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Michael Shelden

The merry widow

Three months before his death, George Orwell married a pretty young woman, 15 years his junior, whose only real assets were her beauty and a network of influential friends in literary and artistic circles. The ceremony took place in his room at University College Hospital, London, where he was suffering so badly from tuberculosis that he was unable to get out of bed to kiss the bride. His friend David Astor said that he looked like Gandhi, just “skin and bone”.

As soon as the ceremony was over, the new Mrs Eric Blair (her husband’s real name) escaped the gloom of the novelist’s death bed and ran off to the Ritz to attend an expensive wedding party for her friends. There, she proudly displayed not only the gold band on her finger but also a large engagement ring adorned with rubies, diamonds and an emerald. Because Orwell had been unable to leave his bed, she had chosen the expensive bauble herself, paying for it with one of his blank cheques.

When doctors recommended that the patient go to a Swiss sanatorium for treatment, a private plane was chartered and Mrs Blair invited along her former lover, Lucian Freud. Supposedly, he was there to help nurse Orwell, but he seems an unlikely choice for that part.

On the night that Orwell finally succumbed to his illness, in January, 1950, his wife was at a nightclub with Freud and their friend Anne Dunn. At some point after midnight, a telephone call reached the club with the news that the novelist had died.

Six weeks later the new widow took some of her dead husband’s money and left the dreariness of post-war London for a holiday in St Tropez, where she tried to persuade the real love of her life — French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty — to abandon his wife and marry her. The plea was in vain and the dejected widow returned to London.

Probably the last thing you would say of Sonia Brownell Blair is that she acted like a devoted, loving, grief-stricken spouse. And yet that is the latest spin from her surviving chums, who fear that history will record that Sonia Orwell, as she insisted on calling herself, was not the ideal wife to a great writer celebrated for his extraordinary integrity and modesty.

The chief architect of this latest spin is Hilary Spurling, who was one of several young writers befriended by Sonia in the ’50s and ’60s. In a new biography of “Mrs Orwell” — The Girl from the Fiction Department(1) — Spurling announces that she will “pare back history’s cuticle of lies” and expose the “myth of the cold and grasping Widow Orwell”.

To extend Spurling’s rather crude metaphor, here are two ways to clean Sonia’s nails. First, you leave out facts that you don’t like. And, second, you make excuses for those too hard to ignore.

In Spurling’s book, there is no mention of the wedding lunch at the Ritz or the expensive engagement ring. Such things make her look frivolous and selfish, so out they go.

Of course, it seems especially damning to have Sonia out late with an old flame on the night Orwell died, so Spurling argues that her friend was not nightclubbing at all. The worried spouse was just taking a brief break from her vigil at the hospital, joining Lucian at a bar for a last-minute discussion of their travel arrangements to Switzerland. This is a fairytale.

In the early ’90s, when I was researching my biography of Orwell(2), Anne Dunn told me that she, Lucian and Sonia were at a nightclub — not a bar — and she repeated that fact to Jeffrey Meyers, Orwell’s latest biographer, seven years later.

Moreover, as Lady Violet Powell told Meyers, Sonia didn’t even visit Orwell in hospital for at least a few days before his death because she “had a cold”.

Here’s the truth: a not very handsome, middle-aged man was slowly dying of a painful illness and was lonely and desperate for a little pleasure at the end of a difficult life. Famous and relatively wealthy by the standards of the time, he talked a much younger woman into marrying him, and she reluctantly agreed. The arrangement gave him some moments of joy and left her with a share in one of the most important literary estates of our time. It was not a noble union, but a deeply human and practical one, with clear benefits for both parties.

After his first wife’s death from a botched hysterectomy, in 1945, Orwell often yearned to marry again and proposed to several women, all of whom turned him down — except Sonia. Her only source of income was her editorial job at a small literary magazine, Horizon. Significantly, her marriage to Orwell coincided with thesudden loss of her job when Horizon ceased publication.

As a woman of 31 — alone in post-war London and facing unemployment — she had found herself confronted with a generous proposal of marriage from a famous novelist with a fatal disease. To pretend that money didn’t play a part in her decision is absurd.

Her boss at Horizon, Cyril Connolly, who was also one of Orwell’s oldest friends, described her marriage as a “grotesque farce”. Yet Spurling and her friends, who include Natasha Spender, wife of the late poet Stephen, insist that mercenary motives were far from Sonia’s mind, and that Orwell didn’t really have all that much money. In his journals, Stephen Spender gave a different view, noting that Sonia was incapable of loving Orwell, “even for the short period of a few weeks before he died”, and treated him coldly. Spender was present when she told her husband that “she had to go to a cocktail party and would not be back that evening. Orwell protested faintly, but she put him off in her bustling way”.

Her defenders seem to think that Sonia has been misunderstood by males who don’t have much respect for strong women. But perhaps the best analysis of her conduct has come from Frances Partridge, whose diaries of the period record this judgment: “Many people regard the Orwell marriage cynically and remind one that Sonia always declared her intention of marrying a great man. I see it principally as a neurotic one, for a marriage to a bed-ridden and perhaps dying man is as near as no marriage at all.”

