Husband Michael Pitt-Rivers
Euston Rd, London NW1 3AL, UK
Sonia Mary Brownell (25 August 1918 – 11 December 1980), better known as Sonia Orwell, was the second wife of writer George Orwell. Sonia is believed to be the model for Julia, the heroine of 1984. Francis Bacon was in collaboration with Sonia Orwell on a book project that failed to materialise. Bacon believed, like many of his friends, that she was basically a lesbian but didn’t realise it. Given the sniping by Orwell’s circle that she engineered the marriage shortly before his death to get control of his literary estate and then married Michael Pitt-Rivers who was prosecuted with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for homosexual offences in 1954, there is plenty of room to suppose her sexuality was partly shielded by convenience. She had brief affairs with artist such as Lucian Freud, William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore for whom she modelled (she was known as the ‘Euston Road Venus’) but was much more comfortable with gay men. Cyril Connolly, who tried to encourage an affair, said her “lesbian drives” had prevented any action taking place. John Lehmann, writing of the time when she captivated Orwell, remembers "her darting, gaily cynical intelligence and insatiable appetite for knowing everything that went on in the literary world: her revolt against a convent upbringing seemed to provide her life in those days with a kind if inexhaustible rocket fuel". She had been briefly John Lehmann's secretary before going to work for the Ministry of War Transport.
Sonia collaborated with the Information Research Department (IRD), a propaganda department of the British Foreign Office, which helped to increase the international fame of Animal Farm and 1984. With her support, the IRD was able to translate Animal Farm into over 16 languages, and for British embassies to disseminate the book in over 14 countries for propaganda purposes. Soon after her husband's death, Sonia sold the film rights to Animal Farm to the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This deal resulted in the creation of the propaganda film Animal Farm (1954), which became the first feature length animated film made in Britain.
Brownell was born in Calcutta, British India, the daughter of a British colonial official, Charles Neville Brownlee. Her father died when she was four years old. When she was six, she was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton (now part of Roehampton University), in England. She left at 17 and, after learning French in Switzerland, took a secretarial course. As a young woman, Brownell was responsible for transcribing and editing the copy text for the first edition of the Winchester Le Morte d'Arthur, as assistant to the eminent medievalist at Manchester University, Eugène Vinaver.
26th July 1958: Sonia Orwell and Michael Pitt-Rivers at his home at Tollard-Royal after their engagement was announced. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
From 1945 until it folded in 1950 she was Horizon's Editorial secretary and in fact often the working partner, when its co-founders (Peter Watson and Cyril Connolly) were absent or indisposed. Brownell first met Orwell when she worked as the assistant to Cyril Connolly, a friend of his from Eton College, at the literary magazine Horizon. After the death of his first wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy, Orwell became desperately lonely. On 13 October 1949, he married Brownell, only three months before his death from tuberculosis. George Orwell's friends, as well as various Orwell experts, have noted that Brownell helped Orwell through the painful last months of his life and, according to Anthony Powell, cheered Orwell up greatly. However, others have argued that she may have also been attracted to him primarily because of his fame. Orwell biographer Bernard Crick told The Washington Post he did not think that Brownell "had much influence on his life" and asserted that "it was more or less an accident that they married."
T. R. Fyvel, who was a colleague and friend of George Orwell during the last decade of the writer's life, and other friends of Orwell, have said that Sonia was the model for Julia, the heroine of 1984, the "girl from the fiction department" who brings love and warmth to the middle-aged hero, Winston Smith. As Orwell wrote in 1984, "the girl from the fiction department... was looking at him... 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... All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead."
Brownell married Michael Pitt-Rivers in 1958, and had affairs with several British painters, including Lucian Freud, William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore. Her first contact with artists came about through living in a flat opposite the Euston Road School. Her marriage to Pitt-Rivers ended in divorce in 1965. She also had an affair with the French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whom she described as her true love; she hoped he would leave his wife for her. Brownell had several godchildren and was very close to some of them. Her godson Tom Gross has written in The Spectator magazine that "although Sonia had no children of her own, she became almost like a second mother to me." Sonia was also close friends with many writers and artists, including Pablo Picasso, who drew a sketch in her honor which Picasso marked "Sonia."
In the 1960's she co-edited the Paris-based international review Art and Literature. Her powerful effect on the literary and artistic world of London had been extended to France just after the war, when intellectual Paris - Leiris, Bataille, Lacan, Merleau Ponty and others - was bowled over by her in turn. Among the writers she especially encouraged were Angus Wilson, Nigel Dennis and Jean Rhys. She was a close friend of Francis Bacon, Virgil Thompson, W. H. Auden, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Marguerite Duras, some of whose work she translated.
Together with David Astor and Richard Rees, George Orwell's literary executor, Brownell established the George Orwell Archive at University College London, which opened in 1960. Brownell was fiercely protective of Orwell's estate and edited, with Ian Angus, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (4 volumes, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968).
Brownell died penniless in London of a brain tumour in December 1980, having spent a fortune trying to protect Orwell's name and having been swindled out of her remaining funds by an unscrupulous accountant. Her friend the painter Francis Bacon paid off her outstanding debts. At her funeral, Tom Gross read the same passage from Ecclesiastes, chapter 12 verses 1-7 about the breaking of the golden bowl, that she had asked Anthony Powell to read at Orwell's funeral thirty years earlier.
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