The Widow Orwell

A review of The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling

On October 13, 1949, at University College Hospital in London where he was being treated for advanced tuberculosis, a 46-year-old George Orwell ex-changed wedding vows with Sonia Brownell, a literary editor 15 years his junior, in a simple ceremony with two old friends as witnesses. Four months later, Orwell was dead, and Sonia Brownell Orwell was left as sole heir to his literary estate.

Biographers of George Orwell have since accused his widow of being an opportunist, a sexual adventuress, and a harridan. They have largely cast the sickbed nuptials as a marriage of convenience for the bride, a union that would give her what Orwell himself referred to as a sinecure of “the writer’s widow.”

Girl from the Fiction Department

The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
by Hilary Spurling
Counterpoint Press, 208 pp.

Now, in a biography devoted not to her famous husband, but to Sonia Brownell, writer Hilary Spurling, who came to know Sonia in the decade before the latter’s death in 1980, attempts to rehabilitate Sonia Orwell’s reputation. Spurling portrays not a gold digger but a devoted spouse and talented editor who had significant intellectual influence on the author of 1984.

Spurling paints a picture of an engaging and complicated woman who despite her verve, her loyalty, generosity, and intelligence, her passion for art and literature, was hugely insecure, convinced she was fundamentally unworthy.

Like her famous husband, Sonia Brownell was born to a colonial family in India. It was a fractured, tragic childhood. Her father died when she was just four months old—rumored to have committed suicide–and her mother remarried, only to have that marriage unravel as her new husband spiraled downward into alcoholism. Also like Orwell, Sonia was sent away to boarding school in England, at Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton—and suffered the same existence (deep loneliness, the contempt for the students without money) that Orwell would later describe in his 1947 essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.”

Yet as much as she despised the nuns’ despotic rule at the convent, she also credited her Jesuitical training with teaching her one crucial lesson: that ideas have enormous power. It was a lesson that led her, after leaving Sacred Heart, to flee her bourgeois roots to live amongst the Bloomsbury poets, writers, and painters in Fitzrovia in 1940s London. A great beauty, she had no shortage of male admirers and lovers from whom she learned more about art and literature than she did about love.

Brownell started her own literary career as a mostly unpaid business manager of Horizon, a literary and art review founded in 1940 by the brilliant Cyril Connolly (who’d known George Orwell at Eton) and his friend Peter Watson. Horizon later became home to such literary lions as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Edmund Wilson, and Stephen Spender.

There, Brownell developed into a surefooted editor with a fine eye for talent. It was also where she gained her reputation for being “difficult.” She was unsparing and frequently imperious in her criticisms, but, as Spurling points out, “much of the trouble was that Brownell was trespassing on traditionally masculine critical and intellectual preserves.” Both Connolly and Watson, who were frequently absent from the day-to-day running of the magazine, relied heavily on her judgment. In later life, as an editor for European publishing houses like Weidenfeld and Nicolson, her discerning eye secured such rising stars as Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, and Nigel Dennis.

When Sonia Brownell met George Orwell in the early 1940s at a dinner party at Cyril Connolly’s house, she was firmly ensconced as an editor at Horizon, and he was a star columnist for Tribune and a contributor to Horizon. They did not meet again until after the war, in 1946. Orwell was then a lonely widower, his first wife having died the year before from a botched operation. He was struggling to juggle a rising literary career with caring for an infant adopted son, Richard. Brownell, ever practical, offered to care for the child on the nanny’s day off. It was perhaps inevitable that she and Orwell would soon discover how much they had in common, and plunge into an affair. Orwell asked Brownell to marry him. She is the one who said no–a fact elided over by those who would later call her an opportunist. Orwell then retired to the island of Jura in the Hebrides to write 1984.

But Brownell retained a powerful, natural bond with Orwell, whose devotion to ideas over people she perfectly understood. Indeed her own ideas fed his. In her conversations with George as well as in her occasional columns, she would often vent her fury at her Catholic education, which she saw as an attempt at mind control. Spurling argues that there is a direct connection between those conversations and the “doublethink” style of propaganda put forth by the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984. Sonia Brownell also became the inspiration for Julia (the girl from the Fiction Department), the tempestuous heroine of the novel.

When Brownell met Orwell again in 1948, he had checked himself into a sanitarium and was dying. Sonia visited him through the spring and summer, writes Spurling, and when he again asked her to marry him, she accepted. “Her marrying Orwell had to do with her own deep unhappiness,” wrote Ian Angus, who along with Brownell edited Orwell’s Collected Essays. They had both been battered by life: Orwell’s loneliness and illness had worn him down, while Brownell had just ended an affair with philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whom she described as the love of her life.

The brief marriage was marked by tenderness and the good cheer Sonia Brownell Orwell brought to her husband’s sickbed. She relished her role as “literary handmaiden,” truly believing, as she told Spurling years later, as if it explained everything: “He said he would get better if I married him, so you see I had no choice.” When George Orwell died on January 21, 1950, his wife was devastated.

The heaviest charge critics have levelled against Sonia Orwell has been that she lived high on the estate he bequeathed her—evidence that her interest in him was pecuniary. In fact, as Spurling makes clear, the value of Orwell’s original estate was a mere 10,000 pounds.

Orwell charged Jack Harrison, his accountant, with the care of George Orwell Productions, the company that owned the rights for his written work, with regular modest stipends to be paid out to his son Richard and to Sonia. The complete trust the Orwells placed in Harrison was a mistake. Over the years, Brownell literally signed away her share of George Orwell Productions (she had fallen into the habit of signing papers put in front of her without reading them).

When Harrison’s self-dealing became clear by 1979, (paperback sales alone of Animal Farm and 1984 were worth more than $100,000 per year), she sued him for a substantial sum (Spurling doesn’t reveal how much). But the suit dragged on. It was clear that Sonia Orwell, who was now dying of a brain tumor, would not likely survive long enough to go to trial, so her lawyers reached a settlement. She used the substantial disbursement to buy out Orwell Productions, and signed over all copyrights and anything derived from the estate back to Orwell’s son, Richard. She died two weeks later, penniless.

Kukula Glastris

Kukula Glastris is books editor of the Washington Monthly.