Friday 7 October 2011

Orwell October: A Clergyman's Daughter

A fun fact about A Clergyman's Daughter- before I read it, both times, I thought it was about a girl who got hooked on drugs and had to work her way out of that whole situation. I had absolutely no basis for that thought, and it's wrong anyway, so who knows what I was thinking! Twice! Anyway, what I got instead was a book absolutely inseparable from Orwell's social and political views, but that still managed to contain a story that was absolutely compelling, and really interesting, as well as managing to be a springboard for Orwell's political agenda.

A Clergyman's Daughter is the story of Dorothy, a clergyman's daughter (see what he did there?!) who, in the first section, is exhaustingly pious, and lives the way she thinks she should be, according to God's law, her father's wishes, and for the good of all the parishioners. Naturally, she barely spares a thought for herself, and any uncharitable thoughts she has require punishment from a long pin she keeps on her at all times. It's a very self-flagellating existence, and one that is fuelled by continually fighting against herself- if there is something she doesn't want to do, that's the best reason there is for doing it. It's very tiring and concerning to read, but fortunately it only lasts for the first section- because after that she gets amnesia, wakes up in London and has no idea what to do because she has no idea what she used to do.

Sadly I'm not kidding about the amnesia which is the one weak spot in the novel, I'd say- we know that she disappeared for about 9 days, but we have no idea what happened in those 9 days, which is kind of disappointing. More fun is the fact that everyone in the village assumes that Dorothy has eloped with this 'naughty' man, and she obviously can't do anything to stop this. It's really really frustrating not knowing how or why she did leave, but I reckon it's got something to do with her subconscious trying to escape from all those self-inflicted pinpricks... The only other thing that really bugged me about the book is this one chapter that's in the form of a play- not that I think it was inappropriate for the circumstances it describes, but just because I don't like mixtures of forms- one or the other, that's what I say! (Yeah, I don't really know why this annoys me, but it really does- although I do like reading plays almost as much as prose, so I'm clearly just nuts).

Anyway, apart from these two teeny things, I really did like basically all the rest of the book. There was a clear relation to Down and Out in Paris and London, in that Orwell used what he learned whilst living in poverty, and applied it to the novel form, I think with great success, considering that it doesn't at all seem like he's preaching, but you get a pretty clear picture of what living in poverty would be like for a woman in the 1930s (since she's a woman, she of course ends up in a brothel at one point-only she doesn't know it's a brothel which is a bit embarrassing for those of us reading...) The other book I was reminded of whilst reading was The Grapes of Wrath, which was actually written 4 years after this, because it goes into the crushing cycle of poverty, how you work and work (picking hops, which reminded me greatly of the Joads working in California picking peaches) and yet only have enough money to live on, and so it continues. I also thought it was interesting that, while Dorothy has amnesia she is fine with living in poverty, but as soon as she remembers what she used to have, she finds it much harder to deal with. I just found this interesting as a concept, and as a sort of 'which is worse' proposition- to be poor your whole life and never know anything different, or to have had some kind of comfort and then have it taken away, and have to live in poverty? I wouldn't really like to choose between the two, but I still thought it was an interesting point.

Aside from the poverty thing, Orwell also manages to work into the narrative a criticism of independent private schools (or public schools, I don't know, I get confused) which I actually found really informative, albeit a little bit of a curveball compared to the rest of the novel. What he basically calls for, though, is a full regulation of all schools by the government, as well as the crazy notion that maybe teachers sometimes know better than parents about what their children should be learning, especially when said parents have no education themselves. Different as it may be from the rest of the novel, this was possibly my favourite section, since it made me consider how good modern education is now (although it could obviously be better funded), and it also meant I could get pissed off at ignorant people, which, whilst infuriating, is also sort of fun. The book was kind of worth it for me just for that alone!

Having said all that, you probably shouldn't listen to me at all, because Orwell himself referred to this book as "tripe", according to wikipedia, and his opinion matters the most, right? I think though, as Orwell's only book featuring a lead female protagonist, and a pretty strong and admirable one at that, this is definitely a book worth taking a look at.


  1. See, now here is an Orwell book I've never heard of and it sounds super interesting, regardless of what Orwell might think of it. I'm pretty sure King said something to this extent in Everything's Eventual, but authors are awful at figuring out what of their work is good and what is crap. Anyway, I may need to check this out, even if Orwell does go the soap opera amnesia road. At least there are no evil twins.

  2. I'm holding out for the evil twins in Coming Up For Air *crosses fingers and hopes*. I thought it was pretty good, but if he was looking at it in a hindsight sort of way, then it definitely doesn't measure up to Animal Farm or 1984- but I still like it! Also, I'm pretty sure no one except me has heard of it- it was so difficult to find a cover picture of it!