“(I am referring to Sonia Orwell as Brownell (her maiden name) – or just Sonia - in my review, to distinguish her from George Orwell).
Being a massive George Orwell fan, I picked this up on a whim when I spotted it for £1. I didn’t really know much about Sonia Brownell, although I had read that she was a gold-digger who married Orwell for his money. Hilary Spurling, a friend of Sonia’s, determined to set the record straight in this biography of Sonia’s life.
The earlier parts of the biography are interesting, detailing Sonia’s early life in India and the UK, and her entry into literary and artistic circles in London and Paris. Originally though of as a ‘hanger-on’, she showed her true abilities after getting a job editing Cyril Connolly's literary magazine ‘Horizon’ in the 1940s. After a number of failed affairs, she married Orwell, who immortalised Sonia as Julia in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and, after his death, she was fiercely protective of his works and estate – although she died penniless due to a number of bad decisions. It is Brownell who was responsible for Orwell’s essays and letters being published. Orwell stipulated in his will that no biography was to be written. Eventually Brownell did commission one, but only because an unauthorised version was due to be published and she wanted a more reliable version of Orwell’s life to balance things.
After Orwell’s death, Brownell had other relationships and eventually married Michael Pitt-Rivers but he was gay so naturally their marriage didn’t last. Brownell continued to be fiercely loyal to her friends until the end of her life but to my mind never achieved real happiness and died virtually penniless.
Obviously Spurling portrays Brownell in a favourable light. Some people will still think of her as an opportunist who married Orwell for her own gain, but Spurling’s side of things shows her as someone who enriched what little life Orwell had left, and it seems she really did love him. I’m not sure to whom this biography would appeal, but as an Orwell fan I found it very interesting, if a little dry in places.
Janet S wrote this review Friday, March 8, 2013.