A synopsis of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter may be found in the Wiki entry on the same. In short, it relates the experiences of Dorothy Hare, only daughter of the Reverend Charles Hare, a “gentleman” clergyman with a chronic habit of living beyond his means. Dorothy’s life is consumed by a frantic struggle to maintain respectability in spite of a mountain of debt owed to the local tradesmen, a dwindling congregation, and a church gradually decaying to ruin for lack of maintenance. There’s also a problem so repressed in Dorothy’s mind that she’s hardly conscious of it; she is losing her Christian faith.
Eventually the pressure becomes unbearable. At the end of Chapter 1 we leave Dorothy exhausted, working herself beyond endurance late at night to prepare costumes for a children’s play. At the start of Chapter 2 we find her teleported to the Old Kent Road, south of London, where she wakes up with a bad case of amnesia and only half a crown in her pocket. A good German might describe this rather remarkable turn of events as an den Haaren herbeigezogen (dragged in by the hair.) In other words, it’s far fetched, but we can forgive it because Orwell refrains from boring us with explanatory psychobabble, it’s in one of his earliest books, and he needs some such device in order to dish up a fictional version of the autobiographical events described in his Down and Out in Paris and London, published a couple of years earlier.
Eventually Dorothy is rescued from starvation and squalor by a much older cousin, who sets her up as a school teacher at Ringwood House, which Orwell describes as a fourth rate private school with only 21 female inmates. At this point the astute reader will discover something that might come as a revelation to those who are only familiar with Animal Farm and 1984. Orwell was a convinced socialist when he wrote the book, and remained one until the end of his life. Mrs. Creevy, the woman who runs the school, is a grasping capitalist, interested only in squeezing as much profit out of the enterprise as possible. The girls “education” consists mainly of a mind-numbing routine of rote memorization and handwriting drills. Dorothy’s attempts at education reform are nipped in the bud, and she is eventually sacked. In Mrs. Creevy’s words,
It’s the fees I’m after, not developing the children’s minds. It’s not to be supposed as anyone’s to go to all the trouble of keeping a school and having the house turned upside down by a pack of brats, if it wasn’t that there’s a bit of money to be made out of it. The fee comes first, and everything else comes afterwards.
Orwell later elaborates,
There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England. Second-rate, third-rate, and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town. At any given moment there are somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand of them, of which less than a thousand are subject to Government inspection. And though some of them are better than others, and a certain number, probably, are better than the council schools with which they compete, there is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is , that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money.
So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen. The expensive private schools to which the rich send their children are not, on the surface, so bad as the others, because they can afford a proper staff, and the Public School examination system keeps them up to the mark; but they have the same essential taint.
Recall that the book was published in 1935. The Spanish Civil War, in which Orwell fought with a socialist unit not affiliated with the Communists, began in 1936. In that conflict he had his nose rubbed in the reality of totalitarianism, socialism that had dropped the democratic mask. The experience is described in his Homage to Catalonia, which is essential reading for anyone interested in learning what inspired his later work. There he tells how the Communist legions attacked and destroyed his own division, regardless of the fact that it was fighting on the same side. Totalitarianism has never recognized more than two sides; the side that it controls, and the side that it doesn’t. He saw that its real reason for existence was nothing like a worker’s paradise, or any other version of “human flourishing,” but absolute, unconditional power. The nature of the system and the power it aimed at was what he described in 1984. When A Clergyman’s Daughter was published, that revelation still lay in the future. It may be that in 1935 Orwell still thought of the socialists as one big, happy, if occasionally quarrelsome, family.
Be that as it may, the real interest of the book, at least as far as I’m concerned, lies at the end. There, more explicitly than in any other of his novels or essays, Orwell takes up the question of the Meaning of Life. While down and out, Dorothy had lost her faith once and for all. In spite of that, after Mrs. Creevy sacks her, she finds her way back to the family parsonage, and takes up again where she left off. She suffers from no illusions. As Orwell puts it,
It was not that she was in any doubt about the external facts of her future. She could see it all quite clearly before her… Whatever happened, at the very best, she had got to face the destiny that is common to all lonely and penniless women. “The Old Maids of Old England,” as somebody called them. She was twenty-eight – just old enough to enter their ranks.
