Sonia Orwell
Sonia in 1945
from The Girl from the Fiction Department, by Hilary Spurling

To Orwell Today,

I need some info on Sonia Orwell. I had trouble finding the orwell biographies in nearby libraries. I was wondering since you read them all if you could tell me what D.J. Taylor has to say about Sonia Orwell in his biography if anything. Does he portray her in a positve light or a negative light? and could you give me a quote or example that shows his like or dislike for her. I also would appreciate it if you could tell me the same information about Gordon Bowker's biography. I am attempting to write a research paper and I need a little bit more information to top it off and I am in a rut so I was hoping you could provide me with some answers to these questions to give me some ideas.

The paper is due tonight so if u could write me back asap that would be great.

Thank You,
Sarah Swofford

Greetings Sarah,

You're lucky, you caught me in front of the computer and in a mood to share stories about Orwell for the good cause of informing students about his life and times. And, as you say, I have read all his biographies and, even better, own copies of them all.


Here are some excerpts from ORWELL, THE LIFE by D. J. Taylor, pages 412-415:

At some time in the past few weeks he had proposed to Sonia and been accepted. Their plan was to get married 'while I am still an invalid'. Among other advantages a legal union would make it easier for Sonia to look after him if they went abroad later in the year.

Orwell's desire to marry Sonia, and her willingness to accept him, has always been regarded as the last great enigma of his life, and yet the motivation is readily understandable on both sides. Undoubtedly Orwell was highly attracted by the lively and efficient girl fifteen years younger than himself. There have been attempts to write up Sonia as Julia - described as 'a bold-looking girl of about twenty-seven, with thick, dark hair, a freckled face, and swift athletic movements'; several of Sonia's friends remarked the similarity of vocal tone. Literary insiders of the time noticed that, in a curious way, their relationship was - the phrase is Muggeridge's - 'the coming to life of the love affair in Nineteen Eighty-Four'. But there was also a more prosaic urge: he wanted someone to look after him, and the thought of an obliging helpmeet clearly crowded out any romantic aspirations (according to Sonia's account of the proposal, his next words were 'You might learn to make dumplings').

On Sonia's side a sense of duty mingled with a strong interest for self-preservation. After nearly a decade in the saddle, Connolly was losing interest in his creation: Horizon's days were numbered. On the rebound from an intense love affair with the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sonia was also in search of a focus for her life. 'When Horizon folds up I'll marry George,' a friend remembered her saying at the time. Undeniably these words were said, but it would be wrong to deduce from them that Sonia regarded marriage to Orwell as merely expedient. Friend after friend stresses her organising, practical side, that she 'liked looking after people', while acknowledging her relish of the power it brought. 'She loved it,' her great friend Janetta, now married to the writer Robert Kee, observed of her dextrous management of Orwell's hospital routines, 'and it was all to do with being in control.' Certainly, Orwell approximated to an ideal she had been stalking since her Euston Road days, what Stephen Spender, who observed her for forty years, called 'Sonia in pursuit of her genius', the great man whom she could comfort and revere.

There was an air of fantasy about the relationship, in particular its presumed destiny - a cottage in the country where Sonia could deal with her husband's post and cook his meals while Orwell languished in a bath-chair - but also a sharp awareness of the long-term benefits which might accrue. To mark Sonia down as in impenitent gold-digger, staking her claim with the purchase of a lavish engagement ring, is nonsense. At the same time, here in the autumn of 1949 with 25,000 copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four in print in England and American sales booming it was clear that Orwell's leavings would be worth having. Perhaps in the end Sonia's motives were not explicable even to herself. Asked point-blank later in life by a friend she replied simply: 'I don't know . . . I felt sorry for him.' Julian Symons' theory was more straightforward. She had married Orwell, he explained to a lunchtime audience of Powell, Muggeridge and Fyvel, because Cyril Connolly had told her to...

The prospective bride, meanwhile, had made herself thoroughly at home at UCH [University College Hospital], arriving daily from her flat in nearby Percy Street to deal with Orwell's business affairs, write letters on his behalf and supervise his visitors in a way that some thought reminiscent of a bossy hospital nurse...


'Orwell was said to have a 50-50 chance of recovery and as he is much in love with her everyone hopes that marriage will give him a new interest in life' said witness Frances Partridge...

The effect on Orwell was, for a brief period, intensely therapeutic. Anthony Powell thought that in some respects 'he was in better form than I had ever seen him show', irradiating flashes of 'the old Wodehousian side.' Muggeridge, too, detected a change for the better. Visiting him in the last week of October, he found him 'remarkably cheerful'....

Here are excerpts from INSIDE GEORGE ORWELL by Gordon Bowker, pages 366-426:

The first person he wrote to on arriving back on Jura was Sonia Brownell. He still retained a passion for her, only heightened by their brief if lustful affair; Sonia, however, suffered from what Koestler referred to sneeringly as 'French 'flu'. Like her mentor Connolly, she was more than a little scornful of English culture, regarding France as the gravitational centre of all things artistic. According to her friend John Russell, 'she was so profoundly Frenchified that for many years she really had trouble reading English authors', and so may have found Orwell's Englishness less than appealing, and, apart from his Horizon contributions, been relatively ignorant of his work. However, they had not argued over Mallarme for nothing. Orwell was well-read in French literature and had his own French cast of mind, and must have seen the volatile but intelligent Sonia as the almost perfect, even if sadly unobtainable, intellectual partner. All he lacked, he thought, was the power to attract the women who attracted him. He also lacked the subtle art of seduction. She was sent the usual train-bus-ferry-taxi itinerary and advised to bring stout gumboots and a week's rations. She could come whenever she liked for as long as she liked, he told her. The sophisticated Sonia did not, it seems, find the invitation difficult to resist, and did not make the trip to Jura until after Orwell's death....

