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 again.

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 grasped it.

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