Roses, Mexico by Tina Modotti, 1924

A thoughtful old-fashioned rambler

George Orwell’s gardening prowess comes as a surprise

This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When I think about Rebecca Solnit’s remarkable book, Orwell’s Roses, the image of a kaleidoscope comes to mind. As the dictionary defines the term, it’s a delightfully diverse and unpredictable sequence of sights and events. 

Her starting point is the garden Orwell created at his cottage in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington in 1936, recording how he planted apple trees and roses. When Rebecca went to see what had happened to this garden more than 70 years later, she found the apple trees gone, but the roses blooming prodigiously. 

Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit (Granta, £9.99)

George Orwell’s gardening prowess was a surprise to me, I’m ashamed to say. When researching my book on working-class gardeners, I came across a 1974 interview with the son of a publican in Southwold in Suffolk. In the early 30s, his father had rented an allotment to Richard Blair and his son, Eric, who was to become George Orwell. According to him, they knew nothing about gardening and were constantly asking fundamental advice. Significantly he felt that owning an allotment was an odd thing for people in their walk of life to do. 

Clearly, George Orwell was a fast learner, for he became an accomplished gardener. His diary often included horticultural notes. In March 1940 at Wallingford, the entry reads: “As a result of the frost all kinds of cabbages, except a few Brussels sprouts, are completely destroyed. The spring cabbages have not only died but entirely disappeared, no doubt eaten off by the birds … All the rose cuttings have survived except one. Snowdrops are out & some yellow crocuses, a few polyanthi trying to flower, tulips & daffodils showing, rhubarb just sprouting, ditto peonies, black currants budding, red currants not, gooseberries budding.” 

Five years later, following the death of his wife Eileen he resolved to leave Wallington and to move up to the Scottish island of Jura, where again he cultivated a garden. A diary entry for the beginning of 1949 runs: “Snowdrops up all over the place. A few tulips showing. Some wallflowers trying to flower.” Just over a week later he was taken to a sanatorium in the Cotswolds and his long fight against ill-health was finally lost when he died at the age of 45. 

Interwoven with the story of his life and his love for flowers, Rebecca Solnit introduces a range of themes. One concerns Bread and Roses. The term comes from a line in an American poem published in 1911, taken up by women textile workers on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Bread vital for survival is set alongside roses that give pleasure with their beauty and perfume. 

The term was later used as a metaphor for the infighting during the Spanish Civil War. Tina Modotti, a brilliant photographer of roses, was obliged to abandon her art after submitting to the puritanical doctrine that true socialists should not enjoy flowers.

The author likened the shape of this book to a rose

Orwell enlisted in 1936, just after he started his garden at Wallington. He later wrote: “The Spanish war and other events in 1936–37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Orwell suffered both mental and physical damage in Spain: he was seriously wounded by a bullet through his neck when he raised his head above the parapet. But he found the battlefield provided the opportunity for resolving political conflict in Russia. 

Bread of course features large in the story of the Soviet Union. In 1928 Stalin launched the first of his five-year plans to accelerate his programme of industrialisation, drawing people to the cities and setting off famine that resulted in more than five million people dying, mostly in Ukraine, ironically known as the breadbasket of Europe. Inevitably, I was reminded of the current nightmare of the war in the Ukraine.

Against the stories of the beauty of roses, we are told about the Colombian rose industry. In an attempt to replace the country’s dependence on the cultivation of coca leaves, from which cocaine is made, it was decided to encourage the growing of roses. This has developed into an intensive industry supplying 80 per cent of the roses sold in the United States. 

The flowers, mostly varieties of hybrid tea, are grown not for their scent and their beauty in maturity, for many never make it that far. As the author describes them, the working conditions for those who pick and package the blooms have more than a touch of the world of 1984. 

The author herself apparently likened the shape of this book to a rose. She certainly did not have the image of the sharply-pointed buds of the hybrid tea roses. Nor does it remind me of the scrambling character of a climbing rose, such as Rambling Rector. Instead, she has produced a diverse and thought-provoking book that resembles old-fashioned varieties, which she characterises as achieving their full expression when the rose is open. 

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