George Orwell’s horticultural sensibilities

Orwell’s Roses. By Rebecca Solnit. Viking; 320 pages; $28. Granta; £16.99

Literary critics have been studying George Orwell’s novels and essays for almost a century, and it is well-established by now what political ideologies and ideas the writer was against. But by paying attention to one of his passions—horticulture—readers can get a sense of what he stood for, Rebecca Solnit argues in a new book. “Outside my work,” Orwell said in 1940, “the thing I care most about is gardening.”

Ms Solnit has written more than 20 books; she is best known for her feminist works, but has also reflected on American history, cities and environmental change. When she was a germinal essayist, she read “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray”, in which Orwell meditates on the value of planting trees and mentions his own rose bushes and fruit trees. Years later, when a documentarian friend floated the possibility of a film about trees, Ms Solnit remembered this passage, and set out to visit the garden Orwell planted in 1936 at his cottage in Wallington, in Hertfordshire (pictured).

The trees were gone, but two sturdy rose bushes remained. “They were saboteurs of my own long acceptance of a conventional version of Orwell and invitations to dig deeper,” she writes in “Orwell’s Roses”. Probing one of the paradoxes that often animate her books (such as “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”), Ms Solnit considers “where pleasure and beauty and hours with no quantifiable practical result fit into the life of someone…who also cared about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.”

You might see Orwell’s interest in gardening as a source of relief from the suffering and violence he witnessed in England and abroad—or as the simple pleasures enjoyed by a sick man, who died at the age of 46 from tuberculosis. But rereading him with those roses in mind, Ms Solnit notes how, for all his focus on the corruption of thought and language, Orwell can often sound like a “nephew of [Henry David] Thoreau”, fascinated by particular shrubs and birds as was the American naturalist writer. Orwell was as attentive to nature as to politics, and presciently mindful of the interaction of the two. Orwell’s garden was far from the escapist retreat imagined in Voltaire’s “Candide”.

Though not exactly an environmentalist, Orwell’s vivid descriptions of the vast coal mines in “The Road to Wigan Pier” draw attention not just to the brutal exploitation of workers but also to environmental destruction. He wrote lyrical essays praising the homely charms of a toad, the sixpenny roses sold in Woolworths and even the British climate. Those pastoral sketches had political ends in “1984”, where Winston Smith repaired to an Edenic “Golden Country”. Orwell made the case for the social and spiritual value of the earthy beauty he found in the dirt at Wallington and, later, on his 16-acre farm on the island of Jura in the Scottish Hebrides. He idealised pre-industrial England: born Eric Blair, he chose the name George as it meant “farmer” in Greek and took his surname from the River Orwell in Suffolk.

Following Orwell’s lead, Ms Solnit reflects on the politics of gardens and the pleasure they give, meandering through the cultural and natural history of the rose, the delusions of Soviet biology, the colonial underpinnings of the English country house, the work of Tina Modotti, a photographer and activist, as well as the green-thumbed novelist Jamaica Kincaid. Roses have plenty of political thorns and agriculture can never be entirely separated from aggression, she argues. Orwell’s own ancestors, the Blairs, profited from sugar plantations in Jamaica worked by slaves; his father oversaw the production of opium in British India, which was then forcibly traded with China in the unwelcome arrangement that provoked the opium wars.

Ms Solnit observes that “the hideous and the exquisite often coexist” in Orwell’s writing. His attention to trees, flowers and the cosiness of country life sometimes befuddled his more doctrinaire peers, yet Orwell’s commitment “to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information”, as he put it in “Why I Write”, are the key not just to his anti-authoritarian politics but also his effortlessly effective and beautiful language. The private pleasure and absolute freedom of an essay—a form equally suited to appreciation as to argument—was precisely what he fought to defend. His utopia began on the page.

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