Mrs Orwell

Sonia Orwell

Sonia Mary Brownell Blair Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1918-80) was the second wife of author Eric Arthur Blair (ie George Orwell).  She is better known for her role as his widow, therefore Mrs Orwell or more notoriously the Widow Orwell.

Sonia was born in Ranchi, India on 25 August 1918.  Her father, Charles Brownell, died when she was young.  Later she was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton.  She trained as a secretary, became a model for young artists, then later worked for Cyril Connolly on the literary magazine Horizon.  This made her unpopular with some male authors who resented her authority. ‘She was blamed, mocked and derided. “There was always some absurd Sonia story floating around,” wrote Stephen Spender’ {Spurling 64}.

One author she did and make a favourable impression on, meeting through Horizon literary connection, was George Orwell.  He was lonely after the death of his first wife Eileen, struggling to care for his son Richard.  Sonia babysat for him a few times, and he proposed to her as well as a few other lady friends, but was turned down.  Orwell then travelled to Jura to write 1984.

Eventually, Sonia accepted his proposal.  By this time the tuberculosis had taken its toll on Orwell and he had little time left. ‘He said he would get better if I married him, so, you see, I had little choice’ {Spurling 96}.  They were married on 13 October 1949, by his bedside in University College Hospital.  She planned looking after him as he wrote, and they both planned to travel to Switzerland, where he would stay in an alpine sanatorium.  However, George Orwell died of a lung haemorrhage on 21 January 1950.

Sonia remarried in 1958, to Michael Pitt-Rivers.  He had been convicted and jailed for homosexual offences in the Lord Montagu scandal, a crime in the Fifties.  So we may imagine that this marriage was more in name only, fated never to last, and they divorced in 1965.  The great love of her life was the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but he refused to leave his wife for Sonia.

Orwell had entrusted his literary estate to Sonia, who had already dealt with his correspondence.  He also stipulated for her not to allow for any biographers to write his story.  She was later involved in establishing the George Orwell Archive.  A collection of his essays and letters was published in 1968.  In the Seventies, mismanagement of the estate by an unscrupulous accountant, Jack Harrison, led to Sonia dying nearly penniless. In her last few weeks, she won a legal case that ensured a legacy for her stepson, Richard Blair.

Her role in his estate, and her persona as the Widow Orwell, made her unpopular with some. ‘Sonia would earn considerable ill feeling from male contemporaries who felt themselves better qualified than she was to say what might be best for his reputation’ {Spurling 103}.  ‘If any literary wife has been demonised, it is she’ {Niall}.

Sonia has been vilified by subsequent Orwell biographers, such as Bernard Crick and especially Michael Shelden, author of Orwell: The Authorised Biography, who portrays her as a gold-digger.  According to him, she bought expensive jewellery, and spent more time in nightclubs than by her dying husband’s bedside. He even implies adultery with artist Lucian Freud.  ‘Probably the last thing you would say of Sonia Brownell Blair is that she acted like a devoted, loving, grief-stricken spouse’ {Shelden}.

Perhaps we can see some misogyny in this.  From a feminist perspective, Sonia was merely someone’s wife.  Despite her lifelong literary connections, she was never an author in her own write.  Her friend Hilary Spurling later wrote a biography rescuing her reputation.  She claims that Orwell aimed to ‘recreate Sonia as Julia, “the girl form the Fiction Department” in 1984.  The novel’s hero, Winston, loves Julia for her boldness, her bossiness, and the uncompromising rejection of the Party that fuels everything she does.  Julia’s fearlessness electrifies him. . .Winston’s agonized intellectual reservations are overwhelmed by Julia’s fierce, blind, animal abhorrence of a totalitarian system that seeks to abolish individuality and freedom’ {Spurling 67}.

Perhaps this scene is an example of this:

“‘We are the dead,’ he said.

‘We’re not dead yet,’ said Julia prosaically.

‘Not physically.  Six months, a year – five years, conceivably.  I am afraid of death.  You are young, so presyumably you’re more afraid of it than I am.  Obviously we shall put if off as long as we can.  But it makes very little difference.  So long as human beings stay human, death and life are the same thing.’

‘Oh rubbish!  Which would you sooner sleep with, more of a skeleton?  Don’t you enjoy being alive?  Don’t you like feeling: This is me, this is my hand, this is my leg, I’m real, I’m solid, I’m alive!  Don’t you like this?’” {Orwell 156}

This whole scene is so much more poignant, if we consider it was written by a terminally ill man, in love with a woman15 years younger, who he managed to make his wife before the end.  So this is Sonia’s legacy, as Orwell’s last muse.

WORKS CITED

WEBSITES

“Michael Pitt-Rivers.” LGBT Archive.  Retrieved from:  http://lgbthistoryuk.org/wiki/Michael_Pitt-Rivers

Diski, Jenny. ‘Don’t Think About It.’ London Review of Books.  25 April 2002.  Retrieved from:  http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n08/jenny-diski/dont-think-about-it

Glastris, Kukula. ‘The Widow Orwell’.  The Washington Monthly. July/August 2003.  Retrieved from:  http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0307.kglastris.html

Harris, Robert. ‘What ever happened to Orwell’s missing millions?’ Telegraph Media Group Ltd. 21 May 2002.  Retrieved from:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3576898/What-ever-happened-to-Orwells-missing-millions.html

Jura, Jackie. ‘What Was Orwell’s Sonia Like?’ Orwell Today.  Retrieved from:  http://www.orwelltoday.com/readersonia.shtml

Niall, Brenda. ‘A Portrait of Sonia Orwell’.  The Sydney Morning Herald.  Fairfax Media. 17 August 2002.  Retrieved from:  http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/08/16/1029114007115.html

O’Sullivan, Jack. ‘Outdoors: The Thrill of the Chase’. The Independent.  23 October 2011. Retrieved from:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/outdoors-the-thrill-of-the-chase-1170311.html

‘Quotes by Sonia Orwell.’ Like Success, 2015.  Retrieved from: http://likesuccess.com/author/sonia-orwell

Shelden, Michael. ‘The Merry Widow’.  The Age Company Ltd.  New York, 2002.  Retrieved from:  http://www.orwell.ru/a_life/shelden/english/e_tmw

Stritof, Sheri. ‘Sonia Brownell and George Orwell Marriage Profile’.  About Relationship, 2015. Retrieved from:  http://marriage.about.com/od/thearts/p/orwellgsonia.htm

Wikimedia Foundation. ‘Sonia Orwell’. 21 September 2015.  Retrieved from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonia_Orwell

BOOKS

Lucas, Scott. Orwell. London: Haus Publishing, 2003.

Orwell, George. 1984. London: Penguin Books, 1954.

Spurling, Hilary. The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell. London: Penguin Books, 2002.

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