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‘The man who planted roses’ [book review]

A review of Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Of all the great figures of twentieth-century literature, George Orwell is without doubt one of the most towering. As Rebecca Solnit rightly points out in her recent, creatively approached biography, he is one of the few writers – of any period; another is Shakespeare – to have his own adjective. Yet the man who made no bones about his politics, whose language was often sharp and whose influence still looms large in literary and popular culture with a raft of Orwellian concepts, such as ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Thought Police’, was also a man who loved the natural world, who planted a garden and sat down to watch it grow.

Cover image Orwell's Roses

That this image of Orwell may well be at odds with the brooding, heavily smoking, eccentric intellectual of more conventional biographies is something of which Solnit is well aware, and she returns to it often. From the opening pages of Orwell’s Roses, in which she visits the author’s former home in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, she begins many a chapter with a variation on the phrase ‘The man who planted roses in 1936’. Gone is the writer, the famous pen name, the firm political leanings, leaving us instead with a man quietly at work, tilling the earth in the hopes that something beautiful will spring from it.

It is a gentle, restful, altogether more hopeful view of Orwell that Solnit presents to us here, and her biography takes evident delight in breaking down the conventions of its genre. As she puts it, ‘Orwell’s life was notably episodic’, something she seeks to reflect in the structure of her own book, which adopts a roughly chronological approach to its subject’s life but is really ‘a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses’. Thus we encounter biographical detail, passages of critical reading, eclectic information about roses and the role they play beyond blooming in cottage gardens, and episodes from Solnit’s own life: her travels in England (concise and well observed, if at times a little cloying; she is unfailingly charmed by everything), her discovery of Tina Modotti’s rose photographs, and a long diversion in which she makes a clandestine visit to the greenhouses of Bogotá.

This section – though it has, on the face of it, nothing to do with Orwell – is in fact one of the book’s more memorable ones, arresting in the way it captures not only what Solnit sees (and sometimes doesn’t) but also how she feels about it. The cheap, plastic-wrapped roses we might buy in the supermarket are, it turns out, the product of Colombian (in the USA) and Kenyan (in the UK and Europe) flower farms, where working conditions are unsurprisingly appalling and from which the blooms are air-freighted to their destinations at great expense. At this stage, for Solnit, the beautiful, delicate roses so beloved of Orwell, flowers that traditionally symbolise love, are close to becoming ‘emblems of deceit’, an indication of all that is wrong with the society in which we live. Is it all a bit more Orwellian than we would like to think? Here, the book begins to make its wider point, discussing how much or little the world has changed since Orwell wrote in it, musing on whether the future he anticipated has come to pass, or may do yet.

Despite these darker undercurrents – and there are others, too, for Orwell’s was not always a happy life, and the circumstances of his death from tuberculosis at the age of forty-six particularly distressing – Solnit’s book is a radiant, engaging biography of a man not commonly associated with lightness and colour. From the mines of northern England to bullets whizzing overhead (or, almost fatally, into Orwell’s throat) on the frontline of the Spanish Civil War, from the Woolworths roses thriving in the rich soil of the Wallington garden to the thin, windswept soils of Jura, where Orwell lived latterly, we are taken on a journey through a fascinating life and offered glimpses, through his own words, of a man who took great pleasure in the smaller things. In this, I would venture to say, Solnit has done Orwell a service, allowing him to speak first and foremost as the man he was, not just the author he became.

Of course, it would be remiss of any literary biographer not to include critical readings of their subject’s work, and so Solnit does this, threading explorations of Orwell’s novels and essays into the appropriate chapters. Informative and approachable, writing with a deft touch, she makes the most of the limited space available to situate Orwell’s works politically and socially, as well as within the events of his own life. With Nineteen Eighty-Four in particular, she seeks a different kind of reading, looking for flowers and domestic details, for signs that Orwell was, perhaps, writing with a sense of hope as well as foreboding. Though not always entirely convincing, the ideas do stick, inviting the reader to go off and conduct her own explorations, to look at things through a different lens.

As an introduction to the man born Eric Arthur Blair, Orwell’s Roses is an accessible and interesting work, yet its rambling structure and musing tone allow Solnit to pack in even more: it is also a meditation on small acts of resistance, on the beauty of the natural world (and, more depressingly, how humans try to exploit it), on ephemeral moments of happiness and how something seemingly insignificant can be the root of something much bigger. In tone and timing, it couldn’t be better – irrepressibly joyous, and filled with hope.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.


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