‘What a lovely thing a rose is’, Sherlock Holmes remarks, adverting to the necessity of deduction in religion – and goes on to add that: ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.’ Client and client’s fiancée view this demonstration ‘with surprise and a good deal of disappointment’ but Holmes, with the moss-rose between his fingers, has fallen into a reverie. Not unusually, all turns out well in the end. Oddly, I see that, in the language of flowers, the moss-rose was associated with ‘voluptuous love’, not the first thing that comes to mind in Holmes’s case.
It’s that time of the morning when there are no workmen yet hammering, drilling or sawing, and the park and the cemetery are peaceful enough even for me. The Librarian photographs a good many flowers and trees while I stand gazing into middle distances, though I succumb to the orange specimen in the park on the way back home.
Reading Rebecca Solnit earlier, I was reminded again of how much George Orwell’s short life (forty-six and a half years) was hampered by respiratory disease: bronchitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis. Set against that are the plump volumes of Peter Davison’s scholarly edition of Orwell’s work: twenty of them in all. Of the ones I have, the 600-page extent of the first volume is not unrepresentative. But then Orwell’s productivity, given his state of health and his honest confrontation of it, the long-held knowledge that his life would not be a long one, is not itself unique: the example that comes quickest to mind is D. H. Lawrence, also hugely prolific, his letters alone filling eight fat volumes, his life two years shorter than Orwell’s.
‘If war has an opposite’, Solnit writes, ‘gardens might sometimes be it, and people have found a particular kind of peace in forests, meadows, parks and gardens’ (5). Orwell’s life was, as she says, shot through with wars. The German writer Ernst Jünger, born almost a decade before Orwell and in a markedly different cultural tradition, recalled that: ‘Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war, We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted: the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience.’
But the theme of roses conjured up for me not Ruskin, Pound, Gertrude Stein, Sappho, Shakespeare or Sir John Mandeville but, not for the first time, Patrick White, a young child in the First World War, an intelligence officer in the Second, serving in Egypt, Palestine, Greece. His books are dense with roses. A dozen references, more, in The Tree of Man, as motif, symbol, marker of passing time, from the moment when Stan and Amy Parker arrive at the house after the wedding:
‘Once I saw a house’, she said, in the even dreamlike voice of inspiration, ‘that had a white rosebush growing beside it, and I always said that if I had a house I would plant a white rose. It was a tobacco rose, the lady said.’
‘Well’, he said, laughing up at her, ‘you have the house.’
The black rose on Theodora Goodman’s hat in The Aunt’s Story; Waldo and Arthur talking of the white rose in The Solid Mandala; and, in Riders in the Chariot: ‘Where Himmelfarb was at last put down, roses met him, and led him all the way. Had he been blind, he could have walked by holding on to ropes of roses.’ Among the stories, ‘Dead Roses’ calls attention to itself while ‘The Letters’, another mother-son relationship leading to mental disintegration, has some lovely flowers but, alas, ‘this morning something was eating the roses.’ In ‘A Cheery Soul’, the dreadful Miss Docker doesn’t care for the rector’s wife, who ‘accused her of pruning Crimson Glory to death. “I only did it as a gesture,” Miss Docker had defended herself, “and nobody knows for certain the rose did not die a natural death.”’ Most poignantly, perhaps, in Voss, Laura picks roses while the pregnant Rose Portion holds the basket: ‘But the girl was dazed by roses.’ She will later find Rose dead in her bed: ‘the girl who had arrived breathless, blooming with expectation and the roses she had pinned at her throat, was herself turned yellow by the hot wind of death.’
White had met Manoly Lascaris, with whom he would live for the rest of his life, in the apartment of Charles de Menasce in Alexandria, in July 1941. They would spend a good deal of time in Greece and, appropriately, White remembered, decades later, Athens after the German occupation: ‘The smell of those days remains with me – the perfume of stocks in the Maroussi fields, chestnuts roasting at street corners, Kokkoretsi turning on spits in open doorways. And the roses, the crimson roses. . . ’
Maxfield Parrish, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Colliers (1912)
No rose without a thorn, the saying goes – unless you’re that lucky. Or perhaps in the right sort of story. In ‘Briar Rose’, the hundred years of the curse having expired precisely on the day that the prince comes breezing along, the briar hedge is transformed into beautiful flowers. The bride is won with minimal effort—no giants or dragons—just impeccable timing, ‘illustrating’, as Maria Tatar observes, ‘how good fortune often trumps heroic feats in fairy tales.’
Remembering the appearance of the early romances of H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘Fairy tales are a prime necessity of the world’. So they are, so they are.
 Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005).
 Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses (London: Granta Books, 2021), 25-26.
 Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 5.
 Patrick White, The Tree of Man, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), 28.
 Patrick White, Riders in the Chariot (Harmondsworth: Penguins Books, 1964), 383.
 Patrick White, The Burnt Ones (1964; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), 231, 180.
 Patrick White, Voss (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1957), 170, 250.
 David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 213.
 ‘Greece – My Other Country’ (1983), in Patrick White Speaks, edited by Paul Brennan and Christine Flynn (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 134.
 Maria Tatar, editor, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 238.
 Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937), 109.