by Rebecca Solnit
Viking, 308 pp., $28.00
Nineteen thirty-six was a momentous year for George Orwell, then aged thirty-two. On January 31 he went north to Lancashire and Yorkshire to collect material for his book about the living conditions of the working classes, The Road to Wigan Pier. On April 2 he rented a cottage in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington and settled down to the life of a writer. On June 9 he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, a thirty-year-old Oxford English literature graduate then studying for a master’s in educational psychology, and in late December he left for Barcelona to fight with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; his account of the experience was published in 1937 as Homage to Catalonia.
These two books of reportage consolidated his political identity. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” Orwell said ten years later in “Why I Write,” “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” In advance of his wedding he also planted seven rosebushes in his garden, and this too, writes Rebecca Solnit in Orwell’s Roses, her maverick meditation on Orwell’s legacy, was a political act.
We know that Orwell planted roses in the spring of 1936 because the following decade he wrote about it twice in Tribune, the left-wing weekly where, between 1943 and 1947, his best journalism appeared. The first mention was in his column As I Please, usually reserved for his views on fascism, anti-Semitism, colonialism, war criminals, and dead metaphors such as “petty-bourgeois,” “stinking corpse,” and “liquidate.” On January 21, 1944, however, Orwell’s subject was the affordable pleasures of gardening:
In the good days when nothing in Woolworth’s cost over sixpence, one of their best lines was their rose bushes. They were always very young plants, but they came into bloom in their second year, and I don’t think I ever had one die on me.
He bought from Woolworth’s, he recalled, “a beautiful little white rose with a yellow heart, one of the finest ramblers I have ever seen,” a deep red polyantha, and a pink rose that was like an Albertine “but more double.” Orwell and his wife left Wallington in 1940, and passing through the village again in the summer of 1943 he saw that “the little white rose, no bigger than a boy’s catapult when I put it in, had grown into a huge vigorous bush,” while the blossom of the pink rose was tumbling over the fence. “All that for sixpence—the price, before the war, of ten Players, or a pint and a half of mild, or a week’s subscription to the Daily Mail, or about twenty minutes of twice-breathed air in the movies!”
He returned to the subject of his roses on April 26, 1946, in the essay “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray.” Some years earlier, Orwell told his Tribune readers, he visited the “little Berkshire church” in the village of Bray, whose sixteenth-century incumbent had preached as either a Papist or a Protestant, depending on the religious conviction of the ruling monarch. While the famously pliable vicar, memorialized in a satirical song and a comic opera, “could hardly,” Orwell observed, “be described as an admirable character,” he had done “a good turn” when he planted in the churchyard “a magnificent yew tree” that was still standing. “It might not be a bad idea,” Orwell suggested, in a version of what we now call carbon offsetting,
every time you commit an anti-social act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground. And, even if one in twenty of them came to maturity, you might do quite a lot of harm in your lifetime, and still, like the Vicar of Bray, end up as a public benefactor after all.
Ten years before, Orwell revealed, he had left a similar gift to posterity in his garden at Wallington, where in addition to his roses he had planted six fruit trees—including a plum and a Cox’s orange pippin apple tree—and two gooseberry bushes:
I maintain that it was a public-spirited action to plant that Cox, for these trees do not fruit quickly and I did not expect to stay there long. I never had an apple off it myself, but it looks as if someone else will have quite a lot.
This was incendiary material, as Orwell was aware. The first time he had mentioned his garden in Tribune, a correspondent complained that “roses are bourgeois.” Other readers threatened to end their subscriptions: roses were “not serious,” “not what we want,” “footling trivialities”; “as our glorious Russian allies fight for their lives at Stalingrad how dare he…” But still he persisted: there was more to democratic socialism than high-minded discussion. The enjoyment of natural beauty, for example. “Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes?” Orwell asked in “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” another piece for Tribune also published in April 1946.
To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October…? There is no doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to “Nature” in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters.
Those were the days, Solnit reminds us, when pleasure in nature was considered politically incorrect. “The world is going to pieces,” said Henri Cartier-Bresson in the 1930s, “and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks.” “Ah, what times are these,” wrote Brecht in 1939, “when/a conversation about trees is almost a crime/For it encompasses silence about so many injustices.”
