sonia was paid an allowance from this, which by 1977 reached £750 a month. That was a tidy sum; but still not what you might expect to earn from book sales that numbered in millions. And as Orwell’s literary executor, Sonia was determined to honour a wish he expressed perfectly clearly. Once, reading a biography of Joseph Conrad written by the author’s widow, Orwell threw it across the room, saying, "Never do that to me". Orwell stated in his will that there should be no authorised biography, and Sonia did all she could to abide by his wishes. "Orwell had put her in an impossible position," says Spurling, "but it was her reputation, not his, that suffered."

Throughout the Seventies, interest grew in Orwell’s greatest book, and Sonia turned down lucrative Hollywood film deals, and proposals for theatre adaptations. Sonia’s refusals, as Spurling notes, only fuelled the animosity against her. She gave in, though, to calls for an authorised biography by Bernard Crick after an unauthorised one appeared. Crick, for his part, found Sonia greedy and unscrupulous, setting the tone for subsequent Orwell biographers.

Sonia was not just part of George Orwell’s life, though. She flits through the pages of countless biographies, and novels too. As well as Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, she is the shrewd and efficient Ada in Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish A Room, the bossy Elvira in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and the sad, cynical Diana in Marguerite Duras’s Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinie. She was the Euston Road Venus, painted by artists such as Victor Pasmore and Bill Coldstream, who were among the first of her lovers; she was the hard-headed editor at Horizon magazine and then at the publishers Weidenfeld and Nicholson, launching the British careers of American writers including Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. Latterly, she was the weary saloniste of South Kensington, kept going by gin and by her neighbours Francis Bacon and Ivy Compton-Burnett, while locked in a legal battle with her accountant. Having unknowingly signed over a significant portion of her shares in George Orwell Productions, she found she no longer had a veto on rights sales. The films and plays could go ahead. Her last act, before her death in 1980, was to sell her home in order to buy back the rights, which she then left to Orwell’s son. She died penniless, and maligned.

Why has she had such a bad press? Undoubtedly she was a difficult woman; she was also a heavy drinker and a tireless bedhopper, whose two marriages (the second to a homosexual country squire) were not for love. Many male literary figures do far worse and get off more lightly. Carole Angier and Diana Athill have both noted Sonia’s touching support for Jean Rhys, while biographers of Orwell and Connolly have preferred to emphasise her flaws. There is a clear split here, between male biographers writing about male subjects, and women discussing female ones. After reading Spurling’s fascinating account of a life that has remained too long in the shadows, it looks as though the women might finally win the day.

Andrew Crumey’s latest novel is Mr Mee


May 12, 2002

Review: Biography: The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling

THE GIRL FROM THE FICTION DEPARTMENT A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling (H Hamilton) £9.99 pp194

The first great mystery that hangs over Sonia Brownell (1918-1980) is why, for the last three decades of her life, she should have called herself Sonia Orwell. Her marriage to George Orwell lasted three months, during the winter of 1949-50, and was conducted across the hospital bed in which he died. “George Orwell” was not the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s real name, and his first wife had spent nine years as Mrs Blair. Why not “Sonia Pitt-Rivers”, for that matter, the name of her second husband, briefly entertained during the 1950s? As Hilary Spurling shows in this concise and elegant book, the decision to become, and to remain, Sonia Orwell reveals something deliberate about the view that Sonia took of herself.

The second great mystery is why, 20 years after her death, so distinguished a writer as Spurling, the biographer of Matisse, Paul Scott and Ivy Compton-Burnett, should want to produce a portrait of her. Granted, Spurling was a chum — they met during her research on Compton-Burnett — but for all the luminous circle of literary and artistic friends that Sonia accumulated around herself, she wrote practically nothing (although there was a distinguished editorial contribution to the 1968 four-volume edition of Orwell’s essays, letters and journals) and left only a public legacy of drink-fuelled bad behaviour. Here, it turns out, is the root of Spurling’s motivation. Trailing the clutch of Orwell biographers (notably Michael Shelden and Jeffrey Meyers) who portrayed her as a temperamental gold-digger, The Girl from the Fiction Department is, finally, the case for the defence. As such, and despite the existence of a fair amount of prosecution evidence, it is about 80% successful.

Like her first husband’s, Sonia’s background was Anglo- Indian. It was also traumatic. After burying one rackety husband and leaving a second, her mother was forced to retire to the old country and open a boarding house. Dispatched at six to a convent school (where, it can be plausibly inferred, she acquired her gargantuan sense of “conscience”), Sonia hated the nuns so much that in later life she took to spitting in the street whenever one went by. There was also a terrifying incident in her teens when her three companions on a Swiss boating trip drowned, Sonia only surviving by pushing away a boy whose struggles threatened to drag her under. According to her psychiatrist brother, this remained the dominant memory of her life.

Bright, beautiful and irrevocably damaged, the late-teenage Sonia escaped to prewar Fitzrovia, was taken up by the painterly Bohemians who hung around the Euston Road art school and, in terms of her reputation at least, never looked back. By 1940 she was an assistant on Cyril Connolly’s influential Horizon, returning after war work to the post of editorial secretary and virtual command of the magazine (among other discoveries she turned up Angus Wilson’s first stories) while Connolly idled elsewhere. Connolly may have formed her opinions but, as Spurling deftly shows, it was Peter Watson, Horizon’s homosexual proprietor, on whom she lavished her real affection.

To mark down this bearer of slippers to the feet of great or even mildly interesting men as a high-class literary groupie would be a mistake. Though it mystified their friends, her marriage to Orwell, while on the rebound from the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is quite understandable in her terms. Widowed and gravely ill, Orwell wanted a wife (he and Sonia had had a brief fling three years before). Sonia wanted to help. Begun in the most prosaic way (“Learn how to make dumplings”, Orwell apparently instructed, while proposing), the union realised only a spectacular posthumous responsibility. Apart from a short-lived second marriage to Michael Pitt-Rivers, another of the gay men with whom she was periodically smitten, she spent the rest of her life burnishing Orwell’s memory and laying out his money on good works.

Towards the end it all went badly wrong and she fetched up in Paris: ill, detached from her London friends and strangely hard-up (she took legal action against Orwell’s accountants). Having read the first sanctioned biography, by Bernard Crick, she went to her death convinced that she had betrayed her husband’s memory.

Spurling does her best for Sonia, stressing her many kindnesses and benefactions, but never glosses over how tiresome she could be. Frances Partridge’s diaries, for instance, give a good picture of Sonia’s other side: domineering, drunk and volatile to the point where prudent onlookers simply kept out of the way.

As for the girl from the fiction department of the title, Spurling makes an interesting attempt to connect her to the genesis of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and quotes from a Horizon review from 1946 that may be thought to foreshadow the novel’s emotional centrepiece. On the other hand it could equally well be argued, on the strength of a rediscovered poem published some years back in the TLS, that Orwell’s first wife, Eileen, had a similar impact on the book. Beautifully illustrated, and written with Spurling’s customary grace, The Girl from the Fiction Department is a lavish work of pietas, which never wholly dispels its subject’s legendarily forbidding air.

D J Taylor’s biography of George Orwell will be published next year.


Sonia Orwell’s role in her husband’s biography

Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers (W W Norton £12.95)
The case for the prosecution


May 12, 2002

Orwell’s most ferocious defender
TOM ROSENTHAL explains how he came both to know and dread Orwell’s ‘very awful’ widow, Sonia

I was never “George Orwell’s publisher”. His publishers in this country were Victor Gollancz, until he lost his nerve and turned down Animal Farm (for fear of upsetting our Soviet ally), and Fred Warburg, who did have the guts to offend Russia and many other left-leaning folk. As a result, he also published Nineteen Eighty-Four and acquired Orwell’s backlist.

When I succeeded Fred as head of Secker & Warburg, Orwell had been dead for more than 20 years. I did what I think every publisher ought to do — check personally every royalty statement. The royalties earned by the remarkable Secker backlist of foreign writers — including Mishima, Calvino, Moravia, Svevo, Gide, Colette, Kafka, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll — added up to a sum roughly equal to only half the earnings of Orwell.

This fact was partly due to British xenophobia and partly to Orwell’s unique literary and political standing in this country. Not meeting him (he died in 1950 when I was still a schoolboy) was one of the stranger aspects of being responsible for his oeuvre, but not nearly as strange as having to deal with his literary executor and widow, Sonia.

Sonia is celebrated in a new book by Hilary Spurling, The Girl from the Fiction Department, which sees her, rightly I think, as the model for Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, at first presented as a beautiful and uncrushable human spirit. By the time I met Sonia in 1971 the beauty had faded but its lineaments were clearly to be seen and she was still entirely uncrushable. The Sonia portrayed by Spurling (see review, left) is not quite the one I knew and came to dread. In David Plante’s memoir of her, she is recorded as saying: “I did it again. I put on my widow of George Orwell act. Was I awful?” She could, in truth, be very awful, not least in calling herself Orwell when she was born Brownell and was, in fact, Mrs Eric Blair, plus later marrying and divorcing Michael Pitt-Rivers. Sonia was aware of this problem; she wrote that her great friend Marguerite Duras who “is dedicating her next novel to me . . . decided to put ‘Pour Sonia’ because all my strings of other names had lost their reality in some way. I feel I have achieved the status of a super tart, known only by her first name!”

