Don’t think about it

Jenny Diski

  • The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell by Hilary Spurling
    Hamish Hamilton, 208 pp, £9.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 241 14165 6

There must be people who, during their lifetime, get their minds right enough not to feel bitterness as the end looms and they realise that nothing much else is going to happen to them apart from death. I understand from reading and anecdote that some people do die with a smile and the words ‘It’s been a good life’ on their lips. But not many, surely? It seems to me almost unreasonable, indecent even, not to feel some degree of regret as life winds down towards the end. And life, of course, has generally only just got properly started before it begins to show signs of not going on for ever. So when I read in David Plante’s Difficult Women (1979) that Sonia Orwell in her final years complained to him, ‘I’ve fucked up my life. I’m angry because I’ve fucked up my life,’ it doesn’t seem to me necessarily to imply a particularly tragic or wasted life. At least not necessarily more tragic or wasted than most. Unless you take the Chinese view, an interesting life is the best we can hope for in an existence which ends, for all of us, prematurely with illness or ageing and death.

There can be no doubt that Sonia Orwell had an interesting life; vivid and complicated in her early years, drunkenly angry and anxious towards the end, but with friends who cared enough about her to put up with her and even, decades later, to write a biography designed, as Hilary Spurling’s explicitly is, to stem ‘the tide of venom that pursued her into and beyond the grave’. The venom was largely a result of the way, as George Orwell’s widow, she managed the literary estate. She was deemed to be tyrannical, grasping and interested only in the income the estate generated. She was remembered – by men in particular – as having slept around copiously in her youth, though when you think of the 1950s and who was available in London and Paris to sleep with you can only wonder that she made time to do any work as an editor at Horizon. And as an older woman, she was feared for her vicious tongue. Hilary Spurling begs to differ, or at least explain.

The trouble with attempting to redress a blackened reputation is that in the process of countering the allegations you are always in danger of directing the reader’s attention to the original criticism. In order to refute the general condemnation of her friend, Spurling acknowledges the difficult older woman David Plante knew: ‘Fear, suspicion and hostility lay increasingly close to the surface. Insecurity or drink released an aggression that made her many enemies.’ A nephew compared being on the receiving end of one of her public tirades to a drive-by shooting. But even then, Spurling says, ‘beneath the trappings of the hardened old warhorse you could still see traces of the impetuous young thoroughbred, who had enchanted Leiris and others a quarter of a century before.’ Well, yes. Most of us were easier to take when young, especially if we were beautiful, energetic, bright and eagerly ambitious, as Sonia Orwell clearly was. We should, however, be grateful for the transformation; young thoroughbreds, if they don’t become old warhorses like the Widow Orwell, are inclined to prance unprettily about, all unaware of the effects of time, and set one’s teeth on edge.

But we are in the realm of contemporary biography, and Spurling, with several lives to her credit, will not settle for a memoir of Sonia Orwell that merely has her decline into harsh disappointment through the effects of loss of youth. The heroine must be driven in some way towards the sad end made importantly tragic by a seed of self-destruction planted when she was very young. And indeed, Sonia Orwell was well equipped with potential demons in her youth. Her childhood was a colonial mess. Born in Calcutta, she had a father who died, perhaps by suicide, when she was a few months old, and a mother who remarried a year later a man who was at least a drunk, if not a psychopath. When she was six, she was sent, as if to complete the gothic theme, to the same awful convent school that Antonia White attended and wrote about in Frost in May. Vicious nuns, a minimal education for middle-class marriage and – something, at least – a powerful enemy to kick against. As an adult she would spit on the street if she saw nuns. Earlier, she had a more sophisticated mode of expression. ‘I’m so bored I wish I’d been birth-controlled so as not to exist,’ she announced in the hearing of a nun at a school hockey match. For this one moment of perfectly aimed revenge, she is, in my view, to be forgiven everything. The drive-by shooting began much earlier than her nephew thought. The tough old warhorse began battling young and was, it seemed, pretty well equipped for the fight. This may well be what people so resented about her. She doesn’t look much like a victim at any point in her life, even when things aren’t going so well. There is something very slightly diminishing about placing her in the role of a woman at the mercy of her circumstances and wronged.

