“‘Orwell’s Roses,’ by Rebecca Solnit”

Diane Fortenberry Weekly Hubris top banner

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the spring of 1949, less than a year before its author’s death, in January 1950. In a statement published in Life magazine, addressed to the head of the United Auto Workers union in the US, he wrote, ‘I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere.’ As early as 1944, Orwell had written, ‘The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not to that it commits “atrocities” but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.’ (Trumpian ‘alternative facts,’ anyone?).”—Dr. Diane Fortenberry

Outside of a Dog

By Dr. Diane Fortenberry

The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.”―Rebecca Solnit, from Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings, the portions of a life lived through others’ stories, the incoherence and inconsistency, the pantheon of dei ex machina and the companionability of ghosts. There are other ways of telling.”— Rebecca Solnit, from The Faraway Nearby

Orwell’s Roses, by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit. 

Orwell’s Roses, by writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit.

Diane Fortenberry Weekly Hubris red frame picture.

LONDON England—(Weekly Hubris)—1 August 2022—When a writer of fiction creates a character based, however loosely, on herself, it’s called authorial self-insertion. When a writer of non-fiction tells a tale in which her story is almost as prominent as that of the subject, it’s called journalism. The personal insight thus engendered can be very powerful, but the practice is not without risks—specifically, to objectivity and neutrality.  

You must have an interest in the writer (and journalist) Rebecca Solnit as well as the writer (and journalist) George Orwell to get the most out of Orwell’s Roses. 

There are many other biographies of Orwell, among them the more impartial George Orwell: A Life (1980; latest revised ed, 2018), the first full-length biography of the writer, by the political philosopher Bernard Crick, with which Sonia Orwell was so incensed that she tried to prevent its publication; Christopher Hitchens’ polemic, Why Orwell Matters (2003); novelist D. J. Taylor’s Orwell: The Life (2004); and, more recently, the esoteric Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography, (2016) by the critic John Sutherland, about the “scent narratives” in Orwell’s work. 

Solnit homes in on Orwell’s love of gardening, and from there ranges far and wide, from the geology of the Carboniferous period to Stalinism to the commercial growing of roses in Colombia today. One thing leads to another, there are links and diversions, and, from the first page, Solnit weaves the personal into her account. The book begins with a description of being inspired to embark on the project by conversations about trees with a close friend and a trip to Cambridge that she was unable to cancel despite being seriously ill, combined with a serendipitous reading of Orwell’s “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” (1946), which she describes as a “triumph of meandering.” From there, off she goes, scattershot, each idea reminding her of other seemingly random details that, in the end, all come together in a mesmerizing story of Orwell’s life and times, punctuated with disturbing modern echoes of The Road to Wigan Pier, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-four.

Orwell’s grave, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. (Photo: Mark Hodson/Alamy.)

Orwell’s grave, Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. (Photo: Mark Hodson/Alamy.)

Michael Pollan, in his dazzling Second Nature (1991), describes the preparations for a rose garden as “a little like getting the house ready for the arrival of a difficult old lady, some biddy with aristocratic pretentions and pernickety tastes.” George Orwell, in working-class solidarity, bought seven young roses from Woolworth’s “in the good days when nothing [there] cost over sixpence,” and did nothing for them beyond an occasional gift of manure “when one of the farm horses happened to have halted outside the gate.” 

He planted the roses, along with six fruit trees and two gooseberry bushes, in the garden of a rented cottage in the village of Wallington, Hertfordshire, in 1936. That same year, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, an Oxford graduate; spent time in Lancashire and Yorkshire researching what would become The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), about working-class conditions in the north of England; and, by the end of the year, had left for Barcelona to fight on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish civil war, testifying to his experiences in Homage to Catalonia (1937). As Solnit says, his life was nothing if not episodic. 

His collecting of evidence for The Road to Wigan Pier, in which Orwell describes filthy children searching in bitter winter weather for scraps of coal in the slag heaps discarded by the mining companies, sends Solnit on a long (and fascinating) geological digression to the Carboniferous period, and further to the deleterious effects on human health of burning coal. She characterizes society at the time of having had “a confidence so deep it was like an unexcavated strata [sic] in their consciousness: that the world was big enough and resilient enough to absorb our harm”—thus bringing Orwell into the 21st century and her own political leanings into the story.