Solnit, the product of Californian counterculture, is a writer, journalist, critic, and psycho-geographer whose subjects include nature, photography, war, climate change, disaster, memory, maps, urban and rural landscapes, getting lost, ecology, technology, politics, feminism, silenced voices, art, collectivism, and herself. Everything, in other words, and everything in her writing connects to everything else in the pursuit of a universal pattern. Solnit’s first book, Secret Exhibition (1991), chronicled through letters and photographs the work of six avant-garde artists working in 1950s California. Her second book, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West (1994), was influenced by Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, from which she learned “how to incorporate into a political narrative personal experience.”
Her fourth book, Wanderlust (2000), is a history of walking, and Solnit’s work in general is an exercise in what Paul Klee called “taking a line for a walk”: “moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk’s sake.” She is equally interested in what can be done with a line. “The straight line of conventional narrative,” Solnit wrote in the introduction to the essay collection Storming the Gates of Paradise (2007),
is too often an elevated freeway permitting no unplanned encounters or necessary detours. It is not how our thoughts travel, nor does it allow us to map the whole world rather than one streamlined trajectory across it.
Orwell’s Roses, Solnit’s twenty-sixth book, is an exploration of what it means to plant a rose (“To plant a rose…can mean so many things”), what roses mean in general (“Roses mean everything, which skates close to meaning nothing”), and what Orwell means to Solnit. It is principally a response to “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,” which Solnit read as a student, liking the way Orwell traveled “nonchalantly from particulars to generalities, and from the minor to the major—in this case from one particular apple tree to universal questions of redemption and legacies.” The essay was what Solnit calls “a triumph of meandering,” and Orwell’s rhetorical gait became “a foundational influence on my own meander toward becoming an essayist.”
It is perhaps surprising to find that Solnit admires Orwell. They could not, on first glance, be more different. A self-styled “Tory anarchist,” Orwell was an English Etonian who disliked the use of Latin words when something Anglo-Saxon could do instead, and thought the “surest sign” of Conrad’s genius was that “women disliked his books.” Solnit is a West Coast feminist who is well known for the 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” which recounts the experience of having the importance of her seventh book, River of Shadows (2003), explained to her by a man at a party in Aspen who would have found out that he was addressing the author had he allowed Solnit time to speak. Soon afterward “mansplaining” entered the lexicon, which means we have Solnit to thank for one of the most useful, and entertaining, neologisms of the last decade.
But Orwell, together with Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, and John Berger, is one of Solnit’s heroes, and the sentence that has long served as what she calls her “credo” comes from “Why I Write”: “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
Solnit’s own prose style, however, conforms to none of the rules outlined by Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”: to avoid “lack of precision,” “foreign phrases,” and “a long word where a short one will do.” “Good prose,” Orwell argued, “is like a window pane,” but Solnit, as she told the Columbia Journalism Review, “could never attain that perfectly flat voice that I think is as affected a style as any but that’s supposed to be the style of objectivity.” She describes this voice as “both Hemingwayesque and ultimately masculine in ways that are dubious,” which echoes Virginia Woolf’s suggestion in her essay “Women and Fiction” that a “sentence made by men” is “too loose, too heavy, too pompous for a woman’s use.” The female sentence, Woolf explained, was “of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes.”
An example of how these elastic sentences create Solnit’s nonlinear connections can be seen in the opening chapter of Orwell’s Roses, which begins with the “flat” and “objective” statement that becomes the book’s refrain: “In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.” This is followed by a stretched and subjective sentence:
I had known this for more than three decades and never thought enough about what that meant until a November day a few years ago, when I was under doctor’s orders to recuperate at home in San Francisco and was also on a train from London to Cambridge to talk with another writer about a book I’d written.
And we’re off, not meandering but hurled headlong at one hundred miles an hour in several directions at once. The scatter-gun effect of the free associations that follow recalls those of a psychoanalytic session: back in San Francisco people celebrated the Day of Dead; Solnit, exhausted from her illness but required by her book contract to be on a promotional tour in England, was “rolling north” from King’s Cross; the train was “rolling through farmland” (in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell is also on a train “rolling” north); she had “grown up in a rolling Californian landscape studded with several kinds of oak trees”; Muir Woods, on the other side of the county, contained giant redwoods whose annual rings were used as “history charts” in museums; gardens are the “opposite” of war; Man Ray fled the Nazis and visited the sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada; Mary Ellen Pleasant, “a Black woman born in slavery around 1812, who had become a heroine of the Underground Railroad and a civil rights activist,” planted eucalyptus trees in San Francisco; the trees planted in Moscow during the tsarist era, which shed their leaves during the revolution and stood firm during the show trials, will outlive “Putin…and me and everyone on that train with me that November morning.”
