George Orwell never fails to entertain or offer insight, which means The Clergyman’s Daughter is no exception. Though described by Orwell as “a silly potboiler” it has all the hallmarks of Orwell’s thorough assessment of a character and their situation.
In this tale the daughter in this instance is Dorothy a hard-working local heroine, brow-beaten by her overbearing and overspending clergyman father whose debts she is persistently trying to wind up but only ends up delaying and creating more so as to not starve, and trying to get the costumes ready for the kids in the church play. She spends much time with Mr Warburton who is an outrageous flirt, and makes her feel constantly uncomfortable when coming onto her as she doesn’t like being touched and cannot bear to think of any kind intimacy with anyone. But she enjoys his straightforwardness, and also cannot bear to be without his fun conversation.
Then she wakes up in London with no memory of who she is or how she got there.
As ever, Orwell manages to throw everything at this girl, in a situation that is utterly exasperating for her. From being homeless on the street, to being taken under the wing of three strangers heading down to Kent to pick hops, then later finding herself at the mercy of a horrid, money-hungry schoolmistress who dislikes feeding her almost as much as she dislikes teaching the schoolchildren anything useful. When finally she gets her memory back, she attempts to contact her father, and soon discovers she’s the talk of the village since the nosy next door neighbour who likes to make up lies about anything she wishes to gossip about has spread it round that she threw herself upon Warburtion.
Though the book is actually a fairly light read, despite the horrors of poverty and desperation within the pages, it was actually based on a darker occurrence – where she is actually raped by Warburton and it was so traumatic she fled to London. This is one of the key notes made by most publications of this book (and Orwell himself), as there does seem to be something missing regarding the reader's understanding of how she got to London and what exact trauma made her lose her memory.
There is, though, always enough going on to drive the story forward and watch the situation getting worse and worse, whilst we get to enjoy Orwell’s trademark social commentary woven in through the detail of the working class lives. A Clergyman’s Daughter is also one of those stories where our heroine ends up exactly where she was at the start, and after all her experience and downfall, remains essentially unchanged. In a way it’s sad, the lack of personal insight or growth after such trauma, failing to make her a stronger more driven character, but from another perspective, perhaps it’s not so sad. She seems to have been entirely suited to her original situation, and upon finding herself destitute and depserate, discovered that her father was willing to help her (if but for his own selfishness and laziness) in her distress.
Even Orwell not at his absolute best is still a cut way above many of the rest.