Was George Orwell’s political writing rooted in love for the natural world?

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“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.”

It’s a simple but attractive first line. Maybe not as memorable as 1984‘s “It was a cold, bright day in April, and the clocks were striking one o’clock.” But few opening sentences are.

We don’t immediately associate author George Orwell with horticulture, but we are not all as perceptive and perceptive as Rebecca Solnit, author of Remember my non-existence,In the distance nearby, the men explain things to me, and nearly 20 other books.

That’s why it’s a blessing that we have to give it to ourselves Orwell roses, released today from Viking. The work traces the connections between Eric Arthur Blair’s (aka George Orwell) rented cottage and garden in Wallington, England, and his experiences as a world-renowned political journalist, anti-fascist and novelist.

No trivial biography, Orwell roses is rather “a series of forays from a starting point, that gesture by which a writer has planted several roses”. The book begins with Solnit’s deep interest in trees and his recollection of one of Orwell’s most lyrical essays, “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,” in which he mentions that he planted five apple trees in 1936 at Wallington. The image of intense anti-totalitarian work in the land charmed Solnit, so on a grueling English book tour, she and a friend stopped by the cottage once inhabited by Orwell.

The fruit trees were gone, but two rose bushes were in bloom. Solnit writes: “They were exuberantly alive, these supposedly octogenarian roses, living things planted by the living hand (and the work of a shovel) of someone who had spent most of his life.”

Rebecca Solnit © Trent Davis Bailey

A formidable political writer and naturalist in his own right, Solnit holds back before delving into Orwell’s biographical details. Rather, she focuses her attention on the roles that flowers, especially roses, play in biology and popular culture. Often considered “delicate, trivial, unnecessary” flowers have been on Earth for around two hundred million years and are crucial to the survival of humanity. Roses inspire songs (“La Vie en Rose”, “A Good Year for the Roses”), fairy tales (“Rose Red”), and of course, the English wars.

Often considered “delicate, insignificant, dispensable,” flowers have been on Earth for around two hundred million years and are crucial to the survival of humanity.

After introducing readers to Orwell’s Garden, Solnit provides basic facts about Orwell’s life and career. Born in northern India in 1903 but returned to England at a young age, he spent his miserable childhood in elite public schools and eventually got a scholarship for Eton. After graduation, he served five years in Burma in the British Imperial Police. Suffering from a respiratory illness that the Burmese climate did not help, he returned to Europe to pursue what appeared to be a mobile downward literary career, living in poverty in England and France. The stay culminated in his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.

The impressive prolific Orwell would go on to write novels (Keep the Aspidistra in flight), essays (“A Hanging”), journalism (“Homage to Catalonia”) and journal entries. Domestically, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, and they adopted a son they named Richard. Orwell’s second best-known work, Farm animal, was rejected by TS Eliot and a host of other publishers, but eventually found a publisher and became required reading in English in high school. Orwell spent his later years working for the BBC, enjoying the critical and popular success of 1984 and the construction on the Scottish island of Jura of a garden – on the edge of a farm – with “cattle, crops, fruit trees, a tractor – and many flowers”. In his lungs, meanwhile, sprouted pneumonia and tuberculosis, which killed him at 46.

Solnit lets his readers catch a glimpse of a side of Orwell rarely noted by other commentators. Count the references in his work to plants, agriculture, flowers and nature, writes Solnit, and the pattern becomes more visible. Orwell’s political writing is based on his appreciation of the natural world. Same 1984 reveals a longing for a golden country, notes Solnit, “with its light, its trees, its meadows, the song of birds and its feeling of freedom and liberation”.

Orwell’s roses led Solnit to “Roses, Mexico” by Tina Modotti, which is perhaps the most famous floral photograph in history. They also led to a brief discussion of the term “bread and roses,” used as a political rallying cry for physical and artistic sustenance – which brings Solnit back to Orwell’s essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” in which he celebrates “the intangible and ordinary pleasures, the joy available in the here and now”.

Although the elegance and urgency of his prose account for much of the pleasure of Orwell roses, it is the way in which Solnit links the disparate elements of its subjects that sets the book apart. You never know who or what might appear next. Children working in the coal mines remind Solnit of Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “Those Who Go Away from Omelas” and her description of a horribly scapegoat child. Solnit recounts how imperialism influenced Jamaica Kincaid, so that when the Antigua-born author wrote about plants or gardening, she remembered the displacement, “uprooted people, forced cultivation, transplanted plants. and transformed ”.

Solnit details Orwell’s criticism of Stalin at a time when many on the left were reluctant to do so. Solnit writes: “Surely Stalin was Orwell’s main muse, if not as a personality, at least as a figure at the center of a terrifying authoritarianism surrounded by lies.

If Orwell planted roses, Stalin planted lemons, which froze in Crimea, victims forced to endure untenable temperatures at the will of a dictator. Solnit also delves into Lamarck’s crazy theories of genetics, or “soft genetics,” and how they tragically led to widespread famine at the turn of the 20th century, when crops did not grow as expected.

A socialist at a time when people actually understood what the word meant, Orwell gained first-hand knowledge of the events he wrote about. He crawled through the mines to observe the back-breaking work it took to keep the Industrial Revolution going. He fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War and suffered the bombardments of London during World War II.

Solnit doesn’t go down to any coalmines, but she doesn’t hesitate to conduct research on the road. To investigate the origins of most of the mass-produced roses that arrive in the United States, Solnit travels to Colombia, the world’s second largest exporter of flowers. She visits vast greenhouses filled with thousands and thousands of mostly unscented roses, their parts scattered on the ground and piled up in piles, representing millions of cut flowers wrapped in carbon-burning planes and sent to Miami to be shipped across the United States, while rose workers complain of exhaustion, stress injuries and chemical contamination.

The workers have a slogan: “The lovers have the roses, but we the workers have the thorns.” Management has its own slogans, some printed on workers’ uniforms such as “Sunshine Bouquet, the best place to be happy”.

It’s hard not to see the anonymous editor’s prose as more than a little scary. Solnit writes: “The slogans often belonged to this genre often called Orwellian, that is, they were threatening in their insincerity and disturbing in their contradictions and imposition on workers unlikely to agree. wholeheartedly with them or to wear them by choice. . “

In the end, it all comes down to the language. Orwell hated sloppy language, seeing it as a tool of totalitarians, a means of control. Readers most likely know what “Orwellian” means without explanation, but they may recognize only part of it.

The penultimate chapter of Solnit is an assessment of his re-reading of 1984, a topic likely to refer many readers to the text for a better understanding of the forces that have combined to create a dystopian masterpiece. The final chapter finds Solnit in East Anglia on the banks of the River Orwell, with a companion wondering if “Orwellian” should perhaps mean “something other than threatening, corrupt, sinister, deceptive, hypocrisy or a dishonesty so destructive that it is an attack on truth, thought and rights. “

Based on Solnit’s account of Orwell’s deeply held appreciation for the natural world, it’s time to reassess the connotation of the adjective to something open to beauty in its many forms, attached to truth. and protector of gardens, farms and forests, large and small.

With precise control and boundless curiosity, Solnit has produced nature-based biography and writing work that allows readers to see the enduring and the ephemeral in an entirely new way, without clichés or obscurations.

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