A clergyman’s daughter: loneliness, nihilism and futility
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It to is set in the period between the great world wars of the 20th century, but this time in England. Dorothy Hare is the daughter of the widowed rector of a country parish in Suffolk. He takes care of the services, and she takes care of him, and the pastoral work of the parish, which keeps her busy from morning till night In addition she has to make costumes for plays, do fund raising, and keep the creditors at bay.
Eventually the strain gets too much for her, and she disappears. The parish gossip has it that she eloped with a neighbour, but she finds herself in London suffering from total amnesia, with no idea of her identity. She falls in with some people who are going hop-picking in Kent and loses herself in the rather mindless work, which Orwell describes in great detail. When the season is over she takes her meagre earnings back to London, and looks for a job, without success. Her memory gradually returns, but having no money she becomes one of the homeless street people of London.
Orwell is clearly drawing on his own experiences in describing this, as he did in another book, Down and out in Paris and London. Eventually Dorothy gets a job in a private school, which exhibits all the worst features of education. Dorothy tries to make lke learning more interesting for the children, but is thwarted by the proprietor of the school, whose sole aim is to make money.
One of the things I liked about the book was Orwell’s power of description, and in some ways he described my experience too. I once attended a private school, not as bad as the one in the book, to be sure, but there were certain similarities. It was Mountain Lodge Preparatory School in Magaliesberg, and, like the one in A clergyman’s daughter, it had a proprietor, a Mr Burnford, who did not teach, but rejoiced in the title of Bursar. I was there for three years, and each year the school had a different headmaster. Unlike the one in the book, however, the teachers were allowed to try to make learning interesting, all except one, the Afrikaans teacher, a Mrs Barr, whose authoritarianism led to two strikes among the pupils. When I was 11 the school closed, and Mr Burnford scarpered. There were all sorts of rumours, but we never did hear what really happened.
And Dorothy Hare, working at the school was friendless. Orwell describes this as follows:
There is perhaps no quarter of the inhabited world where one can be quite so completely alone as in the London suburbs. In a big town the thong and bustle at least give one the illusion of companionship, and in the country everyone is interested in everyone else — too much so, indeed. But in places like Southbridge, if you have no family and no home to call your own, you could spend half a lifetime without making a friend.
That was Dorothy’s experience in the book, and it was mine for 8 months in 1966, when I lived in a dingy bed-sit in Streatham, and worked at Brixton bus garage as a bus driver for London Transport. There were some South African friends I visited very o9ccasionally, but they were a long way away, and that part of the book particularly resonated with me.
But there was also a flaw in it. Orwell is trying to do a Dickens, and the school he describes is a 20th-century female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall. But his diatribe against private schools is a bit over the top, and becomes too didactic, and that is the biggest weakness of the book. Admittedly it is only a couple of paragraphs here and there, and nothing like the 70-odd pages of John Galt’s speech in Ayn Rand’s Atlas shrugged. But it remeinded me with a jolt that true art cannot be propaganda, and propaganda canno0t be art. Orwell seems to change gears from novelist to pamphleteer.
Not that I disagree with him in the point he makes — there are plenty of private schools like the one he describes in South Africa today, though the government has tried to vet them and set standards through the South African Qualifications Authority.
Dickens could get away with that kind of novel, but I’m not sure that Orwell can. Orwell moves Dorothy a bit to conveniently from one social problem to another so he can write about it in novel form. It’s good, but it doesn’t quite come off as it does with Dickens. Nevertheless, if you want to read about zemblanity in education, it’s worth a read.