‘Orwell’s Roses’ review: Understanding Orwell’s politics through his rose garden

The writer admired beauty, and Rebecca Solnit argues that this valuation of joy can help push back against the authoritarian state

Published - February 12, 2022 04:05 pm IST

Literary review

Literary review

“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses,” begins the American essayist Rebecca Solnit’s expansive portrait of George Orwell. The roses were planted in his cottage in England’s Hertfordshire; and Solnit, who counts Orwell high among her literary influences, had known this fact for three decades before she chanced upon them.

Solnit had been discussing a documentary project with a friend who shared a love for “the steadfast continuity a tree can represent”. At one point she pointed him to an essay of Orwell’s from 1946 titled ‘A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray’, “a triumph of meandering” (Solnit’s words that could flip back to describe this marvel of a biographical assessment) that opens with a tree the vicar planted and presenting in its sweep a reference to “five fruit trees, seven roses and two gooseberry bushes” Orwell planted in his own home in 1936. She finds the address for the cottage in the village of Wallington, and makes the journey. The trees are gone, but two rose bushes are thriving, and there’s enough anecdotal lore to establish them as Orwell’s. Suddenly, she writes, she is “in his presence”; and she takes that fact of his planting and tending the roses to venture in different directions to deepen her understanding of Orwell and his politics.

What’s new?

What new can be said about Orwell? He has inspired an adjective (Orwellian) that is shorthand for a scenario as few other writers have; decades after its publication, his most famous novel ( 1984 ) provides the vocabulary (Big Brother, Two Minutes Hate, Newspeak, “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”) to identify totalitarian red flags against the backdrop of what he called “the general indifference to the decay of democracy”. What place here for roses, gardening?

“I returned to his writing after the roses startled me, and there I found another Orwell whose other perspectives seem to counterbalance his cold eye on political monstrosity,” she writes. “One of the striking things was how much he enjoyed enjoyment…” She brings that same eye to her rereading of 1984 ; now that she knows what to look for, she finds “much lushness and beauty and pleasure” in the novel. In his novels of dystopia, Orwell was of course alerting readers to what all totalitarianism could destroy; but through her readings and enquiries in his footsteps, Solnit foregrounds his recognition that this “valuation of desire itself, and pleasure and joy” can be a part of the pushback and opposition against the authoritarian state.

Calmness from pleasure

Pleasure need not be a distraction from the political project, she explains. It is “the pleasure that is beauty, the beauty that is meaning, order, calm” that fortified Orwell for his writing, reportage and even his decision to fight in Spain in 1936, after he had planted the roses in the Wallington cottage.

The very act of planting a rose, Solnit writes, “can mean so many things”. And those meanings are drawn from varied sources — the suffragist cry of “Bread for all, and Roses too”; Orwell’s research in 1936 in the mining and manufacturing districts of England; Tina Modotti’s photographs of roses and her life’s revolutionary arc; Stalin’s obsession with having lemon trees planted; the floral prints popularised by designers like Ralph Lauren in the 1980s; Jamaica Kincaid’s writing about flowers and colonialism;the flower industry in Colombia; brutalities of empire in Orwell’s time; his garden in Jura off the coast of Scotland; and so on.

Solnit explains an Etruscan word, saeculum, that “in a looser sense… means the expanse of time during which something is in living memory”.

She takes the roses as “a sort of saeculum that includes Orwell”, and her vivid portrait ofthe writer extends the age of Orwell into the present in ways that surprise and illumine.

Orwell’s Roses; Rebecca Solnit, Granta, ₹799.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based journalist.

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