Saturday, 22 November 2008

Apparently George Orwell's A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), which is NOT about Jane Austen, was "an experimental novel". It is certainly uneven in quality. But Orwell is a polemicist and drama of a domestic kind did not appeal to his sense of taste.

Coming from a pioneer family, Orwell wasn't afraid of getting stuck in. The novel's best section deals with amnesic Dorothy and her mates picking hops in Kent. Orwell undertook the same task himself, one of the reasons - no doubt - why the woman Dorothy may owe something to, an East Anglian friend, rejected his marriage proposal.

Dorothy is not a complex character and none of the book's characters are, apart from the hilariously repugnant libertine Mr Warburton.

And the title is strange for the way Orwell seems to channel the many (bad) novelists of the mid 18th century who dealt in a similar theme: a lady in trouble.

Nothing is so engrossing it seems, as a lady in trouble. Austen's juvenilia attests to the many ways a lady in those days could get into trouble but Orwell reminds us that a too heavy dependence on ulterior proprieties continued to plague (especially) youth in the early part of last century.

In the beginning of the novel, Dorothy is plagued only by her supercilious father, a snob and a parson responsible for declining attendance due to a rigid adherence to old forms. At the time, Catholicism had become resurgent due to the Romantic tastes of the populace and a routine round of cleansing within the Anglican communion. But Charles Hare will have none of it.

She slaves away at the small, unrecognised tasks pertaining to the station of a young, unattached woman who nevertheless possesses a strong connection to the Church. Poor Dorothy!

Struck by amnesia one night after a meeting with Warburton, she unwittingly joins a group of street kids and decamps from London - we don't learn how she got there - to Kent to pick hops. Recovering later she is given a place at a third-rate school for girls by a rich relative.

Unluckily I lost my copy at this point. But Wikipedia blurb notes that there's little more action after the school. It also tells me that Orwell tried to impersonate Joyce. I'd got this myself but that section was so poor that I skipped most of it. Joyce's fluid conversation becomes, in Orwell, a bad silent movie.

Orwell is ultimately an ideas man and the lack in the novel's execution is less noticeable than the pleasures of A Clergyman's Daughter, especially the hops picking section.

Here Orwell picks up on the politics of agricultural labour. It comes across not dissimilarly to the drama found in Waltzing Matilda, where capital and the law (or at least its pointy end - the police) range against uneducated and transigent day labourers and Gypsies.

For this reason alone, I recommend the book to anyone interested in early Modernist fiction.

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