Richard Shone on The Girl from the Fiction Department
by Hilary Spurling, an attempt to rescue the reputation of Sonia Orwell.
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
), 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.
The Girl from the Fiction Department
208pp, Hamish Hamilton, £9.99