Book of the week: Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit
This curious, meandering book restores ‘something missing’ from the popular perception of Orwell
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George Orwell is often presented as a “rather dour and austere figure”, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Observer – a chronicler of hardship and a “prophet of doom”. But according to the American essayist Rebecca Solnit, there was a softer side to the author – which expressed itself in his love of gardening.
Orwell’s Roses begins with Solnit visiting the Hertfordshire village where Orwell lived between 1936 and 1940, in a rented cottage. In its garden, she finds two vigorously flowering rose bushes, which she assumes to be the ones he recorded planting in his diary. The book that “blooms” from this discovery covers many topics: the influence on Orwell of the English pastoral; the symbolism of the rose in art and literature; the working conditions at the South American rose farms that supply us with “cheap blooms” today. It’s a curious, meandering book – one that “belongs in a whimsical category of its own” – but it does restore “something missing” from the popular perception of Orwell.
Previous commentators haven’t generally dwelled on Orwell’s horticultural leanings, said Rupert Christiansen in The Daily Telegraph. But Solnit – best known for her witty 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me, which gave rise to the term “mansplaining” – mounts a surprisingly persuasive case that Orwell’s interest in gardening offers a kind of key to understanding his work.
She stresses that he was drawn to homely things: rusticity, artisanal traditions, a “properly brewed cup of tea”. Much of the honesty of his writing, she argues, grew out of this engagement with the physical world. And she connects it to the sense of hope that flourished in all his work, alongside the more familiar “Orwellian” warnings about oppression, totalitarianism and state surveillance.
Like Solnit, Orwell was an insatiably curious essayist with a “penchant for digressions and tangents”, said Heller McAlpin in the Los Angeles Times. But while she clearly sees him as a kindred spirit, she doesn’t ignore what she calls his “significant blind spots” – most notably his rather dismissive attitude towards women, which manifested in his failure to review books by female writers.
She also stresses that though he criticised imperialism, he himself was its beneficiary: he was “descended from colonialists and servants of empire”, and his father was an opium producer in India. Overall, Solnit “leaves no row unhoed” in this impressive reassessment of one of our greatest writers. From its “beautiful cover to its impassioned coda”, it is “one of her very best” books.
Granta 320pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99
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