Casting a modern eye on Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter.
By Rachel Halliburton.
Could Dorothy Hare exist in the 21st century? George Orwell’s sharply sketched portrait of a clergyman’s daughter exerts an almost luminous drabness in its depiction of her constant, wearying self-denial. Every aspect of her routine is designed to assault any sense of ease or comfort, from the alarm clock which wakes her at five thirty ‘a horrid little bomb of bell metal’ , through to the masochistic ritual of suppressing irreverent thoughts at communion by stabbing her arm with a pin. The phrase anti-heroine could have been invented for her – for she is a paragon of the anti-self, dragged down by her sense of duty to others in a parish brought to grotesque life through Orwell’s bitingly comic, delightfully merciless prose.
My father – a clergyman – was born in 1935, the same year as Dorothy was created. Yet I was not condemned to the same purgatorial existence. Part of this was because my father was infinitely more complex and humane than the pettily tyrannical Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill. And part is because of sex, which – as every Larkin reader knows – was invented in 1963, and ignited a cultural obsession with the body that stands in stark naked contrast to the frozen pruderies of Victorian and early twentieth-century Britain. As Dorothy hovers, goose-pimpled, beside the self-imposed cold bath that eventually embraces her like an ‘icy girdle’, or thinks with horror of sex ‘She could remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, certain dreadful scenes between her father and her mother – scenes that she had witnessed when she was no more than nine years old’, it is difficult not to recoil from the warped severity of her divorce from her body. But of course Dorothy was not unusual for her time. God – seen through the prism of a flesh-denying Christianity which had whipped most of its ideas from the neo-Platonists – had ensured that many women in Thirties Britain, especially if they were respectable and middle class, saw intercourse as an imposition of their husbands’ animal desires. As a clergyman’s daughter Dorothy might have felt it more keenly, but it was decades before the lusty cavalry of figures such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Erica Jong would gallop onto the horizon and proclaim not just to inhabitants of the vicarage, but to all of her sex that the joyful f**k was a route to ecstasy rather than damnation.
When I was growing up in Eighties Britain – 50 years after Dorothy’s frigid musings – the most significant shift for vicarage life was that culture outside the Church was challenging rather than obeying its edicts. Everything from Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ to Jean-Jacques Beneix’ ‘Betty Blue’ was declaring that sex, while not without its complications, was a young person’s right. Feminism, the Pill, and rock’n’roll, had done the devil’s work. Despite the looming shadow of AIDS, there was little doubt for us that sex would be anything but a pleasure. However, my father, blessed (or cursed?) with three daughters and a son, also taught us that sex should only be practised within the confines of marriage – so self-denial was still part of a clergyman’s daughter’s existence.
And as a clergyman’s daughter, initially I took this on board. Unlike the majority of my friends at school who shed both their inhibitions and their virginity with the help of substances ranging from vodka to Ecstasy, I went up to university with my virginity intact. To grow up in a vicarage in the Eighties was to live in a world within a world. People regarded you almost as if you came from another age. While it was not the Thirties, certainly the routines of churchgoing, charity collection and simply surviving vicarage poverty, made us feel as if we were moving through the twentieth century at a different pace from our peers. It was both my fortune and my misfortune that unlike Dorothy, I was initially at odds with the zeitgeist. Despite arguing furiously with my father about his values throughout my teens, I could not escape the unfashionable notion that certain things were sinful (for instance the proposal of clubbing on a Good Friday one year was greeted with stern disapproval, as, astoundingly in retrospect, was my decision to wear jeans to church) and this to a degree gave me an insight into the tics of self-effacement that so dominated Dorothy’s life. But the middle of the 20th century still ran like an unruly river between me and Orwell’s heroine. Once I left home, in a world that was constantly telling me that my body and my mind were my own, rebellion kicked off: within a term I had lost my faith, and it wasn’t long after that my virginity was someone else’s. Education and aspiration were my liberators, not least because of my awareness that the meek, as Mrs Thatcher was informing us, were definitely not going to inherit the earth.
