The green-fingered George Orwell

Rebecca Solnit pays tribute to an underappreciated side of George Orwell—his love of gardening
November 2, 2021
Orwell’s Roses
Rebecca Solnit
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When she was in her early twenties, the American writer Rebecca Solnit got hold of a copy of The Orwell Reader, a collection of reportage, essays and prose extracts. It was a foundational work for Solnit at a time when she was finding her own voice. On the evidence of her latest book, Orwell’s Roses, the Englishman remains a strong influence on her. But it is not the political, truth-telling Orwell that she portrays here but rather an underappreciated side of the author: the Orwell that loved gardening, growing and caring for flowers.

Her point of departure is Orwell’s reflections on tree-planting, which he called a “gift which you can make to posterity” in his 1946 essay titled “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray”—which Solnit praises as a “triumph of meandering.” In the same spirit, Orwell’s Roses brings together Solnit’s own accounts of Orwell’s time in Burma, Spain, Jura, Wallington and Wigan, with her own reflections on an array of subjects—including coal mining, Australian wildfires, Tina Modotti, Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko, slavery, Colombia’s flower factories, Antiguan-American writer Jamaica Kincaid and the painter Johannes Vermeer. It also splices in memoir, travelogue and linguistic ruminations as well as accounts of her pilgrimages to Orwell landmarks.

At times the book ranges so widely it gives the impression its author has Googled “roses, art, politics,” but Solnit’s prose is always engagingly impassioned as she presents illuminating takes on beauty, nature, culture and happiness. She urges us to re-read Orwell as a more hopeful and nuanced writer than he is often thought to be. His life and work, she suggests, can shine a light on current discussions around the environment and the climate crisis.

As in her previous books, including perhaps her most famous Men Explain Things to Me, she debunks tired symbols and clichés: here English roses and the “Orwellian” are perfect targets for her searching mind. In challenging the conventional notion of Orwell as a gloomy figure always fighting for a cause, Solnit unearths fresh meanings in his most famous novels as well as in his less well-known pieces of journalism.