Anyone who’s followed this blog over the last couple of years will know that I’ve been catching up with George Orwell’s less famous novels, i.e. those that aren’t Animal Farm (1945) or 1984 (1949). I’ve read 1934’s Burmese Days, 1936’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and 1939’s Coming Up for Air, all of which impressed me. Recently, I finished reading what was for me Orwell’s final novel, 1935’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. How does it measure up to the rest of Orwell’s fiction?
Well, I’d say A Clergyman’s Daughter is the weakest of the bunch, although the weakness is structural rather than to do with the content. As usual, I was absorbed by Orwell’s prose and powers of description and characterisation; but the narrative devices he uses here are problematic.
Actually, outside of 1984, it’s perhaps the most ambitious of Orwell’s books too. It portrays life in mid-1930s Britain across a wide range of social classes. We meet characters from the hard-pressed working class and, below them, the underclass of beggars, derelicts and prostitutes for whom securing shelter on a winter’s night can be a matter of life and death; from the blunt and materialistic lower middle class, the petty bourgeoise, who here seem petty indeed; and from an upper middle class that’s on the slide, floundering financially if not yet in terms of social standing. Dorothy Hare, the titular clergyman’s daughter, is an unhappy member of that last class.
Her father is the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St Athelstan’s Church in a Suffolk village called Knype Hill. However, it’s clear from the very start – “As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion” – that it’s his daughter who keeps his household, church and parish afloat, with the most meagre of resources.
Dorothy gets the food on his table, tends to his garden, types out his sermons, delivers his parish magazine, visits his parishioners, organises all the school plays, concerts, jumble sales, bazaars and pageants that bring a trickle of money to cover the most serious repairs needed by his near-ruinous church-building, serves as honorary secretary of three different church leagues and captains the local Girl Guides and, exhaustingly, struggles to pay or at least stave off the bills that come constantly through the vicarage door. Her father is lazy, pompous, snobbish, bullying and contemptuous of his parishioners and his head is totally in the sand regarding the desperate state of his finances. In his genteel way, he’s as monstrous as the most racist of the colonialists in Orwell’s previous novel, Burmese Days. Meanwhile, the only thing that keeps Dorothy going is her Christian faith, which is so stringent that when she finds herself entertaining un-Christian thoughts she chastises herself by sticking a pin into her arm.
Ironically, the only person in the neighbourhood who seems aware of Dorothy’s plight is an atheistic and decadent artist called Warburton. He enjoys Dorothy’s company and, despite multiple misgivings, she has some fondness for his. But Orwell makes it plain that early on that Warburton is no lovable rogue – he’s a loathsome predator. On page 41 we learn how once he “sat down beside her on the sofa and begun making love to her, violently, outrageously, even brutally. It was practically an assault.” (The preface to my edition of A Clergyman’s Daughter states that the original publisher, Gollancz, insisted that Orwell remove the phrase “tried to rape”.) The fact that after this Dorothy still puts up with Warburton underlines how starved of friendship and attention she is in the rest of her existence.
Then 85 pages in, things change. Dorothy is launched on a journey as unexpected and, in its way, as extraordinary as that of another Dorothy, in Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). However, Orwell’s Dorothy ends up in no fairy-tale land, but in harsh 1930s working-class London. She also arrives there, temporarily, without her memory. Orwell’s account of how this happens is unsatisfactory. Indeed, he doesn’t spend much time explaining it, suggesting he himself is unhappy with his plot machinations here. It also involves a mighty coincidence, as Dorothy’s mishap occurs at the same moment that Warburton leaves Knype Hill for the continent. As a result, the gossipy villagers assume that she’s run off with him and her father is too outraged to search for her.
The amnesic Dorothy falls in with some Cockney never-do-wells, who take her on what was a common autumn pilgrimage for people from London’s East End at the time – into the fields of Kent to pick the hop harvest. Orwell writes this section of the book with a convincing eye for detail – he knows what he’s talking about since he went hop-picking himself in 1931. (Actually, I once picked hops too, as a teenager in 1983. I don’t suppose anyone does this now, modern British farms being so mechanised.)
Later, there’s a curious 34-page section written in the style of a play, wherein Dorothy, now back in London with her memory restored, spends a night on the streets with a company of assorted down-and-outs whose one objective is to stop themselves freezing to death. This piece of literary experimentation feels like something James Joyce might have done in Ulysses (1922). It doesn’t feel like Orwell, though.
Then comes another twist to the plot – not much more believable than the last one – and Dorothy, unable to return to Knype Hill because of the scandal she’s allegedly caused, finds herself teaching at a small private school called Ringwood House Academy for Girls in a “repellent suburb ten or a dozen miles from London.” Equally repellent is the school’s principal and owner, Mrs Creevy, of whom Orwell writes: “You could tell her at a glance for a person who knew exactly what she wanted, and would grasp it as ruthlessly as any machine.” Dorothy gamely tries to up the standard of education the girls have received there, which has basically consisted of getting fragments of rote-learning and mindlessly copying passages into their jotters. But predictably, her efforts to teach her young charges how to think, use their imaginations and enjoy the works of Shakespeare go down badly with their lower-middle-class shopkeeper parents, who have very different notions of what ‘education’ means. They’re particularly horrified that she’s introduced their daughters to Macbeth, which contains disgusting words like ‘womb’.
This section lets Orwell take aim at the private schools that proliferated in 1930s England. “At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection. And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money…. Only the tiny minority of ‘recognised’ schools – less than one in ten – are officially tested to decide whether they keep up a reasonable educational standard. As for the others, they are free to teach or not teach exactly as they choose. No one controls or inspects them except the children’s parents – the blind leading the blind.”
Things end badly for Dorothy at Ringwood House Academy, but there’s yet another unlikely twist (and another unlikely coincidence involving Warburton) and she’s finally returned to Knype Hill, where she faces her biggest dilemma. Does she simply return to doing what she’d done before, keeping her father’s shaky clerical enterprise on the road? Because now, thanks to everything that she’s been through, she’s lost the spark that’d previously animated her – her belief in God.
Orwell was not proud of A Clergyman’s Daughter and referred to it as ‘a silly potboiler’. It’s certainly much more than that although, as I’ve said, it’s damaged by the unlikeliness of the devices that move its plot from A to B and then to C. However, if you treat it not as a novel but as a series of novellas – a triptych of stories giving accounts of the annual 1930s hop harvest, of a ghastly 1930s private school and of a decaying 1930s vicarage – it’s as fine as his other fiction.
© Daily Telegraph