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The journey inspired by Orwell’s roses, still flowering 70 years after his death

Dani Garavelli reviews Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit and The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood

In the spring of 1936, as he settled down to write The Road to Wigan Pier, essayist and polemicist George Orwell planted roses in the garden of his new home: a 16th-century cottage in the village of Wallington, Hertfordshire. 

In the autumn of 2017, as she was recovering from illness, essayist and polemicist Rebecca Solnit visited that cottage and found the roses – a traditional symbol of evanescence – flowering almost 70 years after his death. 

Those roses filled Solnit with a “joyous exultation”. They had been tended by Orwell’s hands; their scent had filled his nostrils. Still thriving, they formed “a sort of saeculum”, their paper-thin petals offering continuity and connection. 

She was also struck by what the act of planting roses, plants which have no purpose but to please, said about a writer known for his “unyielding political vision”. It altered her perception of his character and his work. And so she settled down to write Orwell’s Roses. 

This is, if you overthink it, a slightly odd premise. It relies on the reader sharing Solnit’s image of Orwell as dour and pragmatic and opposed to beauty for beauty’s sake. Yet, isn’t the point of Nineteen Eighty-Four that people need roses as well as bread? Isn’t that why Winston Smith places so much value in the coral paperweight? 

If you let this slide, however, the book proves an entertaining ramble through the author’s life and Solnit’s consciousness. Along the way, she considers roses visually, genetically, metaphysically. She explores their many species and their place in art and literature. 

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For the most part, this rhizomatic exercise yields great blooms. Solnit muses on Tina Modotti’s iconic photograph of roses and how she gave up her art to work for the Soviet Union during its most brutal years. “Was it the very joy… she took in beauty… that convinced her she must relinquish it to be a revolutionary,” she wonders.  

In another chapter, Solnit uses Stalin’s determination to grow lemons in an unconducive climate as a springboard for an analysis of his opposition to Darwinism and the anti-science propaganda Orwell railed against. 

She also visits a Colombian rose “factory” where she discovers an exploited workforce and flowers bereft of scent. Her journey mirrors Orwell’s through the working-class communities of northern England – which formed the basis of The Road to Wigan Pier – and his exposé of the human cost of coal mining. 

The parallel reconnects the two writers towards the close. But to point this out suggests a greater structure than exists. Much of the pleasure of Solnit’s book lies in its randomness. Is Orwell’s Roses as perfectly cultivated as Orwell’s roses? Probably not, but it’s fun to stroll through the wilderness. 

In Christine Smallwood’s debut novel The Life of the Mind, academic Dorothy’s thoughts are similarly prone to stravaiging. In the midst of a protracted miscarriage, she is alienated from everything: her friends, her boyfriend, her body, her career. All life’s promise appears to be trickling away. 

Yes, it’s bleak, but Smallwood is a brilliant satirist so it is also hilarious. In one scintillating passage, Dorothy imagines a future generation of raft children castigating her for her climate change inaction. And then there is her description of how her ex-boyfriend killed their relationship with his insistence on whispering Frank O’Hara poems into her vagina. That’s an image that lives on in the mind. 

Dani Garavelli is an award-winning author and critic 

@DaniGaravelli1 

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit is out now (Granta, £16.99

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood is out now (Europa, £12.99

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