Solnit, we learn, was not heading directly to Cambridge but taking a detour to Orwell’s former cottage in Wallington to see if his Cox’s orange pippin was bearing fruit for later generations: “I was about to find what I had not been looking for on this trip I would have cancelled if I could.” The fruit trees described in “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” had died, but the roses were “exuberantly alive…living things planted by the living hand (and shovel work) of someone gone for most of their lifetime.” The roses were not only a “connection” to Orwell but also “a sort of saeculum that included him.” Saeculum, Solnit explains, is an Etruscan word meaning the length of time in which something or someone can be held in living memory: “I was suddenly in [Orwell’s] presence in a way I hadn’t expected, and I was in the presence of a living remnant of the essay and they rearranged my old assumptions.”
A bit like Solnit, Orwell simulated spontaneity in his nonfiction by allowing a thought to grow and then following its various diversions, but the effect in his writing is entirely different. Orwell’s prose treads lightly, Solnit’s carries a great weight; Orwell moves nonchalantly, Solnit is in a tearing hurry; Orwell has a plan, Solnit is improvising. The most striking distinction, however, is in their use of the first person. “One can write nothing readable,” Orwell legislated in “Why I Write,” “unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.” “George Orwell” was his effacement. The nom de plume of Eric Blair, George Orwell was first introduced to the public as the author of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), an account of washing dishes in Paris and living as a tramp in London. The persona was plain, commonsensical, and solidly English: King George, Saint George, Farmer George. Eric comes from “autocrat” but the origins of “George” lie in work and the soil; “Blair” is Gaelic for battlefield, but “Orwell” is the name of a river that flows through Suffolk. Solnit hears in “Orwell” “‘oh well,’ as in a resignation, a sigh, a shrug.”
The “odious little snob,” as George Orwell described the young Eric Blair, was reinvented as an Everyman who noticed small things and wrote them down in ways that the lower classes could understand. (A book was of little value, Orwell believed, unless it was read by the proletariat.) When he returned from Burma in 1927, after working for Britain’s imperial police force there, Orwell “wanted to submerge myself, get right down among the oppressed” of his homeland, and his first act of submersion, and also of wandering, was impersonating a tramp in London’s East End: “The tramp does not wander for his own amusement, or because he has inherited the nomadic instincts of his ancestors; he is trying first and foremost to avoid starving to death.”
The “I” in Down and Out in Paris and London is largely invisible. Who, his readers asked, was this obviously educated man, why was he living as a derelict, and how did he eventually become a writer? We learn nothing about George Orwell, other than that he is a mask who tells the truth. Solnit’s personality, however, is always there on the page: confrontational, anxious, angry, self-absorbed, and—most importantly—female. Solnit thinks about gender; Orwell does not. For Solnit, gender is political while for Orwell, women have no political identity.
Then there is the question of audience: for Orwell, writing is a way of speaking to the working man, but for Solnit writing is “speaking to no one.” “Even when you’re reading to a crowd,” she says in The Faraway Nearby (2013), “you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not yet born, the unknown and the long gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.”
Orwell’s tramping has been described as an experiment in empathy, an emotion also central to Solnit’s politics. But while Orwell approaches empathy with the deliberation of a method actor, Solnit’s definition of the word is solipsistic. By empathizing with another person, she says in The Faraway Nearby, “you make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own.” The OED defines “empathy” as “the power of projecting one’s personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation.” In other words, not making another person “into yourself,” but making yourself into another person. Empathy is Keats’s negative capability, not Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime. Wordsworth sees “nothing, but himself and the universe,” Hazlitt said, and this is also true of Solnit, who compares having a biopsy on her breast to Iraqis being tortured by the US Army:
The uses of empathy and pain were something I began to wonder about anew, when people began to drill into my flesh, to pursue me with knives. It was not long after the US Army had been torturing people in prison in Iraq.
