I didn’t know what to expect from Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, I thought that maybe the title was some sort of metaphor so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Orwell was a very keen gardener and nature lover, and was particularly fond of roses. In fact he stipulated that he wanted roses on his grave. Apparently there is one scruffy rose on his grave at Sutton Courtenay. I still have a lot of his essays to read and hope to get around to that soon.
Anyway, to the book: It begins with the author travelling by train from London to a small cottage in Wallington, Cambridgeshire to see if the fruit trees and roses that Orwell planted in a garden there in the 1930s were still alive. Orwell had written a meandering essay about planting them, the roses being an absolute bargain from good old Woolworths. Sadly all of the trees had been cut down but there were a couple of his roses still blooming.
Orwell was sent away to a preparatory school at the age of eight, there he was bullied and shamed because he was one of the pupils who was there at reduced fees. From there he was sent to Eton at the age of 13. He acquired the Etonian accent but as a scholarship boy was in the same position as he had been at the prep school, looked down on by the rich boys. Obviously his school experiences led to him writing Animal Farm.
This is a lovely book which wanders around various subjects such as art, war crime trials, the origin of the phrase “Bread and Roses” – something that I must admit I had never even heard of before, his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the history of the enclosure acts, how the changes affected people, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the plight of Russian peasants, flower production in Colombia and how damaging it is for the people and the environment, the list of subjects tackled seems endless but the author always comes back to Orwell. It ends with
“Orwell’s signal achievement was to name and describe as no one else had the way that totalitarianism was a threat not just to liberty and human rights but to language and consciousness, and he did it in so compelling a way that his last book casts a shadow – or a beacon’s light – into the present. ….
The Work he did is everyone’s job now. It always was.”
Many thanks to Granta Publications for sending me a digital copy of the book via NetGalley.