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320 pages, Hardcover
First published October 19, 2021
Orwell is renowned for what he wrote against—authoritarianism and totalitarianism, the corruption of language and politics by lies and propaganda (and sloppiness), the erosion of the privacy that underlies liberty. From those forces, it’s possible to determine what he was for: equality and democracy, clarity of language and honesty of intentions, private life and all its pleasures and joys, the freedom and liberty that also depend to some extent on privacy from supervision and intrusion, and the pleasures of immediate experience.In this latest book of her essays, Rebecca Solnit shows us Orwell’s less familiar side, which she uncovers from his diaries and essays, an Englishman of yesterday who took pleasures in his simple homestead life, pastoral landscapes, and the beauty of nature, animals and flowers. He grew his own roses with meticulous and loving care, whose beauty inspired countless poets and painters throughout the centuries. The sheer enjoyment in their beauty and, more generally, intangible things as Orwell found in his cottage and countryside epitomizes the meaningful interior of one’s private life. Its meaning figures in the suffragist slogan “breads and roses” to which Solnit devotes one chapter and keeps turning to this central theme as she searches for an answer to how to make a good life as private individuals while, at the same time, conscientiously responding to larger social injustices, power corruption, and environmental destruction.
Was the ugliness in the roses for being produced in such a way or in us for failing to see it? Had the roses become lies of a sort, seeming to be one thing but being in truth another? Were they now emblems of deceit, a kind of counterfeit rose signifying formal beauty rather than their own conditions of production? Much of Orwell’s work was about ugliness of various kinds, but what he found hideous serves as a negative image of what he found beautiful.Taking Orwell’s life and works as a point of departure, Solnit takes us into the multifaceted nature of these contradictions in today’s world, happening both somewhere there in modern versions of physical and ideological gulags and over here in our own lives disconnected from nature and the simplicity of meaningful life. It’s a superb homage from one essayist to another, who was her inspiration as her thoughtful and beautifully written book (though with occasional digressions and sometimes loose connections) should inspire any reader.
“He described the appeal of these shops to “the jackdaw inside all of us, the instinct that makes a child hoard copper nails, clock springs, and the glass marbles out of lemonade bottles. To get pleasure out of a junk shop you are not obliged to buy anything, nor even to want to buy anything.”Apparently this was one of Orwell’s biggest pleasures as well, together with gardening or drinking tea. He had a whole ritual when it came to drinking tea (so British of him!). I must admit, this might not appeal much to other readers, but I had a sense of kinship with Orwell while reading these particular details about his personality.
“On the twelfth of January he published an essay on the proper way to make a cup of tea, about which he had strong opinions: water straight from a boiling kettle, loose tea in abundance, from India and not China if possible, in a ceramic or china teapot, and most controversially, and adamantly, the tea in the cup first, and not the milk. No sugar.”This book is and it isn’t about Orwell. And by this I mean that it’s not just a biography of Orwell. It is about many other things as well: about roses and trees, but also about global warming and totalitarian regimes, about the injustices of the world, about the wrongs done by the British empire throughout the world through colonialism, about the millions of people killed by Stalin, about truths we choose to ignore rather than deal with because it’s more comfortable that way.
“England’s national flower is the red Tudor rose. But the prickly truth is that the English owe much of their wealth to another blood-red flower; the poppy,[…]”The book is also about the horrendous work conditions in coal mines, about how poorly workers in rose factories from the Carribeans are treated in order for us to have enough cheap roses for Valentines’ day or Mother’s Day. But although I might have given the impression that Solnit only focuses on the negative, she does not. She also writes about the types of roses that have been cultivated all over the world and about the history of the rose. She writes about the positive connotations they are associated with, about how even the Nazis could be moved by plants, about the idyllic beauty of the English gardens (even though many of the people owning them had become rich by exploiting slaves in the colonies).
“Think of the Carboniferous as a sixty-million-year inhale by plants, sucking carbon dioxide from the sky, and the last two hundred years as a monstrous human-engineered exhale, undoing what the plants did so long ago.”I am not very fond of reading biographies in general and I might not have picked this book up had it not been written by Solnit. Although it was less dreamy than the other two I have really enjoyed by her (“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” and “The Faraway Nearby”) and more fact-oriented, it was still poetic at times and full of beautiful ideas and I must admit that I even enjoyed finding out some less-known facts about Orwell, like the ones about junk shops or tea or funny things like the one in the next quote.
“In 1938, he and Eileen named their dog Marx “to remind us that we have never read Marx,” Eileen (his wife) wrote to a friend, adding “now we have read a little and taken so strong a personal dislike to the man that we can’t look the dog in the face.””