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The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell Paperback – 5 May 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint; New edition edition (5 May 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582432449
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582432441
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 13.3 x 21 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,686,141 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"a full and fascinating portrait of a complex, strong and puzzling personality." Literary Review"

About the Author

Hilary Spurling is a prize-winning biographer whose books include Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton Burnett, Paul Scott, The Unknown Matisse, and La Grande Therese. She is a regular book reviewer for the Daily Telegraph and The New York 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Alexander Bagaev on 15 Jan. 2013
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
For several years now I have been researching, on and off, the history of George Orwell's "1984". After an original avalanche of facts and details that lasted for a couple of years, as time passed by, the informational air I was breathing became thinner and thinner. It was getting more and more difficult to find new angles, biases and small biographical "trivia" that sometimes change the whole picture radically.
And then I came across this little book of memories about Sonia Brownell, Orwell's widow. It turned out to be a real feast. I just started to read it, and after only a few pages, it felt immediately like I was back in my very early days of research, every chapter had something new and exciting to offer. I loved every single moment of the few hours it took me to complete the first reading. My first reaction: this book should have been written, published and circulated as widely as possible a long time ago.
Of course, those who don't have a love affair with Orwell's heritage may disagree. But those of you who do -- and if you haven't yet -- go and buy this book. It's most definitely worth it. There will be a delightful bonus too: you'll be introduced to a gem of a charmingly free-spirited girl! Because that's what Sonia Brownell had always been.

P.S. And yes, all praise possible must go to Hilary Spurling for being so remarkably loyal to her friend!
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By Susie B TOP 50 REVIEWER on 25 Feb. 2015
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In her preface of 'The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell' Hilary Spurling tells us that Sonia, the widow of George Orwell, was depicted as "heartless, greedy and manipulative" in Michael Shelden's 'Orwell. The Authorised Biography' - a portrayal which Ms Spurling felt was based on ignorance, misconception and distortion. In this brief, but interesting biography of Sonia, Hilary Spurling has set out with the intention to dispel the myth of the cold and grasping widow Orwell, and also to explain why some people may have found Sonia a difficult and rather daunting character.

Sonia Brownell was born in India in 1918, but was only four months old, and her sister, Bay, only four years old, when their father died from unstated causes (probably a 'hushed up' suicide). Both sisters were marked for ever by this early calamity and Sonia sadly never really bonded with her mother, who remarried one year after her first husband's death. The marriage was not a success and by the time Sonia was eight, her stepfather had become an alcoholic and was forced to resign from his job. The family came to England, but by 1930, Sonia's mother had had enough and she walked out on her husband and filed for divorce. Sonia was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart (the boarding school that Antonia Frost attended and barely disguised in her novel 'Frost in May') which, we learn, was "a battlefield for Sonia and she emerged from it with a raging scorn." Sonia left the school in 1935 and went off eagerly to Switzerland for a year to improve her French; however her year abroad was ruined when a boat she was sailing in with three other teenagers, capsized and she was the only survivor.
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Since Hilary Spurling and Sonia Orwell became good friends, it adds warmth and first-hand knowledge to the biography. It is beautifully written and eminently readable and enjoyable. It was also really interesting to read about all the personalities one heard about in the news at the time.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By P. Ronayne on 25 Feb. 2013
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Despite some fairly aggressive attacks on Orwell's Widow by biographers down the years Hilary Spurling has produced a sympathetic and well researched work that tries to put the record straight about Sonia Orwell. However, I'm not sure that she fully succeeds in turning things around for her; for me there are still some questions to be answered.

Sonia Brownell during the late 1930s became a kind of artistic groupie around writers and painters of the Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury set. Many actually painted her, enchanted by her peaches and cream beauty and obvious intelligence. Later she worked for Cyril Connolly and Peter Watson at 'Horizon' magazine where she proved to be more than just eye candy for visiting writers and associates, virtually running the office during and after World War 2.

She married George Orwell on his death bed at the end of 1949 just as the previously penniless author struck gold with the massive success of Animal Farm and with 1984 about to explode on the 1950s and beyond. Sonia was labelled a gold-digger by many for this seemingly odd act. I personally believe this to be unfair if not altogether untrue. What the author does develop is the fact that she may well have married Orwell on the rebound from a passionate love affair with the married French writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This may or may not be true yet later she married an openly gay man who also happened to be pretty wealthy. That marriage, somewhat predictably did not last and we are left wondering just what Sonia was all about.

My own view is that at times she embarked on certain lifestyle choices that left her feeling terribly guilty and sometimes suicidal.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4 reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
More Than Just a Muse 6 Nov. 2003
By Tom Moran - Published on
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
A satisfying bio about an eccentric literary figure 31 Mar. 2005
By Jason Cooper - Published on
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
A Friend's Defense 2 Dec. 2003
By Nancy Bea Miller - Published on
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
Did she do wrong by him, or just the reverse? An inquiry 15 Nov. 2004
By Kevin Killian - Published on
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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