The Horizon Girl

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AUGUST 11, 2003

The Horizon Girl

The Girl From the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell

By Hilary Spurling

(Counterpoint, 194 pp., $24)

Click here to purchase the book.I knew Sonia Orwell slightly, having met her at parties of which she
was beyond challenge the life and soul--full of combative talk and
occasionally, under the stress of disagreement, breaking into
French, a language in which she had become extraordinarily
proficient in the cafs of the Left Bank. Others with a higher
degree of acquaintance gossiped about her, yet much about her life
was not generally known until the now-flourishing Orwell business
got under way; and the interest of Orwell's biographers in Sonia
was indirect, the marriage having been so short and the relict not
easy to get on with. She still tends to be dismissed as the fussy
keeper of the flame, and as Orwell's perhaps rather grasping widow,
and little more than that. But now, as the centennial biographies
of her husband hit the stores, Sonia Orwell has a biography to
herself.

Her first lover, Eugene Vinaver, a courtly and learned Polish exile,
was a friendly colleague of mine for years, but I had not the
slightest notion of their early relationship. Vinaver's major work
was his edition of the manuscript of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, and I
was astonished to learn that this exact scholar should have
entrusted the transcription of a unique manuscript to an
inexperienced girl. Yet he was right to do so. She returned his
trust by letting him take her on a terrifying drive through central
Europe, though (according to Hilary Spurling) he had never driven a
car before. This reminded me of one of Vinaver's own stories:
taking his driving test in Paris, he was so terrified by the
traffic at the toile that he stopped the car and ran off, leaving
the examiner to take it home. He alleged that since that moment he
had never again tried to get a license or driven a car.

Another admired colleague of mine, the well-known painter William
Coldstream, later head of the Slade School, had been, naturally
also without troubling to inform me, Sonia's serious lover. She
owed a lot to these men, but even more important to her was the
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. She liked very
intelligent older men, and they were quick to see how remarkable she
was, and how useful.

It would not be easy to characterize the membership of Sonia's inner
circle, which later included many artists, including Lucian Freud
and Francis Bacon. Its literary center was the offices of Cyril
Connolly's magazine Horizon, which was backed by a rich young
collector named Peter Watson, to whom Sonia was even more devoted
than she was to Connolly. Connolly liked to be served by beautiful
upper-class girls. Although plump and far from handsome, he seems to
have had a powerful attraction for women, or anyway for those who
responded to his appeals for pity and agreed with his opinion that
a chronic shortage of cash and the consequent need to work at
something--writing reviews, for instance--was preventing him from
producing a work of genius, which was the only kind of work, he
believed, worth bothering about.

Sonia Brownell became chief rose in his rosebud garden of girls.
Still in her twenties and the victim of a poor and interrupted
education, she was sometimes left to run the famous journal more or
less on her own. It expired after a decade, having survived all the
bombings between 1940 and 1945, a period during which it continued,
against considerable odds, to appear regularly and to defy,
sometimes flippantly, any interest in the war, which Connolly
refused to consider his business. Horizon is now remembered with
some nostalgia, partly because of its genuine quality, largely
because its editor's slightly outrageous Francophile charm
continues to attract biographers. He really could write: Enemies of
Promise and The Condemned Playground are minor classics, and The
Unquiet Grave, his pseudonymous volume of melancholy, self- pitying
aphorisms, still has admirers. But at least some of the credit for
the journal, and for Connolly's celebrity as an editor, belongs to
Sonia. She "discovered," among others, Angus Wilson; and by 1947
she was editing whole numbers while Connolly made triumphant visits
to Paris and New York.

I can think of no better label for his milieu than upper-class
bohemian, a class with whom the term "middle-class" was an insult.
Connolly, like many of his friends, assumed that he deserved the
best of everything, regardless of whether he could afford it. The
most intimate and therefore the funniest portrait of him is in
Tears Before Bedtime, a memoir by Barbara Skelton, one of his
wives. Skelton was an adventurous woman who had been the mistress of
King Farouk of Egypt, and after the union with Connolly ended she
went on to marry the publisher George Weidenfeld. A woman who saw
the world mostly as a parade of pathetic absurdities, she is very
hard on her mates, especially Connolly, who went in for childish
sulks: "He wouldn't come down to breakfast but lay in his bed
sucking the sheet ends, which is always a bad sign. He sometimes
lay for an hour with folds of sheet pouring from his mouth like
ectoplasm." But she shared his ideas of what life owed their kind
of people. One has to imagine a couple with a vast overdraft,
sometimes driven to the pawnshop; lacking the few shillings they
needed to get from their country cottage to London, yet choosing
pre-war vintage claret, frowning if offered non-vintage champagne,
taking caviar with their tea, and traveling in high style through
Italy.

Most of the men who flourished or survived under such conditions
were of the social class that took it for granted that sons went to
Eton, or a school as nearly like it as possible, and then to
Oxford. Connolly was at prep school and at Eton with Orwell; and
despite their evident temperamental differences, reflected in the
antithetical accounts that they wrote of their school days, they
were lifelong friends. Orwell, like Sonia, was born in India, and in
his twenties he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He
is famous for his descriptions of life as a down-and-out in Paris
and London, for his grim documentary on the lives of the poor in
northern England in The Road to Wigan Pier, and for his decision to
fight on the Republican side in Spain. It is true that his hatred
of imperialism and capitalism induced him to lead the kind of life
he was describing; but Orwell was always identifiable as a member of
the same class as Connolly and most of his friends, with the same
distinctive accent and the same sub-aristocratic ease of manner, so
that his self-inflicted hardship might be regarded as a sort of
inverted bohemianism.

