Dr. Wortle’s School – Anthony Trollope
In this late (and short) novel by Trollope only the title character has depth and dimensions. The plot revolves around the predicament of Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke, but he’s a dry stick – a gentleman who always does the upright thing – and his wife is so vapid that she’s no more than a twig. When it’s found that they’re unmarried, they face the condemnation of Society. The issue at stake has to do with morality; because Dr. Wortle believes the Peacockes to be innocent of any sin, he’s determined to stand by them to the end, even if it means the collapse of his beloved school. In doing so he reveals strengths and weaknesses; it’s his weaknesses that make him interesting. His injured pride provokes him to enter into reckless battle, yet he can often see that he’s acting in a foolhardy way. We follow his struggle not only with public opinion but with his own self. This is a novel filled with religiosity – Wortle is a Reverend – but he sees so-called religious people acting without compassion, and at one point he thinks “It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.” Also, it’s suggested that part of Wortle’s spirited defense of the beleaguered couple is motivated by Mrs. Peacocke’s beauty. Without the bull in the china shop, this would be no more than an insipid Victorian novel. The tacked-on romance involving Wortle’s daughter and Lord Carstairs has only one notable aspect: it shows the obsequious attitude people have toward status and wealth; Mrs. Wortle thinks with ecstasy of “the diamonds her daughter would certainly be called upon to wear before the Queen.”
A Clergyman’s Daughter – George Orwell
Orwell’s intent in this novel was to bring up social and religious issues, and he crudely manipulated events to achieve that goal. Most striking was his having Dorothy lose her memory. In chapter one she’s living in Suffolk with her father, resolutely doing good deeds that go unappreciated; in chapter two she’s on a London street, wearing strange clothes and not knowing her name. She joins a ragtag group and winds up in the fields picking hops. I almost quit reading when this switch occurred. What kept me going was that I got involved with the more muted Dorothy and her new life. Then, abruptly, we’re with Dorothy and a weird assortment of the homeless spending the night in Trafalgar Square; she’s penniless and freezing (this hallucinatory section is constructed like a play of voices). In the next sequence she gets a job as a teacher in a girls’ day school where minds are stunted rather than developed. In the final chapter Dorothy is restored to her life as a clergyman’s daughter; here Orwell introduces his last issue: she’s lost her faith. The question for her is how to go on, because, as she sees it, without faith life is “meaningless, dark and dreadful.” Orwell’s ability to create vivid characters makes the issues he introduces engaging. Mrs. Creevy, the principal of Ringwood Academy, ranks high in fiction’s assemblage of petty monsters. Dorothy’s father, the Rector, is constricted by a selfishness so stifling that he’s unable to love anyone, including his daughter. But Orwell must have loved his creation, because he made me care for Dorothy. She goes through an enormous journey and ends up with nothing; even the possible consolation of marital love is denied her, for at no point does she have the least interest in sex. In the closing scene she’s making costumes for a church play by gluing together sheets of brown paper; she gets caught up in this mindless task and “The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind.” A bleak ending to a bleak but honestly felt book.
The Autobiography of My Mother – Jamaica Kincaid
The novel begins: “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” Later in that opening paragraph she refers to the “black room of the world.” Xuela grows up without love; when that word appears it’s always in the negative sense (in reference to her father, “He could not love me”). She becomes stoically defiant: “Until I was four I did not speak. This did not cause anyone to lose a minute of happiness; there was no one who would have worried about it in any case.” The word “happiness” seems out of place because nobody in this novel is capable of that emotion. When Xuela strikes up a short-lived friendship, she describes it as “something I did not experience with anyone ever again in my life.” So something positive appears in a negative light (and with a warning that things are not going to get better). Xuela’s first sexual encounter is with a man (or, rather, an automaton) who shows her not one grain of affection. She becomes pregnant and has an abortion; she suffers extreme and prolonged pain. Afterwards she becomes hardened to the point of being inhuman: “I would bear children, they would hang from me like fruit from a vine, but I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god . . . I would cover their bodies with diseases, embellish skins with thinly crusted sores, the sores sometimes oozing a thick pus for which they would thirst, a thirst that could never be quenched.” This litany of motherhood goes on, but I could not go on. Kincaid’s world is airless and without light. She indulges in and expands the unhealthy aspects of her psyche. I know anger, hatred, cruelty exist, but it’s the indulgence and the expansion that renders it unreal. Kincaid makes no concession to the reader: we will be immersed in her negative emotions. But the reader also has the choice not to remain in her “black room.”
The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell
In the late 1930s Orwell was sent by a socialistic book club to investigate conditions in a coal mining district of England. Being Orwell, he didn’t just observe from the sidelines, he tried to immerse himself in the lives of the people he was writing about. Though no personality (except his own) emerges, Orwell’s rigorous intelligence is (as always) refreshing, and he had the ability to express what he thinks simply but forcefully. He includes some autobiographical material; it seems that the critical event in his life was his five year stint with the Imperial Police in Burma. Being a part of an oppressive system left him with a bad conscience; he did things that went against his nature, and as a result he sided with the oppressed and became opposed to “every form of man’s dominion over man.” With Wigan Pier I have now read every book Orwell wrote. Since I respect him so much, I have always found it distressing when he shows prejudice toward Jews. In A Clergyman’s Daughter Dorothy is treated callously when she moves to London, but it is “The Jew on the corner, the owner of Knockout Trousers Ltd., who was the worst.” Too often, with Orwell, it is the Jew on the corner who is the worst. But I did some research and found that later in life he acknowledged his anti-Semitism and renounced it. Actually, I expected no less of the man.