16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating and yet not really very good
, 20 Aug. 2008
This review is from: A Clergyman's Daughter (Paperback)
George Orwell was a great English writer whose reputation has suffered from the tendency in English culture to regard the novel (and the poem) as the supreme test of a writer's worth. Orwell was clearly at his most stimulated and inspired as a writer when he had something urgent to say, but having something urgent to say is not always the best attitude to have when you are trying to write a novel. It certainly wasn't the best attitude for Orwell to have when he wrote this one, considering that when he wrote it he was really beginning to find his vocation as a political writer and that he was also (at the time) impressed and intimidated by the example of Joyce's 'Ulysses', which he'd just read. 'Ulysses' has a political dimension, but it is the work of a very different kind of writer. The result is a fascinating and disjointed mish-mash of a novel, and Orwell knew it; even while he was writing it, he was writing to friends to say that he was making a mess of it.
In spite of this, any fan of Orwell will have a soft spot for 'A Clergyman's Daughter', if only because it's this writer's most conspicuous failure. Some of it, the depiction of the heroine's awful and cramped life as the daughter of a snobbish and mean-minded clergyman, plus the vivid accounts of hop-picking and teaching in a cheap and nasty school, are unforgettable. Against that, you have to cope with the fairly implausible story (why and how does Dorothy lose her memory?), the shallow characterisation and the fairly woeful 'experimental' chapter in which Dorothy attempts to spend a night among the homeless in Trafalgar Square, the whole thing rendered as a clunky pastiche of a chapter in 'Ulysses'.
Orwell tried to digest his own personal experiences into fictional form, and in this case he failed. But it's an honourable failure; the book may not hang together as a fully realised work of art, but not many novels of the period were able to back up their mood of societal disillusionment with such excruciating and convincing detail. If you have never read Orwell, don't start here; try the essays, '1984' and 'Animal Farm', the finest products of his moral and political imagination. If you have read them already, this is a fascinating sidetrack. Orwell was right to think the book not good, but I for one am glad that his wish that it not be reprinted after his death has been disregarded. Dodgy as it is, it's still very interesting.
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