That rather endearing, astringent humour was rarely in evidence in her dealings with me. A single word of which she disapproved in a jacket blurb led to demands to pulp the entire edition of an Orwell omnibus volume. Having realised that to enforce Orwell’s injunction against any biography was a lost cause, she decided that Bernard Crick should be entrusted with the task. Later finding that she didn’t like what he had written, she did everything possible to dissuade me from honouring my commitments to him. When I stuck to my guns, her letters were so abusive that I kept them at home rather than in the company files.

Far from being the spendthrift rich widow of legend, Sonia never had any money to speak of, because Orwell’s very dodgy accountant systematically robbed her to the extent that she was more or less penniless in her final years. Shortly before she died in 1980 I got an urgent phone call from the estate’s financially impeccable agent, Mark Hamilton, asking if I could authorise an immediate payment to her of £250,000. I said this advance against future royalties could be handed over. In the event, it was not needed but its instant availability was a measure of Orwell’s sales in the late 1970s.

After Sonia’s death one of the few significant roles left to me was to celebrate the year 1984. I decided to publish a facsimile of the extant half of the original manuscript. This scholarly task turned out to be fraught with drama: having borrowed the manuscript, valued at £250,000, from its American owner, I prepared to fly home. I also had Max Beerbohm’s own illustrated copy of Zuleika Dobson, worth another £100,000, in my hand luggage as I caught the helicopter for Kennedy airport. During the 15-minute flight, there was a vast, grinding thump as we were struck by lightning. I imagine that this was the first time that someone facing death wrote in his head a newspaper headline reading, “Two of England’s most important and valuable manuscripts destroyed in freak storm”.

I thought it would be interesting for Orwell’s publishers abroad to publish an edition of our facsimile, too. The elegant Frenchwoman who ran the small house which had the rights for Nineteen Eighty-Four (never, incidentally, known to any but the illiterate as 1984) had to consult her husband. I agreed to phone her at home. A rough male voice answered. I asked for Madame Lebovici and was told to identify myself and explain my business. Another, even more impatient, male voice interrogated me further. Finally summoned, Madame Lebovici apologised: her husband and business partner had just died. The facsimile would not be published in France. The next day, I opened my Times to see a photograph of a man with a starlet on his arm, under the headline “French film mogul gunned down”. He was Monsieur Lebovici. Those monosyllabic men who had interrogated me were Paris detectives.

If Sonia had had difficulties with a biography of Orwell, she had also had problems with the colossal amount of letters, journalism, essays and other pieces he had left behind. With Ian Angus, she produced a superb four-volume selection in 1968 — all that she was prepared to have published.

It was only after her death that I could publish a Complete Works of George Orwell. I engaged a formidable editor and Orwell scholar, Peter Davison, who combined all the best attributes of the squirrel and the truffle-hound. Sonia’s volumes grew and grew. Year after year passed by, not because of Davison’s idleness but because of his industry. The letters, essays and journalism eventually filled 11 volumes of the 20 that comprised the set. They were published in 1998, some 27 years after I became the head of the firm and 14 after I’d left it. But they remain my most cherished publishing obsession.


In defence of Sonia Orwell

Hilary Spurling


The myths surrounding Orwell's widow

George Orwell’s biographers and others have painted a black picture of his second wife. The Widow Orwell emerges from their hands as a shrewdly calculating gold-digger who exploited her husband’s name and copyrights, as well as squandering his fortune. Her friends’ protests that she was nothing like that have for the most part been ignored. Neither refutation nor remonstrance has so far stemmed the tide of venom that pursued her into and beyond the grave. In the two decades since Sonia Orwell died in 1980, we have seen the making of a monster: one of the twentieth century’s more fantastic literary gargoyles, concocted from misconceptions, misunderstandings and – regarding the most serious allegation against her, that she sought only to profit from marriage to Orwell – ignorance of the true nature of her dealings with his estate, which have been successfully concealed until now.

On the face of it, the facts seem clear enough. George Orwell was already on his death-bed when he married Sonia Brownell in 1949, and made a will leaving everything to her. He never left hospital, and died just over three months later. Since he became, after his death, one of the great bestsellers of the twentieth century, his widow should have been a wealthy woman. Orwell’s biographers, starting with Michael Shelden in Orwell: The authorised biography (1991) have accused her of marrying him for “mercenary motives”: “she knew that if they married she would have money . . . . Orwell’s growing royalties represented the money.” “Why then did she agree to marry Orwell?” asked Jeffrey Meyers ten years later in Orwell: Wintry conscience of a generation ; “. . . in 1949 he was a rich and famous author who made no sexual demands and would soon be dead . . . everyone knew . . . that very large sums of money would soon come pouring in from Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four ”.

In fact Orwell had little money when he died, and no great expectations of any more to come.The most he looked forward to, in a letter to his sister-in-law in 1949, was “a small income from royalties for some time to come”. Substantial sums started arriving only after the posthumous US paperback deals for his two most famous novels. For reasons not clear to anyone, at the time or since, Sonia herself never received more than a fraction of the income from these royalties.

Apart from the charge of greed (hotly disputed by her friends), the accusations levelled at her by both Shelden and Meyers are that she was heartless and/or sexually frigid, that she had no right to the name of Orwell, and that she failed to be a mother to her husband’s adopted son, Richard. The first of these accusations seems to have arisen largely because Sonia was happier with Frenchmen as lovers, a preference accepted only with difficulty by the many Englishmen who failed to get her into bed. “Male vanity” was the explanation given to me by her friend and contemporary, Lady Violet Powell, when I asked why Sonia had attracted so much envy and resentment in her lifetime and afterwards. The trouble, according to Violet Powell, was due to Sonia’s dazzling looks combined with the power she wielded as a young literary editor, first on Horizon and later for Weidenfeld and Nicolson, over male writers who had little or no experience of being turned down by a woman. As Orwell’s fame grew, many of his male friends felt themselves better qualified than she was to manage his literary estate. Potential biographers, speculative publishers, theatrical adapters, film producers, the commercial developers anxious to cash in on an increasingly hot property, were all infuriated to find Orwell’s copyrights jealously guarded by his widow.

The claim that Sonia should never have called herself “Mrs George Orwell” was put forward on the grounds that, since “Orwell” was a pen name, she was legally entitled only to the name under which she married him, of “Mrs Eric Blair”. But this would have been an absurd affectation on her part, given that neither she nor anyone else who first met him as a writer in the 1940s knew him as anything but Orwell. As Roger Senhouse wrote to another of Orwell’s old schoolfriends in 1945, “he has now become his pseudonym and even his friends call him George”.

As for the third charge, it was refuted by Orwell himself. When Sonia married him, his son Richard had been looked after for almost four of his five years by Orwell’s sister, Avril Blair. There was never any question of the child being handed over to Sonia, whom he hardly knew. “We have agreed that if I should die in the near future, even if I were already married, Avril shall be his guardian”, Orwell wrote on September 17, 1949, to his old friend Richard Rees.

The account of Sonia’s motives and behaviour given by both Shelden and Meyers was widely disputed at the time by eyewitnesses, in these pages and elsewhere. As Sonia’s friend, I was one of the protesters. But, as a biographer myself, I felt less confident. For one thing, I shared my colleagues’ professional reservations about complaints from injured, aggrieved and interested parties. All biographers learn to fend off or discount this kind of intervention. A couple of years ago I sat next to Meyers over lunch at a biographical conference in Boston. He had just delivered a paper, citing Sonia – “a blooming Renoir beauty married to an El Greco saint” – as a prime example of the biographer’s worst nightmare in point of wilful mischief and obstruction. When I tentatively pointed out that she hadn’t seemed like that to me, Meyers’s eye glinted: “I was waiting for you to pounce”, he said.

I couldn’t help sympathizing with him, especially when he added that, instead of trying to pick holes in other people’s versions, I would do better to write about her myself. It was excellent advice. The Sonia Orwell her friends knew did not correspond to the figure portrayed by her husband’s biographers, but, if this felt like a case of literary mugging, it was up to those who objected to produce evidence to prove it.

The problem was that mitigating facts seemed to have no purchase on people’s preconceptions. The view of Sonia as greedy and manipulative had taken root by this time. Far from being dislodged by reiterated denials, it flourished like invasive pondweed, proliferating and giving rise to yet more stories. It had long since moved into the realm of myth, gathering momentum as misconceptions and mistakes gave way to the parroting of damaging rumour. A simple example of this sort of progression is the claim that the four volumes of the Collected Letters, Journalism and Essays of George Orwell , which Sonia coedited with Ian Angus in 1968, were not in fact her work at all. The suggestion that she did not pull her weight was first made in Shelden’s biography in 1991, endorsed seven years later by Ian Hamilton in the London Review of Books , and stated in 2001 by Meyers as a fact. No evidence was offered at any stage for an assertion that Angus himself categorically denied on each occasion, starting in these pages (“. . . for weeks on end Sonia and I sat side by side, choosing the contents of the volumes, editing and footnoting them, and all decisions in these matters were joint ones”: TLS , October 18, 1991).

An invented persona, once established, naturally gives rise to inference and deduction. A woman who had married Orwell for money would not, after all, have tended his reputation for conscientious or disinterested reasons. Orwell himself had died dissatisfied and resentful at having been forced to waste time he could ill afford on writing for the daily press. By putting his journalism for the first time on the same literary footing as his novels, the Collected Essays did more than anything else after Orwell’s death to consolidate his reputation as a clear unblinking moral beacon illuminating the dark places of a violent and equivocal century.

