Homage to Orwell
Monday, July 14, 2003
7. SONIA'S FLAT & ORWELL'S HOSPITAL
After leaving the Elysee restaurant Zoe and I crossed the road to number 18 Percy Street which was the apartment of Sonia Brownell, Orwell's second wife. Below is a photo of me standing in front of her door:
Orwell married Sonia in his hospital room in October 1949, three months before he died.
His first wife, Eileen, had died three and a half years previously in March 1945, two months before the war ended; thirteen months after he'd finished Animal Farm and nine months after they'd adopted a baby boy. (Orwell burned out the names of the natural parents with the end of a cigarette). They'd been married for nine years when Eileen died at the age of thirty-nine, while undergoing routine surgery. She didn't live to see the financial success and world acclaim that followed Animal Farm. Eileen had been a major supporter of Orwell's writing and totally believed in him. They'd been planning to leave London and move to the island of Jura so that he could concentrate on writing his next book.
Orwell had met Sonia through Cyril Connolly, his friend from prep school and Eton days who ended up being a writer and owning his own magazine, the Horizon, for which Orwell wrote. Sonia was Connolly's office and editorial assisstant and very beautiful. After Eileen died Orwell continued to write journalism and continued having literary friends over to his apartment. One of the people he invited over was Sonia who loved him very much but only as a friend, as was the case with a couple of other beautiful and intelligent women Orwell proposed to in the first year after Eileen's death. This is explained by W J West, the author of The Larger Evils: Nineteen Eighty-Four: The Truth Behind the Satire. He says:
"It was well known at the time, though forgotten now, that people in the last stages of tuberculosis frequently formed very strong emotional attachments, indeed those visiting patients were warned against the danger of taking such relationships at their face value."
From the death of Eileen onwards Orwell would qualify as being in the last stages of tuberculosis.
But another part of the reason that Orwell wanted to get married was because he needed someone to emotionally support him in his writing, the way Eileen had, and to help him look after Richard and for the sake of just having someone to love and be loved by. Orwell didn't like being alone, even though he was a solitary man.
In 1946, after Orwell had moved to Jura for the summer he wrote to Sonia inviting her to visit. She was working at the time and never came. He didn't see her again until after he'd left Jura for the last time in January 1949 and was hospitalized in a sanitorium near Wales. Many of his friends started visiting him again, including Sonia, now that he was closer to London. His house on Jura had been at the end of an eight-mile walk after a two day journey by train, bus and ferry. Friends started noticing that something was happening between Orwell and Sonia. Here's how Bernard Crick explains it in his book, Orwell: A Life:
"On 3 September he moved from the Cranham sanatorium near Gloucester, in the Cotswold hills, into his last bed at University College Hospital in Gower Street, London. He had a private room for which he paid just over 17 pounds a week... On 5 September he wrote to David Astor about himself and Sonia."
Thanks ever so for sending those beautiful chrysanths and the box of peaches that actually met me on my arrival here. I feel ghastly and can't write much, but we had a wonderful journey down yesterday in the most ritzy ambulance you can imagine. This beastly fever never goes away but is better some days than others, and I really quite enjoyed the drive down...
'I hope you are feeling better and that you will be able to meet Sonia. Morland says I mustn't see people much, but here in London it's easier for people to just look in for half an hour, which they hardly can at Cranham. Sonia lives only a few minutes away from here. She thinks we might as well get married while I am still an invalid, because it would give her a better status to look after me especially if, eg. I went somewhere abroad after leaving here. It's an idea but I think I should have to feel a little less ghastly than at present before I could even face a registrar for 10 minutes. I am much encouraged if none of my friends or relatives seems to disapprove of my marrying, in spite of this disease. I had had a nasty feeling that "they" would converge from all directions and stop me, but it hasn't happened. Morland, the doctor, is very much in favour of it.'
'I remember visiting you when you had the sinus but I didn't know it was this hospital. It seems very comfortable and easy-going here. Can't write more.
"His second proposal to Sonia had been successful. Mutual friends did not, as George feared, or said he feared, oppose the idea, they rather welcomed it; it would give George something more to live for and leave him in capable and caring hands. Even before U.C.H. the idea had been forming between Morland and Orwell that, when he was strong enough for the journey, he should move to a high-altitude clinic in France or Switzerland: with less pressure on the lung, risk of a haemorrhage might be diminished. A letter had reached him in August from a Catherine Karot in Versailles, for instance, recommending a sanitorium in Haute Savoi."
