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.
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
; 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
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
, 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
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.
The Girl from the Fiction Department
208pp, Hamish Hamilton, £9.99
Allen Lane, Penguin Press £12.99, pp160