Orwell’s RosesPosted: November 19, 2021
Viking (October 19, 2021), 320 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.35
When I saw this book reviewed I immediately knew that I had to read it. I had three reasons.
- George Orwell. I have long been a student of Orwell and his essays. I first learned to appreciate his essays when I was a senior at Pitzer College in 1975, and my first year out of college I bought everything of Orwell’s that was in print, including the Collected Essays. I still have those books.
- Rebecca Solnit. I read her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence in 2020 when it was first released. I admire her sharped-edged feminism and her love of San Francisco.
- My maternal grandfather was in the wholesale nursery business. He was a partner in Hemet Wholesale Nursery and sales manager for Howard Rose Company. I grew up around roses. The Four Seasons community where we live was built on land that once nurtured Howard Rose Company roses.
Solnit opens the book by describing a visit she made to a small house where Eric Blair, who took on the pen name George Orwell early in his writing career, once lived and planted roses, something he described in his diary. She explains she was supposed to be at home recuperating from a serious illness, but a book contract imposed a severe financial penalty if she failed to complete a book tour in the United Kingdom. She persevered rather than accept the monetary penalty and decided that since she was in England she would visit the house where Orwell planted the roses.
Orwell was always something of an outsider. He went to boarding school on scholarship, something he described in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” (There was, in fact, very little joy in that experience.) He then won a scholarship to the elite prep school Eaton. Solnit states he acquired “an accent that marked him as an outsider among the poor without making him an insider among the rich.”
The author covers a lot of territory. She discusses how Orwell wrote a lot about nature in many of his books, much more than we give him credit for. She recounts his time serving as a volunteer on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, where he took a bullet through his neck that was nearly fatal. Solnit emphasizes Orwell’s poor health throughout his life, starting with a lung ailment as a child and ending with the tuberculosis that took his life. And we hear about Orwell’s decision near the end of his life to live away from civilization on an island off the coast of Scotland.
It is not just Orwell’s life that Solnit documents. She spends a chapter discussing Stalin’s politicization of science. Solnit delves into the phrase “bread and roses,” once used by social progressives and notes at least three different people were credited with the phrase. In another chapter she talks about the various breeds and varieties of roses. Solnit takes us on a visit to Columbia, the country which provides the vast majority of roses sold in Ameri can supermarkets. She documents the long hours and poor working conditions of the people who labor there.
Speaking of labor, Solnit points out that the revolutionary artist Diego Rivera painted a mural for Henry Ford’s son. She wondered why an avowed communist would paint a mural for one of America’s most successful capitalists, but then she reflects:
Gazing upon the walls filled with images of auto assembly lines and workers dwarfed by machinery, I realized that capitalists and communists of the era shared a devotion to mechanization and to industrialization as phenomena that would allow human beings to transcend the limits of nature. Looking back it seems like hubris and dangerous delusion.
One cannot, of course, forget about Orwell’s ongoing interest in language and its use. Language plays a key role in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and is the focus of his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Solnit writes:
“Politics and the English Language” addresses language that is too loose, blurring, evading, meandering, avoiding. Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts language when it is too tight, too restrictive in vocabulary and connotation, when some words have been murdered and others severed from too many of their associations.
Orwell made a point of exposing injustice when he saw it, but Solnit does not give him a pass for failing to notice sexism when it occurred. She notes he was better at seeing racism. Despite her honesty in observing Orwell’s shortcomings, Orwell the writer is a beacon for Solnit. She refers to a “cluster of sentences that has long served me as a credo.” Those sentences end with Orwell’s words, “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue 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.”
Solnit’s writing is clear and vivid. She takes us on a journey in which she not only offers little known details about the life of George Orwell but teaches us about a range of other topics as well.