David Epstein
Monday, 29 November 2021

Review: Orwell the gardener and his politics

Few authors are embraced or invoked as widely as Eric Arthur Blair. Some don’t even feel the need for a nodding acquaintance of his writing to claim Orwell as endorsement of a prejudice or critique. Not many embraces are as elastic.

Rarely are descriptors applied more dubiously than “Orwell’s politics”. It is refreshing an accomplished essayist and scholar of Blair decided to write a book on ‘George Orwell’ that the subject actually declared was “Outside my work the thing I care about most…”.  That was gardening – the prompt for Rebecca Solnit’s “Orwell’s Roses”.

Solnit does not confine herself to either Orwell or gardening, but Blair’s garden is where she starts.  “Orwell’s Roses” is a collection of affectionate, erudite essays, grounded in Eric Blair’s life. It reflects on his writing and values but is not confined to them. Do not expect either a biography or a garden history if you choose to read Solnit’s book.

For those who don’t know, Solnit created the term “mansplaining”. She has views and is not afraid of exploration. 

Orwell’s Roses covers a gamut from coalmining in England, the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s determination to grow lemons in impossible weather near Moscow, Eric Blair’s slave-owning ancestors in Jamaica, on to industrialised rose farms in Colombia supplying flower-mad US, finishing with a reprise of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Solnit weaves a lot together.

Her essays are sophisticated – complex, really – without diffidence. Rebecca Solnit calls her approach as ‘rhizomatic’ – for the layperson: an analytical and narrative technique ‘like the runners and feelers of a strawberry plant’; akin to ‘mycorrhizal networks that connect trees to one another’, for those who know plant biology. The result is a book that ranges widely, and makes a virtue of connecting facts and thoughts, sometimes too extensively.

I don’t know what state the roses Eric Blair planted outside his Hertfordshire cottage are in, but Solnit’s eponym could have done with some judicious pruning before publication.

Solnit acknowledges Orwell’s 1946 essay, A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray, got her started, with its references to planting fruit trees and roses bought from Woolworths.   Ironically, perhaps humorously, she describes that essay for Tribune as a ‘meandering’ work.   Orwell’s essays could range, though he knew when to pause; mostly.  Solnit’s ranging wanders.

Don’t be dissuaded from reading “Orwell’s Roses; accept you may find yourself wishing the editing had been tougher. The failing is not fatal. Even the best lose the reader, Orwell found this when he indulged himself with gardening references.

Shortly after writing his 1946 column in Tribune, touching on how well his Woolworths roses had done since he had planted them a decade earlier, Eric Blair found himself noting ‘an indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois’.

How wrong-headed that lady was. Flowers may be bourgeois, and some may dismiss a deep reflection on Orwell and gardening as indulgent superfluity, but hindsight renders her complaints unwise and desiccated.

‘The plant is blind but it knows enough to keep pushing upwards towards the light,

and it will continue to do this in the face of endless discouragements’.

Eric Arthur Blair, writing as George Orwell

Orwell’s interest in gardening should not be ignored. His writing on food was less extensive but many readers have found no shame in appreciating it or, on occasion, celebrating it. Eric Arthur Blair, sometime gardener, merits wider study.

Orwell probably wrote about gardens less eloquently than he did on food– most likely because he wrote on gardening more often for his diaries than paid publication. It took Christopher Hitchens, in his Introduction to Peter Davison’s 2012 compendium of Orwell’s “Diaries”, to finger these entries as ‘occasionally laborious’.

We need to overcome the fact that the “Diaries” may not be Blair as Orwell at his best. We should pay more attention to Orwell the gardener despite the effort it can involve. Doing so can tell us much about the writer, his times and what he thought formed him as a personality.

Gardening was a refuge for Orwell.  It was not a retreat from politics; he saw gardening as partly about leaving a legacy and not one divorced from political perspective.

In remembering a tree commemorating the Vicar of Bray, Orwell wrote: ‘the planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil’.

Relating the memory to his own gardening, Eric Blair as Orwell reveals simultaneously, not entirely implicitly, a deep love of countryside, a moderate’s belief in redemption – notwithstanding being tough judge of others – and deep commitment to communal welfare.

He expands: ‘Even an apple tree is liable to live for about 100 years, so that the Cox I planted in 1936 may still be bearing fruit well into the 21st century. An oak or a beech may live for hundreds of years and be a pleasure to thousands or tens of thousands of people before it is finally sawn up into timber. I am not suggesting that one can discharge all one’s obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.

And, if even one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.’

Progressive Orwell may have been, but he seems never to have fully shaken the sensibilities of Eric Arthur Blair’s Edwardian-era, English upper-middle class childhood.

Blair as Orwell took pains to distinguish patriotism from nationalism, memorably in Notes on Nationalism’, a point Bernard Crick makes well introducing George Orwell: a life. As Crick contends, ‘…there was a gentler patriotism in Orwell which preceded his socialism and stemmed from his love of English literature, customs and countryside’.

It is not too cruel to mesh the judgements of Cyril Connolly, who quipped his friend Eric Blair was ‘a revolutionary who was in love with the 1900s’, and V.S. Pritchett who called Blair as Orwell ‘…a writer who has “gone native” in his own country’. Lending truth to those sketch portraits, Orwell wrote in self-explanation: ‘I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world-view that I acquired in childhood’.

‘So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.’

Eric Arthur Blair as George Orwell

As a New York Times reviewer of the 2012 edition of Orwell’s diaries wrote: ‘If a friend of yours … declares, “My, what an Orwellian garden you have,” do not wrinkle your eyebrows. He or she has paid you a very serious compliment indeed’. Orwell the gardener is worth knowing more about and “Orwell’s Roses” is worth seeking out.