Review by George Yatchisin
Think of Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses as a whydunit. Beyond admitting how much he influenced her as a writer/journalist/activist, Solnit was also moved to learn of the rose bushes Orwell planted by his countryside English cottage in Wallington. Planting fruit trees made a certain practical sense, but roses fed no one.
That would be the too facile conclusion one might have before reading Solnit’s lovely, hopeful book. Despite relatively harrowing, clear-eyed passages about our current climate crisis and about the vicious Stalin-led starving of Ukraine in the 1930s, Solnit also succeeds at what she claims Orwell accomplishes. Both calm yet crusading writers help us witness “imperfect and unidealized beauty.” That is, see the world we live in.
It takes a bit to catch the rhythms Solnit builds in the book, as she provides insightful literary biography of Orwell’s work, offers moments of memoir explaining her own connections to Orwell, narrates her visit to Orwell’s Wallington home to see the roses herself and a trip to Colombia to tour late capitalist rose factory farms, and does a deep dive into the history, symbolism, and imagery we have built around roses. Tellingly, she lets nature be her guide. She writes, “Thinking about Orwell’s roses and where they led was a meandering process and perhaps a rhizomatic one, to deploy a word that describes plants such as strawberries that send out roots or runners to spread in many directions.” What better than a nonhierarchical model of knowledge to kick start a new kind of thinking.
The book really takes off when Solnit presents a full recounting of the phrase bread and roses—she sets its origin straight—which became central to the labor movement and eventually the heart of a beloved 1960s song thanks to versions by Mimi Fariña, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez. “Bread fed the body, roses fed something subtler: not just hearts, but imaginations, psyches, senses, identities,” Solnit writes in one particularly lyrical passage. She continues, “It was equally an argument against the idea that everything human beings need can be reduced to quantifiable, tangible goods and conditions. Roses in these declarations stood for the way that human beings are complex, desires are irreducible, that what sustains us is often subtle and elusive.” The wisdom of that sentence wows me.
Orwell’s Roses is very much of the essay writing tradition, full of precise close reading of texts, mostly Orwell’s essays, books, and letters, of course, but also the work of others who help Solnit explore her case, from Margaret Atwood to Jamaica Kincaid. But then she takes that same ability to not just look but see and see through to examine paintings—particularly one by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Orwell’s great-great-grandfather Charles Blair—and photographs—particularly a print of ripe rose blooms by Tina Modotti that once sold as the most expensive photograph. As an artist, Modotti was often overshadowed by more famous men she was associated with, from Edward Weston to Pablo Neruda, who wrote an elegy upon her death, referring to her as “the last rose of yesterday.”
Feminist that she is, Solnit works to figure out Modotti as her own person, but the historical record (perhaps emphasis on his there) doesn’t give her enough to go on. Modotti functions as a negative image, of sorts, for Orwell. While he is shot in the neck by a Fascist while fighting in Spain, she ends up in an ongoing romance with Vittorio Vidali, a notorious member of the Soviet secret police. Solnit claims, “He was not fighting for Spain. Spain was the battlefield on which he was fighting for Russia.” And as for Modotti, she gave up on all her creative work, “submitting to a doctrinaire communism that compelled strict obedience and provided stern oversight.”
Siding with Orwell, Solnit has a much more joyous take on revolution. Discussing a late-Orwell essay that looks somewhat askance at the image of Gandhi, she approvingly quotes the following: “Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”
For both Orwell and Solnit, human beings are only human in nature, or perhaps that’s with nature, given she certainly knows how much that term needs unpacking, especially from a class perspective. A farmer isn’t going to find a respite in the country as much as a banker, say. Solnit provocatively quotes Scottish artist and garden maker Ian Hamilton Finlay, who wrote, “Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks,” before exploring the age of enclosure acts in England from 1725-1825 that helped create the notion of private property we barely question today.
But questioning is at the heart of Solnit’s writing, as it was in Orwell’s before her. His afterlife as an adjective has meant people who have seemed to have never read him can summon his ghost to scare their constituents; somehow those who opt to ban or even burn books to “protect” children do so conjuring a vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four in which teens are forced to read about gays, lesbians, or people of color. What else could Solnit do but try to reclaim “Orwellian” and make it an adjective of hope, a belief in the endurance of nature and time measure longer than a human life?
For she concludes about Orwell’s most famous work: “The kind of metaphoric, evocative, image-rich speech that Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Newspeak is trying to root out is grounded in the natural, rural, and agrarian world: the language of plowing ahead, having a hard row to hoe, reaping what you sow, making a beeline, going out on a limb, not seeing the forest for the trees, rooting out itself, and all the rest. Orwell, in going rural was, among other things, returning to the source of metaphor, aphorism, simile.”
What else but grounded language. Solnit‘s book is the modern day bloom of the Orwell who wrote “Politics and the English Language” and planted roses. The book continues her invaluable work similar to her reasoned Guardian columns that served as antidote to the poison of the Trump years and every utterance he made that devalued language and carved out room for the unspeakable (starting with children in cages at our border). While not a polemic, Solnit’s book will make you want to go (back) and read Orwell. And plant a garden.