When you think of George Orwell, you do not say, “Oh, yes, he wrote my favorite novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter!” In fact, you’ve probably never heard of A Clergyman’s Daughter. His dystopian novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, dominate the Orwellian canon. And yet A Clergyman’s Daughter is truly a neglected classic, a realistic character study as well as a political analysis of women’s secondary role in society. Published in 1935, it is partly an exposé of the exploitation of poor single women, partly a portrait of a hard-working woman who is repulsed by the idea of “romance,” and partly an account of dire poverty and homelessness.
Having recently read Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell’s comic novel about an impoverished anti-establishment bookseller, I was enraptured to discover A Clergyman’s Daughter, which is even more brilliant. His portrait of the heroine, Dorothy Hare, the rector’s daughter, is sympathetic and poignant. And one-third of the way through the book, the narrative takes an astonishing turn that, despite the political subtext, teeters on the edge of fantasy. Orwell, however, gently brings us back to earth.
Kind, dutiful Dorothy is her father’s unpaid curate, as is clear even to Dorothy. In addition to managing her father’s household, she devotes herself to the church and its parishioners. She listens to the village schoolteacher’s endless lectures about “the real Catholic worship,” which, in his view, should feature lots of incense, fancy vestments, and processions; she makes complicated costumes for the children’s pageants, including armor and jackboots made of paper and glue; she reads Girl of the LImberlost aloud to the ladies’ knitting circle (Gene Stratton Porter is their favorite author, and she wonders what on earth to read to them next); she visits the poor and rubs the rheumatic legs of an old woman – an unpleasant task; organizes the Harvest Festival; organizes the Girl Guides; tries to convince her father they must pay the butcher’s bill (he prefers to “invest” his money and let the tradesmen wait); and pedals 20-30 miles every day “on her elderly bicycle with the basketwork carrier on the handlebars” on her errands. Dorothy never has a moment to herself.
Because Dorothy has no real power or money, she spends her days deflecting other people’s legitimate and illegitimate worries. How can she raise money for church repairs? It is impossible. She listens to Mr. Progett’s complaints about the condition of the bells, which have been lying on the floor of the bell tower for three years, and may soon fall through the floor. She agrees that he is right.
“Well, I don’t know what we can do,” Dorothy repeated. “Of course there’s the jumble sale coming off the week after next. I’m counting on Miss Mayfill to give us something really nice for the jumble sale…. We must pray that the jumble sale will be a success, Proggett. Pray that it will bring us five pounds at least.”
Exhausted from making jackboots for the children’s pageant, she accepts an invitation to visit the charming, if slightly lecherous, Mr. Warburton: he has asked her especially to meet “Ronald Bewley, the novelist. Author of Fishbones and Concubines. Surely you’ve read Fishbones and Concubines.” Well, Dorothy hasn’t read it, but she wants some time off from making Jackboots, so she arrives on her bicycle, looking forward to a nice chat.
Regrettably, Ronald Bewley doesn’t show up. That’s because Mr. Warburton made him up. But they have a nice chat, and after she fends off Mr. Warburton’s embraces – which is very easy, because she nimbly puts her bike between them – she goes home with the sick knowledge that she must stay up all night making costumes.
And then … she disappears. Vanishes. No one knows where she is. All the newspapers run stories about the missing rector’s daughter. What terrifies Dorothy when she finally regains consciousness is that she does not remember who she is. SShe finds herself in London, almost penniless. Not knowing what to do, she joins a cheerful young ex-con, Nobby, who tells her he became a widower at age 20 (and this is typical of the sad stories Dorothy hears on her travels), and they go to the country to pick hops – which turns out to be blissful work, being outdoors all day. But after Nobby is arrested for stealing fruit that has fallen off trees and that the farmers don’t bother with anyway, he winks at her, swears at the police, and is taken away to jail. At the end of hop-picking season, Dorothy returns alone to London and is homeless, freezing at Trafalgar Square.
How will she survive? Will she recover her identity? Finally, she sees a tabloid with her picture in it and an article about how she went missing. She realizes she must have blacked out.
This is not the end of her adventures, though both Orwell and Dorothy are aware of the fact that women without money have remarkably few choices. Orwel is passionately leftist, but he can’t quite make Dorothy into a political sacrifice. She is an ordinary 28-year-old woman who makes a choice that not everyone will empathize with. The important thing, Orwell seems to say, is that she is able to make a choice, not have it made for her. And certainly we admire her bravery, as she makes a difficult choice with her eyes wide open to the future.