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Thursday, August 21st, 2003


The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell

by Hilary Spurling

The Horizon Girl

A review by Frank Kermode

I knew Sonia Orwell slightly, having met her at parties of which she was beyond challenge the life and soul — full of combative talk and occasionally, under the stress of disagreement, breaking into French, a language in which she had become extraordinarily proficient in the cafés of the Left Bank. Others with a higher degree of acquaintance gossiped about her, yet much about her life was not generally known until the now-flourishing Orwell business got under way; and the interest of Orwell's biographers in Sonia was indirect, the marriage having been so short and the relict not easy to get on with. She still tends to be dismissed as the fussy keeper of the flame, and as Orwell's perhaps rather grasping widow, and little more than that. But now, as the centennial biographies of her husband hit the stores, Sonia Orwell has a biography to herself.

Her first lover, Eugene Vinaver, a courtly and learned Polish exile, was a friendly colleague of mine for years, but I had not the slightest notion of their early relationship. Vinaver's major work was his edition of the manuscript of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and I was astonished to learn that this exact scholar should have entrusted the transcription of a unique manuscript to an inexperienced girl. Yet he was right to do so. She returned his trust by letting him take her on a terrifying drive through central Europe, though (according to Hilary Spurling) he had never driven a car before. This reminded me of one of Vinaver's own stories: taking his driving test in Paris, he was so terrified by the traffic at the Étoile that he stopped the car and ran off, leaving the examiner to take it home. He alleged that since that moment he had never again tried to get a license or driven a car.

Another admired colleague of mine, the well-known painter William Coldstream, later head of the Slade School, had been, naturally also without troubling to inform me, Sonia's serious lover. She owed a lot to these men, but even more important to her was the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. She liked very intelligent older men, and they were quick to see how remarkable she was, and how useful.

It would not be easy to characterize the membership of Sonia's inner circle, which later included many artists, including Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Its literary center was the offices of Cyril Connolly's magazine Horizon, which was backed by a rich young collector named Peter Watson, to whom Sonia was even more devoted than she was to Connolly. Connolly liked to be served by beautiful upper-class girls. Although plump and far from handsome, he seems to have had a powerful attraction for women, or anyway for those who responded to his appeals for pity and agreed with his opinion that a chronic shortage of cash and the consequent need to work at something — writing reviews, for instance — was preventing him from producing a work of genius, which was the only kind of work, he believed, worth bothering about.

Sonia Brownell became chief rose in his rosebud garden of girls. Still in her twenties and the victim of a poor and interrupted education, she was sometimes left to run the famous journal more or less on her own. It expired after a decade, having survived all the bombings between 1940 and 1945, a period during which it continued, against considerable odds, to appear regularly and to defy, sometimes flippantly, any interest in the war, which Connolly refused to consider his business. Horizon is now remembered with some nostalgia, partly because of its genuine quality, largely because its editor's slightly outrageous Francophile charm continues to attract biographers. He really could write: Enemies of Promise and The Condemned Playground are minor classics, and The Unquiet Grave, his pseudonymous volume of melancholy, self-pitying aphorisms, still has admirers. But at least some of the credit for the journal, and for Connolly's celebrity as an editor, belongs to Sonia. She "discovered," among others, Angus Wilson; and by 1947 she was editing whole numbers while Connolly made triumphant visits to Paris and New York.

I can think of no better label for his milieu than upper-class bohemian, a class with whom the term "middle-class" was an insult. Connolly, like many of his friends, assumed that he deserved the best of everything, regardless of whether he could afford it. The most intimate and therefore the funniest portrait of him is in Tears Before Bedtime, a memoir by Barbara Skelton, one of his wives. Skelton was an adventurous woman who had been the mistress of King Farouk of Egypt, and after the union with Connolly ended she went on to marry the publisher George Weidenfeld. A woman who saw the world mostly as a parade of pathetic absurdities, she is very hard on her mates, especially Connolly, who went in for childish sulks: "He wouldn't come down to breakfast but lay in his bed sucking the sheet ends, which is always a bad sign. He sometimes lay for an hour with folds of sheet pouring from his mouth like ectoplasm." But she shared his ideas of what life owed their kind of people. One has to imagine a couple with a vast overdraft, sometimes driven to the pawnshop; lacking the few shillings they needed to get from their country cottage to London, yet choosing pre-war vintage claret, frowning if offered non-vintage champagne, taking caviar with their tea, and traveling in high style through Italy.

Most of the men who flourished or survived under such conditions were of the social class that took it for granted that sons went to Eton, or a school as nearly like it as possible, and then to Oxford. Connolly was at prep school and at Eton with Orwell; and despite their evident temperamental differences, reflected in the antithetical accounts that they wrote of their school days, they were lifelong friends. Orwell, like Sonia, was born in India, and in his twenties he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He is famous for his descriptions of life as a down-and-out in Paris and London, for his grim documentary on the lives of the poor in northern England in The Road to Wigan Pier, and for his decision to fight on the Republican side in Spain. It is true that his hatred of imperialism and capitalism induced him to lead the kind of life he was describing; but Orwell was always identifiable as a member of the same class as Connolly and most of his friends, with the same distinctive accent and the same sub-aristocratic ease of manner, so that his self-inflicted hardship might be regarded as a sort of inverted bohemianism.

