In A Clergyman’s Daughter, Orwell wrestles with similar socio-economic issues which he presents in other works. Yet another layer manifests itself as the foundation for his story.
It would seem that Orwell himself materializes in the story, as he often does in his less allegorical novels. The reader can sense how Orwell implanted himself as Mr. Warburton in order to articulate his religious and philosophical ideas. And, like Orwell, Mr. Warburton experiences rejection to marriage proposals from a clergyman’s daughter. But the reader might find Orwell’s experiences shared with Dorothy, the protagonist in A Clergyman’s Daughter, as a hops picker and private school teacher intriguing. What would happen to her, the real clergyman’s daughter whom he loved, if he put her through his life?
Dorothy, daughter of a clergyman, who labors to upkeep the church, its congregation and endeavours, suddenly undergoes poverty-stricken experiences much like those Orwell himself experienced. Who would a person become if their life not only changed direction, but left them completely? What would happen to someone’s life if their faith or lack thereof disappeared?
I imagined Dorothy as a voodoo doll in the hands of Orwell while he pinned her with different horrific circumstances – a guinea pig given different drugs in order to test the effects. I qualified the book as an experiment in the concepts of nature versus nurture and an opportunity for Orwell to further criticize modern socio-economic states. In a way, the book does debate the two elements but adds a more personal element. Ultimately, the story argues for nature since Dorothy imagines her self unchanged. Yet she does not convince me. Perhaps, if anything, the nurturing experiences she endours within the novel help her to know her constant self whom she had little awareness of or familiarity with before going through Orwell’s real-life trials. Originally, like Mr. Warburton, Orwell might have wanted to break the real clergyman’s daughter of her faith because he loved her and felt her intellect wasted. Perhaps by showing her his life and experience she would ultimately see things his way and change. But he finds that putting one nature through someone else’s nurture cannot reshape that nature. The nature remains, the self simply understands it better.
And for Dorothy, she resolves to “seek” and loses confidence that she had “found”, which proves contrary to Mr. Warburton’s convictions that he has “found” the real meaninglessness in life. For him, amusement comes forward as the true meaning in life. Dorothy still feels empty, where he had discovered his fill. Dorothy resolves to do and live rather than think and philosophize, for in doing and living, she finds herself useful and helpful. Her feelings about meaning and faith prove irrelevant to her convictions.
Yet I wonder what Orwell’s audience might take from this philosophical resolution. Unfortunately, I imagine many misunderstandings. He does not promote the idea that women ought to remain busy and ignore nagging inclinations to think. If anything, Dorothy entertained every nag and thought and thought and thought! He does not promote the absence of faith as a concept to embrace or ignore. Perhaps he promotes a balance between what one believes and how one lives and to always prioritize the latter. Or, like in so many great works of art, he promotes nothing. Rather, he simply invites readers near his desk to consider some things with him.
However, I’ve heard rumor that Orwell all but disowned this work. Admittedly, I have not researched this claim, but will indulge my speculation. If Orwell designed this literary experiment, of replacing a religious woman’s life with his own, he wagers on a certain outcome. Perhaps he wagered wrong. As a literary artist, presumably with integrity, he cannot “force” his desired outcome and settled for the distasteful one he found. Or, in all possibility, he found himself written into a corner, without the desired objective outcome, and had to pretend he had one. In any case, I wish I knew. I didn’t find the book, or concept, half bad, though not his best work.