Advice to budding novelists often includes the recommendation to write about what you know about. Down and Out in Paris and London was a memoir of Orwell’s times spent in those two capitals deliberately living with the poor and homeless. Burmese Days was the result of his experiences with the Indian Police Service in Burma in the late 1920s. Gollancz initially rejected it for publication, largely due to fear of libel as there was little concealment that the fictional Kyauktada was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had been stationed. History repeated itself with Orwell’s next novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, which was written with the insight provided by two of Orwell’s personal experiences, that of living “on the beach” (homeless) in London, hop-picking in Kent, working in a minor private school in Hayes, Middlesex, becoming friendly with the curate of a local church, and finally more school teaching experience at a larger college in Uxbridge. Homelessness, poverty, hop-picking, teaching in private schools and the machinations of the day to day running of a parish church are all essential elements of his new book, and Gollancz had the same reaction that they had to Burmese Days. They insisted on many cuts and amendments before they would publish, to which Orwell reluctantly agreed. However, partly (but not solely) because of this censorship, he was very unhappy with the final outcome of the book and, initially at least, refused permission for it to be reprinted after his death. This was, however, a decision he came to alter when he consented to the printing of cheap editions “of any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs” following his death.
As I mentioned in my blog post about Burmese Days, when I started my George Orwell Challenge I decided that I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any more serious criticism to other more intelligent souls. So here’s my reaction to A Clergyman’s Daughter: it’s a hotch potch of brilliant and not-quite-so-brilliant writing, with a fascinating central character who goes on one helluva journey, with some extraordinary plot turns, a too-easy resolution to her main story, and a too-neat ending. There’s also a section which is written as a play text, which, perhaps surprisingly is the sequence that Orwell felt was the best thing in the book; I think it’s the worst. It’s a very experimental book, and – as an experiment – some aspects of it work and some don’t. But, as when I see a play, I try always to value a brave failure over a lazy success, so I have to admire Orwell for a work that he himself didn’t value much. God loves a trier as my mother-in-law would say. Big spoilers alert – it’s impossible to write about this book without telling you the story so if you haven’t read it and want to, please go away and read it. I’ll be fascinated to know what you think of it!
The book is split into five chapters, each of which are split into smaller parts. Chapter One introduces us to Dorothy, a clergyman’s daughter, who spends all her days looking after either the said clergyman, or his parishioners, in numerous ways. She makes the costumes for the village children’s plays, she tries to raise money for the church upkeep, she gets up early to make her father’s breakfast; the list of her duties is endless. But she does it all with spirited grace, backed up by her firm faith. There is one murky presence in her life – Mr Warburton, a middle-aged lounge lizard, who’d like to add Dorothy’s notch to his bedpost. Dorothy, however, has no intention of being anyone’s bedpost notch ever. He is persistent, and so is she; and chapter one ends with her refusing his advances and going back to making the children’s costumes. However, the local gossip Mrs Semprill sees her and Warburton in a late-night clinch, suspects the worst, and isn’t afraid to mention it to all and sundry.
When Chapter Two opens, you don’t know where you are; and nor does Dorothy. It turns out that she had some kind of amnesia attack and suddenly finds herself in London, unsuitably dressed, knowing neither her name nor occupation, with no home and no money. She falls in with some youths off to Kent for some hop-picking; and she ends up begging and getting arrested. However, after a while, her memory comes back so she writes to her father to explain what has happened and ask for him to come and get her and bring her home. Several letters in fact; and no reply to any of them. Chapter Three sees her so down and out that she spends a night with the tramps in Trafalgar Square, freezing cold, and abjectly miserable. In Chapter Four she is tracked down by her uncle’s servant and employed at a private school by one Mrs Creevy, who has elevated meanness and cruelty to an art form. Whilst Dorothy enjoys teaching the children (and they have a good relationship with her) her modern approaches to education aren’t appreciated by their neanderthal parents – and Mrs Creevy is only in it for the money (well, and the sadism), so Dorothy has to revert to teaching in the old-fashioned, boring way.
