Roses Are Red and Socialism Is, Too: Review of Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit
Orwell’s Roses. By Rebecca Solnit. Viking, October 19, 2021.
Rebecca Solnit is a well-known and respected writer and essayist who focuses on topics such as feminism, the environment, and human rights. As the title clearly indicates, her latest book, Orwell’s Roses, revolves around the famous British writer George Orwell, his life, his roses—and his politics.
Orwell, best known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, was a British novelist and essayist. His political stance was of a revolutionary socialist, who briefly flirted with Troskyist communism before veering towards anarchism, without ever officially adopting its doctrine. All his life he considered himself a “Socialist”, in the most radical sense of the term. Solnit builds on the accepted portrait of Orwell already well documented in many biographies, but chooses to focus on a much lesser-known aspect of the writer: his affection for gardening, which she very justly links with his political sensibility.
Solnit’s knowledge of Orwell’s ideas, writings, and ideas is impressive, and she has a marvelous talent of conveying her narrative through evocative tableaux of the famous writer, whether he is gardening, on the Spanish civil war front, or on his dying bed. The reader can feel her sympathy, both for the man (with his flaws, like, for instance, his sexist stance, which she duly acknowledges) and, perhaps more importantly, his political ideas.
In 1936, Orwell settled temporarily in a small cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, to write The Road To Wigan Pier, a book partly about the glum life conditions of the working-class in Northern England, and partly a political reflection about socialism and his own commitment to the cause. In the garden Orwell found rose bushes, which he took care of and even wrote about in his correspondence. Solnit, after a visit to the place, reflects on the writer’s gardening activities and acute observation of nature, finding a more human side to the traditionally austere figure we are acquainted with. For her, Orwell’s dedication to the flowers can be seen as a window into his political views.
Orwell’s actual roses, even if they are central to the narration, lead to other topics, in which Solnit herself becomes the central figure. In a form of what one could call “Gonzo academic journalism”, Solnit addresses global issues through personal experiences, such as visiting an industrial rose farm in Columbia and denouncing the workers’ terrible social condition. Roses become a lens for political comment and criticism. Very intelligently, and thanks to Orwell’s own stance, Solnit not only criticizes capitalism, but also its nemesis, communism. In a very interesting and informative chapter on “Stalin’s lemons”, she tells us about the ecological (and probably human) disaster that the Russian dictator provoked with his obsession of growing lemons in the U.S.S.R. In the same vein, we learn about the development of private gardens for the nobility in England in the 18th century, and what terrible consequences enclosures had on the rural population working around the estate.
If it’s an easy and enriching read, the book seems to temporarily lose some of its focus along the way in a feeble and mostly pointless defense of the role of esthetics in Orwell’s life and writings. One of the points Solnit seems keen on making is that Orwell was indeed sensitive to beauty and that his love for gardening sprang from a concealed attachment to esthetics. Quoting passages from Orwell’s letters and fiction, Solnit tries to show that the writer was not just the ascetic figure we are used to imagine, but someone who was also sensitive to “beauty”, symbolized by his attachment to his roses. One can easily accept an Orwell touched by “beauty” (which he nonetheless considered a “luxury”), but the political value that Solnit attempts to attach to it is problematic, because it ignores the social aspects of Orwell’s attachment to gardening.
Solnit takes a whole chapter to describe English gardens in the 18th century, but never mentions the various gardening reflections, discussions, and programs that the Socialist left began working on in the early 1800s. The garden was seen either as a symbol of financial emancipation for the working class (vegetable gardens), a place of leisure to escape the industrial world and its chores, or a bit of both. Vernon Richards, for example—whom I knew as a child, incidentally, and who took the picture illustrating chapter VII—was an anarchist who was as dedicated to his vegetable and flower garden as he was to his cause, and was one of Orwell’s closest friends. Orwell’s love for gardening is therefore not surprising. and has less to do with a purely personal esthetics than with a long socialist tradition. If roses are a symbol, they are a symbol of the beauty of personal freedom, not of “pure beauty”.
In spite of this minor glitch, Solint’s Orwell’s Roses is an important book, because it is, deep down, a defense of traditional socialism, grounded in the defense of the workers’ conditions, environment, and class solidarity. It is a courageous book, too, as these values have been largely ignored by the New Left, especially in the academic and mainstream cultural worlds. By giving Orwell a human face instead of the Giacometti-like bronze statue we are used to, Solnit revives his true soul: a relentless fighter for justice, whether in the streets of London, the battlefields of Spain, or in his own garden.
Sébastien (Seb) Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer and academic. He is the author, among others, of The Babylonian Trilogy, The Song Of Synth, Missing Signal, The Invisible and Paperclip. He lives in Denmark with his family and teaches literature, history and culture in the French department of Aarhus University. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins from a hard pitch in July 2021; the title appeared on ARB’s call for reviews. The author and editor were acquainted through previous ARB collaborations. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Viking/Penguin.