One of the fullest fictional depictions of rural English parish life in the 1930s is in the first chapter of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. It was first published by Gollancz in 1935, and although Orwell disliked it and resisted reprinting, it appeared as a Penguin paperback in 1964. I’m not concerned here with Dorothy’s odyssey through the social landscape of the England of the Thirties, but with her father, the Reverend Charles Hare, rector of the church of St Athelstan, Knype Hill, in Suffolk.
Orwell’s Rector was born in 1871, and now we find him a widower with a sour temper. He leaves almost every parish duty to Dorothy, after having expected the same of his late wife, with whom he had been ‘diabolically unhappy.’ Orwell gives us an old man out of time, ‘tethered by his poverty to the age of Lenin and the Daily Mail’, who should have been much happier in an earlier time as ‘a happy pluralist writing poems or collecting fossils’ while curates carried the load of the parish.
The tomb of a clergyman’s daughter. By Alan Murray-Rust, reproduced CC-BY-SA 2.0
Born a grandson of a baronet, and having joined the clergy as the natural occupation of a younger son, he served a curacy in the East End of London, ‘a nasty, hooliganish place’. In Knype Hill he is socially out of sympathy with the ‘“lower classes”’ who, even if they no longer doff their cap, simply loathe him, while he merely disregards them. His alienation is equally complete from the local Best People, having both quarrelled with his social equals and despised the petty gentry without making any secret of the fact.
His refusal to accept the change in his social position extends to money. Dorothy lives in fear of the town’s tradesmen in the matter of a host of unpaid bills. As far as the Rector is concerned, for a butcher to want his bill paid is the fault of Democracy, a most undesirable development. The Rector’s response to his poverty is to make yet another doomed investment and deplete his assets further. Any thought of making economies is unconscionable.
So in twenty five years the Rector has reduced his congregation from six hundred to two hundred. But the decline is not purely due to social change and the Rector’s own peculiar pastoral gift. Here Orwell shows us a punctilious High Anglicanism which can no longer compete for attention against the available alternatives in the religious marketplace. Most of the Best People now drive their motor cars to one of two churches in a nearby town.
There’s the spiky Anglo-Catholic St Wedekind’s, in perpetual dispute with the Bishop and infected with what the Rector regards as ‘“Roman fever”’. There is also the Modernism of St Edmund’s, where to be successful a priest must be ‘daringly modern and broad-minded and preach comforting sermons proving that there is no Hell and all good religions are the same.’ After a verbal dispute over an open grave, he had not been on speaking terms with the local Roman Catholic priest. As for the evangelicals, Dorothy has been instructed to have nothing to do with ‘“vulgar Dissenters”’ and the ‘braying bald-headed elder who conducted the orgies at Ebenezer Chapel.’
Despite all this, is the Rector in any way a sympathetic character ? The early character sketch shows him merely negligent, if not quite wilfully unpleasant. But Orwell shows us a greater moral failure in his reaction to Dorothy’s appeals for aid in chapter 4, in which the Rector allows his own fear of the social consequences of her Fall to cause him to act in a clearly culpable way. Without this, his laziness and snobbery would have remained merely tragi-comic; as it is, they are positively baleful.
D.J. Taylor in his Life of Orwell has shown the degree to which Orwell retained an interest in the Church of England, if not exactly any adherence to its doctrine. This is borne out by the range and depth of the religious material to be found in his remarkable pamphlet collection, recently listed by the British Library. The portrait of the Rector in A Clergyman’s Daughter is as vivid as the picture of the Kentish hop fields and the streets of London that are to be found in the rest of the book.