Sonia Mary Brownell (25 August 1918 – 11 December 1980), better known as Sonia Orwell, was the second and last wife of writer George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair.
Brownell was born in Calcutta, the daughter of a British colonial official. 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.
Orwell first met her 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, and on 13 October 1949 married Brownell, three months before his death from tuberculosis.
George Orwell's friends, as well as various Orwell experts, have noted that she helped Orwell through the painful last months of his life and, according to Anthony Powell, cheered Orwell up greatly. But others have argued that she may have also been attracted to him primarily because of his fame. 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 Nineteen Eighty-Four, the "girl from the fiction department" who brings love and warmth to the middle-aged hero, Winston Smith.
As Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, "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, a homosexual, in 1958, and had affairs with several British painters, including Lucian Freud, William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore. The marriage 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. Sonia 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”.
She 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 and at her funeral 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.
- Kermode, Frank (2003), The Horizon Girl.
- Spurling, Hilary (2002), The girl from the fiction department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell.
- Diski, Jenni (25 April 2002), "Don't think about it", London Review of Books (review of Hilary Spurling's The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell) (Arlindo Correia).
- Spurling, Hilary (15 May 2002), "In defence of Sonia Orwell – The myths surrounding Orwell's widow", Times Literary Supplement (Arlindo Correia).
- Fyvel, TR (1983), Orwell: A Personal Memoir, Hutchinson, p. 3.
- Index entry, AIM25 – Online research for archive collections of higher education and learned societies.