But their publication had been a gamble for which Sonia was given no credit. The charges laid against her, of indifference and incapacity, ignored the testimony of the two men who worked most closely with her on Orwell’s behalf: Angus himself, and Orwell’s literary agent, Mark Hamilton of A. M. Heath. Both agreed that her management of the estate had been prudent and skilful. “I worked very closely with Sonia Orwell for over fifteen years”, wrote Hamilton ( TLS , October 25, 1991),
and can confirm that for the whole period she was assiduous in her attention to every detail in the considerable amount of work involved in the administration of Orwell’s affairs. Much criticism is levelled at “literary widows”, but in this case such criticism is wholly unjustified and misinformed.



Rescuing Orwell's 'bad fairy'

The Girl From The Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
Hilary Spurling (Hamish Hamilton, £9.99)

Reviewed by Jane Shilling

It ain't easy, being a famous writer's relict. If male (Ted Hughes, Leonard Woolf), you tend to be accused of having driven your wife into the grave; if female (Valerie Eliot, Sonia Orwell), your fate is to be characterised by your husband's biographers as grasping, obstructive and no match, intellectually, for the defunct genius. Either way, you get to take on the role of bad fairy.

It is partly to rescue Sonia Orwell from this destiny that Hilary Spurling has written The Girl from the Fiction Department, a memoir of the woman who was her friend, and whose real character she felt was in danger of being absorbed by "the myth of the cold and grasping Widow Orwell".

Sonia was born in 1918, in India. Her father, Charles Brownell, a Calcutta freight-broker, died suddenly when she was only four months old, amid rumours of suicide. At six, Sonia went as a boarder to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton. As an adult, she used to spit whenever she saw a nun.

A post-school year in Neuchatel also marked her indelibly. On a boating excursion with three friends, the boat capsized and the other members of the party drowned - the last of them attempting to drag her down with him.

Unable to settle with her family after this, Sonia moved to a furnished room on the borders of Fitzrovia, then a raffish haunt of writers and artists, and began what was to be her life's work, of nourishing the creativity of others.

Her first opportunities to do this came as a muse to the Euston Road School of artists. From there, she entered the orbit of Horizon, a magazine which, launched in 1940 under the editorship of Cyril Connolly, Peter Watson and Stephen Spender, became a crucible for ideas about art and literature. She rapidly became an indispensable member of the staff.

The myth, or one of the myths, of Sonia began to grow around her.

The intellectual stimulus and friendships offered by Horizon might have been a route into the most fulfilled of lives, had it not been for her extraordinary ability to pluck misery from the jaws of contentment. After the end of an affair with the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the love of her life, she married the dying George Orwell, who had already proposed to three or four girls, including, on a previous occasion, Sonia herself. "Her marrying Orwell had to do with her own deep unhappiness," wrote her friend, and co-editor with her of Orwell's papers, Ian Angus.

When Orwell died, months after the wedding, Sonia was distraught. Spurling argues that the charge he laid upon her, of safeguarding his oeuvre, was to be the death of her.

Always tinged with despair (her friend Marguerite Duras portrayed her in a novel as an enigmatic figure, perpetually sipping a bitter, blood-red glass of Campari), her life seems to have followed a melancholy trajectory after Orwell's death. She married again, to Michael Pitt-Rivers who, with Lord Montaguof Beaulieu and Peter Wildeblood had been convicted of homosexual activity with airmen in the pleasure gardens known as the Larmer Grounds.

Spurling records without comment the fact that the wedding party was held in the Larmer Grounds. "That marriage won't last," said Sonia's friend, Ivy Compton-Burnett. It didn't.

Fuelled by drink and rage, Sonia spent her last years wretchedly at law with the accountant whom she had trusted to administer the Orwell estate. She died supported by friends, at least, who cared for her as she had cared for those, including Jean Rhys, in whom she perceived a vulnerability and want of love that reflected those qualities in herself. All this Hilary Spurling tells with a certain affectionate reticence - rather too much reticence, perhaps - both marriages are whisked over at a pace too brisk to allow for much of the thoughtful analysis that is otherwise her trademark as a biographer.

The portrait of Sonia that emerges is an enigma, rather than, strictly speaking, a rehabilitation. It is the image of a woman with the temperament of an artist, but who lacked the talent, or perhaps the self-belief, to pursue that destiny and spent much of her life consumed with misery as a result. In moral terms this is perhaps better than the grasping monster imagined by her husband's biographers. In terms of human happiness, the distinction seems more doubtful.



May 22, 2002

Portrait of the artist's widow as a literary victim

A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
By Hilary Spurling
Hamish Hamilton, £9.99; 208 pp
ISBN 0 241 14165 6


New readers start here. Sonia Orwell, born Brownell in India in 1918, was a shrewd and discerning literary editor on the lively influential magazine Horizon, founded in 1940 by Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender. She was also a sensuous, golden-haired beauty known to mid-century Fitzrovian painters as “The Euston Road Venus”.

Angus Wilson credited Sonia with getting him into print. The work of Evelyn Waugh, W. H. Auden and George Orwell passed through her capable hands. Frank and free-loving, she had many affairs in London and Paris, mainly with artists and intellectuals, and also, when the occasion demanded, bedded prospective advertisers and backers. Orwell, a widower, first proposed to her in 1945, but she turned him down politely.

In October 1949, when he was on his deathbed with tuberculosis, she married him (under his real name, Eric Blair). Four months later, as his widow, sole heir and literary executor, she strove to obey his impossible testamentary wish that no biography be written. More fruitfully, she collected and edited, with Ian Angus of University College London, the four volumes of Orwell’s journalism, essays and letters, thanks to which, along with his novels, his reputation continues to grow.

A different Sonia is known to Orwellian biographers. Driven into the rock of her opposition, they saw a belligerent, drunken, greedy widow, flaunting the famous (assumed) surname, indifferent to his adopted son and living high on the royalties from Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of the many elegances of Hilary Spurling’s vivid portrait is her demolition of this caricature. Evidence shows Sonia the victim, not the manipulator, of Orwell’s estate and its accountants. She died in 1980, penniless, having left his copyrights to his son.

With the “wife of” now an established genre, there should be room for the “secretary of” biography. Sonia was one of those clever, undereducated, self-doubting women of the 20th century who made her way by fast and accurate typing for clever men. At Horizon she was seen as Connolly’s “indispensible assistant” even though she was not only a commissioning editor but the author of erudite and perceptive book reviews, particularly of French work. Spurling suggests that Sonia’s essay in July 1946 on Roger Peyrefitte’s Les Amitiés particulières, which explored the totalitarianism and double-think of Catholicism in a boarding school, inspired Orwell’s creation of Julia, “The Girl from the Fiction Department”, the heroine of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The love of Sonia’s life seems to have been the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose wife finally called the affair to a halt. Sonia certainly had no talent for wifehood. Her second choice of husband, in 1958, was the sophisticated, amusing, once-imprisoned homosexual, Michael Pitt-Rivers.

But the mariage blanc suited her no more than did country life on his Dorset estate. Her last two decades saw her alone, shuttling between Paris and London, drawing strength from friendship: Francis Bacon, Mary McCarthy, Rodrigo Moynihan, Marguerite Dumas, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Jean Rhys and, not least, Hilary Spurling were among those close to her.

The entrancing illustrations in this book show a sultry, full-lipped, ready-for-anything female. Along with Peter Conradi’s biography of Iris Murdoch and the autobiography of Diana Athill, Spurling’s “portrait” should be compulsory reading for any of a later generation who believe that sexual intercourse began in 1963.

Brenda Maddox


June 27, 1998

Putting on her Orwell's Widow Act.

by Tom Rosenthal.

One day in October 1971, Sonia Orwell telephoned me to say that she'd just read a wonderful review of a book of essays on her husband, edited by Miriam Gross, a close friend of hers. Who was this man Bernard Crick, she wanted to know. "A brilliant, left-wing political theory professor," I said. "Well," replied Sonia, "he's the man to do George's biography."

In those days, I was managing director of Secker and Warburg, Orwell's publishers. I wasn't going to point out that Crick, while clearly a dab hand on the student revolutions of 1968, was not, as far as I knew, an author of biographies. Instead, I asked her if she was really sure, since he was a very eminent man in his field and I couldn't trifle with his affections if she might then change her mind. Sonia was sufficiently categorical in her assurances to me that I lunched with Crick and made him an appropriate offer. "But I've never written a biography before," he said. I responded: "But Professor Crick, you could say the same of Michael Holroyd before he tackled Hugh Kingsmill and Lytton Strachey. You have to start somewhere."

So Professor Crick became Bernard, and he agreed. From Orwell's American publishers, I had extracted a huge advance for Crick, on the promise of which he decided generously to endow a George Orwell Memorial Essay Prize. Unfortunately, when I sent Sonia the first draft of the opening chapters, she not only disapproved but told the American publisher that she disapproved - on the grounds that she believed that Crick did not properly understand either Orwell or his milieu. He promptly cancelled the contract and Sonia tried to do the same. And Sonia in full flight was an awesome spectacle. Even socially, she could set one's teeth on edge. She was a generous hostess, who always made sure her guests had lots to drink, did not herself notably abstain, and felt she had a God-given right to be frank. Although very properly brought up, she did not know the prohibition on "personal remarks", telling me, for example, that my new beard looked quite ridiculous.

