Orwell’s Roses | Rebecca Solnit #USAbio

In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.

A while back, Sue from Whispering Gums alerted me to the fact that such a thing as The Orwell Foundation existed. Ever since, I have been slowly exploring the site, which has led to an increased interest in all things Orwell. When Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses turned up at work last year, I was instantly drawn to it.

With all good intentions, I will probably never read ALL of Orwell’s essays and articles and with so many to chose from, it’s hard to know where to start. Solnit referred to a number of his essays and articles throughout Orwell’s Roses. She made them all sound intriguing and relevant of course, so I made a note of them (below) for me to use as a starting point in my own Orwell reading.

SOLNIT ChapterOrwell Essay
Part 1: The Prophet and the Hedgehog – Chapter 1: Day of the DeadA Good Word for the Vicar of Bray | 1946
You and the Atom Bomb | 1945
Chapter 3: Lilacs and NazisPolitics and the English Language | 1946
Revenge is Sour | 1945
Why I Write? | 1946 (also in Didion)
A Happy Vicar I Might Have Been
Part 3: Bread and Roses – Chapter 3: In Praise OfSome Thoughts on the Common Toad | 1946
Can Socialists Be Happy? | 1943
The Prevention of Literature
Chapter 4: Buttered ToastA Hanging | 1931 (read last year thanks to Camus)
Part 4: Stalin’s Lemons – Chapter 2: Empire of LiesOur Job is to Make Life Worth Living
Part 5: Retreats and Attacks Chapter 1: EnclosuresInside the Whale | 1940
Chapter 5: Flowers of EvilDo Our Colonies Pay?
Part 6: The Price of Roses – Chapter 1: Beauty ProblemsThe Lion and the Unicorn
Chapter 3: The Crystal SpiritPolitics vs Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels | 1946
Benefits of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvidore Dali | 1944
Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War | 1943
Part 7: The River Orwell – Chapter 1: An Inventory of PleasuresIn Defence of English Cooking
Just Junk – But Who Could Resist It? | 1946
The Art of Donald McGill
Bad Climates Are Best | 1946
The Moon Under Water | 1946
On Housing | 1946
Chapter 2: As the Rose-Hip to the RoseReflections on Gandhi | 1949

Solnit has taken a curious approach in her look at Orwell’s life. His politics, writing and ethics are discussed using his love of the natural world as a foil for his more well-known seriousness. She found that even his ‘grimmest writings have moments of beauty.‘ Or as Dorian Lynskey says on the back cover, ‘we all know what Orwell hated but Solnit pays attention to what he loved.

I had thought I would write a clever/funny post punning on gardening, but Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian, beat me to it!

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.

The Guardian |Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit review – deadheading with the writer and thinker | Gaby Hinsliff | 19 Oct 2021

So where do I go now?

I can tell you that I really enjoyed my time with Orwell’s Roses. I learnt a lot about Orwell’s life and the experiences that informed his political ideology and I also learnt about the quieter, at home Orwell. A man who loved his garden, its seasons and rhythms, a man who loved a good cup of tea and English cooking! A man who loved the aesthetic pleasure of language – its ‘clarity, precision, accuracy, honesty and truthfulness‘.

I have been left with a very strong desire to reread 1984 and Animal Farm to find the ‘moments of beauty’. And I would like to tackle Burmese Days in particular for the first time (the impact of the colonial experience is an interest I share with Orwell). Solnit points out that he was good at discussing class and power and confronting uncomfortable truths about inequality and racism, but his ‘blindspot’ was gender. Previously, I have read that his flaws included being righteous and judgemental and too English. I guess I will have to find out for myself.

  • Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction
  • Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography

Epigraph:

The very act of trying to look ahead to discern possibilities and offer warnings is in itself an act of hope.

Octavia Butler
Title: Orwell's Roses
Author: Rebecca Solnit
ISBN: 9781783788620
Imprint: Granta
Published: 16th November 2021 (originally published 19 October 2021)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.

23 thoughts on “Orwell’s Roses | Rebecca Solnit #USAbio

  1. This has been on my radar, though I haven’t read it yet, so glad to see yours. I’ve liked all the Solnit I’ve read at this point

    I don’t think you can go wrong with Orwell’s essays. There was a four volume collection, Collected Essays, Journalism, & Letters that came out a while back & I loved that in its entirety. I think his essays are better than his novels in general.

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  2. I’d love to read this. I’ve read quite a bit of Orwell – Animal farm, 1984, Burmese Days, Homage to Catalonia, several essays. I really want to read Down and out in Paris and London.

    I think I’d love this book – and I’d love to read “In Defence of English Cooking Just Junk – But Who Could Resist It?”

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  3. I keep meaning to pick up some of his essays–there is one volume waiting on my TBR–but have still not gotten down to it. Solnit’s book seems an interesting way to get started with these–a great insight into Orwell and his views.

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      1. I enjoy gardens too, and would love to spend time in mine but sadly, I don’t get to enough. The only planting I seem to get up to currently is wheat grass for the cats!

        My mom of course does a lot more, both flowers and veggies.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I was a big fan of Orwell when I was younger and this book has been on my TBR list. It may be time to do a deep dive into Orwell’s work and see if it still speaks to me all these years later.

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    1. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. For me it was a great introduction that makes me want more. I’m curious to hear what someone who is better versed on the subject thinks.

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  5. Thank you so much for drawing my attention to this, I’ve been meaning to read more Orwell for the last year or so and this looks like a great place to get started!

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