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D. J. Taylor

Last days of George Orwell

['Dove with flowers' by Pablo Picasso]

Fifty years ago, the creator of 1984 and Animal Farm was fatally ill but also newly wed, at the peak of his fame, and bursting with book ideas.

In January, 1950, small procession of visitors could be seen each afternoon making their way singly and severally through the cheerless north Bloomsbury squares towards University College hospital. Many of them were literary — the immensely tall figure of Stephen Spender with his mop of curly hair, Anthony Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge, both of whom lived in nearby Regent’s Park. Others came from the BBC or from left-wing newspapers. Occasionally, a small boy was brought in and allowed to remain for a moment or so before a patient so terrified of communicating the disease from which he suffered, that he would never allow his adopted son to touch him. The most regular visitor was a spectacularly pretty, brown-haired girl with a newly acquired wedding ring gleaming on her finger.

By January, 1950, Orwell had been at UCH for nearly four months, and in hospital since the start of the previous year. Two decades of chronic lung trouble had finally produced a diagnosis of tuberculosis. At a sanatorium in Gloucestershire, six months before, he had nearly died, but recovered enough to be transferred to London and the care of the distinguished chest specialist Andrew Morland. Morland, recommended to Orwell by his publisher Fred Warburg, didn’t anticipate a cure: but he thought that, with sufficient care and treatment, he might reach the status of ‘good chronic’, able to potter about and undertake a few hours’ sedentary work a day. Orwell, desperate to pick up his pen once more, was told that he had a ‘relatively’ good chance of staying alive.

Morland had taken Orwell on as a private patient: little more than a year since its inception, Bevan’s NHS had barely begun to exist. Fortunately money, the absence of which had troubled Orwell for most of his adult life, was no longer a problem. Nineteen Eighty-Four, published the previous June, had been a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic. 25,000 copies had already been sold in England. US royalties, fuelled by selection as a Book of the Month Club choice, were rolling in. Orwell was famous and well off. In the last month of his life, the value of his estate was put at around £12,000 (the average weekly wage was well below £10). He was also, despite the rigours of his hospital routine, unexpectedly happy.

Orwell had known Sonia Brownell, who had worked on Cyril Connolly’s monthly magazine Horizon, for several years. Sixteen years younger than Orwell, with a string of previous lovers that included the artists Lucian Freud and William Coldstream, Sonia looked an unlikely candidate for the role of second Mrs Orwell, a vacancy the widower had seemed anxious to fill during the late 1940s. Her reasons for accepting a desperately sick man, with whom she was fairly obviously not in love, will always be obscure. Subsequent accusations of gold-digging are unfounded. There was no guarantee when she married him that he was about to turn into the titanic figure of literary legend. Anthony Powell always maintained that Sonia married him simply because her mentor, Cyril Connolly, told her to.

The marriage took place by special licence in Orwell’s room on October 13, 1949. David Astor, proprietor of the Observer and a long-term supporter, gave away the bride in the presence of the hospital chaplain, the Reverend WH Braine, Sonia’s friend Janetta Kee, Powell, Muggeridge and one of Orwell’s doctors. The guests then went off for a celebratory dinner at the Ritz. The bridegroom remained in bed. Several of his friends noted how much the marriage raised his spirits. According to Powell, it ‘immensely cheered him... In some respects he was in better form than I had ever known’. Despite his cadaverous state — he had lost so much weight that the doctors had trouble finding enough spare flesh to insert hypodermic needles — Orwell looked unexpectedly perky in it. Sitting up in bed, Powell remembered, he had an ‘unaccustomedly epicurean air’.

The plan had been that, as soon as Orwell showed faint signs of improvement, he could be sent to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps to take advantage of the rarefied mountain air. But he remained horribly unwell, losing even more weight and suffering from high temperatures. The new American wonder drug streptomycin had been tried on him the year before, and Fred Warburg had petitioned his US publishers to help in speeding up a delivery of auromycin, but these were early days for TB cures. Among other side-effects, the streptomycin had made Orwell’s fingernails fall out — and the prognosis grew worse.

Orwell, though, was convinced he would live. Full of ideas for books — a study of Conrad’s political fiction and a novella set in the far east, provisionally titled A Smoking-Room Story — he believed that a writer who has a book left in him to write will not die. Despite his poor state, Morland thought that the promise of the Swiss trip would have a beneficial effect and sanctioned it for January. A fishing rod, brought by a friend for his convalescence, lay at the end of the bed.

