Orwell's Roses

by Rebecca Solnit

Hardcover, 2021




Viking (2021), 320 pages


Roses, pleasure, and politics: a fresh take on Orwell as an avid gardener, whose political writing was grounded in his passion for the natural world.

Media reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Perhaps the greatest political writer of modern times was also an avid gardener. It might seem contrived to build a biography around his passion, but this is Solnit so it succeeds. Certain that democratic socialism represented the only humane political system, Orwell lived among other like-minded
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leftists whose shortcomings infuriated him—especially (most being middle-class) their ignorance of poverty and (this being the 1930s and 1940s) their irrational attraction to a particularly nasty delusion in Stalin’s regime. Unlike many idealists, Orwell never assumed that it was demeaning to enjoy yourself while remaining attuned to the suffering of others, and he made no secret of his love of gardening. Wherever he lived, he worked hard to plant a large garden with flowers as well as vegetables and fruit. Solnit emphasizes this side of his life with frequent detours into horticultural topics with political lessons. The author grippingly describes Stalin’s grotesque plan to improve Soviet food production through wacky, quasi-Marxist genetics, and readers will be fascinated to learn about artists, writers, and photographers whose work mixes plants and social reform.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member CarltonC
A beautiful literary love letter to, and exploration of the works of, a fellow political essayist. Solnit takes the reader on a journey to discover her joy in reading George Orwell’s essay about planting roses, and why this is not trivial, but core to both Orwell’s pursuit of truth saying and
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the reader’s political being.

Easily readable but meandering essays combine the literary and personal, using, as a starting point, Orwell’s essays about planting rose bushes and fruit trees. Having read these essays about 35 years ago, and also fondly remembering them, I was captivated by this book. Solnit says at the end of her introductory essay:
I had not thought hard enough about those roses I had first read about more than a third of a century before. They were roses, and they were saboteurs of my own long acceptance of a conventional version of Orwell and invitations to dig deeper. They were questions about who he was and who we were and where pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone, perhaps of anyone, who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.

Solnit examines Orwell’s love of gardening, which he expanded to what in England we would call a smallholding, to postulate how it underpins his politics, as an “Anarchist Tory”. She references Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier to consider his concern for the working poor, but also from a contemporary standpoint linking it to the industrial revolution’s ecological degradation. His Homage to Catalonia recounts, as an active participant his putting his political beliefs into practice, but also allowed him to “find a set of possibilities and ideals”.

Solnit initially digresses in her Roses and Revolution essay, which considers a photograph of roses from 1924 by Tina Modotti, to write about various aspects of roses, including a little repetition of observations made earlier in the book. However, Solnit builds and builds comment and analysis on slavery, colonialism, opium and the British Empire up from Orwell’s essay about roses, linking it to Orwell’s experience in Burma and his gentleman ancestors, before returning to Orwell’s roses again to enlarge her argument.

Solnit expands upon gardening to discuss eighteenth century landscape garden, and whilst reading this book, I visited Stowe landscape gardens in Buckinghamshire. I walked around the gardens for hours, admiring the beautifully fashioned and maintained man-made landscapes, embellished with statues, columns, temples, fanes, caves, cascades and bridges to create points of interest and views. I enjoyed the experience of being in an idealised natural world (complete with ha-has to allow the view to extend for miles without the interruption of fences). But I could also wonder about the source of the wealth/oppression that made this beauty possible.

I have read a lot of Joan Didion’s books in the last couple of years, and in this book Solnit creates a similar tight focus on a subject by approaching it in multiple and sometimes oblique ways, and also by including reportage (for example, about the Colombian rose growing business), writing as an observer (although not as personal as Didion).

Solnit completes our journey with consideration of Orwell’s late essays, Animal Farm, diaries and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but does so always returning to the context of Orwell’s joy from the small pleasures and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical results. A wonderful book which definitely benefits from familiarity with Orwell’s work.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Rebecca Solnit's attention to details, appreciation of Orwell's strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and exploration of both Orwell's life, love of nature and garden, along with her investigation into roses, captivated me. This is a low key but meaningful ramble through the twin topics of the
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LibraryThing member JulieStielstra
I'm fascinated by George Orwell. I've read a number of Rebecca Solnit's essays with pleasure. So I was attracted to this book exploring Orwell's passion for gardening, for roses, for nature. Solnit wryly notes that this is not a facet of the austere, serious, "Gothic" Orwell we often hear about -
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she notes drily that one biography (which I happen to have read recently) is titled: George Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. She and a tree-loving friend discover that Orwell planted fruit trees in his garden, and track down the location. The current owners are hospitable and welcoming, but inform them that the fruit trees were cut down years ago. But the rosebushes he planted are still blooming, would they like to see them? "Hell, yes," Solnit reportedly replies. And so she embarks on this project, to examine what Orwell's roses meant to him, what they might mean to us, how we might see them as an essential aspect of life that transcends the political, the pragmatic, the utilitarian... and the fascist and the totalitarian.

Which is all well and good. When she sticks to Orwell. Unfortunately, there are multiple digressions, such as the evolution and biology of roses (and flowers in general), or the life and art of photographer and revolutionary Tina Modotti (who took a famous photograph of roses). The chapters "Empire of Lies" and "Forcing Lemons" are very good pieces on how Stalin's politics made its own use of botanical genetics and agriculture, leading to the deaths of millions by famine or murder of scientists who objected. Then we are on to a portrait of Orwell's great-great-grandfather and the history of enclosures and landscape gardening in Europe, thence to the English nobility's reliance on slavery and the sugar trade to prop up its gardens. When I hit the chapter on Ralph Lauren's chintz roses fashion design, I got restless and began to skim. A chapter on a New Yorker writer from Antigua who gardened in Vermont. Coal mining. Commercial rose cultivation in Colombia. I kept waiting for Orwell to return. And finally decided not to wait any more, though I know I must have just missed him here and there.

The intentions are so good. Solnit says elsewhere in interviews that she wanted to explore Orwell's gardening as a way of looking for how someone like him - a deeply committed political animal - could fill in the gaps, to live outside or beyond those parameters; how to respond when a critic snipes: "Oh, flowers are bourgeois." What *value* does art, music, literature - and roses - have; why do we want *both* bread and roses? Some chapters are simply tied in with too slender a thread. I greatly enjoyed finding out about Orwell's passion and what it meant to him; her analyses of totalitarianism are trenchant and apt. There are finely-expressed ideas demanding attention throughout, such as: "Orwell wrote in 1944, 'The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not thay it commits "atrocities," but that it attacks the concept of objective truth."... The attack on truth and language makes atrocities possible. If you can erase what has happened, silence the witnesses, convince people of the merit of supporting a lie [italics mine], if you can terrorize people into silence, obedience, lies; if you can make the task of determining what is true so impossible or dangerous that they stop trying, you can perpetuate your crimes."

But I simply got tired of wading through the thorny foliage and the cloying scent of roses.
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LibraryThing member ritaer
Discusses Orwell's writings and philosophy through lens of his love for nature.
LibraryThing member mykl-s
Solnit never writes anything that is not interesting. I never expected to learn how important gardens were to Orwell, or all the stories about his life and beliefs that are in this book.
LibraryThing member archangelsbooks
A wonderful journey in the true spirit of Orwell's essays and life's work.


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