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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

George Orwell - A Clergyman's Daughter

A Clergyman's Daughter - George Orwell

com·ple·tist /kəmˈplētist/
"An obsessive, typically indiscriminate, collector or fan of something".

Ah, I like this one. I am an obsessive - although not indiscriminate - collector of something: books.
Now, my problem with George Orwell is that I liked, if not adored, all that I read by him, which is pretty much all that the man wrote. With one exception: "A Clergyman's Daughter".

I knew that Orwell himself disowned this novel deciding to don't have it reprinted during his lifetime. However, unlike Franz Kafka - who burned much of his early writings - and Graham Greene - whose second and third works have never been published again - Orwell set a different fate to "A Clergyman's Daughter".

Writing to his literary executor, Orwell agreed to have "any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs" printed again after his death.
And that's why a novel which Orwell himself looked at as "a silly potboiler" found its place into the Penguin Modern Classics.

Well aware of the fact that "A Clergyman's Daughter" was all but a masterpiece, I've always postponed the right moment to buy it hoping to bump into a second hand edition in a charity shop, to no avail.
Then, rummaging through the bookshelves of a provincial Oxfordshire library, I found the novel and promptly borrowed it.

Done with the reading, it's time to talk about this book.
And what can I say?
Well, first of all that this stuff is not that bad.

I mean if you're a completist of George Orwell, you might read this one. Just keep in mind that the final version of this novel is far from what its author had in mind having been savagely maimed by its fearful and puritan publisher, Gollancz.
That alone could explain why on my Orwellian scale this book comes last even though in some of its moments is better than the clumsy, but exotic, "Burmese Days".

Let's name the merits first. It's admirable that George Orwell put himself in the shoes of a woman, Dorothy Hare, for the first (and last) time in his career as a novelist.
It's equally praiseworthy that Orwell wanted to open the eyes of his readers on something of a taboo in 1935 England: rape. The idea behind this novel was to highlight the supreme injustice of many English women in the 1930s. Women who were powerless against oppressive families, perverted men, vicious gossip and dodgy employers. Not that many of these nooses have changed in the meantime.

Dorothy Hare is oppressed by her father - a snobbish lazybone of a reverend - and stalked by an old womanizer in a dull village. A village where social life revolves around the male obscenities shouted in a pub and the female backbitings whispered in a tea house.
And Orwell is quite good in portraying the pious monotonousness of Dorothy's humble life and her passive resignation.

Then this bucolic nightmare is suddenly interrupted. But thanks to Gollancz censorship we don't know what happened to Dorothy. All that we can read is that the clergyman's daughter wakes up on a pavement in London unaware of who she is and where she comes from.

Badly struck by his own publisher, Orwell tries not to sink.
The novel follows Dorothy (now Ellen) in her new harsh life as a beggar, a hop-picker and eventually as a teacher in an awful school.
This part of the book deals with George Orwell's personal experiences down and out in London and teaching in order to make a living, but it doesn't work as it could.

Sure, there are vivid and poignant descriptions of a miserable life in London and its countryside among gypsies, petty thieves and prostitutes, but whom the author fails with is Dorothy/Ellen. The poor woman recovers all of her memory, but never develops as a character.
No matter what happens around her, the clergyman's daughter sticks to her role of a musty wallflower at the mercy of events. Till the disappointing but pretty obvious sweet and sour end.

At the end of the day, it's not clear what Orwell wanted to achieve here.
What was the point of putting Dorothy's life upside-down if she didn't change a bit? How doesn't she feel any frustrated emancipation?
True, the woman admits that she lost her faith and that's certainly bad for a clergyman's daughter. But does she seem to care? Mmh, not really.

In all of its insipidity (and due to the significant cuts) "A Clergyman's Daughter" is not a silly potboiler, but definitely a missed chance. What a pity.