“1984” is one of the few novels that properly encapsulates the terror of the 20th century. Universally referenced and recognized as the work that coined the eponymous phrase “Orwellian,” “1984” is the truest expression of the end state of totalitarianism — a chillingly realistic dystopia. When I first read “1984,” I was in awe at the imagination of the author. I pictured a stern author, brow furrowed over his bleak, quintessentially British visage, hunched over a typewriter as he brooded on the evils of his day.
Yet Orwell was far more than a grim political theorist. A reflective, humorous man, Orwell rejoiced in many of the quaint traditions of England — English puddings, junk shops and unintelligible, friendly accents — even as he railed against his nation’s imperialism.
Throughout his years as an imperial policeman in Burma and his stint in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, Orwell retained a love of the natural world and the English countryside. In her new book “Orwell’s Roses,” activist and historian Rebecca Solnit reveals this lesser-known side of Orwell — a side as concerned with beauty as he was concerned with truth.
“Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening,” George Orwell wrote in 1940.
During a trip to Orwell’s Wallington cottage, Solnit stumbled upon a pair of rose bushes planted by the writer himself. Inspired by “the apparent directness of these two plants’ connection to him,” Solnit explores the connections between Orwell’s love of gardening, his literary inspirations and his anti-fascist ideology. Delving deeply into the natural history of the rose and its ever-verdant cultural significance, Solnit traces Orwell’s path from the coal mines of England to the rubble-strewn streets of London during the Blitz. A truly genre-defying read, Solnit threads together stories of Orwell’s personal life in an unforgettable blend of botany, biography and political commentary.
A conventional reader might not enjoy Solnit’s style — if you require a clear plot and strict chronology, “Orwell’s Roses” isn’t the book for you. Her introduction initially confused me. A rambling start that intertwines Soltin’s personal experience with the book’s focus, I struggled to determine the purpose. Nevertheless, if you can endure the meandering, Solnit’s ability as a biographer will promptly reward you.
Solnit describes her method as “a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses.” Her forays often lead to fascinating tangents, such as one on the suffragist origins of the phrase “Bread and Roses.” Some of these diversions connect to the theme, but others can feel extraneous.
“Orwell’s Roses” is organized loosely thematically in sections rather than chapters. Each section is a satisfyingly digestible bite of 8-10 pages, focusing on a historical anecdote or a modern reflection on current issues. I found her method compelling. With every chapter, a new fascinating tidbit from Orwell’s life (often a quote from his extensive correspondence) was revealed, allowing me to witness the development of Orwell through his writing. Though occasionally frustrating, Solnit’s method kept me engaged, yearning for more details as I continually reconstructed the narrative of Orwell’s life in my head.
As Solnit relates, Orwell’s life was episodic, defined by his geography. Born to a British colonial official in Northern India, Orwell grew up in pastoral England before attending the most elite school of all, Eton. In the decades that followed, he would serve in Britain’s imperial police force in Burma, work a series of menial jobs, fight briefly in the Spanish Civil War and eventually return to his cottage in Wallington to write and grow roses. Each of these locations — Spain, Burma and the industrial West Midlands of England — served as inspiration for his less famous works, which Solnit draws from heavily as she constructs her narrative.
Though her segments on the origins and genetics of the modern rose are tolerably interesting, where Solnit hits her stride is in the chapters recounting Orwell’s experience during the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell, “in pursuit of socialism and brotherhood,” traveled to Spain at the end of 1936 to join the POUM (the Workers Party of Marxist Unification) in the fight against fascism. Like his more famous counterpart, Hemingway, Orwell intended to work as a journalist, but he soon found himself toting a rifle, holding the line against Franco’s forces.
Even amidst the squalor of the trenches, Orwell found joy observing the natural world around him. “On a bullet-chipped tree in front of our parapet with thick clusters of cherries were forming … Wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers struggled over the shell-holes around Torre Fabian.” With quotes like these from Orwell’s memoir of the war, “Homage to Catalonia,” Solnit — always careful to return to the rose motif — nevertheless delivers a thrilling war story.
Orwell once wrote that “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature,” and the same is true here. Solnit’s past as a feminist environmental advocate often shines through the pages. When describing the exploitation of the Colombian flower industry in a chapter titled “The Price of Roses,” Solnit exposes how roses, a minor luxury in the West, are paid for with the sweat of underpaid, overworked contract laborers. The workers’ slogan “The lovers get the roses but the workers get the thorns” succinctly sums up the chapter.
Of course, this is no new phenomenon. In Orwell’s critically panned but formulative novel “The Road to Wigan Pier,” he states: “Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation — an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream.” Orwell was a muckraker of sorts, and Solnit casts herself in his mold. After describing Orwell’s investigation of the British coal industry, Solnit deftly connects his sentiment to the invisible supply chains of the modern world.
“Orwell’s Roses” is difficult to describe concisely. It isn’t a biography and shouldn’t be read like one. If you can accept some meandering, Solnit’s book is a cultured read, immensely pleasurable for those interested in the politics of the early 20th century. “The best books … are those that tell you what you know already,” Orwell wrote in “1984.” In this case, the opposite is true. By unearthing Orwell’s lesser-known qualities, Solnit has created a book well worth reading. When combined with her own powerful reflections on writing and morality, Solnit ensures that “Orwell’s Roses” will leave an enduring mark on those who read it.
Daily Arts Writer Sam Mathisson can be reached at email@example.com.