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Sonia Orwell

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Sonia Orwell
A black and white picture of Sonia Orwell
Sonia Mary Brownell

(1918-08-25)25 August 1918
Died11 December 1980(1980-12-11) (aged 62)
London, England
Known forThe Orwell Archive
  • (m. 1949; died 1950)
  • (m. 1958; div. 1965)
RelativesRichard Blair (adoptive stepson)

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 Nineteen Eighty-Four.[1][2]

Sonia worked 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 Nineteen Eighty-Four. With her support, the IRD was able to translate Animal Farm into over 16 languages,[3] and for British embassies to disseminate the book in over 14 countries for propaganda purposes.[4] 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.[5]

Early life[edit]

Brownell was born in Calcutta, British India,[6] the daughter of a British colonial official. Her father died when she was four years old.[7] 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.[7] 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.[citation needed]


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.[6] 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."[8]

Nineteen Eighty-Four[edit]

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.[9]

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."


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.[10]

Brownell was fiercely protective[6] of Orwell's estate and edited, with Ian Angus, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (4 volumes, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968).

After Orwell[edit]

Brownell married Michael Pitt-Rivers in 1958,[6] and had affairs with several British painters, including Lucian Freud, William Coldstream and Victor Pasmore. 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;[11] 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."[12]

Sonia was also close friends with many writers and artists, including Pablo Picasso, who drew a sketch in her honour, which he marked "Sonia."[13]


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.[14]

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.[15]


  1. ^ "Dedicated follower of passions". The Guardian. 19 May 2002.
  2. ^ "The Widow Orwell". The New York Times. 15 June 2003.
  3. ^ Rubin, Andrew N. (2012). Archives of Authority: Empire, Culture and the Cold War. Woodstock: Princeton University Press. p. 40.
  4. ^ Mitter, Rana (2005). Across the Block: Cold War Cultural and Social History. Taylor & Francis e-library: Frank and Cass Company Limited. p. 117.
  5. ^ Senn, Samantha (2015). "All Propaganda is Dangerous, but Some are More Dangerous than Others: George Orwell and the Use of Literature as Propaganda". Journal of Strategic Security. 8 (3): 149–161. doi:10.5038/1944-0472.8.3S.1483. ISSN 1944-0464. JSTOR 26465253. S2CID 145306291.
  6. ^ a b c d Diski, Jenny (25 April 2002). "Don't think about it". London Review of Books. 24 (8): 32–33. Retrieved 21 September 2015.
  7. ^ a b Lewis, Jeremy (19 May 2002). "Review: The Girl from the Fiction Department and Orwell's Victory". The Observer. Retrieved 21 September 2015.
  8. ^ Epps, Garrett (3 June 1981). "The Orwell Myth". The Washington Post. Retrieved 16 May 2019.
  9. ^ Fyvel, T. R. (1982). Orwell: A Personal Memoir. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 3. ISBN 9780297780120..
  10. ^ "Orwell Papers: Sonia Orwell (Blair) papers". AIM25. 2015. Retrieved 21 September 2015.
  11. ^ Spurling (2002).
  12. ^ Spurling (2002), p. 131.
  13. ^ Spurling (2002), p. 2.
  14. ^ "Tim Carroll 'A writer wronged'". The Sunday Times. Timesonline.co.uk. 15 August 2014. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  15. ^ Spurling (2002), p. 175.
  • Reynolds, Jack (2008). Merleau-Ponty: Key Concepts. Stockfield: Acumen Publishing. p. 5. ISBN 9781844651160.

Further reading[edit]