At the end of the chapter Mrs Creevy boots her off the premises with no references, notice or thanks. But Chapter Five sees her rescued by Mr Warburton and taken back home where her reputation has kind of been reinstated, as Mrs Semprill has been discredited by other lies that she told in the past. Warburton offers marriage but she refuses; but she admits she has now lost her faith. This isn’t a springboard to the freer life that Warburton thinks she should enjoy, but simply means she goes back to her old duties, but without faith; so with an element of hypocrisy and meaninglessness. She has made progress as a character, but the book ends the same way that Chapter One ends – just with her previous faith replaced by a gaping void. Does she live miserably ever after, or does she go round again on another amnesia-driven journey of self-discovery? You decide!
There’s a huge amount to enjoy in this book. Like Burmese Days, I found myself devouring it, reading it quickly and avidly, and frequently marvelling at those amazing Orwellian turns of phrase. Chapter One is a delightful account of Dorothy’s life in this turgid parish, with her ungrateful, un-Christian vicar father, full of wonderful observations and cracking characterisations. Chapter Four, also, is a great read, as we follow Dorothy’s struggles living chez Creevy, a money-grabbing vicious old bag who never does a kind act if an unkind one is possible. Chapter Two is a return to Orwell’s already published experiences of hop-picking and living down and out in London, which sometimes feels as though he has just lifted extracts from his Hop Picking diary and plonked them into the story, and just added Dorothy and a few other characters for good measure.
Chapter Three is a bizarre straying into the world of drama, but with little information about the people who populate Trafalgar Square, and not very convincing voices for many of his characters there; it makes the one night that Dorothy spent there feel very long indeed. And finally Chapter Five finishes the book where we began, with a lot of soul-searching about how Dorothy can continue doing the same things without faith, and, frankly, frustrating the reader that her journey didn’t create a more fulfilling result for her. “Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.” So, personally, I loved Chapters One and Four, found Two acceptable, Five frustrating and Three utterly tedious!
There’s no doubt that Dorothy is a great and rather complex character. When we first see her, we rather admire her ability to put on a brave front in the face of being subjected to some raw treatment from her father who just treats her like a skivvy. There are menial tasks to perform but she does them keenly and earnestly. But we’re quickly alarmed by her self-harming which appears to be driven, not by mental ill-health, but by an almost medieval sense of self-punishment if her mind strays from the letter of the Gospels. Any uncharitable thought, any deviation from the Word of God, and out comes her pin to prick herself, preferably to the point of bleeding.
But this stops when her amnesia kicks in, and she can no longer remember her old life – or even that she had a life; nor does she pray. Instead she faces the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with stoicism, kindness, optimism, and a sense of ambition – to get out of the situation in which she finds herself but without causing additional hurt to her father. She throws herself into providing stimulating education for Mrs Creevy’s pupils, but when these efforts are thrown back in her face, she puts her job first, as she knows to avoid another Trafalgar Square situation at all costs. She’s imaginative, but realistic. The book ends with her in a position of near-stasis, which is frustrating and disappointing, but probably inevitable. Her dislike of anything physical means she was never going to accept Warburton’s offer of marriage – anything else would have been totally unrealistic. Her experiences have confirmed to her what she doesn’t want out of life, but not what she does want.
Warburton offers a reason for Dorothy’s amnesia. He maintains that her faith was never genuine, and just a convenient excuse for her day-to-day existence. ““You’d built yourself a life-pattern – if you’ll excuse a bit of psychological jargon – that was only possible for a believer, and naturally it was beginning to be a strain on you.” He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner.” I presume that if he is correct in his explanation, then there should not be a recurrence of amnesia after the book ends.