Yet Orwell and Solnit share vital common ground. His ambition “to make political writing into an art” has been central to Solnit’s project from the start. Orwell’s Roses is what she calls a reflection on the role of “pleasure and beauty” for people who also care “about justice and truth and human rights and how to change the world.” Solnit proceeds, as ever, by way of detours and connections.
“They were roses,” she says of the bushes in Orwell’s garden, and “invitations to dig deeper.” Their roots connect to everything, she writes, recalling what Orwell said about coal, which he described in The Road to Wigan Pier as the root of everything. “Their lamp-lit world down there,” he said of the miners, “is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.” “Everything we do,” he realized after visiting a mine, “from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel,” connects to coal, but we rarely connect the coal we depend upon to the work involved in extracting it from the earth. “It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines.”
The meaning of roses begins, for Solnit, with the genesis of coal in the Carboniferous period, more than 300 million years ago. This leads her to recall the section of The Road to Wigan Pier in which Orwell goes down a pit and describes the miners as caryatids supporting mountains on their heads, which in turn leads him to reflect on digging in his garden:
When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift two tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heat and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin.
The toff among the workers is the Orwell we are familiar with, though Solnit says that we rarely connect this figure with the man who got pleasure from gardening. “If you dig into Orwell’s work,” she suggests, “you find a lot of sentences about flowers and pleasures and the natural world,” and these, once you put them all together, turn his “gray portrait” to “color.”
We need not dig too deeply to find this other Orwell. He is quite clearly there, “on the surface of the earth,” as he put it, which makes him harder to see. Filling out an author questionnaire in 1940, Orwell said that “outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening.” In his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” he described his nation’s “love of flowers” as “a minor English trait which is extremely well marked though not often commented on.” “If you went for a country walk with Orwell,” Anthony Powell recalled, “he would draw attention, almost with anxiety, to this shrub budding early for the time of year, that plant growing rarely in the south of England.” Orwell’s diaries are filled with references to nature. During the Blitz he left London for Wallington:
Crocuses out everywhere, a few wallflowers budding, snowdrops just at their best. Couples of hares sitting about in the winter wheat and gazing at one another. Now and again in this war, at intervals of months, you get your nose above water for a few moments and notice that the earth is still going round the sun.
Following this thread through Orwell’s writing, Solnit finds his roses in the unlikeliest of places. In Homage to Catalonia, “wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round Torre Fabian. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their ears.” The washerwoman in Nineteen Eighty-Four, observed by Winston Smith from the window above the junk shop, “had had her momentary flowering, a year, perhaps, of wild-rose beauty and then she had suddenly swollen like a fertilized fruit.”
Florists tell us to “say it with roses.” So what are roses saying? Solnit meanders through the “vast edifice of human responses” that have arisen around roses, from song lyrics and wallpaper designs to symbols of virginity, deflowering, love, eternity, and mortality. Tina Modotti’s 1924 photograph Roses, Mexico, bought at auction by Susie Tompkins Buell for $165,000, leads to “bread and roses,” the slogan chanted by the female textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who were striking not only for fair wages but also for human dignity. Solnit gets lost among Ralph Lauren’s chintz designs, then dives down a rabbit hole chasing after the rose geneticist Charles Hurst, who leads her to the bogus Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko and Stalin’s planting of lemon trees. Orwell’s great-great-grandfather’s Jamaican sugar plantations connect her to the Antiguan American novelist and gardener Jamaica Kincaid (who was born Elaine Potter Richardson); the Jaffa cakes (“soft cookies with a layer of marmalade capped by dark chocolate”) on the menu of “British Air” (British Airways?) connect her to an article about Jaffa in the London Review of Books.
Just as she is beginning to lose the plot, Solnit arrives at an American-owned rose factory in Bogotá called Sunshine Bouquet, and here, in the heart of the book, the connections all come together. Sunshine Bouquet is Solnit’s coal mine, and her aim, like that of Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, is to make “visible what had been invisible.”
