George Orwell is one of the most influential political writers of the twentieth century. His words had a worldwide impact on authoritarianism during the most devastating times in recent history. Yet, as I learned from the Marginalian post, Orwell dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to… gardening.
Why? I was curious for two reasons.
At the time, I was beginning a new hobby of cultivating planted aquariums. This is like gardening but underwater. And taking care of the plants and of the aquarium life was becoming a very fulfilling activity for me.
Around the same period, I learned that Orwell’s fictional books Animal Farm and 1984 are exceptions. And that, in fact, most of his works are non-fictional political essays. These pieces also showcase his clear and dry writing style. I was hooked and started reading them.
This personal connection between (aquatic) gardening and Orwell’s essays, set the perfect background for diving into the Orwell’s Roses. I was looking for contrast. A more personal perspective on Orwell’s life, and how his habits reflected upon his works. And, very well, that’s what the book gives—at first.
I learned that Orwell was curious and enchanted by nature. That he was a keen observer of plants and birds, and that he marvelled at the mundane things of the natural world. Also, that he kept a journal with commentary about the surrounding wild life, and meticulous updates about his garden and roses.
Orwell could have been a naturalist, an ecologist, or even a biologist. And I greatly enjoyed discovering all of this.
But then Rebecca Solnit starts something that still gives me chills just thinking about it.
Little by little, she begins to put Orwell’s mundane life—his roses, his garden, his origins—into a broader social and political context. If at the beginning of the book we were skimming over the surface, now we submerged deep underneath.
What is the root of Orwell’s love for nature, and how does it relate to his family history or British colonialism? Why are roses so popular, and where do they usually come from?
Orwell’s great-great-grandfather was a slave-owner. His father, an opium agent for the British Empire. Orwell, who was a fierce critic of imperialism, distanced himself from his family’s history by adopting a pseudonym. Yet, as the book highlights, even his love of nature or the act of gardening roses could themselves be reflections of a cultural hegemony deeply rooted in mid-18th British colonial values.
Of course, the book builds and develops these points much better than me. Solnit’s immersive prose is wonderful at drawing connections and uncovering meanings, taking us deeper than I had imagined.