Fifty years ago, the creator of 1984
was fatally ill but also newly wed, at the peak of his fame,
and bursting with book ideas. DJ Taylor reconstructs the author's final weeks.
LAST DAYS OF ORWELL
By D.J. Taylor
15 January 2000
In January, 1950, small procession of visitors could
be seen each afternoon making their way singly and severally through the cheerless
north Bloomsbury squares towards University College hospital. Many of them
were literary -the immensely tall figure of Stephen Spender with his mop
of curly hair, Anthony Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge, both of whom lived
in nearby Regent's Park. Others came from the BBC or from left-wing newspapers.
Occasionally, a small boy was brought in and allowed to remain for a moment
or so before a patient so terrified of communicating the disease from which
he suffered, that he would never allow his adopted son to touch him. The
most regular visitor was a spectacularly pretty, brown-haired girl with a
newly acquired wedding ring gleaming on her finger.
By January, 1950, Orwell had been at UCH for nearly four months, and in
hospital since the start of the previous year. Two decades of chronic lung
trouble had finally produced a diagnosis of tuberculosis. At a sanatorium
in Gloucestershire, six months before, he had nearly died, but recovered
enough to be transferred to London and the care of the distinguished chest
specialist Andrew Morland. Morland, recommended to Orwell by his publisher
Fred Warburg, didn't anticipate a cure: but he thought that, with sufficient
care and treatment, he might reach the status of "good chronic", able to
potter about and under take a few hours' sedentary work a day. Orwell, desperate
to pick up his pen once more, was told that he had a "relatively" good chance
of staying alive.
Morland had taken Orwell on as a private patient: little more than a year
since its inception, Bevan's NHS had barely begun to exist. Fortunately money,
the absence of which had troubled Orwell for most of his adult life, was no
longer a problem. Nineteen Eighty-Four, published the previous June,
had been a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic. 25,000 copies had already
been sold in England. US royalties, fuelled by selection as a Book of the
Month Club choice, were rolling in. Orwell was famous and well off. In the
last month of his life, the value of his estate was put at around £12,000
(the average weekly wage was well below £10). He was also, despite
the rigours of his hospital routine, unexpectedly happy.
Orwell had known Sonia Brownell, who had worked on Cyril Connolly's monthly
magazine Horizon, for several years. Sixteen years younger than Orwell, with
a string of previous lovers that included the artists Lucian Freud and Wllliam
Coldstream, Sonia looked an unlikely candidate for the role of second Mrs
Orwell, a vacancy the widower had seemed anxious to fill during the late 1940s.
Her reasons for accepting a desperately sick man, with whom she was fairly
obviously not in love, will always be obscure. Subsequent accusations of
gold-digging are unfounded. There was no guarantee when she married him that
he was about to turn into the titanic figure of literary legend. Anthony Powell
always maintained that Sonia married him simply because her mentor, Cyril
Connolly, told her to.
The marriage took place by special licence in Orwell's room on October 13,
1949. David Astor, long-term supporter, gave away the bride in the presence
of the hospital chaplain, the Reverend WH Braine, Sonia's friend Janetta Kee,
Powell, Muggeridge and one of Orwell's doctors. The guests then went off
for a celebratory dinner at the Ritz. The bride groom remained in bed. Several
of his friends noted how much the marriage raised his spirits. According to
Powell, it "immensely cheered him... In some respects he was in better
form than I had ever known." Despite his cadaverous state -he had lost so
much weight, that the doctors had trouble finding enough spare flesh to insert
hypodermic needles – Orwell looked unexpectedly perky in it. Sitting up in
bed, Powell remembered, he had an "unaccustomedly epicurean air".
The plan had beer that, as soon as Orwell showed faint signs of improvement,
he could be sent to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to take advantage of the
rarefied mountain air. But he remained horribly unwell, losing even more weight
and suffering from high temperatures. The new American wonder drug streptomycin
had been tried on him the year before, and Fred Warburg had petitioned his
US publishers to help in speeding up a delivery of auroniycin, but these
were early days for TB cures. Among other side-effects, the streptomycin had
made Orwell's fingernails fall out -and the prognosis grew worse.
Orwell, though, was convinced he would live. Full of ideas for books – a
study of Conrad's political fiction and a novella set in the far east, provisionally
titled A Smoking- Room Story – he believed that a writer who has a book left
in him to write will not die. Despite his poor state, Morland thought that
the promise of the Swiss trip would have a beneficial effect and sanctioned
it for January. A fishing rod, brought by a friend for his convalescence,
lay at the end of the bed.