From there she draws on Tina Modotti’s famous 1924 photograph, Roses, Mexico, to segue to the suffragette (and Bolshevik) demand for “Bread and Roses,” saying that while bread feeds the body, roses feed minds and imaginations. Orwell himself defended roses, even after they were called bourgeois by a reader of one of his columns for Tribune, the Socialist weekly for which he wrote between 1943 and 1947. 

More recently, the British psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith, in her best-selling The Well-Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World (2020), writes: “Flowers lift our mood and enrich our emotional lives. . . . Although food supplies were sorely needed [in Syrian refugee camps], about 70 percent of the plants the refugees chose to grow were flowers, so intense was their need to introduce beauty into their surroundings. . . .  

Freud was fascinated by the hold that beauty can have over us: ‘The enjoyment of beauty,’ he said, ‘has a peculiar, mildly intoxicating quality of feeling,’ and while beauty cannot protect us from suffering, it can, as he put it, ‘compensate for a great deal.’” 

Orwell, says Solnit, finds beauty in overlooked things, in “the quotidian, the plebeian, the neglected.” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith finds an old and beautiful paperweight in a junk shop. “It was a queer thing, even a compromising thing, for a Party member to have in his possession. Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect.”

Italian photographer, actress, and political activist Tina Modotti (1896-1942) at an exhibition of her work, The National Library, Mexico City, December 1929. (Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images 1929.)

Italian photographer, actress, and political activist Tina Modotti (1896-1942) at an exhibition of her work, The National Library, Mexico City, December 1929. (Photo: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images 1929.)

“Thinking about Orwell’s roses and where they led was a meandering process and perhaps a rhizomatic one,” Solnit admits, one that takes her into Cambridge’s botanic gardens and down a rabbit hole to Stalin, “surely Orwell’s principal muse, if not as a personality, then as the figure at the center of a terrifying authoritarianism wreathed in lies.” She moves from Darwinism to Britain’s Eugenics Educational Society to the Nazis, culminating in the story of Trofim Lysenko, a sham scientist who espoused the 18th-century pseudoscience Lamarckism. Contrary to Mendelian genetics, Lysenko convinced Stalin that he could breed wheat that would inherit acquired characteristics; the result was a famine that killed millions. Orwell later wrote, in a review of Assignment in Utopia by the American Eugene Lyons, one of the few Western journalists who admitted to having been taken in by Stalinist lies, that “It is an unfortunate fact that any hostile criticism of the present Russian regime is liable to be taken as propaganda against Socialism . . . .” Solnit suggests that Lyon’s book would inspire the torture scene in Nineteen Eighty-four, in which Winston Smith finally breaks down and accepts that two plus two equals five. (The rubric “2+2=5” was a slogan disseminated on Moscow billboards and housefronts, signifying that the Soviet Five-Year Plan was to be achieved in four years.) 

Solnit the journalist moves centerstage in a reflection of The Road to Wigan Pier when she describes a trip to Colombia, where 80 percent of American roses are grown, to visit the US-owned Sunshine Bouquet Company. She is shown around by workers whose uniforms bear Spanish-Orwellian slogans on the back: “When you work as a team, you celebrate success and triumph as a team,” “The attitude depends on you. The rest we want you to learn here,” “Effort and passion make us feel satisfied in our work.” 

The workers themselves have another slogan: “The lovers get the roses, we workers get the thorns.”

Colombian workers slaving over Valentine’s and Mother’s Day bouquets.

Colombian workers slaving over Valentine’s and Mother’s Day bouquets.

From this rose-growing factory, she is told, 12 million roses are shipped to the States for Valentine’s and Mother’s Day, loaded onto 747s to Miami, whence they are distributed across the country. “It is only very rarely . . .  that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines,” Orwell wrote of the coal he burned, and Solnit decries the lack of understanding of the purchaser of supermarket roses, the total ignorance of the lives of those whose thorn-scratched hands ache with repetitive strain, who are exposed to toxic chemicals, whose drinking water is contaminated, who earn less than $300 a month—all to provide gifts of love a continent away. 