Sonia once went berserk over a single word on the jacket blurb for an Orwell reprint and demanded the pulping of 20,000 large books. She objected to the description of Nineteen Eighty-four as a novel of "prophecy" as she felt it was merely a warning. Few could argue that totalitarianism took a shape uncannily like that which Orwell described. I offered her lunch, she specified the White Tower, and I arrived two minutes early to find her and her agent ensconced way ahead of me in the tiny bar area, clearly not wishing to greet me. I went straight to my regular table. The delightful Irish co-owner Eileen Stais brought me a drink and said: "Isn't that Miss Brownell?" I admitted that it was, and congratulated her on her memory of the old Horizon days, when Sonia Brownell worked as Cyril Connolly's assistant. Sonia had known Orwell well for a matter of months and was his wife for 14 weeks before he died. As others have pointed out, she married a man called Eric Blair, who died. She then married a distinguished academic called Pitt-Rivers, but got divorced. She chose, however, to use none of her three legal names but insisted that she always be known as Mrs Orwell.

As Mrs Orwell, she kept me waiting at my own table for half an hour, in plain sight, before deigning to sit and break bread with me. Hospitality rules meant as much to her as personal remarks and my character and professional competence were shredded for a full hour. The shredding was accompanied by the constant threat to remove the entire Orwell oeuvre from the publishing house and take it where it would be better understood and cherished. These threats could not be carried out as they would be against all known contract law and therefore impossible even to contemplate in a rational world. I held my tongue and agreed to reprint the offending jackets as I knew that this current storm was a trifle in comparison to what I suspected would lie ahead on Crick.

In David Plante's beautifully etched memoir of Sonia in his book, Difficult Women, he quotes her, obviously in a different context: "I did it again. I put on my act, my widow of George Orwell act. Was I awful?" Reprinting those offending jackets to change a single word was, alas, in no way useful when the real war began. She really hated what Crick had written. Sensing my determination to publish, she repeated her bizarre threat of removing Orwell's oeuvre from the publishing house. It was as invalid an idea then as it had been earlier. I was even asked to transfer the Crick to another imprint within the group. Equally pointless. As Crick wrote in his entertaining memoir of the whole affair in Granta: "Tom Rosenthal held out desperately, as if at Verdun, against Sonia's attacks." I can't claim any heroism in all this. I was simply bloody-minded enough to believe that someone so briefly married to a literary icon had no moral or legal right to seek to suppress a book honourably commissioned and written, simply because she did not like it and regretted her original decision.

Her letters to me became ever more minatory and at one point my senior editorial colleague, John Blackwell, whom I had asked to analyse the various points made by Sonia against Crick, to see how many of them were sustainable, wrote to me a note at the end of his report. He abbreviated the combatants, Sonia and Crick, into S & C: "If for S you read Scylla, for C, Charybdis, I begin to have a sneaking sympathy for Ulysses!" The tone of Sonia's correspondence to me became blistering. She insisted on disowning the book, demanding that the words "official biography" not be used. "I note," she wrote to me, "you finish your letter to Crick 'With warmest regards.' I cannot say the same to you."

Finally, in the winter of 1980, Crick's biography was published to the acclaim of virtually everyone other than Sonia's friends and sold extremely well. I had found Crick a new and enthusiastic American publisher and, a few months later, we made one of those unenforceable post-prandial pacts to collaborate on a book about all the difficult widows of writers and artists we'd known. When sobriety returned the idea was, quite rightly, abandoned and I devoted my Orwell energies to two other projects. The more modest of the two was to publish in 1984 a facsimile of the surviving partial manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-four. However, while dabbling in the facsimile, I was determined to convert the try of the Crick biography into a goal. Sonia, who had died round about the time Crick was published, had maintained that the four-volume The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, which she had edited with Ian Angus and published in 1968, was all that was needed. In both blurb and introduction she set out Orwell's injunction against a biography and stated that the four volumes " 'stand in' for an autobiography".

While this was manifestly absurd, it was also somewhat economical with the truth. In terms of poetry publishing, a Collected does not mean Complete, but in the case of prose a layman might well believe that these four volumes were all there was. But here too, Sonia had exercised restraint on our experience and knowledge of Orwell's work. Even on Sonia's admission, the four volumes were woefully incomplete. So I had a dream of an endless shelf containing everything Orwell had ever written and, in particular, containing what Sonia, for good reasons or bad, had suppressed or, to be charitable, had been unaware of. Letters in particular are always intractable when it comes to completeness. With Sonia no longer in a position to forbid the inclusion of the missing material, it seemed like a fairly straightforward matter, even if it was clearly going to be a long haul.

I was extraordinarily lucky in finding one of those great academic editors, without which these huge sets simply remain dreams and never actually get printed. Peter Davison was asked to do first a definitive edition of the nine complete books by Orwell other than the letters, etc. He started work in 1981, even though they were not published until 1986-87, partly because three volumes were printed from proofs which were not the finally corrected set and had to be pulped. In the late summer of 1982, the Davisons and I coincided in Washington and, in the bar of the Watergate, where I was staying, I commissioned Peter to do the ultimate, definitive, absolutely complete version of the Essays, Letters, etc. I left Secker's in 1984 (an auspicious year, perhaps) but continued to meet Peter occasionally. Originally, the Essays etc were estimated at six volumes rather than four. It became a standing joke between us that my greeting to him became not "How are you?" or "How's Orwell coming along?" but "Well, Peter, how many volumes is it now?" Six became seven, seven became eight, and so on. But at long last, some 14 years after I left Secker's, during which time I have had some five successors and Peter Davison has laboured for six different owners, I can at last see the dream come true. The total number of volumes is 20 and the Essays etc have grown to an astounding 11 volumes.

I'd like to make just one further point about Orwell. All my life as a book publisher I have checked the six-monthly royalty statements sent out to authors and their estates. I've done this partly to head off trouble since, understandably, nothing so annoys an author as an accounting error in the publisher's favour. Partly also, it's a wonderfully efficient way for any publisher to see what's really selling and what's become stagnant. For years at Secker's I would add up the joint earnings of that extraordinary backlist of foreign authors, who included Franz Kafka, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Italo Svevo, Robert Musil, Andre Schwartz-Bart, Italo Calvino, Yasunari Kawabata, Colette, Yukio Mishima and many more. Every six months the Orwell estate earned approximately twice as much as all the others put together. I used to attribute this solely to traditional British xenophobia. Now, contemplating this great Complete Works, I'm not so certain. It surely also has to do with the fact that Orwell was, and still is, the writer who speaks most directly and powerfully to a British audience, beyond the classroom and the "set book" syndrome, in a language and a style and about ideas which will never fade.

COPYRIGHT The Daily Telegraph 1998.


It all ended sadly
(Filed: 19/05/2002)

Diana Athill reviews The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling.

Sonia Orwell learnt early that life is cruel. Her childhood was painful, and at 17 she experienced something so frightful that one can hardly bear to read of it: she was the only survivor in an boating accident in which she had to choose between her own life and that of a friend. She took refuge in books. Long before she ever met a writer or a painter, she decided that they were the people who made life endurable.

By chance she found herself among such people. To start with they took to her because of her Renoiresque beauty and her ebullient vitality, but some of the most distinguished minds of the 20th century remained her friends because of her intelligence, sensibility, wonderful generosity, and the energy in practical matters which she demonstrated so clearly when working on - finally almost running - Cyril Connolly's Horizon.

It was then that she met George Orwell (who made her "the girl in the fiction department" in Nineteen Eighty-Four). She married him on his death-bed because she revered him, was appalled by his illness, and "he said he would get better if I married him, so, you see, I had no choice". Neither of them could foresee how much his estate would be worth - still less, how it would become a lethal burden on her.

Sonia's second marriage, to the homosexual Michael Pitt-Rivers, was as quixotic as her first. He had been the victim of a notorious prosecution, and their mariage blanc was meant to restore him to his rightful place in society. But Sonia became inconveniently attached to him, and it ended sadly.

Indeed, everything ended sadly. Her scrupulous adherence to what she believed would have been Orwell's wishes regarding his estate became a nerve-racking business, which made her enemies, sapped her self-confidence and drove her increasingly to drink. Those who saw her generosity at work in all its sensitivity, as I did when she took the writer Jean Rhys under her wing, knew how good she was; but even they were sometimes puzzled and dismayed by unexplained outbreaks of her inner pain.

And finally, tragically, the inner pain took over. Practical Sonia could be; cautious she never was. She had trusted Orwell's financial advisor so blindly that for years she had signed everything he put in front of her without question, and in 1977 she discovered that she had signed away control of Orwell's copyrights to someone who intended (in her opinion) to misuse them.

Her agony of mind at having betrayed Orwell was dreadful. The lawsuit she undertook to regain control cost her everything, including her house, so she disappeared to a miserable little bed-sitter in Paris, leaving her friends mystified. There she spent her last years in profound unhappiness at her own folly.

Sonia died of cancer, literally penniless, in November 1980. At least she knew that the suit had been settled two weeks earlier, so that she was able to bequeath the copyrights to Orwell's adopted son.

Hilary Spurling, a close friend of Sonia's, resents the way she has been misrepresented since her death. In particular, the "cold, grasping Widow Orwell" interpretation (see the books on Orwell by Michael Shelden and Jeffrey Meyers) shocks her, so she set out to unravel the truth about this complex and fascinating woman. She has done it convincingly and very movingly. This book's appeal to anyone interested in 20th-century literary life is clear. It will also reward any reader who likes to ponder character.

·  Diana Athill is the author of 'Stet' (Granta).


Soft-focus Sonia
(Filed: 01/06/2002)

Ann Wroe reviews The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling

Should biography be partisan? You might put the question another way: can biography be anything else? As Hilary Spurling says, "imaginative and emotional openness" is essential to any good retelling of a life. In getting so close to another person, many biographers find themselves in a condition that is not far from love. They make allowances, strive to understand, and try to be forgiving where they can. But a line still exists between this sort of treatment and outright crusading. Spurling, a very good biographer, crosses it.