Sonia had had an affair with him earlier, and when she married him
on his deathbed she was choosing a husband from very much the same
social stratum that provided her other lovers. Orwell was dying of
tuberculosis, and the wedding took place beside his hospital bed.
Not surprisingly, gossip suggested that Sonia was getting on to a
good thing. After producing a fair amount of very high-class
journalism and some good but not very well-rewarded fiction, Orwell
had become celebrated as the author of Animal Farm and 1984. He was
not yet rich but was quite likely to become so; and one of the
inducements he offered Sonia, in a characteristically low-toned
letter proposing marriage, was the prospect of future royalties.
Hostile critics have taken this to be her motive for marrying him.

Hilary Spurling, a friend of Sonia's in her later years and now a
well-known biographer, has written this short book to express loyal
disgust at this slander. There is no reason to think that she is
telling anything but the truth. Her title is a quotation from 1984,
and Orwell was doubtless thinking of Sonia when he wrote the words:
"She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from
life.... She would not accept it as a law of nature that the
individual is always defeated.... She did not understand that there
was no such thing as happiness." It is easy enough to see why
Orwell, broken by illness and by his struggles to represent the
nightmare of contemporary history, should admire this generous and
unquestioningly loyal young woman. To understand why she committed
herself to him is equally easy when one has seen her for what she
was: a woman whose generosity and loyalty, as well as her anger, had
their origins in her own unhappiness.

Spurling offers some early biographical detail, but her main concern
is with "the widow Orwell" as she knew her. The facts are these.
Sonia was born on August 25, 1918. Her father was a Calcutta
businessman who died, possibly by suicide, when she was four months
old. Her Catholic mother, left with the baby and an elder sister,
returned to England, married again, and went back to Calcutta. When
she was six, Sonia was sent to school at an expensive English
convent, where Vivien Leigh was a classmate. Her mother's second
marriage collapsed and she set up house in London. She was a clever
woman, and later became a brigadier in the Women's Army Corps. Now
she taught Sonia "the importance of putting up a front" but did
little to mitigate the horrors of her daughter's school life.
Throughout her life Sonia felt scorn and disgust for her educators
and spat if she saw a nun. Spurling remarks that having no truck
whatever with faith, she made up for it by excelling in works.

A year in French-speaking Switzerland would have been a happy memory
had she not been involved in a boating accident in which her three
companions drowned. Back in London she learned to type and took a
room in what is now called North Soho, a shabby district then
favored by artists and writers. There she soon became the "Venus"
of the famous Euston Road School of painters, of which Coldstream
was a notable member; but when the onset of war dispersed the
painters Sonia sought refuge at Horizon, working for nothing or next
to nothing and scraping by with odd typing jobs. At Horizon she
became indispensable because of her intelligence, her taste, and
her willingness to serve. She showed extraordinary courage during
the worst of the bombing. She was also, in her way, beautiful.

As Orwell's widow, Sonia had to deal with his estate, which came to
exceed by many times the income that he had enjoyed when he was
alive. Spurling pays keen attention to her discharge of this
responsibility. The literary duties she did efficiently, defending
her husband against critics of his anti-Stalinism and producing,
with Ian Angus, a four-volume collection of Orwell's important
non-fiction writings. Again with Angus, she set up an admirable
Orwell archive at University College, London.

The financial side of her trusteeship did not go so well. Toward the
end of his life Orwell had set up a company called George Orwell
Productions, with himself and Sonia as directors, along with an
accountant named Jack Harrison. Like Orwell himself, who had never
earned enough to be taxed at all until the success of Animal Farm,
Sonia understood nothing about taxes and was content to hand over
everything, including her own earnings, to Harrison, taking out of
the estate only what was needed for the education of Orwell's son,
the ultimate beneficiary, and for her own support, just enough to
allow her to live in London and, increasingly, in Paris, among her
famous friends: Michel Leiris, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de
Beauvoir, Margurite Duras, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan. She
married again, this time choosing a man with a chteau in France and
an estate in England. As a "practicing homosexual" he had been in
the news, and--since this was before the law was reformed--in
prison. Conducted in opulent surroundings, the union, a mariage
blanc, still did not work. Sonia took an overdose, was saved, and
carried on alone.

Her scrupulous administration of the literary property irritated
people who accused her of bossiness. She reluctantly authorized a
biography of Orwell, which she read in proof and hated; she died
before the book appeared. Much of the time, says Spurling, she was
"driven by demons she could not fully control. Fear, suspicion, and
hostility lay increasingly close to the surface. Insecurity or
drink released an aggression that made her many enemies." Still,
she was famous for friendship and for her willingness to succor
friends in trouble.

In 1977 she moved to Paris, where she lived in "a single damp
furnished room" without even a bath, and was accused of playing at
being poor, like her late husband. But she really was poor.
Harrison, her accountant fellow-director of George Orwell
Productions, persuaded her to sign, without even reading them,
papers that gave him control of the company; and she seems to have
believed him when he said that paperback sales of one million a
year produced little income. The thought that she had let George
down made her unhappy, and so did the lawsuit that she felt obliged
to pursue against Harrison. She died, penniless, before the action
came to court.

Hilary Spurling has brought a good biographer's skills to the
defense of a friend whom she is sure was not only unlucky in her
life but also wantonly wronged. She understandably avoids much talk
of her subject's more extreme behavior, preferring to stress both
her high spirits and her fundamental unhappiness. She has done the
job well. Sonia Orwell had qualities that gave her a special
position at the heart of English culture in her time. Her skills,
as she well knew, were not creative, but she dedicated them, with
intelligent and unflagging devotion, to the creativity of others;
and she deserves this affectionate, just, and occasionally angry
portrait.

By Frank Kermode

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