Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 05 Jan 2016

A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell

Quite a lot of critics are pretty sniffy about Orwell’s skills as a novelist. I can understand why – his early attempts are never wholly successful and, for me, it’s not until we get to Coming Up For Air, that he really hits his stride.

One novel that often comes in for particular criticism is A Clergyman’s Daughter. Dorothy Hare is the young woman of the title – timid and rather dowdy, she is the victim of her irascible father and her own sense of religious guilt. One evening she is the target of a clumsily attempt at seduction by the town lothario, Mr Warburton, and in a state of emotional turmoil she returns home to continue making fancy dress costumes for a church play. Somehow in this agitated state and under the influence of glue fumes, she mysteriously loses her memory.

This clumsy and improbable mechanism is the way Orwell springs Dorothy from rural East Anglia into the urban jungle of London. What happens to Dorothy becomes a vehicle for the author to write about his experiences and observations while tramping and hop picking. Later, after being arrested, Dorothy gets a job as a school-mistress and this provides another chance for autobiography on Orwell’s part as he explores the horrors of cheap, public school education.

Equally improbably Dorothy is bought back to her old life by Warburton who has been her benefactor since her arrest but she rejects his offer of marriage. She returns instead to her old life but now changed – accepting her situation without guilt and without her previous resentment.

I think it’s fair to say the book is a bit of a car crash when it comes to plot, motivation and characterisation. The journalistic elements are precisely that – journalistic – and the cast of characters largely two dimensional.

So does anything save it and make it more than just a curiosity for admirers of his later works? I think it has something that lifts it out of the ordinary – Orwell’s unique sensibility and largely unacknowledged humour. One of the things that he was a master of was evoking the extraordinary sense of lower middle-class discomfort that pervades so many of Orwell’s principle characters. Shabbiness is Orwell’s natural habitat and he understands in a fundamental way how it feels to have to be constantly making do. The atmosphere of destroyed dreams hangs like a miasma over Dorothy ( as it does over Gordon Comstock in Keep The Aspidistra Flying  or George Bowling in Coming Up For Air ) and the search for what is real leads inevitably to what Orwell often characterised as the pure but crude impulses of the working class.

Much of Orwell’s humour, like that of Swift, lies in the nervous laughter of disgust. The senses – especially smell – are the gateway to his involuntary sense of recoil and fear of physical closeness or contact. Orwell would often comment on bodily smells and the unappealing sounds and excrescences of the human condition. In the Road To Wigan Pier, for example,  he is obsessed with someone who spends inordinate amounts of time coughing and spitting into strips of newspaper that get discarded on the floor. Bad teeth, bad breath and body sweat seem to swarm up to meet Orwell’s delicate senses and he is forced to describe them in a sort of frankness that isn’t prurient or repulsive but oddly comic.

If any one thing saves A Clergyman’s Daughter from complete ruin it is the vignettes that embody this morbid sense of physicality and decay. Dorothy, we see, is really the embodiment of Orwell himself and in one truly memorable incident in the early part of the novel, before Dorothy’s improbable amnesia, she finds herself scrutinising an elderly woman about to take a drink from the communion chalice. The old woman’s faint moustache and slobbery bottom lip are described in great, repulsive detail and Dorothy is both thrilled and disgusted by the knowledge that she must drink from the cup next. She forces herself to do it as a form of self-punishment that hints at a deep-seated sensual repression.

I bow to no-one as a fan of George Orwell but I do accept that as a novel A Clergyman’s Daughter is not great art. But don’t read it expecting that – instead go to it for a deeper insight into the Orwell frame of mind and the twisted humour of physical disgust. This will put you in a great frame of mind for the later, better books that have the same sensibility running through their every fibre – and that will give you an extra dimension to your appreciation of a really great writer.


Terry Potter

January 2016