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Girl From The Fiction Department [Paperback]

Hilary Spurling
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

April 29 2003 Portrait of Sonia Orwell
'Should be compulsory reading' - "The Times". George Orwell's second wife was portrayed by many of her husband's biographers as a manipulative gold-digger who would stop at nothing to keep control of his legacy. But the truth about Sonia Orwell - the model for Julia in nineteen eighty-four - was altogether different. Beautiful, intelligent and fiercely idealistic, she lived at the heart of London's literary and artistic scene before her marriage to Orwell changed her life for ever. Burdened with the almost impossible task of protecting Orwell's estate, Sonia's loyalty to her late husband brought her nothing but poverty and despair.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Sonia Brownell (1918-1980) married George Orwell in 1949 because he said it would help him recover his health. Unfortunately, the marriage proved no panacea for tuberculosis, and 14 weeks after the wedding, he died, leaving Sonia, a talented editor associated with the magazine Horizon, as his sole heir. She also inherited his pseudonym (which she continued to use as her surname till the end of her life), and, in time, assumed the role of the ferocious Widow Orwell, jealous guardian of her husband's literary reputation. Her battles with upstart biographers and established publishers, her vicious tongue and her propensity for drink led to her being vilified as a grasping opportunist. Mary McCarthy used the occasion of Sonia's memorial service to summarize her weakest points, notes Spurling, and David Plante anatomized her in Difficult Women. Now her good friend Spurling, a highly regarded biographer, seeks to set the record straight with a portrait that emphasizes Sonia's vitality, generosity, kindness and support of writers like Jean Rhys, who were much in need of it. Though Spurling treads lightly over the more intimate aspects of Sonia's life and two marriages, she does remind readers that Sonia was more than just Orwell's relict; she was closely involved in the lives and careers of many of the most influential British, French and American artists and writers of the mid-20th century. Spurling's brief, warm biography appears a touching act of friendship; if she perhaps overstates the case for Sonia, she makes clear that Sonia's critics have exaggerated the case against her. B&w photos.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'Should be compulsory reading' The Times

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She was born Sonia Brownell at Ranchi in the province of Bihar in India on 25 August 1918, towards the end of the rainy season. Read the first page
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4.0 out of 5 stars More Than Just a Muse Nov. 6 2003
Format:Hardcover
"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.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars More Than Just a Muse Nov. 6 2003
By Tom Moran - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A satisfying bio about an eccentric literary figure March 31 2005
By Jason Cooper - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Born Sonia Brownell in 1918, the subject of this book is believed to be the inspiration for a character in George's Orwell's book, 1984. Apparently, she has been a figure of controversy since her death in 1980. Her curious life decisions - including her marriages to a dying Orwell in 1949 and later to an openly homosexual man, and her lawsuit against George Orwell Productions - have sparked charges that the literary editor was a gold-digger.

Spurling combs through Sonia's papers at the George Orwell Archives as well as unpublished letters and other sources to disprove this well-established notion of her subject. Spurling succeeds in creating a fair portrait of the former Mrs. Orwell, one that doesn't hide her subject's flaws but puts them in context of a long, at times trying, life lived.

The opening pages reveal an early source of Sonia's pain: she lost her father at a very young age. While living in colonial India, her father died under mysterious circumstances - some now believe the death was a suicide. Later, her stepfather turned to drink and nearly died of emphysema. These early hardships, coupled with stiff social competition at a traditional and elite Catholic school, give us insight into her scorn for religion, her tendency to seek philosophically absolute positions and into some of her guilt later in life.

The second chapter chronicles Sonia's early life and times with literary and artistic circles, namely her involvement with the Euston School of painting. She became a frequent subject for the artists in her neighborhood. Because of her seemingly cocksure personality and her unwillingness to pose in the nude she became known as "the Euston Road Venus". A long series of affairs with lovers and her somewhat clandestine trips abroad with multiple men are enticing parts to her story and give the impression of a fiercely independent, if susceptible, woman.

Because I know little of art and literature from this time period the material is less accessible to me but the book is well-written to the degree that one need not be all too well versed in this work to appreciate the story. It certainly doesn't hurt that the subject of the book is a truly fascinating, eccentric person. Nearly anyone interested in 20th century British art or literature, as well as the lives of modern literary figures, will find this short biography a satisfying read.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Friend's Defense Dec 2 2003
By Nancy Bea Miller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book was terrific! A glimpse into a very fascinating period, in world events, art and literature through the life of someone at the epicenter. Ms.Orwell went through many different "periods" over her lifetime: this is a really long view of life and I found it both fascinating and reassuring.
I am a painter who is extremely interested in the Euston Road school, and I was absolutely riveted by this new perspective on them all, from the point of view of Ms. Orwell's involvement with them, both as friend and art critic. Something I had only very vaguely remembered mentioned in the (very male-oriented) literature on that school. In fact, I casually picked up this book, somewhat interested in the cover photograph, leafed through it and saw the illustrations by William Coldstream, and then had to read it.
This book is written by someone partisan to Ms.Orwell, in part to correct what she believes is a misrepresentation of Ms.Orwell in the past. I had no idea at all that Ms. Orwell was held in disfavor by many previous Orwellian biographers, but it didn't matter to my enjoyment of the book. There is something very satisfying in the way Ms Spurling "makes her case": it is very convincing and makes you wonder how many other people looked down upon in the annals of history could have used an erudite and talented friend to come to their defense.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Did she do wrong by him, or just the reverse? An inquiry Nov. 14 2004
By Kevin Killian - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As others have noted, Hilary Spurling really hits you over the head with the unsavory reputation of her subject, Sonia Brownell, "The Girl from the Fiction Department." While seemingly a friend's generous attempt at salvaging what she could, it seems to me that she might have downpedaled how awful most readers think Sonia is. At least then she wouldn't come off as sounding so defensive.

When all is said and done, it sounds as though Sonia did a heroic job protecting the estate of George Orwell, but it might well have done just fine without her. She never quite lived down her status as the woman who married Orwell in extremis, and she never will, not as far as I can see. My hat is off to Hilary Spurling insofar as her loyalty to pal Sonia, but I think she went about it the right way, and after a while, you get tired of hearing about Sonia's beauty and distress and boyfriend after boyfriend, for a short book it has many longueurs. There are tidbits about the famous (Marguerite Duras, Lucien Freud, etc) and these perk up a sad story. But the reader longs for the unadulterated vemon of something like David Plante's memoir of the difficult women in his life. If you want to read a good book by Spurling, about another of her neurotic friends, read IVY instead.
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