January 26, 2012

A Clergyman's Daughter (#92)

A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell

What I said then:

Another inherited boxset. I liked Burmese Days, the first in the set that I read, so I think I've dodged a bullet here. 

What I say now:

Though hampered somewhat by an unusual structure and one particular narrative contrivance that requires tolerant forgiveness on the part of the reader, Orwell's novel eventually winds up dealing sensitively with the question of faith and, more directly, with what comes next after faith is lost.

Dorothy, daughter of a cold, aloof Rector in a village in the English countryside during the 1920's, works herself to the bone trying to tend the parish. In the face of her father's obstinate refusal to engage with anything --- not their household debts, not their parishioners --- Dorothy is basically running the show. She accepts her lot unquestioningly, and is sustained by her faith, while trying constantly to believe herself deserving of the comfort that it gives her.

This opening section, while describing a drab life in a drab town, is actually kind of hilarious (albeit in a very low-key kind of way). Orwell's satirical eye sees right through the mean, petty, ignorant inhabitants of the town of Knype Hill and he skewers them with wonderful elegance. Dorothy herself isn't immune either, and Orwell uses her mundane trials (not having the money to pay the butcher; not knowing how best to use brown paper and glue to make costumes for a forthcoming children's recital; wanting desperately to be friends with the town's one interesting inhabitant, Mr Warburton, despite the scandal of his having fathered children out of wedlock) to illustrate the problems and hypocrisies that blind faith can lead to. Dorothy is reduced to praying for money, and it's actually kind of sad.

And then, in the blank space between the end of Chapter One and the beginning of Chapter Two, Dorothy travels to London, loses all her worldly possessions, and loses her memory into the bargain. As Chapter Two begins, she's wakening from a daze, with no idea who she is. It's fair to say that it's a bit of a jolt, and my experience of reading the book never quite recovered.(Orwell gives a half-arsed explanation along the lines of 'It's one of those funny things you read about from time to time ...' but I ain't buying it.)

After that weird Days of Our Lives-ish schism, Dorothy spends the middle part of the book homeless and destitute, and Orwell puts his personal experiences to good use, describing her travails with both verisimilitude and relish. She hikes to the country to go hop-picking for a few pennies a day, she sleeps in Trafalgar Square huddled with other tramps for warmth, and eventually she gets arrested for vagrancy and spends a night in jail.

Slowly the details of her past come back to her and she tries to contact her father, but hears nothing in response. Eventually her family track her down and, because returning home is impossible following such a scandal, they set her up with a teaching job at a horrid little school. Just as she's fired from the school and thrown out on the street, her luck changes yet again and she learns that the local gossip who poisoned Knype Hill's opinion of her has been accused of libel and run out of town. With her reputation (somewhat) restored, she is free once again to go home, so she does.

It's a strange, episodic book and, though the amnesia moment is the silliest transition, every movement of Dorothy from one situation to the next has the same randomness to it. Dorothy never really acts in a way that impacts on her own story, it's always some outside force that pushes her to some new place. The fact that Dorothy is such a passive character lends the book a curiously detached air, and makes it difficult to engage with.

The one change that does occur in Dorothy is that she loses her faith. Even this momentous shift, though, simply ... happens. There is no struggle, no push-and-pull of lofty religious insights. Orwell's thesis basically seems to be that 'If you're on the street, you can't be religious, because trying to stay alive takes up too much of your time.' Dorothy loses her faith and doesn't even miss it.

Until the final chapter. Then, as she returns home and settles quickly back into her old routine, Dorothy finally feels her absence of faith, and finally has the debate with herself about what can replace that faith in her inner life. Mr Warburton, father of scandalous bastards and an incurable lecher, brings her back to Knype Hill on the train. During their journey he gives her a speech, both profound and horrible, about what her pious life will be like now that she doesn't believe in its worth. In that moment, and from that moment to the end of the novel, Orwell wrestles with the idea of faith, and how to deal with its loss, that belies the superficiality of much of what has come before it. It's a striking passage of writing, and very nearly worth reading the book just to reach. It's just a shame that the story that brought us to that point was lazy in so many of its particulars.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (This one is going to kill me.)
books to go: 91

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