Few people, she points out, connect the roses they buy in the supermarket to sweatshops in Colombia, but this is where 80 percent of the stems sold in the United States are grown. Solnit is deep in Orwellian territory: the uniforms worn by the Sunshine Bouquet employees—who earn about $256 a month, which they supplement with overtime—carry sinister Newspeak-style slogans like “We want to grow together with you” and “When you work as a team, you celebrate success and triumph as a team.” The employees—many of whom are women who are exposed to toxic chemicals and prone to inflammatory conditions like bursitis and tendonitis—have their own private slogan: “The lovers get the roses, but we workers get the thorns.”
Sunshine Bouquet exports six million roses to the US for Valentine’s Day and another six million for Mother’s Day; in the weeks leading up to these dates the working week can expand to a hundred hours. Having seen the sweatshop conditions herself, Solnit finds that roses have changed their meaning and become “emblems of deceit.”
The Orwell we don’t notice, the roses we don’t notice, the rose factory we don’t think about although we probably know it exists. We see only what we are looking for, Solnit reminds us. In Speak, Memory, she recalls, Nabokov observed that “it is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies,” and noticing what the ordinary person fails to notice is equally an Orwellian trick. The clarity of his vision is another thread that might be followed in Orwell’s writing.
“I know nothing whatever about the technical side of mining,” he concedes in The Road to Wigan Pier. “I am merely describing what I have seen.” He sees, for example, that a miner often crawls through three miles of tunnel before he reaches the coal face: “This is the kind of point that one is always liable to miss.” He writes in the essay “Marrakech” that
all people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are…. I have noticed this again and again. In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings.
“It is curious how one does not notice things,” he says in Down and Out in Paris and London. “I had been in London innumerable times, and yet till that day I had never noticed one of the worst things about London—the fact that it costs money even to sit down.” The waking of the toad in early spring, he reports in “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad,” “allows one to notice, what one might not at another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature.”
There are things that Orwell fails to notice—women, for instance. At one level, he knows how partial his vision can be. “For several weeks,” he wrote in “Marrakech,” “always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them.” Orwell’s eyeballs register women so rarely that the occasions stand out in relief: the “exhausted face of the slum girl” he sees from the train window in The Road to Wigan Pier, the washerwoman in Nineteen Eighty-Four. These women inhabit the landscape not as individuals but emblematic figures, like the girl who carries a pitcher on her head in Wordsworth’s Prelude.
Roses, for Solnit, connect to everything, yet not to Orwell’s problem with women. In his work, you find that female sexuality is attached to rose imagery in ways that give us pause, and once you put them together, a more disturbing portrait of the writer emerges. Winston, for example, thinks the washerwoman “beautiful”: “Hard and red and coarse,” her body “bore the same relation to the body of a girl as the rose-hip to the rose. Why should the fruit be held inferior to the flower?” Solnit, who finds in the washerwoman’s lifetime of cleaning diapers an image of hope, does not wince at the misogyny of this rose-hip image; nor does she notice the most striking of all Orwell’s roses. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Charlie, “a curious specimen” who eats in the local bistro, entertains his fellow diners with an account of the time he raped a young prostitute, a day he describes as the “happiest…of my life.” When his ecstasy was over, he recalls, and the girl lay “weeping” on the floor, “my savagery, my passion, were scattered like the petals of a rose.”
While she does, in general, see Orwell’s misogyny, Solnit doesn’t—to quote her response to his roses—“think enough about what that meant.” “One of Orwell’s most significant blind spots,” she rightly notes,
is around gender, around how marriages and families can become authoritarian regimes in miniature, down to the suppression of truths and promulgation of lies that protect the powerful.
Her recent work has “tried to call attention to inequality of voice,” and so Orwell’s failure to see how women, regardless of their class, are treated unequally by men of all classes makes Solnit uncomfortable. Moreover, his many book reviews and literary essays, she notes, are “exclusively about men.”
It is easy to imagine Orwell at that lodge in Aspen, mansplaining to Solnit the importance of her own book, but she gives his sexism an easy ride, explaining that he simply “held on to some of the prejudices of his class, his race and nationality, his gender, his heterosexuality, and his era.” Is this a strong enough defense of the voice of truth and social equality, of a man we admire precisely because he broke with the other prejudices of his class, race, and nationality?