Spurling describes an accident that happened to Sonia Orwell when she was 17 and living with a family in Switzerland. She offers it as a defining, life-long trauma. A boat in which Sonia was sailing with three other young people overturned in a sudden squall. Sonia headed for the shore but returned to the boat when she realised that the others were not following. They couldn’t swim. Two of them went down and she tried to save the last boy who struggled against her in his panic and tried to pull her down with him. ‘Unable to save him,’ Spurling says, ‘pushing him away, fighting in his clutches for her life, she tore free as he went down for the last time.’ According to her biographer, ‘Sonia never forgot the terrible embrace of a convulsive male body stronger than her own, and its even more terrible consequences.’ Clearly, a dreadful experience. But Michael Shelden, George Orwell’s biographer and in Spurling’s view one of those responsible for disparaging Sonia, has a slightly different take on the event. Interviewing her sister and half-brother, he claims that fearing for her life in the struggle with the boy she was trying to save, ‘she grabbed him by the hair and pushed his head under water. She was able to hold him down for several seconds, and then she let go, thinking he would stop trying to fight her and would come to the surface. But he did not come up.’ This is the story she told her mother and sister when she returned to England, and Shelden says: ‘She later told the story to her half-brother, Michael, to whom she was very close, and she left no doubt in his mind that she considered herself responsible for the one boy’s death: ‘“I held him under,” she said . . . A few of Sonia’s close friends knew about the incident in Switzerland, but they were generally led to believe that the tragedy for her was simply that she was the lone survivor. She seems to have left out the details about her struggle with the drowning boy.’

Perhaps Hilary Spurling was one of those friends who got the more helplessly guilty version and, writing the memoir, simply related what she was told. It’s a terrible enough tale. But the stronger story, that she fought against the boy’s life for her own so that she felt responsible for his death, does not do her a greater disservice. The will to live of most 17-year-olds is and should be very strong. It does, however, rather change the tone of the memory of that embrace of the ‘convulsive male body, stronger than her own, and its even more terrible consequences’. She was dealing with something more than pure survivor guilt and she is not then or at any point as far as I can see a simple victim. Only in a very bi-polar world would that make her a simple villain.

Of course, the childhood Catholicism scored its troubling mark, as Spurling repeatedly insists. Her theory is that Sonia Orwell was permanently consumed with the crushing guilt that the Church is so adept at instilling: the kind of free-form guilt that just washes around waiting for any opportunity to overflow. The life is portrayed as driven essentially by revolt against her convent days, tempered by this guilt about which she could do nothing. Sex was one obvious way to kick against her upbringing, and she is known to have kicked vigorously. Spurling also suggests that her love, her worship even, of writing and painting was another form of rebellion against the conformity demanded by her schooling. Rebellion they might be, but sex and art are also sources of pleasure. There are worse ways of fighting back. But Spurling suggests that sex was not so much pleasure as weapon for Sonia. ‘She would love many men, and sleep with many more but, for her, true love in its most intense and deepest form was not primarily sexual. On the two or three occasions when she broke this rule, the results were catastrophic.’

She left suburbia and found herself a world of arty glamour in Fitzrovia. She was the Euston Road Venus to William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore, Lucian Freud and other lovers who painted and adored her youth, her over-compensating fierceness of opinion, her looks and some mysterious sadness that she carried inside. She was an insecure, uneducated girl who glorified men who painted pictures and wrote books, who thought there was nothing better that could be done by a person, and who wanted to be part of their life. It wasn’t hard for her. Older, very clever men were devoted to her. Cyril Connolly brought her into Horizon, where she learned fast and eventually, to the chagrin of some who were not used to receiving editorial decisions from 25-year-old women, more or less ran it, while its editors went off in search of love and sun. She went to France and was feted by the likes of Michel Leiris, Lacan and Merleau-Ponty – who became the lost love of her life when she couldn’t accept the French distinction between love (his wife) and un amour (herself). Merleau-Ponty, before he tired of her demand that he leave his wife, was ‘transfixed . . . by the sorrow underlying her surface gaiety’. He delighted also in her practical take on the intellectual life, such as her description of spending time with Roland Barthes and Dionys Mascolo from Gallimard:

They talked about civil war as one talks about a visit to the dentist. When they came to discussing how to make efficient bombs out of bottles with petrol, I could have knocked their heads together with rage, and I only refrained from screaming when they said any form of personal pleasure was a waste of time, because they were so busy getting tight and so pleased with the clothes they had bought on the black market that it became rather touching.

An old story of all mouth and no trousers, I think.

