George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter is not one of his better known novels, nonetheless, it is a worthwhile read. Orwell offers a commentary of sorts on a variety of topics including the perception of women in the early twentieth-century, the nature of the established church, parochialism amongst England’s country-folk and education to name a few. There’s much to chew on having finished the book. As a Christian, I was particularly interested in Orwell’s fairly vivid portrayal of the loss of Christian faith.
The protagonist of the story, Dorothy, is a rector’s daughter living in a village near Ipswich. The first part of the story details the banal existence of this young woman who basically takes the reigns of her father’s ministry, except, of course, for preaching. Paying bills to demanding creditors, visiting parishioners, running a ladies’ reading group, organizing the children’s play, these are all a part of the dullery of Dorothy’s life. When a surprising turn of events rather abruptly invades her life, she loses her memory and finds herself a pauper in London, living amongst a group of beggars in Trafalgar Square. Immediately before this disaster, she had been accosted by a Mr. Warburton, whom she had resolutely dissuaded–unfortunately the town gossip saw him making advances on her and spread the lie that they were in an illicit affair. This might, in some way, explain Dorothy’s loss of memory. Be that as it may, her rag-tag group of petty-thieves lead her to some farm-land where she takes up the task of picking hops. While involved in this agrarian trade, her memory returns and she finds help from a distant cousin who gets her a job teaching in a ghastly girls’ school in London.
In the midst of this upheaval, Dorothy loses her faith (in some sense, Orwell tells us she loses her identity as well, as she becomes known now as Ellen; the narrator never loses sight of her real name). Whereas, working amongst the people of her father’s parish, she was a rigorous Anglican who was keenly aware of her short-comings, who was faithful in attendance of the twice-weekly Communion service, who prayed habitually, it may be that she was less a devout Christian and more a convicted moralist. However, as she regains her memory, her Christian faith remains lost, yet she is not forgetful of it; the weight of its loss bothers her.
Mr. Warburton manages to find Dorothy wasting away as a mistress in the boarding school and rescues her from its misery. Upon their train trip back to her village of birth she and Warburton have a discussion about her loss of faith. While reading this section of narrative, I was struck by how empathetically thoughtful it was. I wonder to what degree Orwell may be reflecting on his own loss of faith? A number of interesting themes are discussed: the question of religious hypocrisy, “Anglican atheism,” the nagging need for faith (even though faith is irrational) are just a few. Mr. Warburton is a self-confessed hedonist and cares not a fig for Christian “superstition,” and thus is rather congratulatory that Dorothy has given up on Christianity. Dorothy, on the other hand, is deeply bothered and tries unsuccessfully to grapple with what this new experience means.
When Dorothy first confesses her loss of faith to Warburton she explains it as a smoothe, almost unnoticed, change: “A few months ago, all of a sudden, it seemed as if my whole mind had changed. Everything that I’d believed in till then–everything–seemed suddenly meaningless and almost silly. God–what I’d meant by God–immortal life, Heaven and Hell–everything. It had all gone. And it wasn’t that I’d reasoned it out; it just happened to me. It was like when you’re a child, and one day, for no particular reason, you stop believing in fairies. I just couldn’t go on believing in it any longer.”
Warburton offers some psychoanalytical theories as to how her loss of faith and loss of memory are related, which Dorothy has little time for. She doesn’t care how she lost her faith, rather her concern was that she lost it and what this loss means for her future: “All that matters is that it’s gone, and I’ve got to begin my life all over again.” For the new Christian, conversion is a means of “starting over,” but as a process of learning, not unlearning. In Dorothy’s case, she finds herself having to start life from scratch, shaking off the dust and cobwebs from the window that once gave her a view of the world. She explains, “The point is that all the beliefs I had are gone, and I’ve nothing to put in their place.” Warburton can’t fathom why this is at all important to her, to which Dorothy exclaims, “But don’t you see–you must see–how different everything is when all of a sudden the whole world is empty?”
The world is empty for Dorothy, much to Warburton’s disgusted surprise, because she can no longer find any meaning in it now that her faith is gone. Warburton, aghast, replies, “What do you want with a meaning? When I eat my dinner I don’t do it to the greater glory of God; I do it because I enjoy it. The world’s full of amusing things–books, pictures, wine, travel, friends–everything. I’ve never seen any meaning in it at all, and I don’t want to see one.” Orwell rightly sees that with no Christian faith, the world indeed has no meaning; at the most, things are merely amusing.
In spite of this loss of meaning, Dorothy returns home to take up the tasks of her quaint life she once lived as a rector’s daughter. Only now, as she mouthed prayers at church, she did so with no belief whatever in the words she recited. At one point, in a moment of exasperation, she makes an attempt at (a wholly appropriate) prayer: “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” Only, in the words of Orwell as narrator, “It was useless, absolutely useless.” Dorothy did not believe, yet chose to live a life, as Warburton saw it, of total hypocrisy (which Orwell seems to empathize with, imputing this to his generation of Brits who went to church yet were in effect atheistic).
There’s more to Dorothy/Orwell’s discussion of losing faith that I won’t get into here. Suffice to say that the psychology of apostasy is intriguing. Is Orwell nostalgically reflecting on his own loss of faith? Does he continue to see the value in maintaining a nebulous “faith in faith” while rejecting the object of faith, namely God? Does Orwell believe that there is some use for the church in a nation, if only to placate the nation’s guilt for having lost its faith?
Dorothy’s position is pitiful, and as Warburton said, was probably the lot of many rector’s daughters across England. She grew up in a home with an unloving, hypocritical father–who was also her minister. She thanklessly did the tasks that her father should have done amongst the parish, and she was brutally abused both by Warburton and her community, suffering reproach for something she did not do. In her eyes, God couldn’t exist because the world of her experience made no sense if he did. Dorothy did not have a theology of grace (at one point, in a much earlier conversation, Warburton belittles Calvinism), nor did her father. She was a moralist, and when her moralism didn’t pay off, she lost her belief in God, and as a result, she lost her identity. The world had no meaning, indeed, it was robbed of it. The only response to such a horrible predicament was to continue on with life as if nothing changed, all the while knowing that everything had changed. Orwell, in essence, captures the history of western thought in this story of a pathetic clergyman’s daughter.
A lesson that I took, as a budding minister, was to care deeply for the life, spirituality and well-being of my children. Would to God that none of them grow up to be a Dorothy (or an Orwell, in this sense)! I’ve seen this happen, where a pastor’s hypocrisy and a faith-community’s response has destroyed the faith of many. While I am admittedly a hypocrite, as all Christians necessarily are this side of eternity, may I have a robust theology of grace to teach my kids, and a life that matches it, offering the comforts not of my own faith for my children, but that of a God who is there.