At the end of her visit, she is offered a hideous artificially colored bouquet, which she “carried as a badge of shame. It marked me a someone who’d bought into the lure of cheap roses and the idea that these were beautiful, in a part of the world where nearly everyone knew what ugliness they arose from.”

In 1946, following the deaths of his mother, his wife, and his sister in the space of three years, Orwell set aside journalism and moved to the Isle of Jura, in the Scottish Hebrides, to begin working on the novel that would become Nineteen Eighty-Four. Deciding to “tend one’s garden” has become a metaphor for withdrawal from politics or business, and Orwell wanted to leave behind the London literary scene and return to creative productivity. He had been since childhood an avid gardener and naturalist. For a writer, whose success can be nebulous, the certainty of reaping what he sowed must have been deeply reassuring. 

He completed his last novel while dying of tuberculosis, and it is often assumed that Winston Smith’s physical decline in prison reflected the writer’s own experience of disease and its treatments. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the spring of 1949, less than a year before its author’s death, in January 1950. In a statement published in Life magazine, addressed to the head of the United Auto Workers union in the US, he wrote, “I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere.” 

As early as 1944, Orwell had written, “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not to that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.” (Trumpian “alternative facts,” anyone?) 

George Orwell, born Eric Blair, on Jura, with his son, Richard Horatio Blair.

George Orwell, born Eric Blair, on Jura, with his son, Richard Horatio Blair.

Solnit looks for her subject not in his published novels and journalism alone, but also in private letters and the domestic diaries he kept at Wallington and on Jura, which record his manual labor and the success (or not) of his crops and flowers. Inevitably, she analyses and makes assumptions, but, mostly, she lets Orwell speak for himself. 

She is a Californian feminist who clearly admires her fellow writer, despite the vast differences between them, and that leads to her largely overlooking his intrinsic misogyny, which many other writers have observed.

His chauvinism was probably due, if only in part, to Eric Blair’s upbringing and social class (his great-great grandfather sat for Joshua Reynolds and married into the aristocracy before his grandfather lost the family fortune, built on Caribbean sugar, when slavery was abolished in 1833), but it’s not difficult to imagine Orwell in the role of the guest who mansplained Solnit’s own book to her at a party (“Men Explain Things To Me,” 2008). 

His first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy Blair (he married Sonia Orwell on his deathbed), an intelligent, accomplished woman, gave up her Master’s degree studies in educational psychology to devote herself to her husband’s career; after her death in 1945 at the age of 39, less than a year after they had adopted a baby boy, he remembered her as “not a bad old stick,” noting that the “polyantha roses on E’s grave have all rooted well.” 

Solnit has said that her professional “credo” comes from a single sentence in Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946): “So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.” But she admits that her own style is often imprecise and subjective, less like the window pane Orwell prescribed, more messily shaded. “One can write nothing readable,” he decreed, “unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” 

But we live in a confessional age. Come along for the ride.

Thinking about the last years of Orwell’s life, as he expended time and energy he could not spare on writing Nineteen Eighty-four and farming a remote smallholding on a Scottish isle with a ridiculously short growing season, reminds Solnit of a well-known Buddhist parable. Someone is being chased by a tiger and stumbles over a cliff, grabbing a small strawberry plant to stop his fall. The plant that is delaying death features one perfectly ripe strawberry, but it will soon be uprooted as the man clings to it. What should he do? The correct answer is, savor the strawberry. 

There are many tigers (Orwell’s was his own poor health), and there are sometimes strawberries. Savor those you are lucky enough to come across, whatever the circumstances.  

About Dr. Diane Fortenberry

Dr. Diane Fortenberry is a Mississippi-born, London-adopted writer, editor, and sometime archaeologist. Her interest in the collapse of civilizations has endured since before she wrote her PhD thesis on Mycenaean warfare, and continues apace. She has published widely on Greek and Roman archaeology, early travel, art history and photography, less widely as a poet and memoirist, and is working on a novel set in the American Deep South, ancient Athens and the London Underground. She tweets as @wisecynic when insomnia gets the better of her.
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