"The Girl from the Fiction Department" is a slim but effective biography of the woman who seemed to be at the epicenter of 1940s literary London.
While Sonia Brownell never wrote any books herself (and is primarily known for having married "1984" author George Orwell on his deathbed), her life does have a certain fascination, and author Hilary Spurling (the biographer of the criminally underrated novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett) does as much as she can to indicate that, had Brownell not had the misfortune to have been born a) a woman and b) a Roman Catholic, she might have amounted to something in the literary world. In other words, this book belongs to the "Minor Characters" school of literary history (pioneered by Joyce Johnson, the one-time girlfriend of Jack Kerouac): instead of writing about the men who write, write about the women who hang around the men who write, because even though they never wrote anything worth reading, they nevertheless slept with people who did, and that makes them interesting in their own right -- right?
I've never been too sure about this thesis, but the fact is that Sonia Orwell was a pretty interesting person in her own right, and her life makes for absorbing reading, even if only on a gossip level.
Brownell worked at Cyril Connolly's "Horizon," the great British literary magazine of the 1940s, and either knew, befriended or had intimate relations with many of the great writers and artists of the period, many of whom she inspired. From Francis Bacon, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Lucian Freud to Michel Leiris (whose works, hitherto unknown to me, I am now decidedly curious about), it seemed that Brownell knew or slept with just about everyone worth knowing or sleeping with during that time frame, and Spurling makes a convincing case that it was Brownell, and not the sybaritically indolent Connolly, who really kept "Horizon" going during its glory days of World War II, when it really seemed to many literate observers as if the magazine was the only thing keeping the torch of culture lit during Europe's painfully protracted Gotterdammerung.
Among the many authors intrigued by Brownell was George Orwell, already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him, and he immortalized Brownell by using her as the model for Julia, the heroine of his last novel "1984." He also fell in love with her, and clutching at the straws of romantic love (never overly reliable at the best of times), he persuaded her to marry him in the delusional hope that it would keep him alive: it didn't. And while this transformed Brownell into (as many people maliciously called her) The Widow Orwell, it also gave her the responsibility of looking after his estate, editing his works for posthumous publication and generally complying with his wishes (among them the wish that no biography be written), which Spurling believes she did far more conscientiously than her abundant detractors have been willing to admit.
In most of the Orwell biographies you read, Sonia Brownell Orwell doesn't come off very well, usually being portrayed as a golddigging slut, and Spurling's portrait is a praiseworthy attempt to redress the balance. She even advances the claim that looking after Orwell's interest in the long run not only made Brownell miserable but eventually killed her. I'm not so sure about that, but I will admit that Spurling makes Brownell seem like the thoroughly fascinating person she must have been in life, and this slim volume is definitely worth reading to find out not only who she was, but why she's worth remembering.