Solnit says nothing about the Orwell marriage, itself an authoritarian regime. His first wife, Eileen Blair, sacrificed, in time-honored fashion, her own interests for her husband’s career. Giving up her degree, she became Orwell’s secretary and assistant; while he was tending to the garden, she was typing up his manuscripts. Her influence on Orwell’s work can be seen in the difference between The Road to Wigan Pier, written in the months before they married, and Homage to Catalonia, which was written the following year after Eileen joined her husband in Spain and proved to be, said Richard Rees, “the first occasion in any of Orwell’s books in which one feels that he really looked at, saw, and paid attention to another human being.”
Feminist critics apart from Solnit have written a good deal about Orwell’s misogyny, invariably as if it were it were a defect in his vision. “Part of the problem,” writes Beatrix Campbell, “is that Orwell’s eye never comes to rest on the culture of women, their concerns, their history, their movements.” “Orwell was not only anti-feminist,” writes Deirdre Beddoe, “but he was totally blind to the role women were and are forced to play in the order of things.” Is the problem that Orwell could not see women, or that he could not connect with—in other words, feel empathy toward—what he saw?
Women were absent from Orwell’s range of vision, but they were not absent from his world. On the contrary, it was his father who was absent for Orwell’s first eight years, working in India as an opium agent until he returned to his family in England in 1912. Orwell, who was sandwiched between two loving sisters, had a pair of doting aunts, one of whom, Nellie Limouzin, was both the first socialist and the first feminist he ever knew. Solnit notices the significance of Aunt Nellie, but only in passing. “There’s a whole history to be written,” she writes in parentheses, “about bohemian aunts and queer uncles, about those family members who swoop down to encourage misfit children in ways their parents won’t or can’t.”
An actress, scholar, Esperantist, member of the Women’s Freedom League, and suffragist, Nellie Limouzin did not have to disguise herself as a tramp in order to experience what it was like to be politically invisible. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell includes feminists in his list of cranks who have infiltrated socialism, along with every “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack” and “pacifist” in England; he is referring to Aunt Nellie, who was, said his biographer Bernard Crick, “certainly crankish.” She was also kind: it was Nellie, as Solnit reminds us, who came to the rescue when Orwell was down and out in Paris, and Nellie who found him a job in a bookshop in London. And Nellie, I suspect, was the source of his antifeminism.
“He didn’t really like women,” his friend Brenda Salkeld said. What did women represent to him? In his late notebooks Orwell described the “terrible, devouring sexuality” of wives who “never seemed to be fatigued by no matter how much love making,” alongside his fear that feminists had no sexuality at all. A curious notebook entry, written when he was working on Nineteen Eighty-Four, contains a childhood memory recorded in the third person:
The conversations he overheard as a small boy, between his Mother, his aunt, his elder sister and their feminist friends. The way in which, without ever hearing any direct statement to that effect, and without having more than a very dim idea of the relationship between the sexes, he derived a firm impression that women did not like men, that they looked upon them as a sort of large, ugly, smelly, and ridiculous animal, who maltreated women in every way, above all by forcing their attentions upon them. It was pressed deep into his consciousness, to remain there until he was about twenty, that sexual intercourse gives pleasure only to the man, not to the woman.
Orwell apparently did force his attentions upon women. His teenage sweetheart, Jacintha Buddicom, said he tried to rape her; he warned Salkeld in 1931 that “even if we are only to be friends, you mustn’t mind my making love to you in a small way and occasionally asking you to go further, because it is my nature to do that.” Julia, the girl from the fiction department in Nineteen Eighty-Four, described by Winston as “only a rebel from the waist downwards,” is modeled on Orwell’s second wife, Sonia Brownell, whom he married as he lay dying of tuberculosis in 1949. “You must learn to make dumplings,” he said when Sonia accepted his proposal.
Eileen had died in 1945, at the age of thirty-nine, during a routine operation. “Not a bad old stick,” is how Orwell remembered his first wife. Ten years after planting the roses in his Wallington garden, he visited the place where Eileen was buried. “Polyantha roses on E’s grave have all rooted well,” he noted in his diary on May 22, 1946.
While he was not, Solnit concedes, “an impeccable figure,” his roses will outlive his more antisocial actions. In this stimulating and exasperating book, she puts in a good word for George Orwell.
Frances Wilson’s most recent book is Burning Man, a biography of D.H. Lawrence. (February 2022)