Orwell’s Roses

Rebecca Solnit

Orwell's Roses
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Orwell’s Roses

Rebecca Solnit

From 1936 to 1940, the newly-wed George Orwell lived in a small cottage in Hertfordshire, writing, and tending his garden. When Rebecca Solnit visited the cottage, she discovered the descendants of the roses that he had planted many decades previously. These survivors, as well as the diaries he kept of his planting and growing, provide a springboard for a fresh look at Orwell’s motivations and drives - and the optimism that countered his dystopian vision - and open up a profound mediation on our relationship to plants, trees and the natural world.

Tracking Orwell’s impact on political thought over the last century, Solnit journeys to England and Russia, Mexico and Colombia, exploring the political and historical events that shaped Orwell’s life and her own. From a history of roses to discussions of climate change and insights into structural inequalities in contemporary society, Orwell’s Roses is a fresh reading of a towering figure of 20th century literary and political life, which finds optimism, solace and solutions to our 21st century world.

Review

As a lover of Rebecca Solnit’s writing, I was thrilled at the prospect of her unique perspective on one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. And Solnit does not disappoint. Orwell’s Roses is only part-biography: Solnit exquisitely sheds light on a little-studied facet of Orwell’s life – a love of gardening – using this as a starting point from which to venture into the intersections of art, politics and nature, while always deftly orbiting back to her subject’s central concerns. ‘In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses,’ she begins, referring to Orwell’s time at a cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire. Solnit writes: ‘In an age of lies and illusions, the garden is one way to ground yourself in the realm of the processes of growth and the passage of time.’ Amid the politics, Orwell’s writing is laced with references to the natural world and delight in unremarkable beauty. Bread may feed the body, Solnit notes, but roses (art, pleasure) feed something deeper, a truth equally worthwhile.

Solnit’s writing then beautifully unfurls like petals from her central subject: Tina Modotti’s path from artist to exiled revolutionary; the atrocities of Stalin’s brutal regime; Jamaica Kincaid’s fierce writing around nature and colonialism; and Columbia’s cruel, exploitative rose industry. Circling back to Orwell, Solnit revisits Nineteen Eighty-Four and finds light among the grey in Winston Smith’s rebellious acts and his reveries on beauty – pleasure as resistance – even as Big Brother closes in around him. Throughout, Solnit – like Orwell – writes with clear-eyed precision and empathy for her subjects, an elegant marriage of ethics and aesthetics. Orwell’s Roses arrives at a time in which the term ‘Orwellian’ is as pertinent as ever, indicative of a crisis in politics and journalism. Solnit both reminds us of the enduring power of Orwell’s writing and breathes substantial new life into his work.


Justin Avery is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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