This is a remarkable, depressing work. Whenever I read Orwell I feel I should weep for humankind afterwards. The tone of his novels is largely negative, but not in a cynical way. Even though you could call some of his psychological observations cynical, that’s not the tone I get from his writing. Instead, Orwell’s writing can only be called tragic. This comes as no surprise, seeing as he was a democratic socialist writing in the early twentieth century, a soldier in India for the British Empire, and a witness to several of Europe’s bloody revolutions. Any man with those beliefs and in those situations would have to walk away from it mourning what we’ve become.
A Clergyman’s Daughter is the story of Dorothy, a pious and overworked young woman who’s dedicated her life to caring for her selfish father and his failing church. She’s also devoted to the Lord’s work to the point she pricks herself with a needle for any less-than-perfect thought she has, something which happens at least fifty times throughout the day. When she finds herself wishing she didn’t have to scrub an old lady down from head to toe as part of her Christian-based philanthropism, well, that’s a prick of the needle right there! The fervor with which she punishes herself for having thoughts any human being would have in her situation is astounding, but also tragic, as this only makes her more miserable, while making nothing better. Orwell’s opinion of the effects of such religious devotion are made quite apparent by introducing this idiosyncrasy into his leading character of the novel.
Yet, unappreciated and stressed to the point of near-crippling anxiety, Dorothy eventually faces a mental breakdown and suffers a mild case of amnesia as a consequence. She finds herself living out several adventures after this, one of which includes becoming a teacher at a fourth-rate private school, whose owner is the most abominable of human beings. “Different girls, different treatment,” she says as she shows Dorothy her ledger of which students’ parents pay their school fees on time and which don’t.
While the middle section is a failure–and possibly why Orwell wanted this work scorched from the face of the Earth–I think the novel is without a doubt a masterpiece. It’s heartbreaking. It’s intelligent. It’s a book for very few. Most people would get bored reading this and not understand the points Orwell is making, but for the rest of us who do, sadly, this novel only leaves us weeping for the state of humankind and mourning the futility that is trying to make the world a better place.