A Clergyman's Daughter
George Orwell, 1935
This book has five chapters. The first details all too exhaustively a
day in the tedious life of the title character, Dorothy Hare, as she rubs
down old women's veiny legs and makes boots out of glue and brown paper
for the church pageant. The second begins with her having lost her memory
and soon has her picking hops for meager pay, neck-deep in the idiocy of
rural life. The third finds her down and out in London. The fourth
places her at a girls' school, and then the fifth brings her home
This book is not very good. It basically boils down to "I've got 320
pages and lots of unpopular opinions, so let's get started." Really,
there's no reason for it to be a novel, because Orwell is about 75%
interested in soapboxing and 24% interested in reportage, leaving 1%
for things like character development and plot and so forth.
Consider the fourth chapter, which I found the most interesting given
how I pay the rent. (Let's not consider the third chapter,
which is completely unreadable.) Orwell puts Dorothy at a school full
of children ranging in age from eight to fifteen who, Dorothy discovers,
"knew nothing, absolutely nothing — nothing, nothing, nothing."
The previous teachers had taught them handwriting, a few French phrases,
and a few world capitals, so that the children could go home and
appear edjimicated to their equally ignorant parents. So Dorothy
changes the lesson plan to something more to Orwell's liking —
out with the triumphalist history textbook and French phrasebook, and
in with real history books from the library, in with Shakespeare, in
with grammar, and most especially, in with projects in which students
actually make things, construction-paper timelines and clay maps and
other things straight out of a gifted program fifty years later.
Shockingly, following Orwell's curriculum turns out to have amazing
results, and the children become interested, cooperative, and bright!
But then the parents step in — "We don't send our children to
school to have ideas put in their heads," says one — and the
evil headmistress explains that "there's only one thing that matters
in a school, and that's the fees. As for all this stuff about
'developing the children's minds,' that's neither here nor there."
So Dorothy returns to the old curriculum, the children return to
stupidity and disobedience, and the evil headmistress fires her in
order to save on room and board over the summer.
Now, here's the thing. I don't know anything about the state of
British education in the 1930s; if Orwell says that this is what
you'd get unless you went to Eton, I'm willing to believe him. And
while the evil headmistress is a one-dimensional, mustache-twirling
villain — poisoning trees, lowering her chimney in order to
make the smoke pour into her neighbor's window, cackling all the
while — there are people like this in the world. And the
anti-intellectualism the parents display remains an all too
powerful force in modern times. So it's not the lack of realism
that I object to. What I object to is the fact that flat
characters of which the narrator is openly contemptuous are not
interesting. It's a lot more interesting to cast your
villains in the best possible light, even as they remain the
villains, than it is to populate your stories with piñatas.
This lesson took me ages to grasp, and in 1935 Orwell still hadn't
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