Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit review – deadheading with George Orwell

The roses are in dire need of pruning. My rambler in particular is getting very tangled; too many whipping tendrils snaking out haphazardly at all angles. But it’s so pretty it’s hard to be properly brutal with it, even though it would probably benefit from some judicious thinning. And yes, it is the experience of reading Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses that has jogged my memory.

The book simultaneously is and isn’t about George Orwell, just as it is and isn’t about roses. It belongs in a whimsical category of its own, meandering elegantly enough through lots of subjects loosely connected to one or the other; more of a wildly overgrown essay, from which side shoots constantly emerge to snag the attention, than a book. But at its root is the fact that in 1936, the writer and political thinker planted some roses in his Hertfordshire garden. And when Solnit turns up on the doorstep more than eight decades later, she finds the rose bushes (or at least what she takes to be the same rose bushes) still flowering, a living connection between past and present.

From this blooms the most enjoyable part of the book – a reflection on what gardening may have meant to Orwell, but also what it means to gardeners everywhere; beauty for today, hope for tomorrow, and a desire to create something for those who come after – all of which find an echo in the best of politics.

To make a garden is to feel, in Solnit’s words, more “agrarian, settled, to bet on a future in which the roses and trees would bloom for years and the latter would bear fruit in decades to come”. By the time Orwell’s roses flowered that summer, the Spanish civil war had broken out. As they grew, Europe spiralled closer to conflict. But the buds would still swell and the petals would still fall, and in the midst of death there would be new life, a cycle that helps explain why gardens and nature more generally have been such a comfort to so many through the grief and loss of the pandemic.

But roses, in Solnit’s story, don’t merely symbolise the eternal. They also symbolise joy, frivolity and a kind of sensual pleasure not always associated with Orwell, so often presented as a rather dour and austere figure; a chronicler of hardship in his writings on the low-paid and exploited, and in his fiction a prophet of doom, warning against the evils of totalitarianism. By choosing to focus on the gardens he planted – in Hertfordshire and, later, on the farm he bought on the Scottish island of Jura – and the happiness they brought him, Solnit restores something often missing not only from Orwell but from the political tradition of which he is part.

“His grimmest writings,” she notes, “have moments of beauty; his most lyrical essays nonetheless grapple with substantive issues.” Not everything in the life of a leftwing intellectual must be joylessly utilitarian or ideologically committed. To picture Orwell digging in his vegetable beds is also perhaps to understand a certain kind of quiet rural Englishness, one that is not at all jingoistic. When she quotes him admitting, in 1940, that “outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening”, you are instantly reminded of Jeremy Corbyn pottering around his allotment.

Orwell’s readers at the time, it should be said, did not always appreciate his favourite pastime. Having written about his roses in Tribune, he noted in a subsequent column that “an indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois”, which suggests that the soul-sapping spirit of leftwing Twitter wars may have existed long before Twitter itself. But Solnit makes a persuasive case for the importance of acknowledging what Orwell loved and enjoyed, as well as what angered or saddened him, without shying away from accepting that those who actually work the land for a living are often significantly less dewy-eyed about country life than middle-class people with chickens running through their orchards.

Roses have their thorns, and for Solnit that includes the environmentally destructive manner of their modern mass production. She makes the leap from Orwell’s garden to the industrialised rose farms of present-day Colombia, supplying North America with cheap blooms at allegedly heavy cost to their low-paid, non-unionised workforce – the sort of story Orwell himself might once have told.

But not all the branching diversions of this book are so successful. A chapter on coal, which ends by arguing that Orwell’s planting of a garden half a century before climate change entered the public consciousness could be interpreted as the nurturing of “a few more carbon-sequestering, oxygen-producing organisms”, feels at best tortuously grafted on to the rest. I could have happily taken the secateurs to Solnit’s musings on the coincidence between being served Jaffa Cakes on her British Air [sic] flight to Britain and then reading an article about Palestinian children visiting the beach at Jaffa – an anecdote that tells the reader nothing of any significance about either.

But then into every garden a little bindweed creeps. The green-fingered and the politically committed alike will want to curl up with this book as the gardening year draws to a close and we reflect on a time during which nature has been more of a solace than usual. It’s been a good year for the roses, at least.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit is published by Granta (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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