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Don't be put off by the reputation - vintage Orwell
on 1 May 2011
Despite its bad press (even Orwell himself didn't like it), 'A Clergyman's Daughter' is well worth a read.
If it was by a lesser author it would probably have a much stronger reputation than it does. As it is, yes it definitely is the weakest of his novels, but as an evocative panorama of life below-the-breadline in depression-era England it is fantastic. A lot of the scenarios (hop-picking in Kent; homeless in Trafalgar Square) will be familiar to anyone who's read Orwell's diaries or some of his essays, but alongside the unforgettable school-teaching scenes and the brilliant descriptions of life in a small, petty, curtain-twitching village, the book as whole is as good as any account I've read of what it was like to be on the fringes of society and struggling for money in the early '30s.
The general criticisms of the novel are all entirely valid. Dorothy's amnesia is never properly explained; the hop-picking scenes are too descriptive and close to Orwell's reportage diaries of his time doing this; and the 'experimental' scenes around Trafalgar Square get rather annoying and skippable after the first couple of pages; BUT, if you go into the novel, as I did, prepared for these things, then they really don't matter, and didn't mar my enjoyment of it as a whole. What was good was VERY good, enough so to make up for the weaknesses. In particular I think the chapter of the book in which Dorothy becomes a school-teacher ranks up there with anything Orwell wrote, especially in his characterisation of the detestable Mrs Creevy and the way he describes the gradual disintegration of Dorothy's initial enthusiasm and promise.
I tend to be very nostalgic and sentimental about inter-war England (the beautiful monochrome photos of Bill Brandt, the booze-soaked melancholy of Patrick Hamilton....), but novels like this one, alongside 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' and 'Coming Up For Air', are reminders of just how grim life was for probably the vast majority of people at this time. I would actually recommend considering these three novels as a sort of Orwellian '30s triptych, and think that read in order of publication (Daughter; Aspidistra; Air) they will each work best both as novels and as unforgettable historical documents. The looming threat of the Second World War is almost pysically tangible as they go on, a shadow crossing the landscape of these books, getting darker and heavier right the way through...
So don't be wary about trying this one. I was put off for ages because of its reputation, but am glad I eventually took the plunge. If you're interested in Orwell, or in the '30s generally, it is a must-read.