The Current

How George Orwell's roses gave Rebecca Solnit a new perspective on the author

When you think of George Orwell, your mind probably jumps to novels like 1984 and Animal Farm. But as author Rebecca Solnit discovered, Orwell's anti-fascist politics were closely entwined with his love of gardening.

'I discovered an Orwell who enjoyed himself a great deal more,' says author

Rebecca Solnit says she discovered a George Orwell 'who seemed like a person who enjoyed himself a great deal more' after studying his gardening habits and personal notes. (Penguin Books India)

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Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit thought she knew everything about the famed English writer George Orwell. 

She read Animal Farm and 1984 when she was young, and she previously fine-tuned her essay-writing skills by studying an anthology of his essays. 

The cover of Rebecca Solnit's latest book, Orwell's Roses. (Viking Press)

To Solnit, those works — and their depressing themes and settings — seemed to paint Orwell in shades of grey.

"[I] absorbed this image of Orwell as this very grim figure, which is what most of the books about him seem to be pointing towards," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

That changed four years ago, when Solnit visited Orwell's former cottage in the south of England. She had read about fruit trees he had planted there, and went to see if they were still standing. 

The trees were long gone, but the current owners told her about another plant Orwell had a liking to. 

"They said, 'Oh, but his roses are still growing. Would you like to see them?'" she said.

Solnit said Orwell's roses didn't seem to fit his political views.

"Orwell was a socialist of sorts, and fruit trees are perfectly sensible producers of food," she said. "But roses are definitely not a practical thing, and they raise a lot of questions about who Orwell was."

That discussion about something as simple as gardening led her down a path of studying Orwell; through his private notes, letters and diaries.

Orwell wrote in defence of flowers in many different ways, and celebrated those roses in his work-Rebecca Solnit

What she found resulted in her new book, Orwell's Roses.

"I discovered an Orwell who seemed like a person who enjoyed himself a great deal more, was a lot more passionate about the natural world, a lot less grim and austere and pessimistic than the general impression I had," she said. 

"It was shocking to me … that I could find this unknown Orwell, because he's one of the best-known writers of the 20th century."

An act of resistance

Part of Orwell's love of the natural world was for practical reasons. 

After growing up in a very poor family, Orwell abandoned his career as an imperial policeman, in what is now Myanmar, in order to pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

Solnit said Orwell was just scraping by for a while, but "moving [into] that cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, in April of 1936 was the beginning of the life he really wanted."

"He was going to make his living as a writer, [but] was going to make a bit of extra money by selling eggs and running the cottage as the shop had been for the village," she said. "He bought a bacon slicer … and he was raising a lot of his own food."

But according to Solnit, Orwell wasn't just gardening and farming as a means to survive. She said his garden was also an act of resistance against the coal mines he saw in Manchester, where he spent time for his book The Road to Wigan Pier.

"It felt in a way like … planting a garden in this beautiful, rural part of southern England was making [his] world as unlike the mining district and the coal mines as possible," she said.

He's not liberating the miners or overcoming it, but he's at least making a small-scale world in which … you're connected to your resources

Orwell's book was published a month before his move to the cottage. It documented his sociological investigations into the dire poverty and living conditions among England's working class. 

One such sight was that of nearly-naked male miners forced to work with toxic coal, unbreathable air and potential mining explosions and collapses. 

Solnit said these scenes played a role in how he viewed and cared for his garden. His flowers and livestock were a means of "doing something beautiful, something with integrity, something where work was dignified and meaningful and free in some way, as opposed to the coal miners," she said.

"He's not liberating the miners or overcoming it, but he's at least making a small-scale world in which … you're connected to your resources."

Orwell's Roses author Rebecca Solnit believes the English writer taught the world to find pleasure in life, even in the harshest moments. (Adrian Mendoza)

Finding pleasure in his garden

Orwell's deep, personal connection to his garden was evident to those who knew him.

"A friend of his said that he was like the Greek figure Antaeus, who drew his strength from the Earth," she said. 

It's also evident in his own notes. Solnit quotes a 1940 example of Orwell saying: "Outside my work, the thing I care about most is gardening, especially vegetable gardening."

A few years later, while writing columns for the magazine Tribune, Orwell objected to a woman who wrote to him that "flowers are bourgeois, and … all flowers are decorative and ornamental."

"Orwell wrote in defence of flowers in many different ways, and celebrated those roses in his work," Solnit said.

Rebecca Solnit says George Orwell took such pleasure from gardening and the natural world that a friend of his compared him to the Greek figure Antaeus, 'who drew his strength from the earth.' (Associated Press)

She believes there's a lesson to be learned in Orwell's dedication to and admiration of gardening and the natural world: to find pleasure in life, even in harsh moments.

"Orwell did pay attention to fascism, authoritarianism, Stalinism, the wars all around him," she said. "But he also paid attention to his garden, to his roses, to the chickens and goats he was such a devoted tender of."

"He died of tuberculosis at 46, but he died with a fishing rod in his room…. And I kind of love that even when he was so sick, he was still planning some pleasures."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Idella Sturino.

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