By this stage, few of his visitors expected him to live. Some of the saddest
visits were the few allowed to his adopted son Richard. Orwell was so anxious
about passing on the disease to the four-year-old that he pushed the boy away
if he came too close. Sonia came every day, looked after his business affairs,
and occasionally annoyed people by her assumption of the role of officious
nurse. One day, Sonia told Orwell that she had to go to a cocktail party
and wouldn't be back that evening. Orwell protested faintly, but she bustled
off. Others noticed a progressive deterioration. Arriving with Powell on
Christmas Day, Muggeridge found him "very deathly and wretched, alone, with
Christmas decorations all around". His face looked practically dead, Muggeridge
recorded, oddly like a picture he had once seen of Nietzsche on his death-bed.
He detected a kind of rage in his friend's expression, as though the approach
of death made him furious. They talked about Orwell's exploits in the Home
Guard, his time in Spain in the civil war, the prospect of Switzerland, "and
all the while the stench of death was in the air, like autumn in a garden".
The new year came. A departure date had been set for January 25. Orwell's
companions on the trip, by privately chartered plane, would be Sonia and Lucian
Freud. Visiting again on the 12th, Muggeridge thought him "more deathly than
ever, very miserable," complaining that the doctors would not even allow him
aspirin. A week later, though, Julian Symons found him eagerly anticipating
the Swiss trip, and keen to talk about long-delayed literary schemes.
There was a chance that the doctors might let him start writing again, he
explained, and he was anxious to get on with the novella and the Conrad book.
"I shall go to Switzerland next Wednesday," Symons recalled him saying, laughing
as he did so, "if I don't catch cold." Another friend, the anarchist poet
Paul Potts, called on him the next afternoon, Friday January 20, bringing
a small packet of tea as a present. Looking through the glass square cut into
the door, he saw that Orwell was asleep. Judging it best not to disturb him,
he left the tea propped up against the lintel and stole away.
Sonia spent the evening at a nightclub with Lucian Freud. In the small hours
of Saturday January 21, she was tracked down by telephone to be told that
Orwell had died of a massive lung haemorrhage. The news spread throughout
the weekend. "G Orwell is dead and Mrs Orwell, presumably, a rich widow,"
Evelyn Waugh noted in a letter to Nancy Mitford. Muggeridge, told of his friend's
death early on the Saturday morning, compared it to the passing of another
recent literary casualty, Hugh Kingsmill.
Orwell's death was the sadder, however, "because he passionately wanted
to go on living, and there was no sense of peace or relinquishment in him."
Muggeridge then working on the Daily Telegraph, wrote a couple of memorial
paragraphs for the Peterborough column. "Thought of him, as of Graham [Greene],
that popular writers always express in an intense form some romantic longing..."
The dead man turned out to have made a will three days before his death,
in the presence of Sonia and his first wife’s sister, Gwen O’Shaughnessy.
Materially it transferred his literary estate to Sonia. A substantial life
insurance policy would provide for his adopted son, Richard, then being looked
after by his aunt, Orwell's sister Avril. Orwell directed that he should be
buried according to the rites of the Church of England and his body interred
(not cremated) in the nearest convenient cemetery. The task of arranging all
this fell to Powell and Muggeridge. A Warren Street undertaker was quickly
brought on board.
Then the two tried to engage the services of the Rev Rose, Vicar of Christ
Church, Albany Street NWI. Astor influence secured a plot in the graveyard
of All Saints church at Sutton Courteney in Oxfordshire. Muggeridge noted
in his diary the fact of Orwell dying on Lenin's birthday and being buried
by the Astors, "which seems to me to cover the full range of his life".
The funeral was set for Thursday January 26. The evening before, Powell
and his wife, Lady Violet, called in at the Muggeridges after supper, bringing
Sonia with them, "obviously in a poor way". On their last meeting, the day
after Orwell's death, Sonia had been overcome with grief. Muggeridge decided
that he would "always love her for her true tears..." He left a detailed account
of the next day's events: Fred Warburg greeting the mourners at the church
door, the chilly atmosphere, the congregation "largely Jewish and almost
entirely unbelievers" who had difficulty following the Anglican liturgy. Powell
chose the hymns - "All people that on earth do dwell," "Guide me, 0 thou
great Redeemer" and "Ten thousand times ten thousand" ("Why, I can't remember,"
Powell later wrote, "perhaps Orwell himself had talked of the hymn, or because
he was, in his way, a sort of saint, even if not one in sparkling raiment
Both Powell and Muggeridge found the occasion hugely distressing. Muggeridge,
in particular, was deeply moved by the lesson, chosen by Powell from the Book
of Ecclesiastes: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and
the spirit shall return to the God who gave it."
He went back to his house near Regent's Park to read through the sheaf of
obituaries filed by, among others, Symons, VS Pritchett and Arthur Koestler,
seeing in them already "how the legend of a human being is created".