This could be the manifesto for Solnit’s book as well. She begins with a visit to Orwell’s cottage, in the English village of Wallington, where she was surprised to find the roses he’d planted some 80 years earlier in full bloom. “I was suddenly in his presence in a way I hadn’t expected,” she writes. “They rearranged my old assumptions.”
As she sets out to reevaluate Orwell’s work in light of his horticultural and pastoral interests, she finds a man who is as concerned with his vegetable patch as he is with his writing career. In 1933 he wrote in a letter, “We have had lashings of peas, beans just beginning, potatoes rather poor, owing to the drought, I suppose. I have finished my novel, but there are wads of it that I simply hate.”
But this isn’t just an affectionate portrait of the great man as a humble gardener. Roses and revolution are intertwined for Orwell. In a 1944 column for the socialist magazine Tribune, he wrote, “Last time I mentioned flowers in this column an indignant lady wrote in to say that flowers are bourgeois.” But he would go on, as the war wound down, to argue that politics and pleasure could coexist, and that it was not “politically reprehensible . . . to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle.”
A collection of horticulturally themed Orwell vignettes would be amusing enough, but this is Solnit’s road trip, and with her at the wheel we detour from Orwell to Stalin, who sentenced botanist Nikolai Vavilov to die in a prison camp over his refusal to accept the pseudoscience Stalin had embraced. We look in on Tina Modotti, who photographed roses and lived among revolutionaries in Mexico. We take a moment with Jamaica Kincaid, who writes about botany and British colonialism, and we tour a Colombian rose farm, where the questions of workers’ rights and capitalism are alive today. At each stop Solnit turns back to Orwell, whose work touches all of it. “You have got to choose between liberating India and having extra sugar,” Orwell once wrote. “Which do you prefer?”
I was halfway through the book before I realized what Solnit had done: She’d written a biography that was actually pleasurable to read. Biographies tend to begin at the beginning, for obvious reasons, but that forces the poor reader to slog through a chapter or two on the lives of the subject’s parents and grandparents, followed by a recitation of whatever is known about his or her childhood. Was there a stern nanny? A blissful summer by the lake? A tragedy involving an older sibling or a beloved cousin? We’re sure to find out, because it’s the biographer’s job to tell us. Just about any fact that has been turned up must be written down for the benefit of future scholars, but that doesn’t make it any easier on the rest of us.
But in the hands of a skilled novelist or essayist like Solnit — whose books include “Men Explain Things to Me” and “The Mother of All Questions” — a biography becomes something else entirely. It begins in the middle. It skips the boring bits. It possesses a voice, and a point of view. It is unapologetically incomplete, and trusts the readers to go elsewhere to find out whatever else they might like to know.
“Out of Sheer Rage,” Geoff Dyer’s book about his inability to write a “sober, academic study” of D.H. Lawrence, was the first such book I read, and I’ve been on the hunt for more books like this ever since. Francine Prose’s “Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern,” is another fantastic example. Neither Dyer nor Prose bother with mundane biographical trivia. Both are narrowly focused, idiosyncratic and wonderfully digressive. Now “Orwell’s Roses” takes its place alongside other great non-biography biographies written by acclaimed authors who know how to tell a good story.
Solnit’s prose is so personal and specific that from the first page I wondered what it would be like to have her just whisper the whole thing in my ear. Fortunately, she narrates the audio version herself, and does read it in a kind of breathy, intimate tone that suggests that she’s telling you all her secrets.
“Wandering through books and archives can be a lot like wandering through landscapes,” she writes of her research, and recalls a moment when she discovered a mention of yet another of Orwell’s obscure interests. “It was a rabbit hole worth going down.”
Amy Stewart is the author of a dozen books, including “The Drunken Botanist,” “Flower Confidential” and the forthcoming book “The Tree Collectors.”
By Rebecca Solnit
Viking. 320 pages. $28