Ah, Orwell, I fell in love with your writing ever since I read 1984. I loved your clean, uncomplicated prose, the despair and sadness of your characters, the uncluttered narrative of your books. That is why I regret not buying “Why I Write”, a book of yours I picked up and then let go. But I will read it one day, I promise.
Despite of my admiration for your work – I loved Burmese Days and 1984, of course – I found A Clergyman’s Daughter a rather dull book in the beginning. Life as the unmarried daughter of a country priest, between the Christian duties of visiting the neighbors to provide help and also coax them back to church, and the demanding requests of a selfish father, did not hold a lot of excitement. I did admire Dorothy for bearing it all so well, for managing to split herself between her duties and trying to please everybody. There were costumes to be made for a children’s play to raise some funds for one thing or another, endless housework, the garden to be weeded and catering to the comfort of her father, the priest, a strict, gloomy and demanding man who lived in the past with no idea of the struggles of the daily life. I just wanted to
shake slap the man.
Halfway through the book things took a turn for the worse and as cruel as that may sound, put a bit of life into the book. Dorothy was thrown into the harsh city life of London. With the country still battling the Depression, the fight for survival was cruel, brutal and shocking and Dorothy got to experience it all. Suffering from memory loss and with no money in her pocket, she tags along with three people who are trying to find work as day laborers on a farm. Dorothy falls right in with the exhausting life on the farm – it seems that as long as she has a routine to hold on to she goes along as if in a dream, never once questioning her past or the fact that she doesn’t remember her name. A tragic incident startles her out of the stupor and memories come back in a rush. Trying to get back home she writes to her father to send her some money and clothes but her letters remain unanswered. Forced to leave the farm, she wanders the streets, living with the homeless, being thrown into jail and suffering from cold and hunger until a cousin takes pity and helps her find a job as a teacher. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Dorothy’s experience as a teacher, her enthusiasm as she tried to devise new ways to teach the children, her struggles to keep both her employer (what a cold-hearted woman!) and the parents happy (more handwriting and arithmetic if you please!) and in the end giving up. It was probably the most dreadful part of the whole book because there is nothing more horrible than watching the hope for a new life being killed, slowly, methodically, utterly driven into the ground.
“But the children wouldn’t have understood the play if I hadn’t explained!” protested Dorothy for the third or fourth time.
“Of course they wouldn’t! You don’t seem to get my point, Miss Millborough! We don’t want them to understand. Do you think we want them to go picking up dirty ideas out of books? Quite enough of that already with all these dirty films and these twopenny girls’ papers that they get hold of – all these filthy, dirty love-stories with pictures of – well, I won’t go into it. We don’t send our children to school to have ideas put into their heads.”
“That’s it! Practical work – that’s what we want – practical work! Not all this messy stuff like po’try and making maps and sticking scraps on paper and such like. Give ‘em a good bit of figuring and handwriting and bother the rest. Practical work! You’ve said it!”
In the end, Dorothy’s prayers are answered. Ironically, it is the man who got her into trouble that saves her, and she goes back to her boring, repetitive, colorless life.
This was Orwell’s third book, published in 1935, after Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and Burmese Days (1934). It can be divided into 2 parts: life before and after. Before she lost her memory and after she regained it. There was the tedious but familiar environment of her village with her days filled with endless things to do, and the new, bleak, harsh life of the big city, independence but also misery, loneliness and despair. The book raises some interesting questions regarding religion, the purpose of one’s life, and the benefits of a life comprised of routine, endless work to keep the hands busy and the mind from wandering and asking too many questions.
This is my favorite kind of book, one that focuses on a central character, their feelings, their journey through life. Beautiful in its simplicity, with few characters, it allowed me to understand and connect with Dorothy in a way that few books do. It’s a sad story with a bitter-sweet end and even if it’s not my favorite Orwell novel it helped make me like his writing even more.
A few paragraphs I enjoyed:
About the Rector (Dorothy’s father):
The service was beginning. The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practiced 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.’
“Dorothy drew a long glass-headed pin from the lapel of her coat, and furtively, under cover of Miss Mayfill’s back, pressed the point against her forearm. Her flesh tingled apprehensively. She made it a rule, whenever she caught herself not attending to her prayers, to prick her arm hard enough to make blood come. It was her chosen form of self-discipline, her guard against irreverence and sacrilegious thoughts.
With the pin poised in readiness she managed for several minutes to pray more collectedly. Her father had turned one dark eye disapprovingly upon Miss Mayfill, who was crossing herself at intervals, a practice he disliked. A starling chattered outside. With a shock, Dorothy discovered that she was looking vaingloriously at the pleats of her father’s surplice, which she herself had sewn two years ago. She set her teeth and drove the pin an eighth of an inch into her arm.”
During a google search I discovered a site with the texts of Orwell’s books and essays. It’s nice to know that “Why I Write” is just a click away.
*Read in December 2011