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Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

by
17 December 2021

Alexander Faludy on Orwell’s love of nature

IN THE good old days when nothing in Woolworth’s cost over sixpence, one of their best lines was their rose bushes,” Orwell mused in the Tribune in January 1944. A minor classic of nature writing, the article drew an indignant response from one reader, who complained that “flowers are bourgeois.”

Orwell retorted: “Is it wicked to take pleasure in Spring . . . to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money?”

In Why I Write (1946), he privileged an urge to communicate “the perception of beauty in the external world” in explaining his own creativity, affirming defiantly: “So long as I remain alive . . . I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects.”

Socialism, he observed, while good at diagnosing ills which humanity needed to be liberated from, struggled to articulate what it was to be liberated for. The Left’s visions of sustained static happiness in a perfected society (set forth in Utopian literature such as William Morris’s News from Nowhere), were pale, uninspiring, and, frankly, dull.

The cry of the American suffragette Helen Todd, “Bread for all, and roses, too!”, became Orwell’s rule of life.

Nature, with its capacity for surprise, and pure sensory delight, offered at least part of the vision of what humanity was to be liberated to enjoy. Amid battles with unbelief, Orwell found in nature’s faculty to connect us to past and future generations through the longevity of trees — even rose bushes — a serviceable substitute for Christianity’s communio sanctorum.

Solnit recovers Orwell’s literary naturalism brilliantly. She also unearths for us how, biographically speaking, Orwell’s strenuous politico-literary engagement relied on gritty communion with nature, be it at his cottage in Wallington, Hertfordshire, where he cultivated (Woolworth’s) roses, or the remote Isle of Jura, where he managed a smallholding and wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newspapers told him what he was fighting against; Wallington and Jura what he was fighting for.

Some of Solnit’s mid-text digressions, especially into political economy, might be better as an afterword. Church Times readers will, though, find much to enjoy, including Orwell’s characterisation of the Common Toad emerging from hibernation as having “a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent”.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist.

 

Orwell’s Roses
Rebecca Solnit
Granta £16.99
(978-1-78378-545-2)
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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