Sonia Orwell, George Orwell's widow, was a friend of hers. Spurling feels strongly that she has been misunderstood, and has written this book to set the record straight. It is so clearly an act of loyalty and kindness that it might seem churlish to criticise, but it makes for unsatisfying biography. The Sonia presented here is not only pretty, forceful and intelligent, as she clearly was, but little short of a saint. "No one ever spent more time and energy or lavished more imagination on devising subtle, sweet and humorous ways to heal the sick and comfort the afflicted," the author writes. Sonia had "a genius for localising wants and needs people didn't even know they had". She showed "uncompromising honesty", "unconditional loyalty" and "unquestioning and instinctive support" for the underprivileged. She was kind, generous and brilliant. At the end, as if righteous frustration has finally got the better of her, Spurling calls her "a bloody good publisher's editor".

So she was, by all accounts. But the problem with this book is that the general reader, unfamiliar with the ructions over Orwell's copyrights and his estate, does not know what Sonia stands accused of; and the author, not wishing to rake those bad old ashes over, does not want to say. We learn, here and there, that Sonia resisted for many years all requests for a biography of Orwell or for adaptations of his work for radio and film. Orwell's first biographer, Bernard Crick, accused her of high living on her husband's royalties rather than helping struggling writers, as Orwell would surely have done. She could be difficult and blunt, and she drank too much. But the accusations against her are so lightly touched on, and so quickly swathed in sugar and cotton wool, that the reader is unable to judge whether there is any substance to them. I wanted to go straight to the offending Orwell biographies for the alternative view.

Sonia's childhood was difficult. She was born in India; her father disappeared early, and she was shipped back to a convent school in England that "cauterised" her, probably for life. Her early career seemed charmed: fascinating editing jobs at Horizon and at Weidenfeld, a flat in Bloomsbury, the young bloods of London and Paris falling at her feet. Later, she had a solid and loving circle of friends. Yet something was gnawing at her. The author thinks it was an overdeveloped moral sense, added to a surfeit of generosity and conscience. Perhaps it was, though human beings are seldom without some self-interest somewhere. Her marriage to Orwell is here presented as an act of sheer selflessness; he was already dying of TB, but thought he might get well if she married him, so she did. He died six months later. Her second marriage, to Michael Pitt-Rivers, a famous homosexual, is presented as sheer defiance of the authorities, as well as an attempt to provide Pitt-Rivers with a reputable side. Apparently, she loved neither of these men when she married them; only afterwards, when her grief blew her off course.

The polemical nature of this biography is not helped by the slightness of the life. Sonia was not exceptional as a writer or a thinker, but as a catalyst for those who were. As her friends and acquaintances surge past - Marguerite Duras, Arthur Koestler, Francis Bacon, Stephen Spender, Orwell - we often long to run after them, rather than stay with Sonia. We cannot work out the depths of this life, and the surface is not sufficiently compelling. We have been told, in any case, that this surface is a front. At moments of deepest crisis, Sonia would reapply her make-up, as if to keep observers at bay.

A brain tumour killed Sonia in 1980. Yet the cause of death, Spurling believes, was not cancer; it was the intolerable burden placed on her by Orwell's will, and by her dread of not carrying out his instructions. She never felt capable of handling money, and was made desperate by a long copyright lawsuit against her accountant. "I feel I've damaged George," she said near the end. If it is any comfort, his reputation as one of the best writers - and perhaps the best journalist - of his century stands intact. Sonia's reputation, too, has now been rescued, but perhaps too ardently for its own good.


13 June 2002 20:09 GMT+1


The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling

Bernard Crick wrestles with Orwell's widow

15 June 2002

An extraordinary tale: Sonia Brownell was born in India in 1918, her father, an accountant, dying a few months later, his career in ruins (alcohol and debt, possibly suicide). She was brought home to England by her mother who, in and out of poverty, yet managed with help from relatives to send her to a convent school, a hateful strict regime mitigated by one teacher who encouraged a love of reading. Then a brief spell at a finishing school in Switzerland, where Sonia mastered another literature and language with lasting excitement.

Beautiful, intelligent, penniless, strong-willed, in the late Thirties Sonia burst into a circle of painters. She was painted by and had a long affair with William Coldstream, and Victor Pasmore, Claude Rogers and Rodrigo Moynihan too. The "Euston Road Venus" then burst into literary circles. She became Cyril Connolly's assistant on Horizon, sometimes keeping the show on the road during his fits of indolence. The photographer John Lehmann remembered "vivacious Sonia with her darting, gaily cynical intelligence and insatiable appetite for everything that went on in the literary world: her revolt against a convent upbringing seemed to provide her in those days with an inexhaustible rocket fuel."

But after her second marriage and her final attempt to reunite with her great love, the French Communist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, things began to go badly wrong. Her vivaciousness became capriciousness and too often fury, fuelled by heavy drinking. But she had good friends and helped young and old writers, and is now defended with candour by one of them.

Hilary Spurling has a go at me, but I never said that Sonia was not helpful to her friends; I said she neglected Orwell's causes and his friends, unless they were famous. But this book should simply be called "A Life of Sonia". All right: "Sonia Orwell" by all means, since she adopted Eric Blair's pen name as if it was her first married name, rather than her maiden name of Brownell or her second married name, Pitt-Rivers.

If she chose to be Mrs Sonia Orwell in the phone book, so what? A rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But a bad smell about this book is its catchpenny title. The "girl from the fiction department" is, of course, the fictional Julia of Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four. So Julia is modelled on Sonia, and therefore Sonia simply must have had an influence on that great, flawed masterpiece – a claim so simple, and so silly. George and Sonia didn't know each other long enough, Sonia hadn't a clue about politics, and a "Portia" mentioned in Orwell's last notebook is even less nice than Julia.

Even without the "Orwell", many would read Hilary Spurling's latest biography. She writes, she says, to set the record straight as a friend, to rescue a "sad and splendid life" from the travesty of Sonia as gold-digger. Sonia had a brief affair with Orwell in 1945 after his first wife's death, perhaps no more than a one-night stand, merry and indulgent on her part, dead serious on his. He asks her to marry him. He repeats the offer in 1949, when bedridden with tuberculosis; they had not met since.

She accepts, and shortly after he is dead. But to call it a "death-bed marriage" is to be wise after the event. Michael Shelden and Jeffrey Meyers in their biographies do indeed draw the uncharitable conclusion. But they both ignore (and so does Spurling, lumping me in with them) the opinion of his sister, which I reported in the second edition of my George Orwell: a Life: "Not a gold-digger, a fame seeker." She shrewdly said that nobody knew at the time how unbelievably well Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm would sell.

This ties in well with Hilary Spurling's vivid portrait, and her view of Sonia as "a bit of a girl guide", taking on difficult cases: to care for an invalid Orwell, and to shelter (or attempt to "cure"?) the famous and wealthy Michael Pitt-Rivers on his release from imprisonment for homosexuality.

Sonia was a complex, strange character; but Spurling's polemic defence is too often OTT, and relies too much on her memory of Sonia's selective memory. I remember how variable it was.

Bernard Crick also writes about Sonia Orwell in the new issue of 'Areté' (3 issues per year for £21, from Areté Magazine, 8 New College Lane, Oxford, OX1 3BN)


She knew them all

Richard Shone on The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling, an attempt to rescue the reputation of Sonia Orwell

Saturday May 25, 2002
The Guardian

The Girl from the Fiction Department
Hilary Spurling
208pp, Hamish Hamilton, £9.99

This short book is a work of rescue on two counts. Sonia Orwell, the widow for 30 years of George Orwell, is not widely known. She has appeared in a secondary role in many biographies, inspired characters in novels by Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson and Marguerite Duras as well as Orwell himself (she is "the girl from the Fiction Department" in Nineteen Eighty-Four), and was one of the three subjects of David Plante's memoir Difficult Women. This, however, is the first full account of a woman who seemed to make it her duty to know all the significant writers and artists of her time, and has her niche in literary history.

She was not only Orwell's widow, but the indispensable assistant in the 1940s at Horizon , one of the great "little" magazines of the century. But Spurling has another reason to commemorate her old friend. She is not alone in feeling that Sonia Orwell has been maligned in the years since her death as an obstructive and grasping widow who shamefully exploited her control of Orwell's estate.

Fuelling such accusations was the fact that Sonia Brownell was married to Orwell for only three months, their wedding having taken place in University College Hospital, where Orwell was clearly dying. When, after his death in January 1950, it was revealed that Sonia was his sole heir and in charge of all his copyrights, the cynics had a field day. Even her friends had been surprised at the ravishing, 31-year-old Sonia taking on the ailing writer. As one friend remarked, it was like a Renoir girl hitched to an elongated figure from El Greco. She had not been in love with Orwell, but a posthumous devotion grew, and in part that explains her tenacious desire to carry out his last instructions to the letter, in particular that there should be no biography. It was this, above all, that later caused Sonia so much anguish.

Before Spurling convincingly goes on the defence, she succinctly evokes Sonia's childhood in British India, her father a suicide, her drunken stepfather thrown out of the Calcutta Club in 1927. In England she received the stigmata of a long Catholic education which, in later life, drew her to spit at nuns and kept her fuel tank of anger brim-full. In the late 1930s the bohemian world of Fitzrovia claimed her: she was the friend of and model for the Euston Road School, and worked during the war for the Transport Ministry and for Cyril Connolly at Horizon .

