The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
by Hilary Spurling
A review by Benjamin Schwarz
Sonia Brownell, a young, smart, and pretentious beauty with a reputation for what would once have been called promiscuity, married the lonely and cadaverous George Orwell on his deathbed. She has ever since been regarded by many as something of a literary gold digger, but she always had her partisans — and Spurling is by far her fiercest. Nearly every aspect of Sonia's behavior concerning Orwell is disputed (Was she or was she not nightclubbing with her former lover, Lucian Freud, when Orwell died? How often and for how long did she visit Orwell in his final days?), so there's room for a charitable interpretation of this difficult woman. Sonia certainly had her strong points, including charisma: she was the inspiration for the bossy and earthy Julia ("the girl from the fiction department") in Nineteen Eighty-four, and Anthony Powell, Marguerite Duras, and Angus Wilson (Sonia discovered him for the literary magazine Horizon) all based fictional characters on her. Jean Rhys, Cyril Connolly (her boss at Horizon), Stephen Spender, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mary McCarthy, and Francis Bacon also enjoyed her loyal and generous, if capricious, friendship. Many have judged Sonia as the tyrannical and grasping executrix of Orwell's literary estate, but her careful co-editing of the 1968 four-volume collection of Orwell's essays, journalism, and letters unquestionably solidified his reputation as the one twentieth-century writer who elevated journalism to an art. Nevertheless, Spurling, a distinguished biographer who was close to Sonia for the last decade of her life, ignores or thoughtlessly dismisses many of the unsavory accusations leveled against her subject, making this at best a prejudiced—and at worst an unreliable — life history. Spurling's desire to salvage her friend's reputation also lends a breathless, frenetic, and at times sloppy quality to her prose: Sonia's visits, Spurling writes, "lifted her friends' spirits like the sun coming out." And Sonia was daunted by the "enormity" [sic] of the task of editing The Collected Essays. Far too ardent, this is nevertheless a needed corrective to the beating Sonia has taken from many of Orwell's biographers.
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