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The Unfamiliar Orwell

The Unfamiliar Orwell

  • A review of Rebecca Solnit's new book, "Orwell's Roses."

Spiders that build those kinds of webs that look like perfect dart boards are called orb weavers, and they are exacting builders. They start with a bridge line, sending silk off on the wind in hopes it will catch on a neighboring plant. Then they throw down anchor lines and a perimeter frame. Next, a central hub, which becomes the spider’s workstation. Out of the central hub, the spider runs spokes, dashing out from the center to the edge and dashing back in again. Finally, the orb weaver lays down its iconic spiral, connecting even the most distant spokes, one to the next.

There’s a species of orb weaver, Araneus diadematus, so common to British gardens that it is simply called the garden spider. When George Orwell planted roses at his cottage in Wallington, England, no doubt the garden spider was there. Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses takes these roses as the central hub of her book. Then she works like the orb weaver to build a web of connections. Her web brings into focus a figure whom she calls “the unfamiliar Orwell”—a figure quite different from the severe antifascist and pragmatic prose stylist found in the pages of biographers. Solnit uses Orwell’s roses as a lens  to reexamine his life and work and to meditate on the place of delight in the struggle for justice, both in his time and in ours.

When Orwell planted his roses in 1936, he had just returned from a research trip to the coal mining towns of England’s industrial north, an experience that became the basis of his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier. What he saw there was extractive capitalism and labor exploitation, and when he came home, he understood just how hard it was to connect the coal burning in his fireplace to the people he saw mining it. “It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines,” he wrote. Orwell’s experience in the coal mines allows Solnit to build a spoke on the theme of alienation. She explores several other instances of the way labor relations, especially racialized ones, are rendered invisible, including the example of Orwell’s own ancestors: his great-grandfather owned a sugar plantation in Jamaica, and Orwell’s father was an opium agent in India.

Solnit moves along this spoke from the coal mines of 1936 to the industrial rose production of present-day Colombia, where she traveled for an investigative trip. Here, according to Solnit, alienation rules and beauty is dead. The rose factory, she writes, is the “perfect emblem of alienation,” with its brutal labor conditions and environmental devastation all artfully obscured by the mythos of the rose. Perhaps as a response to everything he saw in the coal mines and to what Solnit later saw in the rose factory, Orwell planted his roses as an antidote: a process and product both wholly unalienated.

Solnit’s other main theory of what these roses meant to Orwell is that they were a source of leisure and pleasure in a life dedicated to the fight for justice. This, the delight spoke, sends Solnit off to build another set of associations, beginning with the Italian artist Tina Modotti’s 1924 photograph “Roses, Mexico.” Modotti was a modernist photographer, but as Solnit tells it, Modotti stopped making art when her Communist politics hardened into support for Stalin, as though art-making, delight, joy, and leisure were somehow counter-revolutionary. Orwell, a democratic socialist and, unlike Modotti, a stalwart critic of Stalin, faced this same criticism: “Last time I mentioned flowers in this column,” he wrote from London in the midst of World War II, “an indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois.” Solnit argues that the time Orwell spent tending his roses—or the time any artist or activist spends away from “the work”—was far from bourgeois. These are moments of “reinforcement and refuge” that “fortify” artists and revolutionaries. They are integral to being able to do the work at all.

To Solnit, such moments of delight bear on politics in yet another way: their preservation is one of the goals of progressive change. While Orwell’s antifascist novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is “mostly remembered as a novel about Big Brother, the Thought Police, the memory hole, Newspeak, [and] torture,” if we read it through the lens of Orwell’s roses, as Solnit does, we can see it as a novel about what Orwell valued, not just about what he opposed. Joy, beauty, nature, memory, hobbies, and solitude are all present in the novel. “They’re endangered, furtive, corrupted,” Solnit writes, “but they exist.” They exist in the thrush that sings in the Golden Country and the love that Winston and Julia make there; they exist in the glass paperweight with the fossilized coral inside that Winston buys from the junk shop, and the journal he buys there, too. For Solnit, these images are fleeting glimpses of all that is threatened by repression and all that is worth saving. Totalitarianism was what Orwell fought against, but these values were what he fought for.

This lover of nature and leisure—this is the unfamiliar Orwell. He is the Orwell of the domestic diary he kept to detail the goings-on in his garden: “Flowers now in the garden: polyanthus, aubretia, scilla, grape hyacinth, oxalis, a few narcissi.” And he is the Orwell of the 1946 essay “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” which describes the toad as having “about the most beautiful eye of any living creature,” an eye like the “gold-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings.” He is an Orwell who rejoiced in the ordinary expressions of life as much he rejected the repressive ideologies that would restrain them.

Orwell’s Roses reads like a journey of discovery of the unfamiliar Orwell, first by Solnit, then by us. The first time through the book is exhilarating; it is almost impossible to predict where Solnit will go next. Readers are beneficiaries of Solnit’s erudition and eccentric research trajectories, and we learn much that would be hard to imagine fitting into a more conventional biographic narrative. There is a sense that Solnit has spun a perfect orb web, has organized all the tidbits, and has revealed a connected spiral that presents Orwell in new light. 

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Yet on subsequent readings of Orwell’s Roses, as I tried to trace all the book’s connections, it became clear that Solnit’s web is not as meticulously built as it seems. It is a bit more of a tangle than a neatly constructed orb, with associative lines of thought that have their own inner logic but which Solnit must wrestle back to the book’s central theme, such as her reflections on the Orwell family’s ties to slavery and imperialism, which lead Solnit into a chapter on Jamaica Kindcaid and her Vermont gardens.

There are spiders that build webs called tangle webs. They are of the Theridiidae family, and while their most feared member is the black widow, their most visible is so often seen in the dusty corners of human dwellings that it is simply called the house spider. The tangle it makes for its web works perfectly well for catching prey. Yet Orwell made it a point never to write in tangles. His famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” outlined the most objectionable habits of writers of his generation and argued for crystalline prose. He took a hard line on metaphors, regretting the “huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” I don’t know what he’d think of my metaphor, but now that I’ve met the unfamiliar Orwell, I can guess how he’d like the garden spider.

Orwell’s Roses
By Rebecca Solnit
Published October 19, 2021

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