After Orwell's death, she lived in London, was often in France (for her, the French were superior to the British in almost every way) and had a difficult affair with the philosopher Merleau-Ponty. She made another mariage blanc, helped edit Art and Literature and worked as co-editor with Ian Angus on Orwell's collected essays. In her last years she found herself in a terrible legal wrangle with the executors of the Orwell estate. She sold her London house, moved to a cheerless bedsit in Paris and sued. In doing so she spiralled into depression, guilt and illness. She died of cancer aged 62, but not before hearing that she had won her case and was thus able to pass the considerable estate on to Orwell's adopted son. She died penniless, and her friend Francis Bacon settled her outstanding bills.

In several ways it is a tragic story, brought about in part by Sonia herself through the unpredictability of her character and actions. On the good side, she showed great generosity to friends when they were ill, unhappy or hard-up. She was hospitable, considerate, encouraging, with a vitality that could be tonic. But she could be bossy, pretentious and insensitive, riding over one's feelings with a "Tant pis! " that sent a shiver down the spine. Her French phrases, airy talk of the latest book or exhibition and references to this or that "VERY GREAT" writer or painter who "MUST" be helped (above all, the increasingly decrepit Jean Rhys) masked, I think, a life-long disappointment with herself for not having been more intellectually creative. Surrounded by famous friends, she was one of the loneliest people I ever met.

I knew her from 1969 onwards, not well, but enough to experience all her good qualities as well as teeth-gritting tirades and jaw-snapping rebukes. To be with Sonia could be life-enhancing at one moment and a nightmare the next. The chiaroscuro of her personality - sweetness and anger, convention and originality, helpfulness and hindrance - gave the effect of walking through an area you knew had been landmined. Genuine warmth turned in seconds to a dry ricochet of contemptuous laughter.

I remember her mesmerising my student friends at Cambridge when she paid me a visit. Later, even though she hated the subject of my first book, Bloomsbury painting, she read several chapters in draft. Not least, she taught me how to make the perfect champagne cocktail. But with some of the self-absorption of youth, I failed to recognise until it was too late the desperate unhappiness within her that, paradoxically, made her both intimate and rebarbative. Spurling's memoir not only exonerates "the widow Orwell" from corruption but brings her back in all her tragicomic contradictions.


Dedicated follower of passions

Orwell's biographers have rarely been kind to his wife. As Christopher Hitchens tries to rescue George from his admirers, Hilary Spurling puts the case for Sonia's defence

Jeremy Lewis
Sunday May 19, 2002
The Observer

The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
Hilary Spurling
Hamish Hamilton £9.99, pp194

Orwell's Victory
Christopher Hitchens
Allen Lane, Penguin Press £12.99, pp160

Best remembered for having married George Orwell on his death-bed, and as the inspiration for the fearless, bossy Julia in 1984 , Sonia Orwell remains, more than 20 years after her death, a fiercely divisive figure.

To her detractors, she was the quintessential literary groupie, a grasping, pretentious, drunken name-dropper who only married Orwell for his belated fame and the royalties amassing from Animal Farm and 1984; her admirers celebrate her generosity, her selfless passion for writers and the literary life, and the inexhaustible kindness she showed not just to the likes of Jean Rhys, but to innumerable godchildren as well.

Sonia Orwell has endured a fresh battering at the hands of Orwell's recent biographers, and this has prompted Hilary Spurling - a close friend from the last 10 years of her life - to rise to her defence. The Girl from the Fiction Department is a compelling and often touching account of a wretchedly unhappy life; and although Sonia Orwell must have been maddening at times - not least when she broke into French while discussing elevated or artistic matters - it's hard not to feel that she has been roughly treated.

Sonia Brownell was born in Calcutta in 1918. Her father died when she was four; her stepfather took to the bottle, and when the family eventually returned to England, her mother made ends meet by managing boarding-houses. Sonia was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton: she loathed it - so much so that in later life she spat if she passed a nun in the street - and if her Catholic education instilled habits of loyalty and service to others, it also exacerbated feelings of guilt and inadequacy. She left at 17 and, after learning French in Switzerland, did the obligatory secretarial course.

She was, by now, a voluptuous Renoir beauty, blonde, strong-featured and pink-and-white: even then, judging by the photographs, she seldom looked happy. She fell in with the painters of the Euston Road School - William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore among them - for whom she acted as model and mistress. But although the 'Euston Road Venus' was to befriend and champion young artists like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, books and writers were her passion, and her consolation.

Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson had founded Horizon in the autumn of 1939, and she was soon working on the magazine as a secretary-cum-editorial assistant - one of a bevy of beautiful young women whom Connolly employed.

Evelyn Waugh, who liked to ridicule the whole set-up, insisted on wearing a bowler hat when visiting the office, and was pleased to note 'Miss Brownell working away with a dictionary translating some rot from the French'. Sonia repelled Connolly's advances, after which he spread rumours that she was a suppressed lesbian: but although she leapt into bed with an army of male admirers, sex probably came a poor second to her adulation of writers, and her longing to serve them.

Uncreative herself, she channelled her energy into editorial work, at Horizon and then at the fledgling firm of Weidenfeld & Nicolson. It's good to learn that she first published Angus Wilson in Horizon, but not surprising: by then Connolly had lost interest, and although Hilary Spurling writes respectfully of his editorial gifts, he was too in awe of established reputations to match John Lehmann or Alan Ross as a spotter of new talent.

When Paris opened up again after the war, Sonia could indulge her francophilia to the full. She consorted with Sartre and Camus; the love of her life was the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and she was devastated when he refused to leave his wife.

Back in London, her frustrated affections homed in on George Orwell, by then dying of TB. She had met him first, with Connolly, in the early years of the war; more recently, she had babysat his son, and gone to bed with him in a dutiful, perfunctory way. She never claimed to be in love with him, and his approach to their marriage was equally unromantic ('learn how to make dumplings' was the gist of his proposal).

To her surprise, she loved him - and missed him - far more than she had ever expected. Despite the taunts of gold-digging, being his literary executor proved a poisoned chalice: uninterested in money and hopelessly unbusinesslike, she was taken for a ride by his accountant, and although she may have been the ultimate difficult literary widow, she found the responsibilities increasingly onerous. And, despite the huge sales of Orwell's books, few of the proceeds came her way.

Her later life makes for melancholy reading. She was briefly married to a rich homosexual landowner, Michael Pitt-Rivers; she shunted between London and Paris, drank too much, grew blowsier and, with typical generosity, organised a whip-round for Connolly's widow and children after he'd left them wretchedly short of funds.

If Sonia needed to be rescued from her detractors, Orwell himself has an abundance of admirers - so much so that, in Orwell's Victory, Christopher Hitchens sometimes feels that he 'requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies; an object of sickly veneration and sentimental over-praise'. Though some on the left sought to disparage him as a Cold Warrior, he has been claimed by left-wingers, right-wingers, Little Englanders and old-fashioned liberals; he was also a proto-ecologist, a fervent anti-imperialist, a bit of a homophobe (at least in print) and an advocate of a United States of Europe.

One reason for this, perhaps, was his refusal, or inability, to toe any kind of party line - or entirely suppress those old-fashioned class and social prejudices which sat uneasily with high-minded and leftish views and led him to declare that 'all scoutmasters are homosexual' and, most famously, to savage 'that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice-drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of "progress" like bluebottles towards a dead cat': as Hitchens points out, 'He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the "coloured" masses who teemed through the empire, his suspicion of Jews, his awkwardness with women and his anti-intellectualism.'

Hitchens pounces, rightly, on those on the Left who seem to be on Orwell's side but then round on him for betraying his principles. Orwell was reviled for allegedly claiming, in The Road to Wigan Pier, that 'the working classes smell': Hitchens reminds us that he merely pointed out that this was a widespread belief among the middle classes - and, no doubt, one that he shared himself, if not on the printed page.

While researching a biography of Cyril Connolly, I was surprised - and priggishly shocked - to come across a note from Orwell to his old school friend suggesting that they should review each other's recent books on the age-old grounds of 'You scratch my back. I'll scratch yours'.

Whereas Connolly - idle, greedy, pin-striped, racked with self-pity - seemed to embody the corrupt metropolitan literary world, the haggard, austere, tweed-jacketed Orwell, recently returned from fighting fascism in Spain with a bullet-wound in his throat, was surely a sea-green incorruptible? Not so, it seems - though Queenie Leavis, after observing sourly that he belonged 'by birth and education to the "right Left people", the nucleus of the literary world who christian-name each other and are honour bound to advance each other's literary career,' conceded that 'he differs from them in having grown up'.

Perhaps it all boils down to Orwell's being that familiar item, a man of paradox - and one who, disconcertingly, sometimes fits with an equally familiar cliché about high-minded men of the Left. The great quality of his prose is its commonsensical humanity, its avoidance of chilly abstractions: yet Steven Runciman - another Eton contemporary - once remarked that Orwell had 'pity for the human condition, but not much pity for the individual human' while Hilary Spurling suggests that 'for most of his life, ideas had mattered more to him than people'.

Hitchens has the occasional reservation about his hero - in particular, what he sees as Orwell's wilful and malicious misreading of Auden's poem, 'Spain' - but admires him for his independence, his refusal to compromise, and for being right more often than not.

