A modern Thoreau? Orwell and the politics of nature

20 February 2023

Review: Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (Penguin Random House)


“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” Thus begins Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses. Six other chapters in this quirky work begin with nearly the same sentence. The writer who planted those roses was, of course, George Orwell: 1936 was the year the writer moved to a rented cottage in the idyllic rural English town of Wallington, Hertfordshire. In June of that year, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, an Oxford graduate then studying for a master’s degree in educational psychology. The months in Wallington following the wedding were among the happiest of Orwell’s life, Solnit writes. He was “settling down for the first time, at an address he would keep longer than any other,” where for the first time he would “live the life he wanted, with a garden and a wife, in the countryside, making his living primarily as a writer.”


Solnit suggests that gardening, roses – and nature and the natural world more generally – sharpened Orwell’s political views and nourished his contemplations on the meaning of beauty and how it might be cultivated and sustained in a turbulent world. After taking refuge in natural places, she writes, Orwell would emerge to “go to war on lies, delusions, cruelties, and follies.” But the contents and subjects of Orwell’s Roses are heterogenous and this initial promise remains unfulfilled. The links between Orwell’s political views and his appreciation of nature and search for beauty remain murky throughout the book, more implicit than explicit.


But if Solnit falls short in linking Orwell’s political thinking to his appreciation of nature and search for beauty, she nonetheless provides an arresting portrait of the writer as a 20th century descendant of Henry David Thoreau, the 19thcentury American naturalist, essayist and philosopher, as manifested by his planting and tending roses in Wallington.  He sometimes “feels like a nephew of Thoreau,” she writes. Nearly every one of Orwell’s books contains “evocations of rural English scenery” and the delight taken in the “places he wandered, fished, botanized, birdwatched, cultivated, and played in as a child, a youth, and a young man.” The pleasures of animals, plants, flowers, natural landscapes, gardening, and the countryside “surface over and over again in his books.” In 1940, in response to a questionnaire, Orwell wrote that outside of his work as a writer, the “thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening.”


Solnit makes clear at the outset that Orwell’s Roses is not just another Orwell biography. She describes her work as 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.” The subjects of Solnit’s forays are wide-ranging, giving the book a meandering quality.  Many address subjects with thin links to either Orwell or roses, such as how Silicon Valley became a “global superpower,” the fate of an obscure French resistance fighter, the June 1989 massacres in Tiananmen Square, the centuries-long enclosure of rural commons in England, and the popular appeal of Ralph Lauren’s fabrics. Large portions read like a personal memoir, with Solnit‘s own views and experiences among the book’s major digressions, one of which details a visit to Colombia where she observed the exploitive conditions under which roses are produced on a massive scale at a partially US-owned agri-business conglomerate.


Orwell’s Roses is thus indeed about roses, at least as much as it is about Orwell – roses as a “member of the plant kingdom and as a particular kind of flower around which a vast edifice of human responses has arisen, from poetry to commercial industry.” Solnit captures the ubiquity of roses in modern life: she provides a scientific overview of the process by which a rose becomes a rose and highlights the early 20th century women’s rights slogan “Bread and roses,” a “fierce argument that more than survival and bodily well-being were needed and were being demanded as a right.”


But the recurrent chapters that begin by referring to the writer planting roses in Wallington in 1936 are a reminder that the book is also interstitially about Orwell. If not quite a biography, Orwell’s Roses’ nonetheless presents shrewd insights into Orwell and the evolution of his thinking, especially on the potency of lies in political life, and how totalitarian forms of government are threats “not just to liberty and human rights but to language and consciousness.” A self-described socialist, Orwell’s searing critiques of left-wing dictatorships, starting with the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and the Western intellectuals who supported him, have rendered the writer who planted roses, as Solnit aptly puts it, a “totemic figure claimed by people across the political spectrum.”


Becoming a Political Writer

Orwell, whose birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, was born in 1903 in India, where his father Richard Walmsley Blair was a civil servant. The Blair family, as Solnit observes, were descendants of “colonists and servants of empire who lived off the fat of others’ land and labor.” Charles Blair, the writer’s great, great grandfather, made money through the immensely profitable sugar trade, the result of “extraordinarily brutal slave labor.” As a civil servant, Orwell’s father worked in the opium business in India, overseeing the farming of poppies and production of the drug in a process that “impoverished, coerced, and sometimes brutally punished the Indian peasants doing the growing and refining.”  While still a teenager, the young Eric Blair served as a policeman in Burma, bullying locals into “submitting to an unwanted colonial authority,” as Solnit puts it.


