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.)
As much as 100,000 pounds a year was rolling in from Orwell’s royalties by the 1970s and although it was true that his widow never saw as much as a tenth of that sum as her annual income, her generosity seems to have been quixotic and used to further her, rather than his, literary aims. Unconvincing Mrs. Spurling may be about matters financial, but she is simply ludicrous when she states as fact that the travails with the errant accountant killed Sonia Orwell in 1980, when in fact she died of a brain tumor. Or when she writes that Sonia’s brother contracted emphysema as a young child and recovered from it.
Mrs. Spurling does rather better by her friend in championing the hard work done on the edition of Orwell’s prose which his widow edited with Ian Angus. She makes a convincing case for the importance of this project in furthering his reputation but surely this achievement could not fairly have been denied Sonia Orwell by even the most churlish of her husband’s biographers?
For all Mrs Spurling’s attempts to portray Sonia as a perspicacious critic, she comes across more as a kind of Pamela Harriman of the literary/cultural/artistic world: desperate to acquire the skills of a true practitioner of the art of criticism but too often succeeding only in parroting the opinions and insights of those figures whom she worshipped.
Foremost among these was the critic Cyril Connolly on whose legendary journal “Horizon” she cut her teeth as literary talent scout cum power broker. The possibly apocryphal story of her saying after an unwanted pounce by a leathery lecher, “It isn’t his trying to rape me that I mind… but that he doesn’t seem to realize what Cyril stands for,” may be too good to be true, but it does seem to encapsulate perfectly the ludicrous humorlessness of her undoubtedly passionate advocacy.
Her belief in her artistic judgments was absolute and must have been infuriating to those who found themselves on the wrong side of them. Mrs. Spurling’s feminist defense that much of this stemmed from pique on the part of male writers and artists unused to being judged so authoritatively by a woman is unconvincing to me. It seems to me just as possible that they were infuriated by the facile didacticism of one who was as convinced of her particular ideology as only an ideologue can be but without an intellect or capacity for judgment equal to those whom she emulated.
As a human being, however, Sonia Orwell was capable of enormous kindness. Her generosity and attention to an aged and querulous Jean Rhys not only helped bring this hitherto neglected writer back into the public’s eye but unquestionably brightened what would otherwise have been a sad old age.
Similarly, her attention to W.H. Auden at the end of his life was a bright light in an otherwise gloomy twilight. And it seems that she really did marry George Orwell in the belief that doing so would save his life. The realization that it hadn’t contributed to a grief so wrenching and heartfelt that even the most skeptical of his friends like Malcolm Muggeridge could not but be won over.
Has Hilary Spurling done Sonia Orwell a favor by penning this homage to her friend? She may to some extent have redressed the imbalance created by the hostility of the Orwell biographers so perhaps history will be kinder from now on to this prickly but ultimately well-intentioned woman.
But she is such a chameleon: the ultimate intellectual/artistic groupie, the Venus of the Euston Road school of painters whose face and figure are reflected in so many of their memorable impressionistic pictures; the high priestess of the bare-footed harem who held sway over Cyril Connolly’s influential “Horizon” magazine; the talent scout of Weidenfeld & Nicolson in its heyday; the bridge between the cultural worlds of London and Paris; the discoverer of Angus Wilson, whose portrait of her as Elvira Portway in his masterpiece “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” may serve as her best memorial: literally gorgeous, unbearably direct to the point of rudeness, but relentlessly honest. A restless soul in life, Sonia Orwell will probably not get her due any better than in this affectionate but clear-eyed fictional portrait penned a half century ago.
Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.