THE GIRL FROM THE FICTION DEPARTMENT by Hilary Spurling

THE GIRL FROM THE FICTION DEPARTMENT

A Portrait of Sonia Orwell

KIRKUS REVIEW

A fond remembrance of an alluring young editor who married the dying author of Animal Farm and steadfastly administered his literary affairs thereafter, earning the enmity of some Orwell partisans.

Spurling (La Grand Thérèse, 2000, etc.) met Sonia Brownell (1918–80) in 1970 and was quickly taken with the mercurial, intelligent woman whose vagaries occasionally mystified even her friends and supporters. In her preface, Spurling declares her purpose: to restore Sonia’s reputation, to fracture “the myth of the cold and grasping Widow Orwell,” and to humanize someone the author believes has been unfairly maligned. Sonia was born to English parents in India. But her father died (a possible suicide) when she was only four months old, and so the mother returned to England and employed whatever means she could to protect and raise her two daughters. Sonia was bright—especially adept at languages—and went to Switzerland to study French in 1935. A horrible boating accident on Lake Geneva killed a friend; this episode, says Spurling, permanently affected Sonia. The author periodically composes paeans to Sonia’s beauty (sometimes excessively so), but there is no doubt that she magnetized men. (She apparently attracted an entire London school of artists near her flat.) Involved for years with Horizon magazine, Sonia was by most accounts a spectacular employee: assiduous, charming, creative, informed. (Some male writers, however, lost their fondness for her when they received her crisp, professional rejection notices.) Spurling reveals that Sonia is the model for the luscious Julia in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the novel he finished shortly before he died of TB in 1950. Indeed, the dying novelist trusted Sonia so profoundly that he made her his sole heir. She protected his legacy sternly and co-edited the well-received four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1968). She married badly another time but was the trusted friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Jean Rhys, Mary McCarthy, and many other luminaries.

A convincing and affecting corrective: an act of admiration, and love. (49 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: June 1st, 2003
ISBN: 1-58243-243-0
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2003




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