THE GIRL FROM THE FICTION DEPARTMENT: A PORTRAIT OF SONIA ORWELL
By Hilary Spurling
Counterpoint/ Perseus Books Group, $24, 208 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
“G. Orwell is dead — and Mrs. Orwell presumably a rich widow.” So wrote the vinegary Evelyn Waugh to his equally acidulous correspondent and close friend, Nancy Mitford, shortly after the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984” died in January 1950 at the age of 46.
George Orwell and Sonia Brownell had married only three months before, literally on his deathbed or at least in the room at University College Hospital in London which he was never to leave alive. There had been a brief affair the year before which was reflected in “1984” in Winston Smith’s with Julia, “the girl from the fiction department” which gives this memoir its title. But there was no conjugal life or even cohabitation before Orwell died from a pulmonary arterial hemorrhage.
And so began the purgatorial three decades of widowhood in which Sonia Orwell received little or no credit for staunchly guarding and preserving her husband’s oeuvre and reputation but herself acquired an unsavoury reputation for avarice and parsimony.
As her friend, the distinguished biographer Hilary Spurling, puts it at the outset of her passionate defense cum memoir, “The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell”:
“The myth of the cold and grasping Widow Orwell, based on ignorance, misconception and distortion, had by this time acquired its own momentum. The real Sonia seemed to have been taken over by the fiction department. This book is an attempt to disentangle the truth before she disappears completely. I have tried to pare back what Michael Holroyd called history’s cuticle of lies by confronting the central mystery of Sonia’s life, the relationship that drove her to her death and that has puzzled people ever since: her role as wife, widow, and sole heir to George Orwell.”
So intent is Mrs. Spurling on correcting what she sees as the misimpression of Sonia Orwell in the various biographies that have appeared over the past quarter century that she has herself produced another skewed portrait — only this time hopelessly biased in favor of someone who was obviously a generous and beloved friend.
As an act of gratitude, this spirited book is a triumph; as an accurate portrait of a complex woman struggling with an exceptionally nasty bunch of demons, it leaves a lot to be desired. This is surprising in someone of Mrs Spurling’s proven skills as a biographer of such diverse characters as Ivy Compton Burnett, Paul Scott, and Henri Matisse: one can only conclude that this is one of those cases where heart has simply triumphed over head.
It is bad enough that Mrs Spurling chooses totally to accept Mrs Orwell’s contention that the accountant chosen by her late husband embezzled large parts of the income generated by his estate. (The latest Orwell biography indicates that the money was lost through poor investment choices.) But she also glosses over Mrs. Orwell’s willful and determined ignorance of matters financial and doesn’t provide a convincing defense of her failure to use a hugely profitable estate to achieve the kind of beneficence to society (literary or otherwise) which George Orwell surely would have wanted.
After all, Orwell was fortunate that the British government had not yet hit upon the diabolical device of assessing tax on the earning potential of a writer’s estate as they were to do starting with that of the hapless Evelyn Waugh. (Talk about double taxation — the earnings would of course also be subject to income tax as they actually rolled in — this was certainly the opposite of the Irish Republic’s decision to exempt creative artists from tax altogether.)