Wednesday, July 24, 2002

The real girl from 1984

Posted By on Wed, Jul 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM

This study of George Orwell's widow takes its title from his masterpiece. In 1984, the unbearable isolation and despair of Winston Smith is briefly alleviated by the appearance (in both senses) of a ravishing and thoroughly amoral girl, Julia, whose job is to help turn out tripe novels for the proles. Their moment of shared carnality is the core of their defiance of the Party and its sinister puritanism (we know it is the core, because when Winston tries to interest Julia in matters of principle, she falls promptly asleep). He later betrays her; she betrays him with equal thoroughness. Until quite recently, there was a reigning view among scholars that Sonia Brownell was the model for Julia in more than one respect. Having married Orwell on his deathbed, she proceeded to live a life of sheer hedonism on the strength of his posthumous royalties and reputation, and made herself a nuisance to all serious researchers by blocking access to the Orwell archives. At least she gave these scholars the satisfaction of coming to a sad end, dying drunk and derelict and batty after some years of being down and out in both London and Paris.

I should confess that I rather fell for this view myself, as expressed in the biographical work of Bernard Crick, Michael Shelden, and, most recently, Jeffrey Meyers. I did so even though I knew that Orwell had explicitly prohibited the writing of any authorized biography of himself, and thus had naturally created an enmity between his widow and executor and all future claimants to the job.

Hilary Spurling has already put me and countless others in her debt by composing her brilliant concordance and reader's guide to the work of Orwell's friend and contemporary Anthony Powell. Now she discharges a debt of friendship of her own, in giving us a vindication of Sonia.

She was born to trouble. A badly fractured home and a wretched Catholic education make a good start, but how many girls from such a background are also haunted by the thought that they drowned a boy during a holiday boating accident?

Spurling allows us to suspect that in this incident was the germ of another problem. How shall I phrase it? Did Sonia like men rather more than she liked sex?

Determined to be taken seriously, she put up with a lot of condescension in order to make a place for herself in the literary-world, and soon graduated from a sort of super-secretary to being a gifted and assiduous editor at Cyril Connolly's legendary Horizon magazine. It was here that she met Orwell, and almost everybody else. A long attachment to France, during and after the war, and to certain renowned French intellectuals, too, seems to have confirmed in her mind a connection between love and resistance, the subplot of 1984.

Oscar Wilde said that all great figures had disciples, but that it was Judas who usually got to write the biography. Spurling disproves this epigram in two ways. First, she shows the extreme seriousness with which Sonia took the management and editing of Orwell's work, and the great reluctance with which she decided that a biography of him was necessary in spite of his dying wish.

So far from profiting by his estate, she let herself be kept on a relative pittance by it.

Second, Spurling testifies from direct experience about a life that was to a remarkable extent lived for others. Sonia Orwell stuck by her friends, fought like a tigress for neglected authors such as Jean Rhys, and acted as a sort of Mary Poppins for struggling writers and their children. This did not, in the end, serve to keep her demons at bay.

She ended badly and unhappily but, as Oscar Wilde nearly said, that is what non-fiction means.

Christopher Hitchens writes for the San Antonio Current. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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