Sonia Brownell

Sonia Brownell at Horizon (1948)

Sonia Brownell at Horizon (1948)

Sonia Mary Brownell (25 August 1918–11 December 1980) was the second and last wife of writer George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair. She was also known as Sonia Blair or Sonia Orwell.

Brownell was born in Calcutta, as the daughter of a British colonial official. When she was six, she was sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton (now Woldingham School). She left at 17, and after learning French in Switzerland, took a secretarial course.

Orwell first met her when she worked as an assistant for 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.

Although in later life Brownell often went by the name Sonia Orwell, this was never legally her name as ‘Orwell’ was merely a pen name that her husband (real name Eric Arthur Blair) had chosen. Some commentators have argued that she helped Orwell through the painful last months of his life and, according to Anthony Powell, apparently cheered Orwell up in his last three months. Others saw her as a mercenary who was only interested in becoming his literary widow. However, there has never been a word of reproach from Orwell’s adopted son Richard, who would certainly have opposed her had she been a mercenary. The writer and academic Frank Kermode has suggested their marriage was a case of Orwell acquiring, as president of his foundation, the most promising young talent he could find.

Together with David Astor and Richard Rees, Orwell’s literary executor, she established the George Orwell Archive at University College London, which opened in 1960.

She was fiercely protective of his estate and edited, with Ian Angus, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (4 volumes, Secker & Warburg, London, 1968).  Sonia Brownell died in London of a brain tumor in 1980.

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