As usual, Orwell fills the book with a few strong supporting characters who are beautifully written and come to life on the page. Warburton is a total louse, completely devoid of shame, who doesn’t remotely care if his approaches to Dorothy are spurned, no matter how much he presses her. A vital plot point that was by necessity censored from Orwell’s original text was that Warburton had attempted to rape Dorothy, so any sense that he is a lovable rogue is misplaced. He has no compunction about lying to get Dorothy on her own. If nothing else, Dorothy is much wiser after her London experiences, and is not going to be taken in by him. He is insightful though: “a favourite saying of Mr Warburton’s […] if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote “money” instead of “charity”, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.” Interestingly, this Bible chapter would become the epigraph for Orwell’s next book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
There’s also the appalling Mrs Creevy, by profession a head-teacher but in reality, a parsimonious self-centred bully, who takes her revenge on the clients who pay less by treating their children worse; vice versa, if they pay well, their children can get away with murder. She guards the marmalade pot with her life; deliberately slices the breakfast fried egg so that Dorothy gets less than her share; turns on her in front of the parents to threaten her with the sack; and only laughs when she’s swindled someone out of some hard-earned cash. “So long as she could think of a way of docking Dorothy’s dinner of another potato or getting her exercise books a halfpenny a dozen cheaper, or shoving an unauthorised half guinea onto one of the “good payers” bills, she was happy after her fashion.” She even manages to cheat Warburton out of half-a-crown. She advocates physical violence against the children: “the best thing with children is to twist their ears”. As a delightful irony, she only sees Shakespeare as a source of immorality; so much for a private education. There’s something of the Wackford Squeers about her; I wonder if Orwell had been reading his Nicholas Nickleby at the same time, as there is a character there called Miss La Creevy (although she is kind!)
And we have the thoroughly unpleasant Reverend Charles Hare, Dorothy’s father, Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk; a fictional location, much to Gollancz’s relief, no doubt, but strongly suspected to be Southwold, where the book was written. In one of those marvellous, to-the-point descriptions of a character and his behaviour that Orwell executes so well, we understand immediately the kind of person he is. “The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practised voice, clear enough now that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial. In his fastidious, aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was an expression of aloofness, almost of contempt. “This is a valid sacrament,” he seemed to be saying, “and it is my duty to administer it to you. But remember that I am only your priest, not your friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise you.””
Unsurprisingly he hates Harvest Festival. “Do you suppose […] it is any pleasure to me to have to preach my sermon among festoons of runner beans? I am not a greengrocer.” He’s also a snob; being “the younger son of a younger son of a Baronet […] had gone into the Church for the outmoded reason that the Church is the traditional profession for younger sons. His first cure had been in a large, slummy parish in East London – a nasty hooliganish place it had been, and he looked back on it with loathing. Even in those days the lower classes (as he made a point of calling them) were getting decidedly out of hand.” He keeps his money to himself, leaving Dorothy to fend off creditors; he finds it particularly distasteful that tradesmen should want to be paid.
Dorothy meets a range of colourful characters on the road; but these are perhaps not quite as memorable as the others. This is curious, as two of them, Ginger and Deafie, were real people about whom Orwell wrote in his hop-picking diaries; if Gollancz feared a libel case, this was maybe his closest shave. The details about Deafie were true; a) that he was stone deaf and b) that he continually exposed himself to women and children, despite being essentially decent. The details about Ginger were attributed to Nobby in the book – that he was a fearless and charismatic guy who often lived on Trafalgar Square and whose wife had died in childbirth, had been to Borstal, and was a master of thefts, both great and small. However, for the most part, the people she meets hop picking and on Trafalgar Square just don’t inhabit your imagination. Chapter Three – the drama scene – doesn’t do anything to fix these characters firmly in the reader’s mind’s eye. If you had already read Orwell’s essay Hop Picking, which he had published four years earlier, none of Dorothy’s experiences or Orwell’s observations on the whole phenomenon would come as a surprise. I did have to fight a suspicion that Orwell simply created Dorothy’s hop-picking experiences simply so that he could put his own experience and writing to good use. Cynical of me, I know.
Orwell is at his best when revelling in beautifully worded imagery and impactful sentences that just yearn to be read out loud. In that opening scene, he goes into terrific detail to reveal the horror of a putrid Holy Communion service, with Dorothy having to share the communion wine with the unpleasant Miss Mayfill. “Miss Mayfill was creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose and wet. The under lip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetising mouth; not the kind of mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup.” It’s a magnificent piece of writing – you can almost smell and taste Miss Mayfill’s saliva as it dribbles over the cup.
I love Orwell’s description of the clients at the “fully licensed” Knype Hill Conservative Club “from whose bow window, any time after the bar was open, the large, rosy-gilled faces of the town’s elite were to be seen gazing like chubby goldfish from an aquarium pane”. When Dorothy has returned to the parish, she notices “that the ash tree by the gate was in bloom, with clotted dark-red blossoms that looked like festerings from a wound”; which dazzles you with its comparison of nature’s beauty with grim disease. In one of his many descriptions of Mrs Creevy, he highlights her personal habit of noisy inelegance: “Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist” – which is a fantastic simile. Another is when he describes tearing down bines of hops: “huge, tapering strands of foliage, like the plaits of Rapunzel’s hair that came tumbling down on top of you, showering you with dew.”
