Back at the end of 2021, the UK bookshop chain Waterstones had a very popular half-price sale on all hardbacks; many bookish types shared massive hauls, but mine in the end was more restrained! I picked up two lovely looking volumes via my proxy shopper, Youngest Child, and they were Paul Morley’s massive tome on Tony Wilson, and the book I want to talk about today – “Orwell’s Roses” by Rebecca Solnit.

I’d been umming and ahing about Solnit’s book for a while; she’s an author I knew of but hadn’t read, and although I love anything Orwell, I did wonder how I would find her take on him. However, there had been much praise doing the rounds online, and so I instructed Youngest Child to pounce on the one copy lurking; I figured it was worth having a go at her work! Was the purchase justified? Yes, I think so, although the jury is still out a little bit on this one…

Solnit is the author of numerous books and essays, and in fact I’d bought her “Men Explain Things To Me” for Middle Child when it came out. Here, she takes the jumping off point of the fact that author George Orwell planted rose bushes in his cottage at Wallington in 1936; planting anything is an act of faith, an investment of sorts in the future, and at the same time he planted trees. Visiting the cottage recently, Solnit found that the trees had gone but there were rose bushes still there which could have been Orwell’s. From this start, she goes on to explore far and wide: the symbolism of roses, the problems of their mass production, whether beauty is a luxury or a necessity, Orwell’s life and beliefs, colonialism – well, as you can see, there are all manner of topics covered in the book! Underlying them is that love of nature and gardening, and the positive effects this can have on our struggling planet; as well as an attempt to show Orwell in a new light, that of a man who took joy in small things and whose outlook was not as dour and dark as has been portrayed.

If you dig into Orwell’s work, you find a lot of sentences about flowers and pleasures and the natural world. If you read enough of those sentences the gray portrait turns to colour, and if you look for these passages, even his last masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, changes complexion.

It has to be said that Solnit writes beautifully, and the number of post-its peeking out of my copy is evidence of that. However, my initially positive response to the book became a little tempered as I went on through it. Without wishing to resort to cliche, Solnit can meander like the best rambling rose, and there were times when I thought she was stretching her point and that the book needed a little judicious pruning. Much of the narrative covers her own experiences, too, so you need to be invested in her as an author. In reality, this is a series of essays knitted together, and there are some elements which really felt a bit extraneous to me. A section on Ralph Lauren and chintzes; a slightly clumsy anecdote about Jaffa cakes; there were parts which I felt could have been removed and improved the whole.

Revisiting a significant book is like revisiting an old friend: you find out how you’ve changed when you encounter them again; you see differently because you’re different. Some books grow, some wither upon reacquaintance, or because you’re asking different questions you find different answers.

This is not to say that the book is bad; when she’s on point and discussing Orwell, his life, his writing, his books, their relevance to their time and to today, she’s excellent and there was much to chew on and much I hadn’t taken in before. Although I love Orwell, I haven’t read a biography recently and so I’m not sure if I was aware of his family background; that particular aspect was fascinating. I was also intrigued to learn that Orwell had tried to help one of my other favourite authors, Victor Serge, to get published. And Solnit’s explorations of politics and history made interesting reading, pulling in Stalin, the Purges, the problems the left had with reconciling Stalin’s behaviour with their communist beliefs and so on. There was much to read and much to provoke thoughts.

However, when I began reading the book I thought I was going to love it; instead I ended up liking quite a lot of it, but wishing it had not been allowed to ramble so much. With a tighter focus I personally feel the book would have been better; as it was, I found my attention drifting in places and I began to meander off a little myself… So “Orwell’s Roses” was an interesting, if for me a little flawed, read; I wouldn’t rule out reading Solnit again but would be keen to know from anyone who’s read her if this sounds typical of her work! I’m quite drawn to the concept of her “Wanderlust” book but would like to explore a bit before committing – has anyone read it???