Most Americans know George Orwell through classroom readings of Animal Farm and 1984, but in Orwell’s Roses, which focuses on his love of gardening and nature, Rebecca Solnit brings us a new, complex, and altogether deeper understanding, not only of the writer but also of the ways in which art and beauty fortify us in the fight for justice and the defense of truth.
Solnit’s book comes rooted in her discovery, during a visit to England, of two of seven rosebushes that Orwell planted in 1936 at the cottage in Wallington where he lived with his wife, Eileen. In their garden, he cultivated fruit trees and several types of flowers, of which only the roses have survived. Solnit takes the flowers to signify pleasure, art, and—most important—joy. Indeed, her book bestows permission to feel joy and to seek beauty even while striving for social change.
Solnit has written about subjects as diverse as feminism, apricots, and the history of technology, and this new book reflects her ability to make connections across a wide expanse. It’s a privilege to read her on the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s Russia, postrevolutionary Mexico, the coal mines of the United Kingdom, and a rose-producing factory in Colombia. Equally fascinating are surveys of the ways truth is manipulated under totalitarianism, the geological period known as the Carboniferous, the natural history of flowers, Ralph Lauren’s signature designs of the 1980s, and Vermeer’s most famous paintings. Her central concern is the ability of those who commit to social change to simultaneously enjoy and appreciate beauty.
In short form, this inquiry becomes the fanciful yet serious question—once asked of Orwell himself—“Are flowers bourgeois?”
Solnit explicitly addresses this tension in her account of Tina Modotti, the Italian American communist and photographer of roses, who spent time in Mexico in 1923 and later moved to Russia, where, after her arrival in 1931, she appears to have abandoned her art as a necessary sacrifice on the altar of the revolution. (She died suspiciously at 45, under the spell of one of Stalin’s henchmen.) “Was it the very joy or sense of agency she took in beauty, in art, in her own creative vision that convinced her she must relinquish it to be a revolutionary?” Solnit asks.
Modotti is a cautionary figure as we teeter on the edge of an America that openly accepts the adulteration of objective truth and denigrates science. These same tactics, Solnit notes, were utilized to consolidate power and quash dissent in Stalin’s Russia. “The left,” she reminds us, “has never been short on people arguing that it is callous and immoral to enjoy oneself while others suffer, and somewhere others will always be suffering. It’s a puritanical position, implying that what one has to offer them is one’s own austerity or joylessness, rather than some practical contribution toward their liberation.”
Underlying this observation is Solnit’s awareness that by judging others for their pursuit of joy and pleasure, by limiting their humanity in this way, we become the autocrats we mean to resist. She convincingly argues that art is necessary in the battle against oppression, not only for those who engage in its creation but for all who seek its influence in creating and upholding a humane society.
Solnit’s examination of lies and lying is especially engaging in the context of the British Empire. As it became more brutal in the subjugation of its colonies, British society came to rely on a cultural understanding of “gentility,” which centered English values as the pinnacle of a supposed natural social order. The brutality of empire and the propaganda of gentility were of a piece. The effect of such delusions on the colonized was profound, not only for the pain inflicted on their bodies but also for the constraints on their consciousness.
Solnit illustrates the point by citing Jamaica Kincaid’s insightful writing from the 1990s. I would have preferred a contemporaneous writer to address British India’s experience, perhaps Mulk Raj Anand, the Indian novelist, freedom fighter, and later friend of Orwell’s; perhaps Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, or someone else with a love of flowers, beauty, art, and revolutionary zeal. Orwell’s connections to South and Southeast Asia were significant; he was born in the north Indian state of Bihar, and his work while stationed with the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma inspired his famous essay “Shooting an Elephant.”
Orwell’s Roses is an erudite, lyrical, and incisive book, yet one never feels spoken down to or judged. Despite Solnit’s obvious political stance, there is no finger of reprimand wagging in our faces. Instead, what is generously revealed is the ways in which we are all complicit in the structure of society, the trade-offs that we make. In this way, Solnit’s writing parallels Orwell’s and the manner in which he claimed, “I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.” •