Sonia had had an affair with him earlier, and when she married him on his deathbed she was choosing a husband from very much the same social stratum that provided her other lovers. Orwell was dying of tuberculosis, and the wedding took place beside his hospital bed. Not surprisingly, gossip suggested that Sonia was getting on to a good thing. After producing a fair amount of very high-class journalism and some good but not very well-rewarded fiction, Orwell had become celebrated as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. He was not yet rich but was quite likely to become so; and one of the inducements he offered Sonia, in a characteristically low-toned letter proposing marriage, was the prospect of future royalties. Hostile critics have taken this to be her motive for marrying him.

Hilary Spurling, a friend of Sonia's in her later years and now a well-known biographer, has written this short book to express loyal disgust at this slander. There is no reason to think that she is telling anything but the truth. Her title is a quotation from 1984, and Orwell was doubtless thinking of Sonia when he wrote the words: "She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life.... She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated.... She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness." It is easy enough to see why Orwell, broken by illness and by his struggles to represent the nightmare of contemporary history, should admire this generous and unquestioningly loyal young woman. To understand why she committed herself to him is equally easy when one has seen her for what she was: a woman whose generosity and loyalty, as well as her anger, had their origins in her own unhappiness.

Spurling offers some early biographical detail, but her main concern is with "the widow Orwell" as she knew her. The facts are these. Sonia was born on August 25, 1918. Her father was a Calcutta businessman who died, possibly by suicide, when she was four months old. Her Catholic mother, left with the baby and an elder sister, returned to England, married again, and went back to Calcutta. When she was six, Sonia was sent to school at an expensive English convent, where Vivien Leigh was a classmate. Her mother's second marriage collapsed and she set up house in London. She was a clever woman, and later became a brigadier in the Women's Army Corps. Now she taught Sonia "the importance of putting up a front" but did little to mitigate the horrors of her daughter's school life. Throughout her life Sonia felt scorn and disgust for her educators and spat if she saw a nun. Spurling remarks that having no truck whatever with faith, she made up for it by excelling in works.

A year in French-speaking Switzerland would have been a happy memory had she not been involved in a boating accident in which her three companions drowned. Back in London she learned to type and took a room in what is now called North Soho, a shabby district then favored by artists and writers. There she soon became the "Venus" of the famous Euston Road School of painters, of which Coldstream was a notable member; but when the onset of war dispersed the painters Sonia sought refuge at Horizon, working for nothing or next to nothing and scraping by with odd typing jobs. At Horizon she became indispensable because of her intelligence, her taste, and her willingness to serve. She showed extraordinary courage during the worst of the bombing. She was also, in her way, beautiful.

As Orwell's widow, Sonia had to deal with his estate, which came to exceed by many times the income that he had enjoyed when he was alive. Spurling pays keen attention to her discharge of this responsibility. The literary duties she did efficiently, defending her husband against critics of his anti-Stalinism and producing, with Ian Angus, a four-volume collection of Orwell's important non-fiction writings. Again with Angus, she set up an admirable Orwell archive at University College, London.

The financial side of her trusteeship did not go so well. Toward the end of his life Orwell had set up a company called George Orwell Productions, with himself and Sonia as directors, along with an accountant named Jack Harrison. Like Orwell himself, who had never earned enough to be taxed at all until the success of Animal Farm, Sonia understood nothing about taxes and was content to hand over everything, including her own earnings, to Harrison, taking out of the estate only what was needed for the education of Orwell's son, the ultimate beneficiary, and for her own support, just enough to allow her to live in London and, increasingly, in Paris, among her famous friends: Michel Leiris, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Marguérite Duras, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan. She married again, this time choosing a man with a château in France and an estate in England. As a "practicing homosexual" he had been in the news, and — since this was before the law was reformed — in prison. Conducted in opulent surroundings, the union, a mariage blanc, still did not work. Sonia took an overdose, was saved, and carried on alone.

Her scrupulous administration of the literary property irritated people who accused her of bossiness. She reluctantly authorized a biography of Orwell, which she read in proof and hated; she died before the book appeared. Much of the time, says Spurling, she was "driven by demons she could not fully control. Fear, suspicion, and hostility lay increasingly close to the surface. Insecurity or drink released an aggression that made her many enemies." Still, she was famous for friendship and for her willingness to succor friends in trouble.

In 1977 she moved to Paris, where she lived in "a single damp furnished room" without even a bath, and was accused of playing at being poor, like her late husband. But she really was poor. Harrison, her accountant fellow-director of George Orwell Productions, persuaded her to sign, without even reading them, papers that gave him control of the company; and she seems to have believed him when he said that paperback sales of one million a year produced little income. The thought that she had let George down made her unhappy, and so did the lawsuit that she felt obliged to pursue against Harrison. She died, penniless, before the action came to court.

Hilary Spurling has brought a good biographer's skills to the defense of a friend whom she is sure was not only unlucky in her life but also wantonly wronged. She understandably avoids much talk of her subject's more extreme behavior, preferring to stress both her high spirits and her fundamental unhappiness. She has done the job well. Sonia Orwell had qualities that gave her a special position at the heart of English culture in her time. Her skills, as she well knew, were not creative, but she dedicated them, with intelligent and unflagging devotion, to the creativity of others; and she deserves this affectionate, just, and occasionally angry portrait.

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