Note: a year ago, Russia hadn’t yet attacked Ukraine, a sovereign country, and I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses.
It seems somehow fitting that I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Orwell’s Roses, last night. I began it on February 2 (see this entry) just as some of my family were arriving for a winter visit and then I put it aside until they’d returned home to Ottawa and Victoria. Seeing it on my bedside table was a cause for quiet joy, though, because it feels like exactly the book that should have come my way at this point in public and private history. It is a book of the moment, the long moment, that considers what it is to be a person trying to find the best way to live and to write about that. For Orwell, nothing was simple. His was a passionate voice against totalitarianism, yes, and he was a firm believer in social democracy (or democratic socialism, depending….), but he also knew that politics was a complicated thing.
What I love about this book is how widely Solnit ranges in and around the strands of Orwell’s life, his thinking, his writing, and his gardens. Roses? Yes, he planted some, purchased at Woolworth’s in 1936, at the cottage he was leasing in Wallington, Hertfordshire, with his wife Eileen. They kept a kind of shop in a room off the kitchen, slicing bacon for customers, and it was from this house that Orwell departed for Spain to fight against fascism. He famously said that if anyone had asked what he was fighting for, “I should have answered: ‘Common decency’”.
Roses are the leitmotif of the book and they take Solnit to the suffrage movement (“Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.”), to Tina Modotti’s photograph, “Roses, Mexico”, to Columbia to learn something about factory rose production, and to the genetic work done by Charles Chamberlain Hurst on roses after she walked through Cambridge’s botanical gardens and noticed the sign indicating the plants were inspired by Hurst’s hybridization programme.
In a way this is a biography. We certainly learn a lot about Orwell’s life. But more importantly we learn about the interconnections of a life with the currents of history and movements. That an individual can apprehend the horrors of political systems, the damage done to humans, but can also find room for hope and optimism. For Orwell, this is evident in his essays most of all. I remember reading some of them years ago and finding a voice I was drawn to for its intelligence and its common decency, if I may borrow his own phrase. Whether planting trees for the opportunity to ameliorate harm done in your lifetime or writing in defence of English cooking (“First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets…”), he yokes beauty and attention, care and vigilance. Here he is on the common toad:
How many times have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t…. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
This morning, listening to the news from our nation’s capital, I sort of wish for an Orwell to make sense of this moment in history—the man who could write a letter to the Manchester Guardian to stand up for Indian passengers who’d been treat badly aboard a ship, who could lament our ability to change nature for the worse (“With the aid of the atomic bomb we could literally move mountains; we could even, so it is said, alter the climate of the earth by melting the polar ice-caps and irrigating the Sahara.”), and who wrote about starvation in Europe after the Second World War. That he was also the man who could daydream his way into an imaginary pub, the charmingly named Moon Under Water, with its grained woodwork and stuffed bull’s head, makes him someone I wish I could exchange plant cuttings with, share seed potatoes, and sit with over a pint on the stoop of the farmhouse on the island of Jura he went to ten years after planting those roses in Wallington, talking about gardens and freedom. It’s the beauty of this book that gives him to us with such immediacy and poignancy. Such urgency.