Sonia Orwell

Sonia Mary Brownell, better known as Sonia Orwell, was the second and last wife of writer George Orwell. Sonia is believed to be the model for Julia, the heroine of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sonia was born in Calcutta, the daughter of a British colonial official. Her father died when she was four years old. When she was six, she was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton (now Woldingham School), in England. She left at 17 and, after learning French in Switzerland, took a secretarial course. As a young woman, Sonia Brownell was responsible for transcribing and editing the copy text for the first edition of the Winchester Malory as assistant to the eminent medievalist at Manchester University, Eugene Vinaver. 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. 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. Sonia was also close friends with many writers and artists, including Picasso who drew a sketch in her honor which Picasso marked “Sonia.”

Brownell died in London of a brain tumor in December 1980, penniless, 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, her godson, Tom Gross read the same passage from Ecclesiastes about the breaking of the golden bowl that she had asked Anthony Powell to read at Orwell’s funeral thirty years earlier.