“An exhilarating romp through Orwell’s life and times and also through the life and times of roses.” —Margaret Atwood
“A captivating account of Orwell as gardener, lover, parent, and endlessly curious thinker.” —Claire Messud, Harper's
“Nobody who reads it will ever think of Nineteen Eighty-Four in quite the same way.”—Vogue
A lush exploration of roses, pleasure, and politics, and a fresh take on George Orwell as an avid gardener whose political writing was grounded in his passion for the natural world
“In the year 1936 a writer planted roses.” So begins Rebecca Solnit’s new book, a reflection on George Orwell’s passionate gardening and the way that his involvement with plants, particularly flowers, and the natural world illuminates his other commitments as a writer and antifascist, and the intertwined politics of nature and power.
Sparked by her unexpected encounter with the surviving roses he planted in 1936, Solnit’s account of this understudied aspect of Orwell’s life explores his writing and his actions—from going deep into the coal mines of England, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, critiquing Stalin when much of the international left still supported him (and then critiquing that left), to his analysis of the relationship between lies and authoritarianism. Through Solnit’s celebrated ability to draw unexpected connections, readers encounter the photographer Tina Modotti’s roses and her Stalinism, Stalin’s obsession with forcing lemons to grow in impossibly cold conditions, Orwell’s slave-owning ancestors in Jamaica, Jamaica Kincaid’s critique of colonialism and imperialism in the flower garden, and the brutal rose industry in Colombia that supplies the American market. The book draws to a close with a rereading of Nineteen Eighty-Four that completes her portrait of a more hopeful Orwell, as well as a reflection on pleasure, beauty, and joy as acts of resistance.
Solnit carefully charts the life of George Orwell (1903 1950) by focusing on his love of roses and all things natural in this brilliant survey (after Recollections of My Nonexistence). Her study of the "sublimely gifted essayist" and novelist is not a biography, she notes, rather "a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses." After reading an essay in which Orwell expounds upon the power of trees, Solnit begins to see his writing differently, spotting more "enjoyment" in his work. She follows Orwell's "episodic" life from his birth in northern India to coal mines in England, to Spain, and through his marriages, but begins with and returns often to his midlife in Wallington, England, where he rented a cottage in 1936 and planted his roses. She also traces her own interests that mirror his, such as climate, class, and politics Orwell wrote "about toads and spring but also about principles and values and arguing with an orthodoxy." A disquisition on the suffragists' song "Bread and Roses" and a look at the rose trade in Bogot happen along the way, but Solnit never loses sight of Orwell and his relationship to nature: "Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening," he wrote. Fans of Marta MacDowell's biographies of gardening writers will appreciate this lyrical exploration.