She was not the same women as before. She had lost her faith, and yet, she meditated,
Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before. And given only faith, how can anything else matter? How can anything dismay you if only there is some purpose in the world which you can serve, and which, while serving it, you can understand? Your whole life is illumined by that sense of purpose.
Life, if the grave really ends it, is monstrous and dreadful. No use trying to argue it away. Think of life as it really is, think of the details of life; and then think that there is no meaning in it, no purpose, no goal except the grave. Surely only fools or self-deceivers, or those whose lives are exceptionally fortunate, can face that thought without flinching?
Her mind struggled with the problem, while perceiving that there was no solution. There was, she saw clearly, no possible substitute for faith; no pagan acceptance of life as sufficient unto itself, no pantheistic cheer-up stuff, no pseudo-religion of “progress” with visions of glittering Utopias and ant-heaps of steel and concrete. It is all or nothing. Either life on earth is a preparation for something greater and more lasting, or it is meaningless, dark and dreadful.
Here we see that, even in 1935, Orwell wasn’t quite convinced that the Soviet version of a Brave New World really represented “progress.” And while democratic socialism may have later given him something of a sense of purpose, it wasn’t yet filling the void. Dorothy considers,
Where had she got to? She had been saying that if death ends all, then there is no hope and no meaning in anything. Well, what then?
At this point, the true believers chime in. They know the answer. Bring back faith, and, voila, the void is filled! So many of them honestly seem to believe that, because they feel a need, the thing needed will automatically pop into existence. They need absolute moral standards. Therefore their faith must be true. They need a purpose in life. Therefore their faith must be true. They need human existence to have meaning. Therefore their faith must be true. They must have unquestionable rights. Therefore their faith must be true. And so on, and so on. Orwell is having none of it. Dorothy muses on,
And how cowardly, after all, to regret a superstition that you had got rid of – to want to believe something that you knew in your bones to be untrue.
Orwell provides us with no magic solution to this thorny problem. Indeed, in the end his answer is singularly unsatisfying. He suggests that we just get on with it and leave it at that. As Dorothy glues together strips of paper, forming the boots, armor, and other accoutrements required for the next church play, she has stumbled into the solution without realizing it:
The smell of glue was the answer to her prayer. She did not know this. She did not reflect, consciously, that the solution to her difficulty lay in accepting the fact that there was no solution; that if one gets on with the job that lies to hand, the ultimate purpose of the job fades into insignificance; that faith and no faith are very much the same provided that one is doing what is customary, useful and acceptable. She could not formulate these thoughts as yet, she could only live them. Much later, perhaps, she would formulate them and draw comfort from them.
Dorothy sliced two more sheets of brown paper into strips, and took up the breastplate to give it its final coating. The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind. It was beginning to get dark, but, too busy to stop and light the lamp, she worked on, pasting strip after strip of paper into place, with absorbed, with pious concentration, in the penetrating smell of the gluepot.
Orwell didn’t want A Clergyman’s Daughter to be republished, unless, perhaps, in a cheap version to scare up a few pounds for his heirs. No doubt he considered it too immature. We can be grateful that his literary executors thought otherwise, else we might never have known of his struggles with the Meaning of Life problem so early in his career. He didn’t spill much ink over the problem later on, but we must assume that he had found some more inspiring purpose to strive for than just “getting on with it.” Weak and in pain, he fought to complete 1984 on his death bed with incredible tenacity and dedication. It was a gift to all of us that didn’t follow him to the grave, but lived long after he was gone as the single most effective literary weapon against a threat that had materialized as Communism in his own day, but will likely always lurk among us in one form or another.
And what of the Meaning of Life? That’s a question we must all provide an answer for on our own. None of the imaginary super-beings we have dreamed up over the years is likely to materialize to trivialize the search. And just as Orwell wrote, whether we care to deal with the problem or not, there is no objective solution. It must be subjective and individual. It need not be any less compelling for all that.