Orwell's Victory discusses Orwell vis-à-vis the empire, feminism, the Cold War, Englishness and America, and the claims made about him by Stalinists, Tories, Queenie Leavis and French 'deconstructionist' critics: apoplectic readers should shun the pages given to the views of Claude Simon, winner of the 1985 Nobel Prize for Literature, as - to Hitchens's furious indignation - he tries to prove that Homage to Catalonia was 'faked from the very first sentence'. Hitchens's prose lacks Orwell's brevity and clarity, and - as if by contagion - becomes murkier still when he battles with the likes of Raymond Williams; but, like Sonia, he seems on the side of the angels.


Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda

Sunday, June 8, 2003; Page BW15

A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
By Hilary Spurling
Counterpoint. 194 pp. $24

Praising The Girl from the Fiction Department is easy. The hard part is figuring out what to praise first about this concise biography of the vivacious woman who married the author of 1984 on his deathbed, yet who was far more than just the Widow Orwell.

Even before one starts to read, Hilary Spurling's book looks inviting. There's its tidy size, the sepia-toned jacket photograph of the sexy Sonia Brownell leaning across a chair, the ivory-colored paper stock and the numerous snapshots interspersed throughout the text (rather than grouped in one photo section). At just under 200 pages, with airy margins, this "portrait" also feels seductive rather than daunting or magisterial (as were Spurling's enthralling but definitely imposing two-volume life of Ivy Compton-Burnett and her recent The Unknown Matisse). Here, in fact, is a book you want to take right to bed.

Sonia Brownell was born in India on August 18, 1918 and died, penniless in London, at the end of 1980. In the intervening years, her life was, as she once wrote, "real and hard and sad." But she also managed to love and be loved by some of the most interesting and creative people of the century.

In India, Sonia acted in a school play with her slightly older classmate Vivien Leigh. Later, the two both attended a Catholic girls school in Britain -- the very one excoriated in Antonia White's autobiographical classic, Frost in May. After Sonia graduated, she traveled around Eastern Europe in the 1930s with the young Serge Konovalov, future professor of Russian at Oxford, and Eugene Vinaver, soon to become the world's greatest authority on medieval French literature. Back in London, Sonia even helped transcribe the Winchester manuscript of Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur for Vinaver's great three-volume edition. Because her flat lay in an artists' neighborhood, the young blonde naturally drew the attention of the many painters working there and was soon being referred to as the Euston Street Venus. Lawrence Gowing "never forgot seeing Sonia at her window, combing her long fair hair behind the dusty glass and looking up tentatively at the painters as they passed." William Coldstream, much later Sir William Coldstream, pillar of the Royal Academy, fell in love with her. In later years, that notorious master of the grotesque, Francis Bacon, was her closest English friend.

Still in her early twenties, Sonia Brownell next gravitated into the circle of young women working for Cyril Connolly's Horizon magazine. (Connolly, it was said by Anthony Powell, was the mirror image of Pentheus, "held together rather than torn apart by the Maenads.") Before long, Sonia was the de facto managing editor, doing the day-to-day magazine work for which Connolly and Stephen Spender were often credited (she discovered, for instance, Angus Wilson). Once, this clearly irresistible beauty spent a weekend in the country at the home of "Connolly's friend Dick Wyndham, a leathery, lustful satyr who pursued her round his garden until she dashed into the pond. 'It isn't his trying to rape me that I mind,' she gasped when the writer Peter Quennell fished her out, 'but that he doesn't seem to realize what Cyril stands for.' "

Through Horizon Sonia eventually encountered George Orwell, already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him. When he began work on 1984, she served as the model for Winston Smith's girlfriend Julia:

"The girl from the Fiction Department . . . was looking at him. . . . She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life. . . . She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated. . . . All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead."

But, as Orwell should have realized, Sonia's beauty and hard-drinking party-girl intensity masked a fundamental melancholy, one that struck nearly everyone she met.

After the war, Sonia traveled frequently to Paris, at first on Horizon business and later to visit the many friends she made in France. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "a man of immense charm and finesse," confessed that he was "transfixed from the first night they met by the sorrow underlying her surface gaiety." In some of the most delicious pages of this delicious book, Spurling evokes the heady, sensual-intellectual life of Paris during the late 1940s:

"Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus followed [Merleau-Ponty] as regulars at the new, late-night bar that opened in the Tabou's cellar in the spring of 1947 with Juliette Greco behind the bar and Boris Vian on the trumpet. . . . It was here that Merleau-Ponty took Sonia when she returned to Paris, moving with her through the unhurried preliminary stages of an affair like graceful practised dance steps.'

In this already brilliant company Sonia soon met the critics Roland Barthes and Georges Bataille, the witty and encyclopedic Raymond Queneau, the great autobiographer Michel Leiris and the novelist Marguerite Duras, who became her best friend (and who later used her as the model for the witty, disconsolate Diana in Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinie). Alas, the affair with Merleau-Ponty -- the great passion of her life -- came to an abrupt end, partly because he wouldn't leave his wife and she, tough-minded and absolutist, couldn't accept the role of mistress. One day Sonia was late for a rendezvous, and Merleau-Ponty simply left town without a word. She was utterly desolate. "Why did he love me? And why did he stop loving me?"

When she returned to London, George Orwell was dying. By this point, they were both broken down by life's miseries and turned desperately to each other. "She made no pretence of being in love with him and, at any rate to start with, acknowledged his need of her far more readily than hers of him. 'He said he would get better if I married him,' she told me twenty years later, 'so, you see, I had no choice.' " She nursed the frail moralist, brightened his days, planned to take him abroad where he would recover enough to carry on writing. Spurling asserts that this marriage of convenience ultimately metamorphosed into one of true love. And then, three days before the recuperative trip to Switzerland, Orwell died.

During the 1950s Sonia continued to excite controversy and attract admirers. She married an urbane, witty and homosexual aristocrat. She had brief affairs with, among others, an Israeli war hero and a noted French anthropologist. The Orwell estate only allowed her a modest allowance, yet at her small London house you might dine with Anthony Powell, Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Rebecca West, Lucian Freud, Ivy Compton-Burnett. She was a natural hostess. And, as Spurling notes again and again, instinctively kind and generous beneath that sometimes fierce and moody exterior. For instance, she took charge of caring for the aged, difficult novelist Jean Rhys and never failed to bring gifts and chocolate to her 13 godchildren.

Yet she was hated in some circles, largely because of her devotion to Orwell. With Ian Angus she meticulously compiled and edited The Collected Letters, Essays and Journalism, but she also enforced Orwell's express desire that there be no biography. Working hard to protect his interests, Sonia failed to look after her own. Utterly ignorant of money matters, she lived on her small stipend and paltry handouts from George Orwell Productions, whose chief financial adviser appears to have been not only parsimonious but also power-mad and possibly a crook. Eventually, Sonia inaugurated legal action to wrest back control of the estate for Orwell's legitimate heir, his son Richard.

Thus her last years were particularly bleak -- she was tricked into giving up her London house, plagued by legal nightmares, distressed by the sudden deaths of old friends, despised by Orwell biographers, increasingly impoverished. By the time she fell ill from cancer, she was virtually broke; only reading, conversation and drink provided their usual momentary consolations. When Sonia died, just four years before 1984, at a time when her husband's books were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, her savings wouldn't cover the costs of her funeral. Francis Bacon paid off his beloved friend's last debts.

"No memory of having starred," said Robert Frost, "Atones for later disregard/ Or keeps the end from being hard." Sonia Brownell Orwell was never the sort of woman people could disregard, but her end was certainly bleak enough. Still, she led quite a life, and Spurling, who knew her during its last decade, recounts it briskly, stylishly, with real affection and warmth. Like her contemporaries Mary McCarthy and Iris Murdoch, Sonia sped through the years as a free spirit, albeit one suffused with the deep sorrowfulness that those close to her never quite understood. Not herself creative, she was nonetheless a muse who inspired writers, painters and thinkers, an editor who helped the young and the old, the artistic and the scholarly, and a friend, comforter and confidante to a wide circle of now legendary figures. Anyone who reads this deft and lovely book will wish to have known her. •

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com.



A woman and wife vindicated
Cressida Connolly

By Hilary Spurling
Hamish Hamilton, £9.99, pp.208, ISBN:0241141656

If Orwell’s biographers are to be believed, his second wife, Sonia, was a grasping, angry woman who lived off his talent — and royalties — for almost 30 years. The passion with which she defended his interests, battling off would-be biographers and film producers, has been seen as ridiculous: she has been turned into a caricature of the wilfully obstructive literary widow. The fact that George Orwell himself entrusted his entire estate to her, including his wish that no life should be written, is overlooked. All of which goes to show the extraordinarily persuasive gifts of the biography industry; an industry which has somehow managed to convince the reading public that unrestrained access to every writer’s shopping lists, love letters, diaries and school reports is a God-given right. Biographers have stolen the moral high ground from their unwitting subjects and anyone who bars their path is to be reviled.

Who better, then, to rescue Sonia Orwell’s reputation than one of their own? Hilary Spurling is widely considered to be among the most gifted biographers of her generation, the author of a superb life of Ivy Compton Burnett, a masterly study of Matisse and a spirited account of a bizarre confidence trickster, La Grande Thérèse. She was also one of the closest friends of Sonia’s later life. Spurling makes no bones about it: her book is intended to rectify the damage already done to Sonia’s reputation.

Her book, then, is a labour of love. But there is nothing sloppy or soppy or partial about it: this is a fine portrait of a woman who counted among her devoted friends some of the best writers and painters of the 20th century. It wasn’t just a coincidence that George Orwell wanted to marry her, that Francis Bacon adored her, that Maya Angelou and Jean Rhys and Marguerite Duras and Jessica Mitford were part of her circle. She was friends with all of them because she deserved to be, because she was generous and clever and kind; funny, and brave and quick-witted, too.

