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

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

The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
Hilary Spurling
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1519 kb
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Counterpoint; Revised edition (May 5, 2004)
208 pages
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Biographies & Memoris
Arts & Literature
A portrait of George Orwell's second wife, as presented by a friend, notes her achievements with Cyril Connolly on Horizon magazine, her editorial work on her husband's nonfiction writings, his portrayal of her as Julia in 1984, and the burdens she took on in widowhood. 35,000 first printing.
  • Nahn
Very, very interesting book about Sonia Orwell and all the people she knew and her time at the Horizon with Cyril Connelly. She knew all the famous artists and authors of her time. She was married to George Orwell for a short time and spent the money he left her trying to protect his reputation. She was penniless at her death as she had been cheated by an unscrupulous accountant.
  • Xanzay
"The Girl from the Fiction Department" is a slim but effective biography of the woman who seemed to be at the epicenter of 1940s literary London.
While Sonia Brownell never wrote any books herself (and is primarily known for having married "1984" author George Orwell on his deathbed), her life does have a certain fascination, and author Hilary Spurling (the biographer of the criminally underrated novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett) does as much as she can to indicate that, had Brownell not had the misfortune to have been born a) a woman and b) a Roman Catholic, she might have amounted to something in the literary world. In other words, this book belongs to the "Minor Characters" school of literary history (pioneered by Joyce Johnson, the one-time girlfriend of Jack Kerouac): instead of writing about the men who write, write about the women who hang around the men who write, because even though they never wrote anything worth reading, they nevertheless slept with people who did, and that makes them interesting in their own right -- right?
I've never been too sure about this thesis, but the fact is that Sonia Orwell was a pretty interesting person in her own right, and her life makes for absorbing reading, even if only on a gossip level.
Brownell worked at Cyril Connolly's "Horizon," the great British literary magazine of the 1940s, and either knew, befriended or had intimate relations with many of the great writers and artists of the period, many of whom she inspired. From Francis Bacon, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Lucian Freud to Michel Leiris (whose works, hitherto unknown to me, I am now decidedly curious about), it seemed that Brownell knew or slept with just about everyone worth knowing or sleeping with during that time frame, and Spurling makes a convincing case that it was Brownell, and not the sybaritically indolent Connolly, who really kept "Horizon" going during its glory days of World War II, when it really seemed to many literate observers as if the magazine was the only thing keeping the torch of culture lit during Europe's painfully protracted Gotterdammerung.
Among the many authors intrigued by Brownell was George Orwell, already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him, and he immortalized Brownell by using her as the model for Julia, the heroine of his last novel "1984." He also fell in love with her, and clutching at the straws of romantic love (never overly reliable at the best of times), he persuaded her to marry him in the delusional hope that it would keep him alive: it didn't. And while this transformed Brownell into (as many people maliciously called her) The Widow Orwell, it also gave her the responsibility of looking after his estate, editing his works for posthumous publication and generally complying with his wishes (among them the wish that no biography be written), which Spurling believes she did far more conscientiously than her abundant detractors have been willing to admit.
In most of the Orwell biographies you read, Sonia Brownell Orwell doesn't come off very well, usually being portrayed as a golddigging slut, and Spurling's portrait is a praiseworthy attempt to redress the balance. She even advances the claim that looking after Orwell's interest in the long run not only made Brownell miserable but eventually killed her. I'm not so sure about that, but I will admit that Spurling makes Brownell seem like the thoroughly fascinating person she must have been in life, and this slim volume is definitely worth reading to find out not only who she was, but why she's worth remembering.
  • Agantrius
Born Sonia Brownell in 1918, the subject of this book is believed to be the inspiration for a character in George's Orwell's book, 1984. Apparently, she has been a figure of controversy since her death in 1980. Her curious life decisions - including her marriages to a dying Orwell in 1949 and later to an openly homosexual man, and her lawsuit against George Orwell Productions - have sparked charges that the literary editor was a gold-digger.

Spurling combs through Sonia's papers at the George Orwell Archives as well as unpublished letters and other sources to disprove this well-established notion of her subject. Spurling succeeds in creating a fair portrait of the former Mrs. Orwell, one that doesn't hide her subject's flaws but puts them in context of a long, at times trying, life lived.

The opening pages reveal an early source of Sonia's pain: she lost her father at a very young age. While living in colonial India, her father died under mysterious circumstances - some now believe the death was a suicide. Later, her stepfather turned to drink and nearly died of emphysema. These early hardships, coupled with stiff social competition at a traditional and elite Catholic school, give us insight into her scorn for religion, her tendency to seek philosophically absolute positions and into some of her guilt later in life.

The second chapter chronicles Sonia's early life and times with literary and artistic circles, namely her involvement with the Euston School of painting. She became a frequent subject for the artists in her neighborhood. Because of her seemingly cocksure personality and her unwillingness to pose in the nude she became known as "the Euston Road Venus". A long series of affairs with lovers and her somewhat clandestine trips abroad with multiple men are enticing parts to her story and give the impression of a fiercely independent, if susceptible, woman.

Because I know little of art and literature from this time period the material is less accessible to me but the book is well-written to the degree that one need not be all too well versed in this work to appreciate the story. It certainly doesn't hurt that the subject of the book is a truly fascinating, eccentric person. Nearly anyone interested in 20th century British art or literature, as well as the lives of modern literary figures, will find this short biography a satisfying read.
  • Rollers from Abdun
As others have noted, Hilary Spurling really hits you over the head with the unsavory reputation of her subject, Sonia Brownell, "The Girl from the Fiction Department." While seemingly a friend's generous attempt at salvaging what she could, it seems to me that she might have downpedaled how awful most readers think Sonia is. At least then she wouldn't come off as sounding so defensive.

When all is said and done, it sounds as though Sonia did a heroic job protecting the estate of George Orwell, but it might well have done just fine without her. She never quite lived down her status as the woman who married Orwell in extremis, and she never will, not as far as I can see. My hat is off to Hilary Spurling insofar as her loyalty to pal Sonia, but I think she went about it the right way, and after a while, you get tired of hearing about Sonia's beauty and distress and boyfriend after boyfriend, for a short book it has many longueurs. There are tidbits about the famous (Marguerite Duras, Lucien Freud, etc) and these perk up a sad story. But the reader longs for the unadulterated vemon of something like David Plante's memoir of the difficult women in his life. If you want to read a good book by Spurling, about another of her neurotic friends, read IVY instead.