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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

The Girl from the
Fiction Department

Hilary Spurling

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To purchase The Girl from the Fiction Department

Title: The Girl from the Fiction Department
Author: Hilary Spurling
Genre: Biography
Written: 2002
Length: 178 pages
Availability: The Girl from the Fiction Department - US
The Girl from the Fiction Department - UK
The Girl from the Fiction Department - Canada
  • A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
  • With numerous illustrations and photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : sketchy and defensive Sonia Orwell portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 6/2003 Benjamin Schwarz
Evening Standard . 20/5/2002 Jane Shilling
The Guardian . 25/5/2002 Richard Shone
The Guardian . 5/7/2003 Steven Poole
Harper's . 6/2003 John Leonard
The Independent . 15/6/2002 Bernard Crick
London Rev. of Books . 25/4/2002 Jenny Diski
The LA Times . 7/7/2003 Matthew Price
New Statesman A+ 27/5/2002 Kathryn Hughes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/7/2003 Stacy Schiff
The Observer . 19/5/2002 Jeremy Lewis
The Spectator . 18/5/2003 Cressida Connolly
Sydney Morning Herald . 17/8/2002 Brenda Niall
TLS . 24/5/2002 Lindsay Duguid
The Washington Post A 8/6/2003 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though some very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "Spurling's desire to salvage her friend's reputation also lends a breathless, frenetic, and at times sloppy quality to her prose (.....) Far too ardent, this is nevertheless a needed corrective to the beating Sonia has taken from many of Orwell's biographers." - Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "All this Hilary Spurling tells with a certain affectionate reticence - rather too much reticence, perhaps - both marriages are whisked over at a pace too brisk to allow for much of the thoughtful analysis that is otherwise her trademark as a biographer. The portrait of Sonia that emerges is an enigma, rather than, strictly speaking, a rehabilitation." - Jane Shilling, Evening Standard

  • "Spurling's memoir not only exonerates "the widow Orwell" from corruption but brings her back in all her tragicomic contradictions." - Richard Shone, The Guardian

  • "It is a generous effort even if it fails to persuade us that the last dreadful years were all somebody else's fault." - John Leonard, Harper's

  • "Sonia was a complex, strange character; but Spurling's polemic defence is too often OTT, and relies too much on her memory of Sonia's selective memory. I remember how variable it was." - Bernard Crick, The Independent

  • "It's a kindness to want to rectify the denigration of friends who cannot defend themselves. Spurling's memoir is plainly that, and good-hearted. As to the truth, who knows ? Perhaps it is the best kind of biography." - Jenny Diski, London Review of Books

  • "Emphasizing Sonia's fragility, Spurling's openly partisan account too often shades into maudlin excess, reductive psychologizing and overdone description." - Matthew Price, The Los Angeles Times

  • "In this wonderful book, Hilary Spurling pulls off something remarkable. She succeeds in showing that biography, to be gripping, does not always need to be on the lookout for flaws and dirty secrets. Instead, it can be celebratory and restorative, a force for good." - Kathryn Hughes, New Statesman

  • "To the table she brings great sensitivity, exemplary research, and an agenda, about which she is perfectly clear. (...) At various junctures, the reader may wish that she would stop arguing with umpires and just hit the ball. Or that she would fill in some conspicuous blanks." - Stacy Schiff, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The Girl from the Fiction Department is a compelling and often touching account of a wretchedly unhappy life; and although Sonia Orwell must have been maddening at times -- not least when she broke into French while discussing elevated or artistic matters -- it's hard not to feel that she has been roughly treated." - Jeremy Lewis, The Observer

  • "Her book, then, is a labour of love. But there is nothing sloppy or soppy or partial about it: this is a fine portrait of a woman who counted among her devoted friends some of the best writers and painters of the 20th century. (...) She has unearthed a lot of material about her subjectís early life, and the book is strong on period flavour. (...) Itís an excellent read too; a worthy addition to the authorís distinguished backlist." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

  • "Interviews with friends of the Orwell circle, and a study of Sonia's disastrously mismanaged financial affairs, make a persuasive case for the defence. It is not all sweetness and light: Sonia's heavy drinking and her explosive temper are not glossed over. She emerges, however, as an intelligent, generous woman whose marriage of convenience to the dying Orwell was consistent with her lifelong idealisation of creativity. (...) In this reworking of the Orwell story, there are neither saints nor monsters, and an unlikely marriage is seen in context." - Brenda Niall, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Spurling's is not simply a partial chronicle; it is a story told in a sustained pathetic register which does not admit scepticism or doubt. (...) The Girl from the Fiction Department is an admirable act of friendship and an interesting lesson in biography (with a moral: don't have anything to do with writers), but it fails to rehabilitate Sonia Orwell completely, largely because it is so partisan." - Lindsay Duguid, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Still, she led quite a life, and Spurling, who knew her during its last decade, recounts it briskly, stylishly, with real affection and warmth." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hilary Spurling tackles Sonia Orwell as much as a friend as a biographer, and with the express intent of (as she sees it) clearing up the record -- trying to disentangle truth from the "myth of the cold and grasping Widow Orwell, based on ignorance, misconception and distortion".
       The richly illustrated book offers a whirlwind tour of Sonia Orwell's whirlwind life, from her birth in India, the difficult family life (dad died when she was an infant, step-dad became a failure), her hated Sacred Heart school-years, her part at Horizon, the men in her life (she got around), her French adventures, and so on.
       George Orwell is, surprisingly, not that much of a presence. Though taken by her -- Sonia was the model for 1984's Julia, that 'girl from the Fiction Department' that also gives this book its title -- he didn't appear to be the most important man in her life even when he was alive. She'd babysit, and: "The two got on well enough for Sonia to sleep with Orwell, more for his sake than hers", but after World War II she was more involved with Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
       Eventually, George and Sonia did decide to marry -- but by that time George was deathly ill. Spurling reports that Sonia admitted:

