Although I’ll happily read anything by Rebecca Solnit, I wasn’t expecting to get much from this book. I had previously enjoyed George Orwell’s short collection of essays Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, and his book The Road to Wigan Pier perches atop my precipitous To Read pile, but I have no interest in Orwell’s more famous fictional works, so expected Solnit’s book to be of only passing interest.
I should have known better: I absolutely loved this book.
Loosely structured around a brief biography of George Orwell, Orwell’s Roses also explores themes in his work, and the moral and literary values he adhered to. Orwell was a keen gardener, and the delight he took in growing roses is a running theme throughout this book. Solnit also adopts the metaphor of roses, as previously adopted by the American women’s suffrage movement in their slogan bread and roses, to stand for the small pleasures that elevate our lives. In one particularly excellent chapter, she criticised the moralistic posturing of people who seem to think everyone should be equally unhappy:
The left has never been short on people arguing that it is callous and immoral to enjoy oneself while others suffer, and somewhere others will always be suffering. It’s a puritanical position, implying that what one has to offer them is one’s own austerity or joylessness, rather than some practical contribution toward their liberation.
In another excellent chapter, Solnit explores the importance of being truthful in factual writing, while denying this leaves insufficient scope for the use of creative literary techniques. In later chapters, she goes on to explore the damage done when people are lied to, and the inability of totalitarian states to function without lies.
Orwell’s Roses is an unusual, thought-provoking book that meanders between important topics in a most enjoyable manner. I would describe is as a gem, but, in the circumstances, a rose seems more appropriate.