Saturday 26 March 2022


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Orwell's Roses by Rebecca Solnit     {Reviewed by STELLA}
I’ve been dipping into this book for several weeks, savouring the writing and meandering the country tracks of England with Solnit and her revelations of Orwell the writer and the lover of nature. Solnit’s collections of essays are usually directly political, even her more nuanced observations which are often drawn from personal experiences or wry commentary are to a greater or lesser extent ‘serious’. In Orwell’s Roses, one could be forgiven for thinking at the outset, this biography (of a sort) has a different purpose. It meanders. As we walk with Rebecca Solnit on English country paths she talks to us as if we were wandering beside her — it is a conversation about her discoveries, filled with curiosity and at times, surprise, as she reveals a side of George Orwell not usually found in his books (most famously Animal Farm and 1984) and essays, nor in literary references. The roses which inspire Solnit were planted by Orwell in the late 1930s in his garden — a constant source of pleasure — at his Hertfordshire cottage. Knocking on the door of the cottage, the present-day owners take her into the garden and point out what they believe to be those same rose bushes, and so starts a connection to the past and Orwell’s ideas — ideas that resonate just as vividly right now. His passionate defence of freedom and his fight against totalitarianism — both in written word and deed (as a soldier in the Spanish Civil War) — and advocacy for greater equality, in particular for workers' rights, are all relevant in our present world order and are also concerns at the heart of Solnit’s own work. Like Orwell, Solnit is hard-hitting and does not easily succumb to telling what is wanted to be heard. She reveals in many of her essays historical facts and political analysis that may be difficult to confront, and Orwell similarly was going his own way as he felt necessary. While in Spain, Orwell became increasingly uncomfortable with some of his fellow freedom fighters, who continued to follow Stalin even when it was obvious that the communist ideal was failing and falling under the boot of dictatorship. In expressing his love of flowers and gardens, he was accused of having bourgeois interests — an indulgence that seemed frivolous to some — not a serious political left-wing stance. However, he exhorted that workers needed beauty as well as bread. In thinking about Solnit’s own writing, this element of beauty or (more particularly in reference to her) hope, is never far from the political imperative. Orwell’s Roses is a book of many parts: biography, a potted history of Orwell’s time through a particular and precise lens (coal mines, the civil war, his own family’s rise and fall through the class system), his love of nature, roses — their beauty expressed in literature, art and as themselves as flowers — and a comparative history (in one chapter is an overview of Orwell’s writing about the coal-miners and later in the book, Solnit visits a ‘rose factory’ in Columbia where workers are exploited and roses are grown en masse for the American market). It is a wander, but an extremely well-written and a thought-proving one, packed with intriguing anecdotes and considered analysis. Much like a rose coming into bloom it holds your fascination. Solnit cleverly draws together all these aspects and reminds us that through a desire for beauty over hatred, and through language and words, we too, like Orwell, can raise our voices against repression. 

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