By Rebecca Solnit
An essayist that she is, Rebecca Solnit pursues her subjects through multiple paths of thought, feeling, memory and experience, aided by historical research and intuitive literary intuition as needed. Like George Orwell in essayist, subject of her last book and her model, she deploys all the human instrument in the service of her curiosity. Orwell, of course, is best known for his “Animal Farm” and “1984” novels, and, second, for his reporting work. But it is in his essays, a form capable of expressing both political passions and responses to life in its sensual immediacy, that we can see a more complex Orwell. It is this side of him that Solnit highlights in “Orwell’s Roses,” a side, she says, that is overshadowed by our image of him as a dark prophet driven by political rage. She seeks to show us that Orwell was also able to take great joy in little things – in the face of the earth, the weather, daffodils, hedgehogs, slugs, roses and chickens – and such delight. was intrinsic to his political vision.
During the same period that Orwell went north to investigate conditions in the coal mines around Manchester and to the south to fight in the Spanish Civil War, he planted roses in his cottage in Wallington, in the English countryside, where he immersed himself in his garden and his animals – chickens and goats. Solnit finds the remains of these roses (two bushes bloom on his visit) and makes the roses the common thread of his extensive series of disciplined essays on the importance of joy in Orwell’s concept of freedom.
In the first part of the book, she establishes her conviction that the fight for “bread for all” was not enough; he believed that people also have a right to roses – to an existence in which beauty, pleasure, love and a rich inner life are possible. Then she seems to tear off that vision. Just as Orwell has always strived to see through the curtain of appearances to the truth, Solnit seeks the foundations of Orwell’s joy in the pastoral life. She traces her affection for the English countryside to an idealized and “naturalistic” aesthetic that emerged in the 18th century and had the effect of masking the impoverishment of the rural population through industrialization. Suddenly, it sheds light on the imperial aspects of Orwell’s past, without him examining it. Tireless, she explores roses as symbols of an authentic and deeply rooted ‘Anglo-Saxon’, showing us that, in fact, roses, like tea, were imported from China under the British Empire. It is Solnit who applies economic and social analysis to long-standing cultural mythology. How, the reader wonders, will the Orwell in love with the life she just mentioned survive this scrutiny?
She engages us in these cozy illusions, recalling, for example, Ralph Lauren’s use of the rose in his alluring Anglophile clothing and upholstery in the 1980s – iconography of the secure social insider, the essence of his Mark. She reminds us of the rose’s status as a symbol of true love, then reflects on the difficult circumstances in South America in which these handy bouquets in our supermarkets are grown. At this point, the humanistic Orwell of the early parts of the book seems, with his Wallington roses as expressions of joy, to have been utterly destroyed.
I won’t say how Solnit saved her portrait of Orwell from the bear trap she set over it. Suffice it to say that in the end, she throws us to the shores of our imperfect and vulnerable selves through a detailed portrait of Orwell dying in his mid-forties on an island in the Hebrides as he writes “1984 “. This novel, Solnit convincingly shows, is not primarily about how totalitarianism works, but rather what it destroys: consciousness, experience, life lived with the full human instrument – the very vision of freedom. policy that she previously identified at the heart of Orwell’s values. .
As he finishes the book, Orwell suffers and rejoices at the same time, reporting in his journal about “roses, poppies, sweet williams, full marigolds, lupines still with a few flowers.” Solnit does not argue with his own counterpoint. It just creates a frame large enough to contain both the revolutionary brilliance and the involuntary reactionary associations in the same person – large enough to contain the contradictions of life in a way that only the essay, this humble spokesperson literary, can.