I had the great good fortune to know her because she was one of my parents’ best friends. During the 1940s she had helped my father, Cyril Connolly, to run Horizon; when she and my mother, Deirdre, met in 1959 they immediately got on like a house on fire. When my mother took me to London for treats — the zoo, or Hamley’s, or Madame Tussaud’s — we would invariably meet Sonia for long, animated lunches at Wheeler’s in Old Compton Street, me playing with my doll or reading a comic while they talked and laughed (the expression ‘laughs like a drain’ could have been invented for Sonia, whose laughter sounded like the last of the bath water as it swirls into the plug-hole). At home in Sussex, Sonia was a frequent visitor. She would plunge straight into the garden wearing a straw hat over her blonde mane, deadheading roses with secateurs in one hand and a cigarette in the other, her big blue eyes narrowed with concentration. When Deirdre married again, some years after Cyril’s death, Sonia gave the groom his first ever hand-made suit: Peter Levi had been until then a Jesuit priest, so, as Sonia remarked, ‘It’s really him who needs a trousseau.’

Later, when I was a teenager, I used to meet her for lunch myself. I was issued with strict instructions by my mother: I must never, never say I liked anything in front of Sonia, because if I did she would be certain to buy it for me. Needless to say, it was impossible to obey this rule. Passing an expensive shoe shop, I spotted a beautiful pair of boots: no sooner had I expressed admiration for them than Sonia had whisked me in and bought them. A wonderful cook herself, she gave me a complete set of Elizabeth David as soon as I turned 16. I think she was bossy (no one was ever bossier) because she often found herself to be the only practical person among the company she kept. She loved to find solutions to things; no detail of a friend’s life was too small to be picked up by her radar. If crabby, ancient Jean Rhys needed a new hat, then Sonia would see to it; while a whole lunch — paid for by her, as usual, at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris — was taken up by her insisting that I tell my mother that she must install a basin in a spare room.

She had her flaws, of course. But it is a testament to her qualities that Hilary Spurling should have been willing to work to set the record straight, now, some 20 years after Sonia’s death. She has unearthed a lot of material about her subject’s early life, and the book is strong on period flavour. Spurling’s meticulous research proves how honourably Sonia ran Orwell’s literary estate, and how modestly she called upon his financial one. The wild generosity she showed towards her friends didn’t extend towards herself: she worked almost all her life — translating, editing the exemplary four-volume edition of Orwell’s non-fiction, discovering writers and helping them — and was very much less well off than most of us guessed. A Girl from the Fiction Department (the title comes from the character in Nineteen Eighty-Four whom Orwell based upon her) is timely and apt. It’s an excellent read too; a worthy addition to the author’s distinguished backlist. The day Sonia Orwell met Hilary Spurling must have been among the luckiest of her life.


 June 15, 2003

'The Girl From the Fiction Department': The Widow Orwell


A Portrait of Sonia Orwell.
By Hilary Spurling.
Illustrated. 193 pp. New York: Counterpoint. $24.

In a life of brilliant passions, Sonia Brownell's 14-week marriage to George Orwell stands out as the lackluster chapter. To the altar the bride trailed a resplendent past. The survivor of an uneasy childhood -- a broken Anglo-Indian home and a posh convent education in England -- she had been her raffish London neighborhood's most popular typist, the inspiration to a young circle of painters known as the Euston Road School, a disciple of Cyril Connolly and later his indispensable editor during the heady days of Horizon magazine, a baby sitter in the Orwell household, a lover of Arthur Koestler, the mistress of the charismatic French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Only after her star turn as the girl in the fiction department -- she was the model for the high-spirited Julia in ''1984'' -- did she become Mrs. George Orwell.

Her husband's marriage proposal may rank as the dreariest of all time. His literary star had risen as his health had declined; he was a semi-invalid when he asked for Sonia's hand by suggesting that she ''learn how to make dumplings.'' He suspected his friends would be horrified at the idea of his taking a new wife, but figured that Sonia's radiant attention could keep him alive. Besides, this steely, saucy, cynical girl was uniquely well qualified to handle a literary estate. (Sonia would be spared Orwell's living legacy. Five years old at the time of his father's death, Richard Orwell was entrusted to an aunt.) The bride reasoned: ''He said he would get better if I married him, so you see, I had no choice.'' There was the tiny detail of her having been recently jilted by Merleau-Ponty, but no matter. If hospital weddings have more logic to them than most, this one was positively syllogistic. The bedridden Orwell donned a smoking jacket for the brief ceremony. The Champagne chilled on a hospital trolley. The wedding party removed to the Ritz to celebrate, minus the groom.

A few months later, Orwell was dead, but the bride would remain Mrs. George Orwell for 30 years, long after she had become Mrs. Michael Pitt-Rivers. If the Orwells had astonished their friends in 1949, Sonia left them gasping in 1958. Husband No. 2 was best known as a defendant in the last of Britain's great homosexual trials. Savage feuds, two suicide attempts and a divorce rather naturally followed. Sonia wound up briefly as a Parisian journal editor -- of the conviction that most problems could be solved ''by a good quotation from Flaubert,'' she was generally happier on the French side of the Channel -- but in the years that followed she held court in a South Kensington salon, framed by the work of two of her intimates, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. She responded always to talent, even aging talent, and with verve devoted herself to a series of friends -- Ivy Compton-Burnett, W. H. Auden, Jean Rhys, J. R. Ackerley -- in their last years. She herself ended her days camped out in spare bedrooms and hotels and hospital wards, as broke and addressless as she had begun.

The boldface company could and should not disguise the fact that Sonia Orwell had an enormous capacity for and dedication to work; Julia's 60-hour weeks at the Ministry of Truth were hers, at Horizon and elsewhere. Primarily, she devoted herself to the thankless task of literary executorship. Her critical volumes of Orwell stand as testimony to her editorial talents, which had been questioned only by those men who could not seem to abide the coincidence of talent and beauty in the same tamperproof package. As the Widow Orwell, she assembled a different and more damaging group of detractors, intent on access of another kind. Her husband had bequeathed her a giant millstone in the form of a no-biography clause in his will. This stopped no one.

It is to to settle the score with that crew that Hilary Spurling, author of acclaimed biographies of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henri Matisse, offers up this portrait. To the table she brings great sensitivity, exemplary research and an agenda, about which she is perfectly clear. She means to retouch the picture of the grasping, greedy, combative Sonia. In her first line, she acknowledges having come to know Mrs. Orwell in the early 1970's. Only in her last chapter does she reveal the extent of their relationship. Sonia was godmother to Spurling's daughter. It was in Spurling's home that Sonia read the page proofs of one of the offending Orwell biographies. Spurling arranged Sonia's funeral. This leaves us somewhere in an awkward land between apologia and memoir, with the former more compelling. (I am not so certain about that plastic salad spinner Sonia bestowed on the Spurling family, which may not carry the point about Sonia's stunning generosity.)

And while Spurling's is a valiant and welcome rescue, there is a ransom to be paid. Sonia's was a beauty of the jaw-dropping variety; even Michael Shelden, happy to write her off as calculating and bossy in his 1991 ''George Orwell,'' pronounced her ''indeed attractive -- she had light brown hair, large eyes and a bright complexion.'' Under Spurling's care, Sonia blossoms into a medieval enchantress: ''She had luxuriant pale gold hair, the coloring of a pink and white tea rose, and the kind of shapely, deep-breasted, full-hipped figure that would have looked well in close-fitting Pre-Raphaelite green velvet.'' Granted, Shelden has driven Spurling down this fulsome road. He manages to place Sonia in a nightclub with a former lover on the evening Orwell died and, two months later, on the Riviera with another former flame. He makes his point, but so does Spurling, who can be as indulgent as she is rigorous. At various junctures, the reader may wish that she would stop arguing with the umpire and just hit the ball.

Or that she would fill in some conspicuous blanks. Sonia reminds the reader of nothing so much as an English version of Mary McCarthy, with whom she turns out to have feuded. The details of that contretemps do not appear here. Nor does Spurling always see the spades for the spades. ''The trouble between them was still her nostalgia for the absolute, the legacy from a Catholic childhood that Sonia saw as 'the cancer at the heart of so many disastrous love affairs,' '' is, it seems, rather a fancy way of saying that Sonia hoped against hope that Merleau-Ponty would leave his wife for her. And to assert that Orwell's dumpling proposal ''stirred the passionate protective generosity at the root of Sonia's being'' is to broadcast exclusively to Orwell's biographers. Yes, and she was plainly devastated by Merleau-Ponty. On this subject, Sonia was perhaps more quotable than any other: the fact that ''love'' and ''un amour'' ''are not an exact translation of each other,'' she wrote later, ''has caused more confusion between the English and the French than most of the wars of politics and religion.''

In the gentlest of resurrections, Sonia Orwell comes off as a desperate heroine cooked up by Jean Rhys and Edith Wharton on a rainy afternoon. If she fails to rise to the green velvet heights that Spurling sets for her, she remains formidable, more than a tad tortured, a woman of fierce devotions and equally fierce aversions, no less interesting for being, as one friend noted, ''unspeakably unhappy.'' She paid dearly for what she loved most, which is one definition of nobility. On all counts, the best epitaph for her may be that uttered by a Marguerite Duras character, closely modeled on Sonia: ''Literature can be as fatal as anything else; you can't get over it.''

Stacy Schiff is a director's fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She is at work on a book about Benjamin Franklin's years in Paris.


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