Of the various arguments used to make Sonia saintly, the one that plays down Orwell’s income is the silliest. Yes, by modern standards, he was not fabulously wealthy. But the success of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four brought him thousands of pounds in a short period and pushed him far above the modest salary he expected as a writer. In 1946, he wrote that £1,000 a year was more than adequate for him; yet the American book club sales for Nineteen Eighty-Four brought him more than £40,000 in the last six months of his life.

Spurling makes much of the fact that Orwell’s estate was valued at only £10,000 when he died. First of all, for a man who never held a job that paid more than £700 a year, this was a small fortune. But, in any case, much of the royalty income for the American edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four came after his death, since the novel was published only four months before Sonia married him.

Taxes and royalty figures can be debated endlessly, but if Orwell was not a rich man in 1949, how could he afford to pay for four months of care in a private room of a London hospital? He was treated by the finest lung specialist in Britain, and had already spent a good deal of money earlier in the year staying at a clinic in Gloucestershire.

Where did he get the money to buy diamonds and rubies for Sonia? Or a private plane to fly him to Switzerland? Not to mention the cash to pay for what might have been a long stay in a Swiss sanatorium.

And, when travel abroad was severely restricted for most people in Britain, how did Sonia suddenly end up chasing her lover on the Riviera six weeks after Orwell’s death?

Of course, the answer is that all these high-priced things were available in 1949 only to the rich, but in the strangely distorted calculations of Sonia’s apologists, the wads of cash being thrown around are ignored and Orwell’s income is reduced to that of a prosperous plumber.

“In 1949,” Spurling confidently asserts, “Orwell was no great catch from a commercial or a literary point of view.”

That assertion is ridiculous, as is the notion that somehow Sonia was entitled to call herself “Mrs Orwell” and spend the rest of her life playing the “literary widow” after a short marriage to a man in whose company she spent very little time.

Perhaps the most outrageous comment in Spurling’s book is that Orwell had abandoned the name of Blair, and that Sonia never knew him as “anything but George Orwell”. The suggestion is that she had no choice but to call herself “Mrs Orwell”. Spurling writes: “By the time of his second marriage, George himself had long since rejected the name of Blair for all but legal purposes.”

Not true. Dozens of his friends and all surviving members of his family called him Eric until the day he died and, invariably, he signed his letters to them using his real name. He never abandoned it. The name he chose to abandon was his pen name. His gravestone reads: “Here lies Eric Arthur Blair” and makes no mention of his books or pseudonym.

There is one simple reason why Sonia used her husband’s famous name. As Sonia Blair, she would have been a minor personality in literary London whose only claim to fame would have required constant explaining. As Sonia Orwell, she was instantly famous and could occupy the spotlight at parties. This explains why, after she was married a second time — to Michael Pitt-Rivers in 1958 — and divorced, she promptly went back to calling herself Sonia Orwell.

In sharp contrast, Eric Blair’s only child, who was never close to Sonia, and who was brought up by an aunt, has always been content to use the name his father gave him — Richard Blair. While Sonia was alive, he received very little money from her. His allowance, which she sent to the aunt, was only £150 a year; later, he told me, he had to plead with Sonia for money to buy furniture when he married. He supported himself and his wife by working.

After Sonia’s death in 1980, he inherited the income from the Orwell estate and has lived in quiet dignity ever since, respecting his father’s work and protecting it from exploitation.

To her credit, Sonia was also a strong defender of Orwell’s reputation and gave it an enormous boost through her preparation of a four-volume collection of his essays and letters, published in 1968.

By many accounts, she could be a warm and generous friend. And though she tried to manage the estate’s wealth responsibly, she made some bad business decisions — most notably in her dealings with a firm of accountants that she eventually sued for mismanaging her money. She died virtually penniless.

It is a sad story, made sadder still by her increasingly difficult battle with alcoholism. She played the part of Mrs Orwell for all it was worth, only to discover in the end that it wasn’t worth much to her. As she complained poignantly to her friend David Plante, after a party: “I did it again. I put on my act, my widow of George Orwell act. Was I awful? Did they think I was a fool?”

There is nothing wrong with defending the honour of a woman whose honour very much needs defending, but in their zeal to stand up for Sonia, her friends seem to want to rewrite history. Some people may think it’s much ado about nothing, but Orwell’s story is worth getting right because the principles of truth and honesty lie at the heart of his work.

In everything he did and in everything he wrote, he was relentless in his determination to establish the facts, add them up and accept the sum, whatever the result. One reason that he still speaks so powerfully to us is that we are more tempted than ever to spin the truth to our liking and bury facts that don’t serve our interests. Or, worse, to deny that any truth is possible.

There is no myth of the Widow Orwell. There is just the unhappy tale of a young woman who thought she could help herself by doing a dying man a favour. She miscalculated and spent 30 years paying for a favour that took up a mere 100 days. And nothing her friends say can change that.

Orwell was right when he wrote: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”



1) 'The Girl from the Fiction Department' will be published later this month by Hamish Hamilton (i.e. July, 2002). [back]

2) Michael Shelden: 'George Orwell: The Authorized Biography', 1991. [back]


Michael Shelden: ‘The merry widow’
Published: ‘The Age Company Ltd’. — USA, New York, 2002. — July 15.

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Last modified on: 2019-12-29

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