In an amusing nod to the quotation from Macbeth that got Dorothy into trouble with the school parents, when Warburton takes Dorothy to lunch in Coventry Street, among the side vegetables she found “tiny, pearly-white potatoes that had been ripped untimely from their mother earth”. There’s a lovely observation when Dorothy has been having a busy day in the parish: “The sun, burning in the cloudless sky, scorched her back through her gingham frock, and the dusty road quivered in the heat, and the hot, flat meadows, over which even at this time of year numberless larks chirruped tiresomely, were so green that it hurt your eyes to look at them. It was the kind of day that is called “glorious” by people who don’t have to work.” There it is – a typical, Orwellian, killer finish!
I was interested to see a continuation of the disapproval of the way a Labour government, in an attempt to make things better for working class people, actually made things worse. This was a theme that started in Down and Out in Paris and London. One of the farmers employing hop pickers has stated that he will only take on “home pickers”; as Mrs McElligot explains: “dem as has got homes o’ deir own […] dat’s de law nowadays. In de old days when you come down hoppin’, you kipped in a stable an’ dere was no questions asked. But dem bloody interferin’ gets of a Labour Government brought in a law to say as no pickers was to be taken on widout de farmer had proper accommodation for ‘em. So Norman only takes on folks as has got homes o’ deir own.” And, Orwell, never a friend of communism, refers to the life that Dorothy was now leading in London: “the enormous sleepless nights, the cold, the dirt, the boredom and the horrible communism of the Square.”
He also takes the opportunity to deliver a diatribe against private education; something he himself had benefited from, and some elements of which were required to be censored by Mr Gollancz. “There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England. Second-rate, third-rate and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.” “…There is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money. Often, except that there is nothing illegal about them, they are started in exactly the same spirit as one would start a brothel or a bucket shop.” Dorothy “heard tales of schools that were worse by far than Ringwood House. She heard of a cheap boarding-school where travelling actors dumped their children as one dumps luggage in a railway cloakroom, and where the children simply vegetated, doing absolutely nothing, reaching the age of sixteen without learning to read; and another school where the days passed in a perpetual riot, with a broken-down old hack of a master chasing the boys up and down and slashing at them with a cane, and then suddenly collapsing and weeping with his head on a desk, while the boys laughed at him. So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.”
The regulation of the schools was nonsense; “one day a Government inspector did, indeed, visit the school, but beyond measuring the dimensions of the schoolroom to see whether each girl had her right number of cubic feet of air, he did nothing; he had no power to do more.” I must say, Mrs Creevy’s watchword that you do what the parents want and that’s the most important thing in private education was certainly not my experience of going to a private school. If a parent went to my headmaster and quibbled with the way their son was being taught, he’d simply have recommended them to withdraw him from the school!
One final note of interest: I saw that the unfrocked Mr Tallboys, homeless on Trafalgar Square, sang (to the tune of Deutschland über Alles) “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” which would of course go on to be the name of Orwell’s next novel.
I know it’s a cliché, but this book really is the archetypal curate’s egg. The opening chapter is so full of brilliant observations and terrific characterisations, that you can’t wait for the next page. Similarly, the sequence where Dorothy is shacked up at the abominable Creevy’s makes your heckles rise with its injustice. The reader is very concerned about Dorothy’s wellbeing; we really want her to do well, to rise above all the things that have gone wrong for her and to create a happy and successful future. So when it looks like that’s not going to happen, it’s genuinely disappointing; but on reflection, all other outcomes would be artificial. I still feel that the hop-picking episode was written just because Orwell had had the experience and wanted to write about it; and the dramatext-style chapter three just seems totally unsatisfactory.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book very much and would certainly recommend it. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I read this as a teenager – or maybe in my young 20s – but I have absolutely no memory of it. So it will be like reading a brand new book! I’ll read it over the next month or so and then write down my thoughts as usual. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.