A Clergyman’s Daughter
, George Orwell’s second novel, is the story of Dorothy Hare, the uncomplaining daughter of a selfish, demanding rector. She lives a simple life visiting parishioners and tending to her father’s needs until she inexplicably wakes up one day on the London streets with no idea who she is or how she got there, and without a penny to her name.
This rather contrived plot serves as a framework for a series of essay-like episodes laced with Orwell’s characteristic biting social criticism. The episodes themselves are compelling, from the tedium and pointlessness of a small-town clergyman’s daughter’s routine, dodging the village gossips, to hop-picking in Kent with itinerant workers, to teaching in a horrible “fourth-rate” private school under the mercenary Mrs. Creevy, a headmistress who “never read a book right through in her life, and was proud of it.”
There is also a remarkable scene, written as dramatic dialogue, of Dorothy spending the night out in Trafalgar Square with a group of tramps. This event is a sort of fugue, like a scene from a Broadway musical, with each character presenting his or her situation in parallel. The characters - Dorothy, a defrocked clergyman, a woman kicked out of the house by her husband, and several others - endure a cold, miserable, hungry night while a policeman repeatedly comes by to remind them to go “home” if they want to sleep.
Orwell often appropriates his non-fiction and autobiographical experiences for his novels. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, for example, Gordon’s drunken jail scene comes almost verbatim from the autobiographical essay, “The Clink,” which also provides material for A Clergyman’s Daughter
. Most of the significant episodes in Clergyman
can be found in Orwell’s non-fiction, such as his hop-picking diary and his experiences in Down and Out in Paris and London. The school scenes presage the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” Here, as in the essay, the primary motive of the school is financial. Dorothy is instructed only to punish the children whose parents aren’t “good payers” because “in private schools the parents’ word is law. Such schools exist, like shops, by flattering their customers, and if a parent wanted his child taught nothing but cat's cradle and the cuneiform alphabet, the teacher would have to agree rather than lose a pupil."
Orwell’s “difficulties with girls,” as Christopher Hitchens called them, are apparent here, and perhaps it is his unease with working with his only female protagonist that weakens this novel. Dorothy is a far more sympathetic character than John Flory or Gordon Comstock, but she lacks dimension. Bad and good things seem to happen to her without her exerting much influence on the world around her. Flory, Gordon, and Winston Smith all attempt to influence their worlds; Dorothy is merely reactive.
Dorothy suffers unwelcome advances from the good-natured but lecherous Mr. Warburton just prior to her mental break. His behavior is fairly repulsive, sneaking up behind Dorothy, while telling her he considerately chose this approach so she would be spared his unattractiveness. Warburton has no qualms about his actions and isn't at all bothered by Dorothy’s distress.
Apparently this scene between Warburton and Dorothy was to have been an attempted rape, but had to be changed due to concerns about obscenity. That certainly explains the general creepiness of the scene, which otherwise seems out of proportion to Warburton’s actions. One of the major structural flaws in this novel is Dorothy’s amnesia, which seems to come out of nowhere. Reaction to the psychological trauma of an attempted rape would have made that more believable.
After this unpleasant episode, Orwell-as-narrator gives a snarky aside, essentially about the frigidity of “educated” women, that is unfair to Dorothy and out of place with what is otherwise a sympathetic portrayal. (Hopefully this remark was written after the rape scene was changed, because otherwise it would have been a really
nasty thing to say.) This comment seems to reflect more Orwell’s issues with women, which are well-documented, than Dorothy’s failings.
The novel does, however, give a detailed presentation of the extremely limited options for a woman in Dorothy's social situation. She has no good options other than acting as a servant for her selfish father. When she passed up marriage prior to the events of the novel, she seemingly doomed herself to an extremely dreary future. When Dorothy is on the street she has an even more difficult time than men in the same situation. As a single woman she can't even rent a room because of landladies suspicious of prostitutes. While we as the readers see these problems, Dorothy herself doesn’t seem to have a lot of thoughts about them. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Orwell doesn't “get” women's issues; he seems to get the issues intellectually, but falls short at incorporating them into his protagonist’s temperament. A Clergyman’s Daughter
is the weakest of Orwell’s novels. He wasn’t proud of it, admitting that he published it because he needed the money. It would hardly be considered essential 20th century literature, but it is interesting to see how Orwell works with ideas that appear repeatedly in his essays and other books - experiences with education, religion, and the indigent, as well as interesting thoughts on the loss of religious faith. There are many good elements here, with excellent writing in some scenes. The story, however, is subjugated to the social commentary, preventing this work from being a cohesive novel.