Saying ‘I do’ to a dying Orwell

The short marriage and long career of the second Mrs. Eric Blair

Among the many fascinating revelations in Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: A Life, republished last month by Sutherland House, is this: in the twelve months after the death of his first wife in 1945, Orwell, lonely and grieving, proposed to at least four women, all considerably younger than himself, all of whom rejected him. He popped the question to Anne Popham immediately after meeting her at a dinner party, and subsequently wrote her a note unlikely to make her regret her decision:

I wonder if I committed a sort of crime in approaching you. In a way it’s scandalous that a person like me should make advances to a person like you, and yet I thought from your appearance that you were not only lonely and unhappy, but also a person who lived chiefly through the intellect and might become interested in a man who was much older and not much good physically.

Orwell kept pitching and in 1949 closed the deal with his second proposal to Sonia Brownell. She was sixteen years his junior and embroiled in what one friend called a  “revolt against a convent upbringing that seemed to provide her life in those days with a kind of inexhaustible rocket fuel.” Apart from their intellectual compatibility, she liked this practicality: he was the only literary man she knew who could mend a fuse or an iron. They were married in October. He was terminally ill. He wrote a new will thirteen weeks later, making her his sole beneficiary and literary executor, and died three days after that.

Orwell’s bride of three months would keep his pseudonymous surname (he was buried as Eric Blair) and protectively oversee his considerable estate for the next thirty years. Along with Ian Angus, she edited the four-volume collected works of her late husband, a standard reference for most of the twentieth century. According to Hilary Spurling’s The Girl From The Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell, she also found time to conduct affairs with the painters Lucian Freud, William Coldstream, and Victor Pasmore, and the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty whom she called her one true love. And while the Orwell-Brownell marriage may have been short, it supplied sufficient grist for a play, Mrs. Orwell, that enjoyed a sold-out run at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London in 2017 (photo above).


Welcome to the third edition of SHuSH, the official non-fiction newsletter of The Sutherland House Inc. Subscribe to get SHuSH in your inbox weekly:


Who wants to know that?

Scary new release from Pelican: What We Really Do All Day: Insights from the Centre for Time Use Research by Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan.


Monopoly in America

Patricia O’Toole is perhaps best known for a couple of great presidential biographies— The Moralist (Woodrow Wilson) and When Trumpets Call (Theodore Roosevelt)—but earlier in her career she wrote about business, including the excellent Money & Morals in America. We asked her what book best explains the current state of American business. She replied:

Future historians of American business will write volumes about the rise and consequences of the great Internet monopolies. For the long view of the subject, I recommend one of the first substantive critiques of American monopoly, William Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth against Commonwealth (1894). The parallels between the late nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries are not exact, but  Lloyd’s observations still resonate, and his curmudgeonly, twisty prose is a delight.

Speaking of monopolistic behavior, you can find copies of Lloyd’s book on Amazon.

O’Toole’s next book will be about Theodore Roosevelt’s many (and mostly thwarted) efforts to give the United States a social safety net. Coming soon from W.W. Norton.


Where dirty words were written, not heard

One of my great regrets is that the Scribner’s Bookstore of Fifth Avenue closed before I ever got to Manhattan. I did shop Brentano’s when it occupied the same premises but it wasn’t the same. The building’s storefront is now a Sephora, an indignity, yes, but its upper floors have suffered worse. Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign was headquartered there in 2013, as was Cambridge Analytica before its collapse. The sketch of Scribner’s (above) is from Bob Eckstein’s wonderful 2016 collection of stories and illustrations, Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores. You should be able to read the Hemingway anecdote at the bottom of the frame. Eckstein has just released The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons, which includes this one:


Speaking of dirty words… Last week’s newsletter on all the duck books that have followed in the wake of Mark Manson’s huge-selling The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Duck ran afoul of Facebook’s censors and was deemed unworthy of promotion. Undaunted, we follow up with news that Alexandra Roxo, who bills herself as a “transformational coach and cofounder of the global divine feminine empowerment collective Moon Club,” has signed a deal with Sounds True Publishing for Duck Like A Goddess, a “step-by-step guidebook to healing yourself, reclaiming your voice, and standing into your full power as a modern woman.”


What’s new in corporate inhumanity?

More than half of North Americans now work for large corporations, which means that most of us have been subjected to the idiocies of corporate HR practices. Not everyone has had to sit the widely-discredited Rorschach test (my last job), or seen a perfectly-competent employee “retired” after many years of exemplary service because a quick-and-dirty cognitive test indicated an unimpressive IQ (my last job), but the thoroughly invalidated Myers-Briggs test, which reduces the wondrous complexity of the human personality to sixteen types, is still in abundant use.

Millions of people’s careers are wrongly enhanced or derailed by these tests every year. Rather than come to their senses, human resources professionals seem poised to double down on reductive. Swedish behavioral scientist Thomas Erikson’s best-selling Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behaviour (or, How to Understand Those Who Cannot Be Understood) will be released in North America next month. It cuts through the “overly technical categorizations” of Myers-Briggs to reduce human personalities to four colors. Reds are commanding, Greens are laid back, Blues are analytical, and Yellows are sociable. Fire all the Greens!


Sutherland House is always looking for new book ideas and new manuscripts. You can reach me at ken@sutherlandhousebooks.com. (Read about how to pitch a book.)