The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell:

Volume 3: As I Please, 1943-1945

Considering that much of his life was spent in poverty and ill health, it is something of a miracle that in only forty-six years George Orwell managed to publish ten books and two collections of essays. Here, in four fat volumes, is the best selection of his non-fiction available, a trove of letters, essays, reviews, and journalism that is breathtaking in its scope and eclectic passions. Orwell had something to say about just about everyone and everything. His letters to such luminaries as Julian Symons, Anthony Powell, Arthur Koestler, and Cyril Connolly are poignant and personal. His essays, covering everything from “English Cooking” to “Literature and Totalitarianism,” are memorable, and his books reviews (Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Mumford’s Herman Melville, Miller’s Black Spring, Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, to name just a few) are among the most lucid and intelligent ever written. From 1943 to 1945, he wrote a regular column for the Tribune, a left wing weekly, entitled “As I Please.” His observations about life in Britain during the war embraced everything from anti-American sentiment to the history of domestic appliances.

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Eric Arthur Blair, who used the pen name George Orwell, is widely considered one of the greatest writers of the past century. He was born in India to a high-born but financially troubled English family, who was unable to send him to university without a scholarship. He chose instead to serve on the colonial police force in Burma, where he preferred to associate with poor Burmese than with his colonial compatriots. Even after returning to England, Blair continued to be drawn to the poor and working-class in his life and work. Although his novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are now the most widely-read of his works, Blair was primarily a nonfiction writer. The occasionally radical political content in his essays, memoirs, and journalistic works brought him some censure during his life, but they now make up one of the most celebrated bodies of work in the English language.

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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.

Ian Angus is the Head Librarian at King’s College in London. He previously served as Deputy Librarian at University College, where he helped set up the Orwell Archive. He has been a recognized Orwell scholar for over three decades.