"Sonia was much in evidence from then on at the hospital, and began to take routine burdens off Orwell's shoulders. He still sent a few handwritten letters to some old friends, but his typewriter -- which was almost an extension of his mind -- had been taken from him for the last time."
"...But his habit of precise observation continued and in his notebook he described the 'Daily Routine of University College Hospital (Private Wing)... Room has; washbasin, cupboard, bedside locker, bed table, chest of drawers, wardrobe, 2 mirrors, wireless (knobs beside bed), electric pipe radiator, armchair & 1 other chair, bedside lamp & 2 other lamps, telephone. Fees 16 guineas a week, plus extra fee for doctor, but apparently including special medicines. Does not include telephone or wireless (Charge for wireless 3/6 a week).'"
"He could now afford to pay in hospital fees each week more than twice what he and Eileen had lived on until the success of Animal Farm. How sad the contrast with the mutual worries about the cost of Eileen's operation in 1945."
"...Opinions among his visitors varied as to whether he was dying. Some took it for granted. Anthony Powell wrote: 'It was fairly clear that he was not going to recover; only the length of time that remained to him in doubt.' Orwell told both Powell and Muggeridge that he "did not think a writer could die if he had one more book in him". And they knew of his plans for marrying and going to Switzerland... Other visitors were impressed that he was not so much struggling, but resting quietly to live: at last he had seen sense, perhaps just in time."
"...His marriage took place on 13 October. Marrying in a hospital involved obtaining a 'special licence'. But David Astor, his Best Man, handled all the necessary correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Orwell asked Powell and Muggeridge to find him a smoking-jacket, for even if he was getting married from a hospital bed he could not do it in a dressing-gown. He looked unexpectedly grand and military in a smoking-jacket, as if, son of a poor gentleman, he had pursued his natural career in Burma to a successful end and had never become a political writer. Powell remembers the jacket as crimson corduroy, but Muggeridge as mauve velvet... The occasion was kept short, so as not to tire him. David Astor entertained Sonia and a small party of mutual friends to a wedding luncheon at the Ritz. The signed menu was brought to Orwell. He was 46 years old, the certificate noted, and she was 31."
"After the wedding, Orwell at first rallied appreciably, then had some bad days, then good, then bad again; his temperature chart undulated greatly. He wrote only two or three letters in November, and in December they ceased entirely. Celia Kirwan noted that he was reading the Bodley Head's bi-lingual edition of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Otherwise he saved his energy for visitors and to be fit for the journey to a sanatorium in Switzerland... Muggeridge noticed that he now had a fishing-rod across the end of his bed, as if ready for mountain streams in Switzerland... But it was all a dream. ..What Morland knew could happen before they got hiim to a high altitude did happen. Orwell's lung haemorrhaged on the night of 21 January 1950 and he died at once and alone before Sonia could be found. The world heard the news on the BBC that morning. As the first sentence of his last book had said, the radios had "all struck thirteen".
"'The Death occurred in London to-day of Mr George Orwell, the author, at the age of 46. He had been ill for a long time. George Orwell was educated at Eton and later served in the Burma police. He fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War and was wounded. After that he spent most of his time writing. He will, perhaps, be best remembered for Animal Farm, a satire on life in the Soviet Union, and for the recently published Nineteen Eighty-Four, a grim imaginary picture of a totalitarian Great Britain some 30 years from now, which was highly praised by critics on both sides of the Atlantic.'"
In the above photo I am standing in front of the hospital where Orwell died in Room 65. We'd walked there directly from Sonia Orwell's flat on Percy Street, maybe the same route she'd walked every day to visit her new husband in 1949. Notice the satellite tower to the right. To me it symbolizes Orwell's fear for the future, that "the government would have the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance". That tower wasn't there when Orwell was alive, but it's sure there now.
As we walked away from the hospital toward our next destination we passed a bookstore on the corner. There, on a pedestal in the front window, was a biography of Vladimir Lenin, with a picture of his face on the front cover. More symbolism. Where freedom dies, slavery thrives. (I realized later that January 21, the day Orwell died in 1950, was the same day Lenin died in 1924).
go next to 8.MINISTRY OF TRUTH or back to HOMAGE INDEX
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~