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roses

The grave of George Orwell - born Eric Blair - is marked by his beloved roses in the village of Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. Photo by Mark Hodson/Alamy

Bread and Roses: Orwell's Sumptuous Resistance

Abby Zimet

At the start of a fraught new year - "Every day is Jan. 6 now" - we celebrate the act of faith and hope that are the enduring, seemingly improbable roses planted decades ago by George Orwell, that staunch, prophetic Socialist who nonetheless saw beauty as a citadel against the forces of totalitarianism we now face. In a new book - equal parts discursive biography, natural history of gardening and capitalist critique - Rebecca Solnit re-imagines the bleak author of 1984 through the prism of his love for gardening, finding an Orwell who embraced the link between our personal, political and natural worlds, cherished “the intangible, ordinary pleasures," and insisted, "Beauty is meaningless until it is shared." "In 1936, a man born Eric Blair, who had rechristened himself George Orwell, planted roses," she begins Orwell's Roses, describing a cottage in the small English village of Wallington where Orwell and his wife Eileen moved that spring; during their stay, they kept hens and goats, grew fruit and vegetables, and, she found over 80 years later, nurtured at least two rose bushes that still survive today. "What did this great prophet of totalitarianism - what the hell was he doing planting roses?" Solnit wonders. She goes on to explore the many other things that gave Orwell pleasure, even within his dark political vision - his love of toads, the English countryside, a good cup of tea, "the surface of the earth" - suggesting we, too, find joy alongside "the important work we're here to do": "People think of politics as always eating your spinach, when often it's eating cream puffs and champagne."

In her habitually meandering way, Solnit's book weaves a tapestry that roves from roses to war, capitalism, Stalinism, climate change. She acknowledges the colonial history of much of what Orwell, a product of his era, loved, and travels to Colombia - which raises 80% of the roses sold in the U.S. - to visit its brutal, exploitative, "invisible factories of visible pleasure." She revisits Orwell's work to unearth a writer whose oft-unseen perspectives "counterbalance his cold eye on political monstrosity,” whose grimmest writings reveal beauty and joy. Re-reading 1984, she finds Winston Smith creates "a self that can resist" through "a world of sensory perception (to) counter the propaganda and lies"; his first act is to pull out "this beautiful book with luscious creamy paper" and start writing on it, relishing "the sheer pleasure of the texture of the paper." "It gave me a different Orwell," she says. "The writing had shown that all along, but we hadn't seen it." Thus does Orwell emerge as an "impeccable example" of the melding of personal and political lives: A man with a stubborn, delighted, abiding belief in "the joy available in the here and now"; who called planting a tree "a gift (to) posterity that (can) far outlive (any) other actions, good or evil"; who said, “Outside my work, the thing I care most about is gardening" - for, like the rest of us, its "beauty for today, hope for tomorrow." Orwell died at just 46 of tuberculosis; he asked that roses be planted on his grave, and so they were. Like him, may we all claim both bread and roses. And may the year bring kindness, resilience, good health, relative peace of mind, and many indictments.

"If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them." - George Orwell


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. Email: azimet18@gmail.com

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