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Book club: A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell

by
07 January 2022

Stephen Brown looks at George Orwell’s views on faith, and a theme followed up in Nineteen Eighty-Four, in his 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter

GEORGE ORWELL’s A Clergyman’s Daughter, published in 1935, is a novel featuring the sexual and economic repression of a young woman. The story begins in an East Anglian rectory, before moving through the hop fields of Kent and some insalubrious streets of London to a district described as a “repellent suburb”.

The main character, Dorothy, is de facto a drudge. Attempts to placate her penurious widowed father, the Revd Charles Hare, go unappreciated. Religion keeps her in check, reinforcing the belief that a woman’s duty is to be submissive. This enables Hare to take advantage of Dorothy’s good nature, leaving “the dirty work of the parish entirely to [her]”.

Parishioners, likewise, collude with her oppression. There is Victor, an Anglo-Catholic layman described as “of the most truculent Church Times breed”, forever bending Dorothy’s ear with the weekly missives that he dashes off to the editor about the clergy’s Modernist tendencies. Hare favours The High Churchman’s Gazette, “a fine old High Tory anachronism with a small and select circulation”. The Church Times, for him, is too full of what he calls “Roman Fever”.

The story’s ecclesiastical setting is offset by Dorothy’s ambiguous relationship with the atheistic Mr Warburton. His attempts to seduce her, although unsuccessful, nevertheless catch the attention of a prurient neighbour. From thereon, Dorothy’s reputation is besmirched. The remainder of the book concerns itself with the consequences to her mental health and material well-being.

In many ways, it is a book of righteous anger, not dissimilar to Orwell’s earlier non-fiction work Down and Out in Paris and London in its descriptions and causes of dire poverty. It has also been seen as the antecedent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, inasmuch as the main character of both novels becomes the wretched victim of other people who snoop into their lives of mundane compliance. The plight of itinerant labourers, the ever-present fear of having to resort to prostitution, the effects of oppressive circumstances — financial and/or emotional — are heartrendingly chronicled against a background of political indifference.

Religion looms large in the novel. While living at his parents’ home in Southwold, Orwell proposed to a clergyman’s daughter, Brenda Salkeld. She turned him down but remained a lifelong friend. He was an atheist, like Thomas Hardy, who envied others’ blessed hope of which he himself was unaware. He was no stranger to public worship throughout his life, and his book revels in Prayer Book language and biblical allusions.

Not so much a theme but a running commentary on proceedings comes by way of references to the Church Times. There is much inconsistency over time in regard to his position on faith. Orwell’s own friendships included ones with clergy. He was married in church, and received a Christian burial. He had difficulty believing in a loving God to whom one could respond. Those misgivings are muted in A Clergyman’s Daughter. Instead, it contains a most eloquent apologia for our need of faith rather than paganism or pantheism. His main reservations about religion centre on the Church of England’s being, in effect, the Tory Party at prayer.

Privately educated himself, Orwell had also been a teacher in a couple of such establishments in Middlesex. He uses this novel to lash out at public-school education. After being rescued from destitution by a relative, Dorothy ends up in a district near London “pullulated with small private schools”. She goes to work as a teacher at Ringwood House, under the gimlet eye of the tight-fisted Mrs Creevy.

This proprietor gives the author plenty of scope for criticism of the shortcomings of fee-paying education. In the process, Orwell severely interrogates the purpose of education. Is it a device for subjugating the masses, or a portal into discovering self and life in all its richness?

 

© Celestial Images/AlamyThe author George Orwell, who worked for the BBC from 1941 to 1943

Sex, in the form of Warburton’s casual hedonistic approach to intercourse, is taken just as seriously as the mortification of the flesh espoused by conventional Christianity. Lacking any trace of cynicism, he realistically spells out to Dorothy the desperate necessity for women without money to marry. Remaining in the family home will only enslave them: “They wither up like aspidistras in back-parlour windows,” he says, “and the devilish thing is that they don’t even know that they are withering.”

Warburton, while aware that he falls short of practising Christianity’s highest sexual standards, is a refreshing antidote to the numerous joy-quenchers who populate the book.

Overall, this is not a depressing book. The grinding poverty, both rural and urban, is well depicted. And, while there is pathos, the text abounds in cameos of generously minded individuals. Orwell demonstrates how religion can become fetishised — witness Victor’s High-Church posturings — but there is also the innate goodness not only of Dorothy, but of others sympathetic to Christian belief. Neither Mr Hare’s religious claims nor Mrs Creevy’s attendance at the local Baptist church translate into any kind of loving behaviour.

Orwell, drawing on his own experiences and observations of hop-picking, lambasts those employers who oppress their workers, and yet by implication is pointing to a better way of managing the agricultural economy. Down-and-outs are treated sympathetically in contrast with those who berate them for their ill fortune.

The author creates a rich and wide-ranging tapestry of Britain in the 1930s. The pity is that he grew ashamed of this particular attempt through fiction to wake up a spiritually moribund society to its failings. It continues to have sharp relevance for us today.

The Revd Stephen Brown is the Church Times film critic.


A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell is published by Penguin at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-0-14-118465-4.


A CLERGYMAN’S DAUGHTER
— SOME QUESTIONS

  1. “She . . . drove the pin an eighth of an inch into her flesh.” Why does Dorothy resort to self-harming? Why does she decide to stop?

  2. What does it mean to be “good”, for Dorothy?

  3. How does Orwell describe hop-picking? What are the benefits and downsides of manual labour in the novel?

  4. “How happy they looked, sitting round the fires with their cans of tea.” How does this image compare with that of the hop-pickers’ perpetually bleeding hands?

  5. “The system of piecework disguised the low rate of payment.” How, and why, do farmers pay the hop-pickers so little?

  6. Where does Dorothy receive the most generosity?

  7. “They could only gape in a sort of dull bewilderment when asked to think for themselves.” How is formal education presented in the novel?

  8. “There’s no other possible future unless you marry.” Is Mr Warburton right? Why does Dorothy still say no?

  9. “Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.” What does Orwell mean by this?

  10. “. . . pasting strip after strip of paper into place”. What is the significance of the ending of the novel, for you?

 

IN OUR next Reading Groups page on 4 February, we will print extra information about our next book, Pew by Catherine Lacey. It is published by Granta Books at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-78378-519-3).

 

THE BOOK

In a town in the American South, a stranger wakes in a church with little memory, and less willingness to talk about who they are to the questioning townspeople. With no name given, the stranger is named “Pew” by the family who discover them. The Townspeople subsequently find themselves desperate to discover anything about the stranger: why they are there; their race; and even their gender. Pew, meanwhile, tries to understand their surroundings in turn. A novel of foreboding unfolds in which a community attempts to work out how to relate to someone so silent and difficult to label.

 

THE AUTHOR

Born in Mississippi in 1985, the novelist and short-story writer Catherine Lacey studied art at Loyola University, New Orleans, and received an MFA from Columbia University. Her first novel, Nobody is Ever Missing, was published after a fellowship at the New York Foundation of the Arts. She has since published four more novels and a collection of short stories. Subsequent honours include being a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize, winning a Whiting Award, and being named as one of Granta’s Best American Novelists. Lacey has been Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi, and Visiting Writer at the University of Montana. She lives in Chicago with her partner and fellow author, Jesse Ball.

 

BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

March: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

April: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

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