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A Clergyman's Daughter
by George Orwell
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At the distance of a half-century, this satiric social fiction is both a treasure and a disappointment. Orwell's wit is priceless--and ruthless--as he describes rural Church of England parish life; the transitory culture of the hops harvest; a brothel's soiled linen; not to mention when his heroine hobnobs with the Trafalgar Square homeless of a bitter winter's night or bullies bored students in a fourth-rate private school: "Last term the girls had behaved badly, because she had started by treating them as human beings, and later on, when the lessons that interested them were discontinued, they had rebelled like human beings. But if you are obliged to teach children rubbish, you must not treat them as human beings.... Before all else, you must teach them it is more painful to rebel than to obey."
Orwell's compassion for Dorothy Hare, ensnared by faith, birth, and gender to toil thanklessly as her minister father's unpaid curate, is admirable, and his evocation, early in the novel, of a woman's consciousness totally subsumed by the mostly trivial demands of others stands shoulder to shoulder with the best feminist fiction. The dialogues between Dorothy and her dissolute middle-aged suitor, Mr. Warburton, concerning human nature, faith, and morality, are smart and fun to read. The problem (and here Orwell commits the sort of sin he denounces in Dickens) is that the novel's plot--Dorothy's picaresque amnesiac travels through the seamy side of English life--feels manufactured for the author's satiric purposes. Orwell never relinquishes his cleverness, or his maleness, to become his heroine, with the result that the reader never surrenders wholly to the fiction. Thus A Clergyman's Daughter, while a pleasure to pick up, is not quite a book one can't put down. --Joyce Thompson
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