Ask me who my favorite essayist is and, hands down, I’ll say George Orwell. Known primarily for Animal Farm and 1984, he excelled at the essay, writing in a direct, plain style, eschewing fancy big words, wordiness, and cliché.
You’re mistaken if you think his wise maxims are easy to practice. Orwell didn’t start out as a prose master, but worked diligently to achieve it. The trick is to heed his counsel, yet avoid the staccato effect of incessant short sentences that English teachers label, “choppy.”
I admire Orwell even more for his honesty as an essentially political writer. Famously, he taught us the dangers of “doublethink,” or language that deliberately obscures, distorts or evades.
When you get into ideology, it’s difficult to avoid partisanship and distorting your opponent’s argument; more difficult still, to candidly address the polemical liabilities of both yourself and your cohorts. A committed socialist, he nonetheless acknowledged Marxism’s own strident hypocrisies as exemplified foremost in Soviet revisionism.
All of this explains my eagerness to read Rebecca Solnit’s recently published Orwell’s Roses. Solnit’s a formidable essayist in her own right, and this is her twenty-sixth book.
She admires Orwell for his honesty and sides with his isolated criticism of Stalin and speaking out in a context of liberal, socialist idealism, unwilling to confront Soviet malevolence, resorting not infrequently to disingenuous rhetoric.
Readers will like her ardent empathy in the book for the marginalized, whether by race, sexual orientation, gender—or often missed—the working class. It stamps her indelibly as an Orwell protege. She credits Orwell for inspiring her to adopt the essay as her medium.
Feminists may find her Orwell embrace disconcerting. A strident women’s advocate elsewhere in her work, she details Orwell’s misogyny, yet gives it a cursory pass: “He was part of an age that was (with some notable exceptions) strategically oblivious to inequalities we have since worked hard to recognize…. One of Orwell’s most significant blind spots.” She admits his essays are limited to men.
Nor does she sufficiently address his marriage to first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, who died on the operating table at age 39, presumingly from the anesthesia, following a routine surgery. An Oxford grad and student in psychology at the University of London, she gave up a promising career, typed and edited his manuscripts, did the housework, cooking and shopping. She accompanied him to civll war Spain, where he served as a Loyalist soldier.
Readers may be interested in pursuing Sylvia Topp’s biography of Eileen, The Making of George Orwell, tracing her influence upon Orwell. She had written a poem in 1934, speculating on the future, “End of the Century, 1984.” Her funeral occurred on April 3, 1945. In 1984, Winston Smith begins his journal on April 4.
Orwell mentions Eileen in his diary (1946) when visiting her grave on his way to his sister’s funeral and ultimately Jura, where he would write 1984: ”May 22, stopping to tend Eileen’s grave near Newcastle: Polyantha roses on E’s grave have all rooted well. Planted aubretia, miniature phlox, saxifrage, a kind of dwarf broom.”
Solnit was inspired by a passage in Orwell’s “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” (1946): “One of the fruit trees and one of the rose bushes died, but the rest are all flourishing. The sum total is five fruit trees, seven roses and two gooseberry bushes, all for twelve and sixpence.”
The fruit trees actually, not the roses, were what initially motivated her search for a more rounded Orwell, more quotidian in his private pursuits than his readers have known. Visiting his residence with her friend Sam, she found the fruit trees had been cut down to make room for a shed expansion. That left only the roses, though of the planted seven, she tells us only of two that still bloomed.
Nonetheless, they bequeathed Solnit with an immediate sensory connection to Orwell and his long-ago essay about roses and fruit trees: “The apparent directness of these two plants’ connection to him and to that long-ago essay about roses and fruit trees and continuity and posterity filled me with joyous exaltation. So did the fact that this man most famous for his prescient scrutiny of totalitarianism and propaganda, for facing unpleasant facts, for a spare prose style and an unyielding political vision, had planted roses.”
If you’re looking for the elusive Orwell, be prepared to meander through a thick copse of digression only tangentially relevant to Orwell. It’s her way of doing things in everything she writes.
The reality is that her book leaps beyond both roses and Orwell as a springboard for political asides, the exploitation of the working class in particular. Politics leap quickly to the surface in all her books, and may well account for their composition. Is Orwell’s Roses simply just another platform?
You will explore the history of roses, the role of British colonialism in their development, the evils of industrialism, and even climate change among other concerns.
I found the lengthy horticultural tracing of roses tedious. I tired of the long chapter exploring the origin of coal. I wanted the man. I wanted Orwell in full bloom.
In her defense, and look to the title, she tells us early that “there are many biographies of Orwell, and they’ve served me well for this book, which is not an addition to that shelf. It is instead a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses. As such, it’s also a book about roses….”
We do, however, ultimately piece together Orwell, Solnit providing a biographical sketch and expanding on his frequent allusions to his love for gardening and planting of roses. Readers will find her uncovering the unfamiliar Orwell, masked by his public persona, revelatory.
One of the best parts of her rose narrative is her retelling of her visiting a gargantuan Columbian greenhouse complex outside Bogota, which flies roses by the millions daily to the U.S, especially at Christmas and on Valentine’s day in a chapter called “Going Underground.” A vivisection of labor abuse unknown to American consumers, it made me sit up and draw potential dots between other international corporate interests bent on profit heedless of worker welfare.
As I write, Chipotle reports In its Q4 that the company’s total revenue increased 22.0% to $2.0 billion in 2021, eliciting Bernie Sander’s umbrage: “The Corporate greed is Chipotle increasing its profits by 181% last year to $764 million, giving its CEO a 137% pay raise to $38 million in 2020 and blaming the rising cost of a burrito on a minimum wage worker who got a 50 cent pay raise. That’s not inflation. That’s price gouging.”
Despite the chapter’s pretentious title, “Going Underground,” Solnit has never truly gone underground in terms of its nuance. Orwell investigated labor abuse and the plight of poverty first hand by working in the coal mines of northern England and living among the homeless in London and Paris.
That said, I never tire of Solnit, despite her inveterate meanderings and intrusive politics. I like her introspective view of things in her many books, unveiling hidden foregrounds behind what I see, even admire, a kind of turning things inside out as when taking off a sweater. Her gift is one of expanding consciousness of the myriad strands of interconnectivity. Orwell’s Roses assures that continuity.