George Orwell’s Horticultural Sense | The Economist
Rose Orwell. By Rebecca Solnit. Norwegian; 320 pages; $28. Grant; £16.99
Lflight critics has been studying George Orwell’s novels and essays for nearly a century, and it is now well established what ideologies and political views the writer was against. But by paying attention to one of his passions – gardening – readers will get a sense of what he stood for, Rebecca Solnit argues in a new book. “Outside of my work,” Orwell said in 1940, “gardening is what I enjoy most.
Ms. Solnit has written more than 20 books; she is known for her feminist work, but she 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 reflects on the value of planting trees and mentions his own rose bushes and fruit trees. Years later, when a documentary friend brought up the possibility of a film about trees, Ms Solnit remembered this passage, and went out to visit Orwell’s garden planted in 1936 at his cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire (pictured).
The trees are gone, but two strong rose bushes remain. “They were saboteurs with whom I long accepted a standard version of Orwell and invitations to dig deeper,” she writes in “Orwell’s Roses”. Exploring one of the paradoxes that often animates her books (such as “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”), Ms. Solnit considers “where there is pleasure and beauty and hours without measurable practical results fits into someone’s life… about justice and truth and human rights and how you can change the world.”
You might see Orwell’s interest in gardening as a source of relief from the suffering and violence he saw in England and abroad – or as the simple pleasures enjoyed by a sick man, who died at the age of 46 from tuberculosis. But re-reading with these roses in mind, Ms. Solnit notes how, for all his focus on the corruption of thought and language, Orwell can often seem like a “nephew. [Henry David] Thoreau”, fascinated by particular shrubs and birds like the American nature writer. Orwell was as attentive to nature as he was to politics, and aware of the co-operation of the two. Orwell’s garden was far from the background an escape zone that was imagined in “Candide” by Voltaire.
Although not strictly an environmentalist, Orwell’s vivid descriptions of the great coal mines in “The Road to Wigan Pier” draw attention not only to the brutal exploitation of workers but also to the destruction of the the environment. He wrote lyrical essays praising the domestic charms of toads, the sixpence roses sold in Woolworths and even the British climate. These pastoral sketches had a political dimension in “1984”, where Winston Smith traveled to an Edenic “Golden Country”. Orwell made the case for the social and spiritual value of the earthly beauty he found in the dirt of Wallington and, later, on his 16-acre farm on the island of Jura in Henderson. He designed pre-industrial England: Eric Blair was born, 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 provide, meandering through the cultural and natural history of the rose, the deception of Soviet biology, the colonial foundations of the English country house, work Tina Modotti, photographer and activist, as well as green novelist Jamaica Kincaid. Roses have many political faults and agriculture cannot be completely separated from aggression, she argues. Orwell’s own ancestors, the Blairs, benefited from slave-operated sugar plantations in Jamaica; his father oversaw the production of opium in British India, which was then heavily traded with China in the unexpected arrangement that sparked the opium wars.
Ms Solnit insists that “the spectacular and the fantastic often come together” in Orwell’s writing. His attention to trees, flowers and the likeness of country life sometimes disturbed his academic peers, but Orwell’s commitment to “feeling strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to delight in hard things and useless pieces. information”, as he put it in “Why I Write”, which is important not only for his anti-authoritarian politics but also for his beautiful, effective and effortless language. The private pleasure and absolute freedom of an essay – a form equally suited to the value of an argument – was precisely what he fought to defend. His utopia began on the page. ■