The writer who planted roses in Wallington in 1936 was thus rooting himself not only in a particular soil, Solnit stresses, but also in “ideas and traditions and lineages that whether he loathed them or not were his and were all around him.” By 1936, Orwell, who had assumed that name in 1933, had two moderately successful books to his credit. In Down and Out in London and Paris, he described his life impersonating a tramp in London and washing dishes in Paris. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he provided a sympathetic account of Britain’s Northern mining communities. Both reflected the writer’s deliberate choice to become “downwardly mobile” by spending time among the poor, as a “kind of expiation of [his] colonial phase and an engagement with the classes he had been taught to shun.” What he saw in the coalmines had impressed him “not just as subject matter for a book but as a harrowing encounter with suffering and exploitation that furthered his transformation into a political writer.”


At the end of 1936, Orwell set out with Eileen for Spain where, for about three months, he fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, during which he was injured and nearly killed. Driven to Spain by his hatred for fascism and Nazism, Orwell’s brief participation in the civil war led him to the conclusion that communism under Stalin threatened individual liberty at least as much as the ideologies of Mussolini and Hitler. His war experiences and observations informed Homage to Catalonia, which, although only moderately successful at the time, cemented Orwell’s turn to political writing. The Spanish Civil War, Solnit writes, sharpened his “ordinary loathing of hypocrisy and evasiveness” into a “focus on the power of lies in political life that only grew stronger in his 1940s essays and in Animal Farm and in what is perhaps the twentieth century’s most significant book about systematic lying, Nineteen Eighty-Four.” 


Orwell himself, Solnit notes, held many prejudices common to his social class about race, homosexuality, gender, and nationality, with gender being one of his “most significant blind spots.” He almost never reviewed books by women or mentioned women in his literary essays. Women’s voices appeared rarely in his writing. He never appeared to consider how marriages and families can become “authoritarian regimes in miniature, down to the suppression of truths and promulgation of lies that protect the powerful.”  Orwell was “part of an age that was (with some notable exceptions) strategically oblivious to inequalities we have since worked hard to recognize,” Solnit writes.


Eileen died unexpectedly from complications from a hysterectomy in 1945. The couple had recently adopted a son, Richard Blair. Animal Farm was published later in 1945, six months after Eileen’s death. In June 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared, roughly six months prior to Orwell’s own death from tuberculosis in January 1950. Much of the work on Nineteen Eighty-Four took place on a remote tip of the island of Jura, off the Western Scottish coast, where Orwell renewed the connection to the land he had established in Wallington, writing while maintaining what amounted to a farm, with livestock, crops, fruit trees, a tractor and an abundance of flowers. Solnit describes the writer’s premature death in terms that evoke the Wallington rose garden and the Jura farm: the tuberculosis bacteria, she writes, had “made a garden of his lungs and were flourishing there, feeding on him as though the soft tissue of his lungs was fertile topsoil.”


Orwell and the Soviet Union’s War on Science

Of the many digressions taken by Orwell’s Roses, the story of Russian botanists Trofim Lysenko and Nikolai Vavilov can be linked most directly to Orwell’s thinking. Solnit describes the story as the “triumph of a liar over a truth teller and the immense cost of those lies,” and it served as a source of inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lysenko was a bogus scientist but brilliant political strategist who triumphed bureaucratically over Vavilov, a “magnificent agronomist” without Lysenko’s political survival skills. Both men sought to improve Russian food production. Both worked on producing hardier and more productive strains of wheat, but Vavilov’s methods required several years, while Lysenko promised “impossibly quick results.”


Vavilov established the world’s largest seed bank in Leningrad. His institute offered the “possibility of food security through biodiversity.” Lysenko’s pseudoscience aligned with Marxist ideology and Soviet aspirations, convincing Stalin that wheat, like the individual, was “malleable, and that he could breed wheat that would inherit acquired characteristics.” A journalist for The Atlantic likened Lysenko’s theories to “cutting the tail off a cat and expecting her to give birth to tailless kittens.” Yet, Stalin had complete faith in Lysenko, decreeing that biologists opposing him should be “dismissed,” with all that that term implied in Stalin’s Soviet Union.


