15 August 2019, The Tablet

The call of duty

The call of duty

Sonia Brownell, who married George Orwell shortly before his death, pictured in 1958
Photo: PA Archive


The marriage of George Orwell and Sonia Brownell in a hospital bedroom 70 years ago was a mystery to everyone who knew them. A biographer of Orwell believes that the bride’s Catholic upbringing offers a clue to her acceptance of the dying writer’s proposal

Seventy years ago this October half a dozen people assembled in a hospital bedroom in Gower Street, London WC1, to witness what might be regarded as one of the strangest literary weddings of the twentieth century. They included the groom, George Orwell, now confined to his bed by the tuberculosis that would kill him three months later; the celebrant, University College Hospital’s chaplain, the Revd W.H. Braine; and the best man, The Observer’s proprietor, David Astor. But the centre of attention was the bride, a plump, blonde girl with a Renoir complexion, currently employed on the literary magazine Horizon, named Sonia Brownell.

With Orwell’s latest novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, storming the best-seller lists, and the writer himself clinging on to life by a thread, news of the marriage had stirred vast excitement. The memories of those present at the ceremony – Astor had acquired the special marriage licence that only the Archbishop of Canterbury can issue to make it possible – invariably stress its desperate air of poignancy.

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