'He said he would get better if I married him,' she told me twenty years later, 'so, you see, I had no choice.'
       They married 13 October 1949, and by 21 January 1950 Orwell was dead; their married life takes up a whole two pages in the book.
       (Sonia did not do well in choosing husbands: after Orwell she married avowed homosexual Michael Pitt-Rivers ("whose name was a national symbol", as he had been jailed for eighteen months for engaging in "homosexual activity with airmen"). Spurling does offer some explanations as to Sonia's unpromising choices in men (at least the ones she married), and claims she entered into these marriages "for nobly disinterested motives" but overall doesn't offer nearly adequate enough explanations (or even considerations) as to these whacky choices of mates.)
       Much of the fuss, especially later in her life, concerns Sonia's role as George Orwell's literary executor. Among the provisions of his will was one that there should be no biography -- which Sonia was entrusted to enforce. Sonia seems to have made a complete hash of this:
In 1972, when Stansky and Abrahams published the first volume of their life of Orwell, Sonia felt they had left her no option save to appoint an official biographer.
       Here (as almost everywhere else) Spurling sides entirely with Sonia, and is happy enough to leave it pretty much at that. She admits Sonia was tortured, to her death, by the anti-biographer clause in Orwell's will, but not why she so readily went against it. As to the man she chose for the job:
Her choice of the political economist Bernard Crick was an impulsive decision which, like many of her defiant gestures, she later came to regret.
       Sounds interesting -- but Spurling doesn't adequately explain what went or was wrong with Crick's biography. It's a problem throughout the book: those who aren't in the know about the literary feuds and conflicts are left with many blanks they can't fill in.

       The Girl from the Fiction Department is quite entertaining when the focus is on the personal relationships -- Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jean Rhys, and other close friends are nice presences, and Sonia also dallied with any number of other interesting figures. The 1940s literary and artistic scenes in Britain and France -- with Sonia right in the middle of them -- are especially well-captured. Still, often the portarit is simply too breezy, skipping along through suicides (attempted and successful) and abortions and great loads of misery. Perhaps that's in the spirit of Sonia, but it doesn't make it any easier to take her seriously.
       The Orwell estate was clearly mishandled, in no small part thanks to Spurling's villain, Sonia's accountant Jack Harrison. Spurling does discuss some of Sonia's disputes with Harrison, though she doesn't seem at all willing to give Sonia much of the blame -- casually mentioning that "at various points over the past twenty years, she had signed over to him 25 per cent of the shares, together with 60 per cent of the voting rights, in George Orwell Productions" -- without wondering or explaining how the hell that could have happened.

       The Girl from the Fiction Department is "a portrait of Sonia Orwell", and a modestly entertaining quick read, with a few good bits of gossip. But Spurling stands much too close to her subject and seems unable to find fault with her. There are many glowing quotes about Sonia's abilities and generosity, but her accomplishments -- as described here (the highlight being her work on the four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters) -- don't seem to warrant all (or, indeed, practically any) of this effusive praise.
       This is a friendly sketch, nicely written, and of some interest, but it's not a full biography.
       Spurling believes:
In just over twenty years since she dies, Sonia's reputation has been systematically blackened. Orwell's subsequent biographers have taken their tone from Crick, who saw her as greedy and unscrupulous.
       This worry about reputations is disturbing: the facts should speak for themselves -- and Spurling doesn't let them (by not bothering all that much with them). She may, in fact, be right about Sonia (and Sonia being manhandled by subsequent Orwell biographers), but she does little to clear up the main points of contention (except that Sonia didn't have much money at her disposal). (Part of the problem is also that she does not explain adequately how (and by whom) Sonia has been maligned, and the specific charges levelled against her -- i.e. what the points of contention are in the first place.) And even from Spurling's slanted presentation it is clear that Sonia acted extremely unwisely in many aspects of her handling of the Orwell estate.
       Spurling writes engagingly enough, and the many illustrations help make this an attractive volume. Still, overall it is a frustrating book, too obviously subjective, and with too much information withheld.

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The Girl from the Fiction Department: Reviews: Hilary Spurling: Other books of interest under review:
  • Diana Athill's publishing memoir, Stet

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About the Author:

       Hilary Spurling has written several biographies.

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© 2003-2022 the complete review

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