See VISITING ORWELL'S BARNHILL [To me the most exciting thing about sitting in Orwell's kitchen was that it was below the bedrooms where he'd written and typed 1984 and where his handwritten manuscript had lain undisturbed for thirteen months after he left. His wife Sonia had found it among his papers when she came to Barnhill in February 1950, a month after his death. I was born in February 1950, the very same month Orwell's manuscript was found in his bedroom upstairs. I told them about the miracle of my coming across a copy of the manuscript in Wales last summer and they agreed that it was a real treasure-find. ~ Jackie Jura]

In early May Sonia Brownell reappeared on the scene. She was just back from Paris where a passionate affair with the existentialist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty had recently broken up. It seems that she informed Warburg [Orwell's publisher] that she intended to vist Cranham [the tuberculosis sanitarium where Orwell was a patient], and he asked her to report back to him on Orwell's condition. Her relationship with Warburg was crucial to the events that later unfolded...

Sonia, now recruited as Warburg's go-between, visited Orwell on 25 June, his forty-sixth birthday. This, it seems was the occasion on which Orwell, probably without much hope of success, again proposed to her. No doubt it was the usual Orwellian proposition. 'I'm not much - a physical wreck in fact - but I would not be jealous if you took lovers, and you might find it interesting to be a writer's widow. What is more, there could well be some kind of income from royalties for a few years'. She did not give him an immediate reply, but obviously there was a considerable difference between being proposed to by a modestly successful if not widely known Orwell in 1945, and a man who, if Warburg was to be believed and if the reviews were any guide, was about to be hailed as a great author, and about to become decidedly no longer poor.

No doubt encouraged by her uncertain response, Orwell hinted to Warburg that he might consider remarrying. In his autobiography, All Authors Are Equal, Warburg said that Sonia, still undecided about Orwell's proposal, asked his advice, and he 'pointed out some of the pros and cons' of such a marriage. If she had any doubts about Orwell's stature his publisher would have dismissed them utterly. He also offered her an important role in the salvation of a great and distinguished author - that of Ministering Angel, destined perhaps to save the dying genius. 'With me,' said Warburg, 'the feeling was strong that Orwell had a better chance of recovery with a woman he loved to help him.' Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, she received the very same advice from Warburg's friend, Morland [Orwell's doctor]. It was a role which the guilt-ridden Sonia would have found difficult to resist. No doubt to Orwell's complete surprise, on her next visit she said, 'Yes'. Thus they began, for their own quite different motives, what some came to see as a most extraordinary danse macabre. She told Ian Angus: "When George married me he knew exactly what he was taking on. He knew that I would be downstairs knocking back the wine but he knew that at the right time I would appear with some delicious food and he'd be there in striped pyjamas.' But she also said that 'The reaons why George married me are clear; the reasons why I married him are not clear.'...

Sonia and George had more in common than meets the eye. Both were lonely, both felt isolated in a hostile world, both were in conflict with their origins and struggled to affirm their individualism, both were critical of the inward-looking tradition of British art and in their own ways looked towards Europe. They shared a deep hostility towards Catholicism no doubt giving them a strong sense of shared understanding. George, still imaginatively in thrall to his childhood, must have certainly recognised the vulnerable child in Sonia. After all, he was at his best with children. But she was also beautiful and intelligent, the sort of woman he found most attractive, and a highly efficient and proven editor. He felt sure that she would be more than capable of handling his literary affairs. He also believed that she would manage his financial affairs with equal efficiency. Undoubtedly she had a certain competence in literary matters, though inclined to depend for advice on others - Warburg, Muggeridge and Fyvel to begin with, Geoffrey Gorer, her agents Cyrs Brooks and Mark Hamilton, and Ian Angus, her co-editor of Orwell's non-fiction, later on. On the financial side, she kept from Orwell the fact that she knew nothing about business and hated dealing with money. However, there, at least, she had the reassurance that his finances were in the hands of an accountant he approved. A meeting of George Orwell Productions took place in Orwell's hospital room on 23 November. Sonia was given a share in the company and a place on the board, of which Jack Harrison, Orwell's accountant, also became a member....

Sonia was a highly controversial character, loved and loathed in equal measure. She made enemies among those who did not appreciate her caustic tongue, her pretentiousness and cultural arrogance. (Discerning friends noted that she talked at great length without ever saying much, and Lucien Freud, once viewing her extensive library at her flat in her absence, wondered to a companion how many she had actually opened.) She was volatile and, as time went on, became obnoxious when drunk. Not that she was unaware of this. After one such occasion she told David Plante, 'I did it again. I put on my act, my widow of George Orwell act. Was I awful?' But her friends remained extremely loyal, defending her stoutly against charges of squandering much of the vast income from the books (she lived on a fixed income from George Orwell Productions and spent much of her money helping impoverished writers), and of being impossible to deal with in matters concerning George's estate (she took her responsiblity too serously and always feared letting George down)...


I hope the above descriptions of Sonia give you enough material to arrive at your own conclusion as to whether or not the biographers Taylor and Bowker portray her in a good light. And, more importantly, you may be able to form your own opinion about her.

All the best,
Jackie Jura

PS - It's been just over two hours since you made your request (during which time I've also made supper) and so hopefully this gets to you in time for tonight's deadline.

Reader Taner says he met Sonia Orwell when she was editing a Swiss journal during the 50s & 60s

Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

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