Imagine life in rural England in the 1930’s from the perspective of a single woman approaching mid-life. Dorothy is such a woman, an active member and leader of the Sunday School, the Girl Guides, the Band of Hope and the Companionship of Marriage as well as attending the Mothers’ Union.
Her day is filled completely with church work. She has a round of visits to be made every day except Sundays.
The only member of the parish to whom Dorothy enjoys a special relationship is Mr Warburton. Dorothy likes his sarcastic wit and sense of humour, although he is neither a church-goer nor an accepted member of the village community.
Mr Warburton is scandal-ridden, as he “had lived, or rather stayed periodically, in open concubinage with a woman whom he called his housekeeper.”
One night, after a vivid conversation, Mr Warburton accompanies her back home and when he tries to kiss her goodbye, the town-gossip, a busy-body neighbour, Mrs Semprill, looks out of her window and notices the incident.
it’s the things that happen inside you that matter.
There follows a sudden cut in the book and when we re-start the story, we find ourselves in London where Dorothy is wandering in tattered clothes, not knowing who she is or where she comes from.
A group of young people pick her up – primarily because she still has some money with her – to go hop-picking.
It was very cold on those September mornings (…). Your breakfast was always the same – bacon, tea and bread fried in the grease of the bacon. While you ate it you cooked another exactly similar meal, to serve for dinner, and then, carrying your dinner-pail, you set out for the fields, a mile-and-a-half walk through the blue, windy dawn, with your nose running so in the cold that you had to stop occasionally and wipe it on your sacking apron.
The poverty and dirt in which they live, the dependency on the landowner and the poor wages, being paid not adequately at all to what their work requires, all this is described quite realistically.
One day, Ellen (Dorothy) sees a newspaper article on “the mystery of the clergyman’s daughter”. Her memory slowly comes back to her. She writes to her father and asks him for money to come home. As she gets no reply to any of her three letters and it’s the end of the hop-picking season, she finds herself destitute in London. Eventually, when Dorothy is in prison for sleeping on the streets, a rich uncle finds her and, on her father’s request, takes her in.
He then finds her a job as a teacher in a small private school where she suffers from hunger at the greed of Mrs Creevy, the headmistress. She is dismissed without notice when she brings a book to school and the parents find out.
there’s just two subjects, that they do want their children taught, and that’s handwriting and arithmetic.
Mr Warburton arrives at this very opportune moment to save her and bring her back to the village of Knype Hill, proposing marriage to her on the journey home.
Consider what your future would be like,’ he repeated. ‘It’s the same future that lies before any woman of your class with no husband and no money. Let us say your father will live another ten years. By the end of that time the last penny of his money will have gone down the sink. The desire to squander it will keep him alive just as long as it lasts, and probably no longer. All that time he will be growing more senile, more tiresome, more impossible to live with; he will tyrannize over you more and more, keep you shorter and shorter of money, make more and more trouble for you with the neighbors and the tradesmen. And you will go on with that slavish, worrying life that you have lived, struggling to make both ends meet, drilling the Girl Guides, reading novels to the Mothers’ Union, polishing the altar brasses, cadging money for the organ fund, making brown paper jackboots for the schoolchildren’s plays, keeping your end up in the vile little feuds and scandals of the church hen-coop.
Year after year, winter and summer, you will bicycle from one reeking cottage to another, to dole out pennies from the poor box and repeat prayers that you don’t even believe in any longer. You will sit through interminable church services which in the end will make you physically sick with their sameness and futility. Every year your life will be a little bleaker, a little fuller of those deadly little jobs that are shoved off on to lonely women. And remember that you won’t always be twenty-eight. All the while you will be fading, withering, until one morning you will look in the glass and realize that you aren’t a girl any longer, only a skinny old maid. You’ll fight against it, of course. You’ll keep your physical energy and your girlish mannerisms — you’ll keep them just a little bit too long. Do you know that type of bright — too bright — spinster who says “topping” and “ripping” and “right-ho”, and prides herself on being such a good sport, and she’s such a good sport that she makes everyone feel a little unwell? And she’s so splendidly hearty at tennis and so handy at amateur theatricals, and she throws herself with a kind of desperation into her Girl Guide work and her parish visiting, and she’s the life and soul of Church socials, and always, year after year, she thinks of herself as a young girl still and never realizes that behind her back everyone laughs at her for a poor, disappointed old maid? That’s what you’ll become, what you must become, however much you foresee it and try to avoid it. There’s no other future possible to you unless you marry. Women who don’t marry wither up — they wither up like aspidistras in back-parlour windows; and the devilish thing is that they don’t even know that they’re withering.’
However, Ellen, now being Dorothy again, declines the offer. She feels no sexual affinity towards Mr Warburton and prefers her old life back, the life of a clergyman’s daughter, looking after her father and doing parish work.
Although she left the village under mysterious circumstances she is accepted again by the parish as the gossip, Mrs Semprill, had to leave the village after being libeled. The villagers feel guilty of having thought badly of Dorothy and are now particularly nice towards her.
About the author
George Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair. He chose to write under the name George Orwell because he admired George, the patron saint of England and because the River Orwell in England was one of his favorites.