The other aspect of Thatcher’s Britain that divided my life, and indeed the life of any 21st -century reader’s, from Dorothy’s was the escalation of consumerism and its accompanying emphasis on achievement and self-promotion. Dorothy’s philosophy – which could be paraphrased as ‘I self-efface, therefore I (almost) am’ – seemed to be replaced in the Eighties first by ‘I want therefore I am’, and subsequently by ‘I get, therefore I am successful’. Despite Britain’s current economic woes, we have never retreated from the basic bombast of that mentality. Today the programs of self-denial on which Dorothy embarks – those early morning cold baths, eating less than those around her – would all be steps on a ladder to greater achievement, probably in attaining the perfect body, and thenceforth in cutting the right kind of image in the workplace. For a Western liberal, even one brought up with a religious background, the idea of suffering for a reward that might or might not appear in another world is anathema: an embracing of a cult of victimhood that is more indicative of delusion and mental instability than of inherent virtue.
To recognise these differences does not diminish Dorothy Hare as a literary creation – just as it does not declare that the arc of change between her age and ours has been one of unchallengeable improvement. In fact to come back to ‘A Clergyman’s Daughter,’ which I first read a decade ago, is to realise what a fantastic experimental piece of work it is. Orwell, for once, was wrong when he described it in a set of notes for his Literary Executor as a ‘silly potboiler’ and requested that it should not be reprinted. The sharp social comedy of the first chapter – the lecherous Mr Warburton’s conversation is described as ‘Oscar Wilde seven times watered’, while Dorothy’s father’s desire to live in the past is castigated as ‘very expensive: you can’t do it on less than two thousand a year’ – is succeeded by the detailed, journalistic description of how the world might appear to someone who, like Dorothy, suddenly loses her memory of who she is and ends up on the streets. This in its turn is followed by what, contrary to Orwell’s dominant reputation as a satirist and social realist, is almost a modernist opera of homeless people’s voices in Trafalgar Square: TS Eliot’s original title for ‘The Wasteland’, ‘He Do The Police In Different Voices’ comes to mind. Then the book comes back to social comedy, where Dorothy is forced to earn her living as a teacher in a private school, in the days when the purpose of many private schools was simply to extract fees from parents without imparting knowledge to children. It’s perhaps notable that the only place the word orgasm appears in the book is in Orwell’s description of Dorothy’s corrupt employer Mrs Creevy as ‘one of those people who experience a kind of spiritual orgasm when they manage to do somebody else a bad turn.’
The book will never be acknowledged as a towering classic like ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ or ‘Animal Farm’ – what makes it fascinating is also the source of its flaws. The structural experimentalism creaks from time to time, and there are points when it’s difficult to distinguish between Dorothy and Orwell himself in the journalistic passages about homelessness and about the frustrations of teaching at a private school. Dorothy’s loss of faith, potentially the climax of the book, is also treated in an almost deliberately quotidian fashion ‘after all – and here lay the trouble – she was the same girl. Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.’ Orwell flirts with the idea of Baudelairean ennui, but through Dorothy we never really plunge its perversely murky depths. He is not interested enough in faith or the lack of it to produce the great critique that he would of totalitarianism just over a decade later.
But it’s undeniable that in the novel we’re seeing a good writer flexing his muscles in order to find out how he can become a truly great writer. And though the world of a modern clergyman’s daughter is manifestly different from that of Dorothy’s there are enduring tropes that resonate through the decades. The petty tyrannies that people inflict on one another and on themselves; the mixture of rumour and prejudice that holds together any community; the way that lack of money erodes morality just as surely as an excess of it does. All expressed in beautifully constructed, drily humorous prose, full of pincered observations such as ‘She did indeed believe in Hell, but she had never been able to persuade herself that anyone actually went there.’ There is also a certain satisfaction in the neatness with which Dorothy functions as a metaphor as much as a psychological entity. For she is the woman who denies herself so much, that eventually her self evaporates and she is temporarily left without any identity at all. The lack of redemption in her rediscovery of who she is is part of the vinegarish humour in this parable for a grim age. As Dorothy’s creator would go on to chronicle, that age was about to become a whole lot worse before it found its way into the light again.
Rachel Halliburton is a freelance journalist and former deputy editor of Time Out.