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Ageing Anxieties in George Orwell’s ‘The Clergyman’s Daughter’

3rd July 2020

Carrie Kancilia, University of Southern Maine

Content Warning: Sexual Assault

George Orwell’s least-studied novel, The Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), centres Dorothy Hare, a woman of twenty-eight, whose worries about spinsterhood are exacerbated by constant exposure to aged companions. This novel offers many still-current clichés about aging people, and multiple examples of the undesirable aspects of aging. This experimental late-modernist novel has disparate thematic components, but Orwell’s attention to age persists throughout. The senior characters act as an inescapable chorus of the challenges of growing older.

Richard I. Smyer notes how Orwell frames time ‘as destroyer, which — in the form of the decaying church building and the aged, sickly bodies of the parishioners to whom the girl must minister — confront Dorothy at every turn and fill her with foreboding and disgust’.[1] Smyer also notes Orwell’s broadly applied rhetoric of aging, describing the rectory itself as ‘a house of the wrong age’.[2] Dorothy rides an ‘elderly bicycle’ (36). The clergyman displays a constitutional resistance to the modern age: ‘The secret of his almost unfailing ill humour really lay in the fact that he was an anachronism. He ought never to be born into the modern world; its whole atmosphere disgusted and infuriated him’ (22). Knype Hill is incompatible with modernity and the depicted inhabitants are predominantly middle aged or older.

Each of the older individuals in Knype Hill presents a different set of age-related issues. In addition to tending to a demanding father, Dorothy interacts with Miss Mayfill, who is ‘very old, so old that no one remembered her as anything but an old woman’ (12). Orwell’s descriptions of Mayfill are hyperbolically disgusting: ‘In her ancient bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose, and wet. The under lip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward’ (14). The bored widow called Mrs. Semprill, described as ‘a slender woman of forty, with a lank, sallow, distinguished face’ (50), gossips incessantly. Distracted listeners are punished by ‘fresh and worse scandals being published about [themselves] the moment [they] had left her’ (55). The narrator insinuates that Dorothy’s youth has been extracted from her by proxy: ‘In the harsh sunlight her face looked pinched and colorless. She looked her age, and something over, at that hour of the morning’ (56). Mr. Tombs, the neighbourhood Cat Man, lives atop a moveable layer of cats. As Dorothy helps with his errands, an overabundance of felines attends her: ‘If you put your hand on the fur rug it disintegrated, burst and fled in all directions. It was composed entirely of cats — twenty-four cats, to be exact’ (58). Mrs. Pither is ‘a large, stooping, grey woman with wispy grey hair, a sacking apron and shuffling carpet slippers’ (58). The Pithers are ‘over seventy’ and ‘Mrs. Pither [leads] a dreary, wormlike life of shuffling to and fro’ (59). She tells Dorothy about her husband’s mysterious groin malady: ‘a pain between his legs […] he can’t seem to account for’ (59). The narrator describes when Dorothy agrees to massage Mrs. Pither: ‘The room reeked of urine and paregoric. Dorothy took the bottle of Elliman’s embrocation and carefully anointed Mrs. Pither’s large, grey-veined, flaccid legs’ (63). When outside of their foul-smelling house, ‘[her] heart swelled with sudden joy’ (64).

Finally, Orwell presents Mr. Warburton, a problematic male figure with demonstrative anxieties about aging: ‘In appearance he was a fine, imposing-looking man, though entirely bald (he was at great pains to conceal this), and he carried himself with such a rakish air as to give the impression that his fairly sizeable belly was merely an annexe to his chest. His age was forty-eight, and he owned to forty-four’ (45). He preys upon young women: ‘People in the town said he was a “proper old rascal”; young girls were afraid of him, not without reason’ (45). The town largely dismisses him as harmless, but we learn that he assaulted Dorothy.

The scant scholarship on The Clergyman’s Daughter has underemphasized Dorothy’s rape by Warburton, a trauma that catalyses her dissociative episode: ‘immediately after tea, [he] sat down beside her on the sofa and begun making love to her, violently, outrageously, even brutally[…] Dorothy was horrified almost out of her wits, though not too horrified to resist. She escapedfrom him and took refugeon the other side of the sofa, white, shaking, and almost in tears’ (48; italics added). Orwell includes a confrontation. Dorothy asks, ‘Oh, but how could you be such a brute?’ (48). Warburton replies, ‘Oh, that? Easily, my child, easily. You will understand when you get to my age’ (48). Warburton suggests that Dorothy loses desirability as she ages, postulating that she will take extreme measures to resist that inevitability. Long after this incident, an unwanted, retraumatizing kiss from Warburton leads Dorothy to awake in London with no recollection of her identity.

Dorothy’s exile from Knype Hill lasts merely eight months, but Warburton remarks, ‘You look older’ (293). Having once eluded him, Dorothy endures Warburton’s escalated bid for her affection; this time, he employs age-shaming, cautioning her that anymarriage is preferable to spinsterhood: ‘You would be happier married, even to a husband with a bald head and a clouded past […] Have you really considered what your future will be like if you don’t marry?’ (302). Warburton ends his speech with insults: ‘[…] 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 realise 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 too long’ (303). Dorothy resists, but Orwell’s novel captures the aging anxieties experienced by the “unnecessary women” of modernist literature.


[1]Richard I. Smyer, ‘Orwell’s “A Clergyman’s Daughter”: The Flight from History’, Modern Fiction Studies, 1:21 (1975), p. 37.

[2]GeorgeOrwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1960), p. 18. Further references to this book are given in parentheses in the text.


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