By this stage, few of his visitors expected him to live. Some of the saddest visits were the few allowed to his adopted son, Richard. Orwell was so anxious about passing on the disease to the four-year-old that he pushed the boy away if he came too close. Sonia came every day, looked after his business affairs, and occasionally annoyed people by her assumption of the role of officious nurse. One day, Sonia told Orwell that she had to go to a cocktail party and wouldn’t be back that evening. Orwell protested faintly, but she bustled off. Others noticed a progressive deterioration. Arriving with Powell on Christmas Day, Muggeridge found him ‘very deathly and wretched, alone, with Christmas decorations all around’. His face looked practically dead, Muggeridge recorded, oddly like a picture he had once seen of Nietzsche on his death-bed. He detected a kind of rage in his friend’s expression, as though the approach of death made him furious. They talked about Orwell’s exploits in the Home Guard, his time in Spain in the civil war, the prospect of Switzerland, ‘and all the while the stench of death was in the air, like autumn in a garden’.

The new year came. A departure date had been set for January 25. Orwell’s companions on the trip, by privately chartered plane, would be Sonia and Lucian Freud. Visiting again on the 12th, Muggeridge thought him ‘more deathly than ever, very miserable,’ complaining that the doctors would not even allow him aspirin. A week later, though, Julian Symons found him eagerly anticipating the Swiss trip, and keen to talk about long-delayed literary schemes.

There was a chance that the doctors might let him start writing again, he explained, and he was anxious to get on with the novella and the Conrad book. ‘I shall go to Switzerland next Wednesday,’ Symons recalled him saying, laughing as he did so, ‘if I don’t catch cold’. Another friend, the anarchist poet Paul Potts, called on him the next afternoon, Friday January 20, bringing a small packet of tea as a present. Looking through the glass square cut into the door, he saw that Orwell was asleep. Judging it best not to disturb him, he left the tea propped up against the lintel and stole away.

Sonia spent the evening at a nightclub with Lucian Freud. In the small hours of Saturday January 21, she was tracked down by telephone to be told that Orwell had died of a massive lung haemorrhage. The news spread throughout the weekend. ‘G. Orwell is dead and Mrs Orwell, presumably, a rich widow,’ Evelyn Waugh noted in a letter to Nancy Mitford. Muggeridge, told of his friend’s death early on the Saturday morning, compared it to the passing of another recent literary casualty, Hugh Kingsmill.

Orwell’s death was the sadder, however, ‘because he passionately wanted to go on living, and there was no sense of peace or relinquishment in him’. Muggeridge, then working on the Daily Telegraph, wrote a couple of memorial paragraphs for the Peterborough column. ‘Thought of him, as of Graham [Greene], that popular writers always express in an intense form some romantic longing...’

The dead man turned out to have made a will three days before his death, in the presence of Sonia and his first wife’s sister, Gwen O’Shaughnessy. Materially, it transferred his literary estate to Sonia. A substantial life insurance policy would provide for his adopted son, Richard, then being looked after by his aunt, Orwell’s sister Avril. Orwell directed that he should be buried according to the rites of the Church of England and his body interred (not cremated) in the nearest convenient cemetery. The task of arranging all this fell to Powell and Muggeridge. A Warren Street undertaker was quickly brought on board.

Then the two tried to engage the services of the Rev Rose, Vicar of Christ Church, Albany Street NWI. Astor influence secured a plot in the graveyard of All Saints church at Sutton Courteney in Oxfordshire. Muggeridge noted in his diary the fact of Orwell dying on Lenin’s birthday and being buried by the Astors, ‘which seems to me to cover the full range of his life’.

The funeral was set for Thursday January 26. The evening before, Powell and his wife, Lady Violet, called in at the Muggeridges after supper, bringing Sonia with them, ‘obviously in a poor way’. On their last meeting, the day after Orwell’s death, Sonia had been overcome with grief. Muggeridge decided that he would ‘always love her for her true tears...’ He left a detailed account of the next day’s events: Fred Warburg greeting the mourners at the church door, the chilly atmosphere, the congregation ‘largely Jewish and almost entirely unbelievers’ who had difficulty following the Anglican liturgy. Powell chose the hymns — ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, ‘Guide me, o thou great Redeemer’ and ‘Ten thousand times ten thousand’ (‘Why, I can’t remember,’ Powell later wrote, ‘perhaps Orwell himself had talked of the hymn, or because he was, in his way, a sort of saint, even if not one in sparkling raiment bright’).

Both Powell and Muggeridge found the occasion hugely distressing. Muggeridge, in particular, was deeply moved by the lesson, chosen by Powell from the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to the God who gave it.’

He went back to his house near Regent’s Park to read through the sheaf of obituaries filed by, among others, Symons, V. S. Pritchett and Arthur Koestler, seeing in them already ‘how the legend of a human being is created’.



D. J. Taylor: ‘Last days of George Orwell’
Published: ‘Guardian Newspapers’. — GB, London, 2000. — January 15.

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Last modified on: 2019-12-29

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