It must have been a heavenly time, and if the great love didn’t work out and later life couldn’t live up to it, it was surely an enviable youth. The sorrow was there, but it was a necessary attribute for a girl who wanted to be loved by wiser, older men. They are suckers for sadness.

She turned Orwell down at his first proposal, as did the several other women he asked to marry him at the same time. She slept with him, but only once, then Orwell went off to the island of Jura to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Sonia as the model for the innately freedom-loving, contrary Julia: ‘the girl from the Fiction Department . . . 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.’ Orwell asked Sonia again, not long after the split with Merleau-Ponty, and this time she accepted. He was dying by then and his reputation was rising, so according to Michael Shelden, Sonia accepted him with a view to becoming a rich, literary widow. Her friends say that Orwell wrote to her to say that he believed marrying her would prolong his life, so, she told Spurling, ‘you see, I had no choice.’ He made her his executor and asked her to refuse all requests for a biography. Clearly, she had proved herself enough in the world of books for Orwell to trust her to be his literary widow. If it was not a love match, it apparently cheered Orwell up in his last three months, according to Anthony Powell, though it greatly annoyed Stephen Spender, who resented being told by a snip of a girl to limit his political conversation with G.O. to twenty minutes.

Her next marriage was in 1958 to Michael Pitt-Rivers, who had been jailed four years earlier in the scandalous homosexuality trial that led the Wolfenden Committee to recommend legalisation. The marriage did not work out. Sonia was not a woman who married for love. Spurling doesn’t dispute this, but says that she came to love both husbands and lost one while failing to convert the other. When George died, according to Natasha Spender, ‘it was cataclysmic. She had persuaded herself she loved him intellectually, for his writing, but she found she really loved him.’ As Sonia said to David Plante when he laughed about someone’s dalliance, ‘no one seems to understand what happens in human relationships, and the sadness of it all. It isn’t anything to joke about. It really isn’t.’

Both Plante and Spurling talk of her generosity, her capacity to turn up with small, delightful gifts to hearten the cheerless. She took on the even more difficult Jean Rhys in her old age and put up with no end of fuss and fume from her, recognising perhaps another talented beauty grown old and enraged. Plante found her refusal to talk about his deeper self painful. ‘I wonder,’ he asks her at lunch when she is complaining that one of her shelves is wonky, ‘if I feel more isolated here in Europe than in America.’ Her reply is deliciously Mad-Hatterish: ‘You might as well ask if you’d feel isolated on Mars. The question doesn’t have much consequence. No, no. Don’t think about it. Now, I’ve got to get that shelf up properly, as I have some French house guests coming.’ Self-absorbed, he calls her. A pairing made in heaven, I’d say.

The major complaints about Sonia Orwell come from those who wanted access to Orwell’s papers, especially potential biographers. She was fierce in her control of the estate, or doggedly loyal to her husband’s wishes. To Spurling, her attempt to retain control of the estate, and her failure to do so after a court case against the accountant who ran it, was the root cause of her death – a difficult one this, since she died of a brain tumour. At any rate, at the end of the 1970s she suddenly gave up the house in which she had held a literary salon and went to France, living in a bedsit and shunning her friends. Reading was her only consolation. ‘But when I put them down or when I wake up, it’s all there again . . . this terrible endless tunnel into which I’ve drifted which, naturally, I feel is somehow all my fault but from which I’ll never emerge again, but worse [I feel] that I’ve damaged George.’ Michael Shelden, on the other hand, sees her as battling to retain her rights and income.

Sonia Orwell was a good editor with a fine nose for talent, but she did not produce anything of her own. Instead, her life is an insight into the lives and times of others. According to Shelden, ‘Orwell’s widow, Sonia, who had married him only three months before his death and who was fifteen years his junior, had her opinions, one of which was: “He believed there is nothing about a writer’s life that is relevant to a judgment of his work.”’ It seems her opinion was correct. Orwell himself wrote in an essay on Salvador Dalí: ‘One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dalí is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.’

It’s a kindness to want to rectify the denigration of friends who cannot defend themselves. Spurling’s memoir is plainly that, and good-hearted. As to the truth, who knows? Perhaps it is the best kind of biography. Orwell might have thought so. Because Sonia never wrote anything, nothing can be illuminated or misconstrued except the subject herself. But to admire the capacity for art in others must surely make one wish to produce it oneself. It may be that this was the final source of her sadness when life was coming to a close and someone else’s work was all there was to fight for.