In winter, I really miss roses. A true Chinese rose will bloom for months, but not in January. One option is to buy imported roses from a supermarket, but there are many buts: they have traveled for miles with a high carbon footprint and have generally relied on low-paid labor and abundant water , diverted from other uses. Another option is to read Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, Orwell’s Roseswhich also makes this point.
Solnit is famous for “Men Explain Things to Me,” her 2008 essay that led to the term “mansplaining” being published on the internet and entering feminist vocabulary. Womansplaining has also been commonplace in my experience, but the word has yet to take off. In Orwell’s Rosesthe central subject explained by Solnit is the writer George Orwell and his concern for his garden, his roses and the natural world.
Writers who garden interest me a lot. In Orwell’s letters, the ingrained awareness of nature and flowers was always evident, the thread to follow for Solnit. She confesses that she will not follow him as long as she leads forays beyond. She describes one of Orwell’s essays as a “meandering triumph” and she meanders herself wherever the roses take her, even to Colombia where her conscience is stirred by the work that must compel them to do so. cut flowers for the mass market.
Sensitive to the ecological crisis, it expands on coal. Sensitive to the roles of women, she devotes a beautiful chapter to the phrase “Bread and roses”. It was coined in 1910 during a conversation between two Illinois farm women and established itself as an appeal to the civilizing pleasures of life as well as basic food. Suffragettes rallied around it and it is still the name of a feminist-socialist organization active across Central and South America. I will look at the rosebuds in vases among the toast on my breakfast table in a new light. Unlike Solnit, I won’t compare their petals to an intimate part of a woman’s anatomy.
Orwell’s evidence as a gardener falls into three main phases. Solnit first focuses on April 1936 when Orwell is about to turn 33. For 7/6 days a week, he starts renting a cottage in Wallington in Hertfordshire with a garden that has been neglected. He got down to it, planting roses, potatoes and many vegetables. For three years as a teacher, he had already cultivated a vegetable garden. He recalled how he started in 1936 buying roses at Woolworths at sixpence each. They flowered well, he recalls, in their second year.
Solnit visited the cottage, near a mansion barn which may have suggested the barn of Orwell’s later masterpiece, farm animal. The owners showed her the roses in their garden, two bushes of which may belong to Orwell, and reminded her of her rose Albertine, that copper-pink hiker, who lived there until the 1980s. She considers how writers sometimes combine an activity secondary with their main task and it defends its importance despite the modern drive to be productive and concentrated in one area. However, she could have said more about the class associations of Orwell’s gardening. The kitchen gardens, the active cultivation of vegetables and the cheap roses of Woolworths, shunned by the upper class, were part of working class culture. Orwell, once a scholar at Eton, became attached to it. Even Attlee, a rooted socialist, gardened around his modest house, so different from Churchill’s Chartwell. The passion for gardening among the British working class has been seen as a reason Britain never had a workers’ revolution.
In Orwell’s life, 1936 was a pivotal year. He had just finished his beautiful study of the mines and the misery of the north, The Wigan Pier Route. In June, he marries and at the end of the year, he enlists to serve in the civil war in Spain, a political commitment that changes his horizons. The garden had to fend for itself, but three years later he was writing about his plantings and the resulting flowers. He raised goats and chickens and had a dog named Marx, which Solnit might have mentioned. It connects Orwell’s engagement with the natural world since childhood well with his nostalgic vision of an ideal society, but it had a strong animal component. He rented the cottage again in wartime, then, beset by tuberculosis, finally retired to garden again on the Isle of Jura, off the west coast of Scotland. Rationing was in effect and there was a widespread post-war emphasis on self-growth, complementing Orwell’s final vision of the good life. Here, too, there was a larger context for his choices.
He also knew that he was close to death, but vegetables, flowers and animals remained at the heart of his remaining time. It’s extremely moving, and there are two windows to it, his fiction and his letters. In farm animal, published in 1945, roses and gardening were not important on Mr. Jones’ farm before or after the animal takeover. Squealer and the pigs never proclaim the need for bread and roses. What about One thousand nine hundred and eighty fourOrwell’s latest masterpiece?
Solnit thinks that nature and flowers are more important to her than we remember. She approvingly emphasizes her analogy between the hardened figure of a middle-aged mother, fattened by work, and a brown rosehip, formed after the fertilization of a beautiful flower. It’s marginal to the plot even though you think reading it that a rose hip might be what you look like in the mirror.
There is only one role for nature in One thousand nine hundred and eighty four but it deserves greater attention. At the beginning of May, the heroic Winston, at the beginning of middle age, risks his future by going to meet Julia in an isolated wood. While waiting for her, he picks, not roses, but bellflowers, seasonal flowers. Officially, she is a member of that horrible cadre, the Junior Anti-Sex League, but she quickly sheds her red belt of membership and has sex with him on the field, a practice Solnit also considers to have been fostered by Orwell. At the edge of a pond, Julia then undresses in a “magnificent gesture by which an entire civilization seems annihilated”. Good on you, Julia: she swims and then tells Winston that she’s had sex “dozens of times” before, always with Party members. “The more men you’ve had,” Winston told him, “the more I love you,” and so they begin again, more easily this time, among the bluebells.
The novel bears no sign of Orwell’s own gardening in the Jura. There his letters show him clearing peat and planting lupines, pansies and primroses, tulips and possibly roses. As Solnit well remarks, he was again planning a future, “or at least he hoped for one”.
The confinements prevented her from visiting the Jura but she wrote to the owners of the house Orwell occupied. The garden, they told him, is unfenced, “so many seasons deer and wild goats forage right up to the windows.” As a result, only one bush remains from Orwell’s time, an azalea by the kitchen window. All animals are equal, but gardens are not equal for most of them.
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