Lysenko’s practices prolonged and exacerbated the food shortages that led to the infamous famines in the Soviet Union in the 1930s which killed as many as 7 million people, a large portion of whom lived in Ukraine. According to The Atlantic, Lysenko may bear responsibility for killing “more human beings than any individual scientist in history.” Vavilov was arrested and died in captivity in 1943. Lysenko’s career continued to rise after World War II.


Orwell became aware of the Lysenko-Vavilov story at a 1944 PEN symposium in London on freedom of expression in the USSR. He was “riveted” by the talk of biologist John Baker, the only participant to speak up about the violent repression of scientific inquiry in the Soviet Union, then a war time ally of Great Britain and the United States. Baker explained how the Soviets under Stalin had done “horrific things against both the facts of biological science and those who espoused and advanced them.” For Orwell, Soviet scientific repression served as an “occasion to contemplate large questions about truth and fact, lies and manipulation, and their consequences.”


Contemplating Larger Questions About Truth and Lies

Orwell was ahead of his time in perceiving how these large questions were playing out in Stalin’s Soviet Union. In a perverse way, Stalin was Orwell’s “principal muse,” Solnit writes, “if not as a personality, then as the figure at the center of a terrifying authoritarianism wreathed in lies.” Beginning with his short experience in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell exposed the acquiescence of the political left and Western intelligentsia in the “extraordinary dictatorship of lies that was Stalin’s USSR and its outposts and supporters around the world.”


This acquiescence “often meant swallowing or spreading lies and denying facts.” Beginning with noble ideals of freedom, equality and anti-capitalist revolution, a stunning number of Western intellectuals came around to supporting “one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has ever seen,” in part because the USSR was seen as a bulwark against Hitler’s dictatorship. The playwright George Bernard Shaw, for example, was among those who denied that famines had occurred in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.


With Stalin’s Soviet Union as his immediate example, Orwell conveyed powerfully that “one of the powers tyrants hold is to destroy and distort the truth and force others to submit to what they know is untrue.” The writer’s signature achievement in Solnit’s view was to pinpoint as no one else had how totalitarian forms of government threatened language and consciousness as they threatened liberty and human rights. In 1944, Orwell observed that the “really frightening thing about totalitarianism” was “not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.”


Language for Orwell was thus the source of much of the world’s ugliness and of much of its beauty. He was “passionately committed to language as a contract crucial to all our other contracts. Words should exist in reliable relationship to what they describe, whether it’s an object or an event or a commitment,” Solnit writes. For Orwell a lie was more than a falsehood, representing a broken contract which gradually erode our “capacity to know and connect.” In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argued for language that could be “clear but evocative,” with the integrity of “honored contracts.” In his own writing and that of others, Orwell celebrated language that endeavors to “reach out and make whole through the use of words that connect, empower, liberate, illuminate.”


In another 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell confessed that in more peaceful times, he might have written more ornately or merely descriptively, and “might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.” Solnit’s own credo comes from this essay. “Clarity, precision, accuracy, honesty and truthfulness are aesthetic values to him, and pleasures,” she writes. These values are beautiful because “in them representation is true to its subject, knowledge is democratized, people are empowered, doors are open, information moves freely, contracts are honored.”


Can The Threads Be Woven Together?

Solnit avoids what she terms the “popular feat of connecting phenomena that Orwell described and deplored” to the “crimes and travesties of our own times;” the task is “too easy” and the relevant topics “too abundant and obvious,” although she does allow that the “age of Trump and climate denial are of course over-the-top Orwellian.” But insights into Orwell and his thinking seem likely to remain relevant to political discourse for the foreseeable future – we are still far from a post-Orwellian age, where political lies and manipulation of language have become quaint relics of an earlier time – and Solnit manages to provide many such insights.


Readers unfamiliar with Orwell’s Thoreau side, so connected to the land and nature, will welcome Solnit’s presentation of this side of the writer. The digressions and forays into non-Orwellian subjects that dot Solnit’s sweeping tour, extending far beyond Wallington, Orwell and his roses, are usually interesting and frequently provocative, if often distracting. But working out how the disparate threads of this multi-directional, idiosyncratic work fit together is likely to prove elusive for most readers.


Image Credit: Orwell’s Roses [cover] (Penguin Random House), Fair Use.

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