“They had never heard of Robin Hood”: Remarks from George Orwell’s “A Clergyman’s Daughter” (1935)

By Stephen Basdeo

Robin Hood has on occasion been accused of being a hero who appears mainly in literature for the middle classes. The first ever printed copies of A Gest of Robyn Hode (published in several editions between 1495 and c.1600) were obviously aimed at a literate, middling or upper-class reading public (even if the oral tale upon which it was based might have been known among people of more humbler backgrounds).[1]

Geste Masthead
Excerpt from A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495)

Likewise, according to Stephen Knight, in the sixteenth century Robin Hood became thoroughly gentrified.[2] While cheaply printed broadside ballads of Robin Hood had appeared in the seventeenth century, they may have been heard by commoners, but it was someone who was literate who would have needed to sing the lyrics. Some ballads, as in the case of Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727) and Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727) were not even intended to be sung by the lower sorts but read in coffeehouses frequented by members of eighteenth-century polite society.[3]

Lancaster 1
Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster. A Ballad. (1727). [Bodleian Library]

The various entries on Robin Hood in Alexander Smith’s Complete History of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1735) likewise appeared in these books which, being expensively bound and accompanied with fine engravings, were likewise tailored to an affluent reading public,[4] much like the several editions of Robin Hood’s Garland published in the same century were likewise for a wealthy audience.[5]

Johnson title page
Robin Hood appeared in many such criminal biographies in the 18th century

Joseph Ritson’s brilliant anthology of Robin Hood ballads and poems, titled Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) retailed at a cost of 12 shillings—placing it out of reach of the poorer classes whose wages, when they got them (for much work in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was casual) amounted to about 9 shillings per week. Ritson’s book inspired Walter Scott to write Ivanhoe (1819), yet that retailed at 31 shillings while, being sold in ‘boards’, would have meant a further cost when it was professionally bound.


Even penny novels of Robin Hood in the 1840s were written with a lower middle-class audience in mind,[6] while this very debate—about which class was the audience of Robin Hood tales—was actually the key debate which kick-started the academic study of the legend in the 1950s and 1960s. During those two decades, Prof. Rodney Hilton had argued in Past and Present that early Robin Hood tales expressed the grievances of the peasantry in the run-up to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.[7] Prof. J.C. Holt disagreed and offered a counter argument in the same journal, stating that early Robin Hood poems actually expressed the aspirations of the yeomanry class.[8]

George Orwell

Whatever the truth of the debate on the matter, the reception of Robin Hood texts in the early twentieth century has often been neglected in favour of a focus on the films which appeared in the period—Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood (1922) and Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) having seemingly eclipsed the study of texts.

ORwell Clergyman's Daughter image
Front cover of the second edition of Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter.

George Orwell in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) perhaps sheds some light, not only on the reception of Robin Hood texts in the period just before the arrival of Flynn’s movie (in an age before VHS home videos, audiences would probably have forgotten Fairbanks’s version) but we can see that Orwell also unwittingly taps into the aforementioned debates about the audience of Robin Hood ballads.

In his fourth chapter we find the following passage:

Every upper-class person, however ill-informed, grows up with some notion of history; he can visualize a Roman centurion, a medieval knight, an eighteenth-century nobleman; the terms Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution evoke some meaning, even if a confused one, in his mind. But these children came from bookless homes and from parents who would have laughed at the notion that the past has any meaning for the present. They had never heard of Robin Hood, never played at being Cavaliers and Roundheads, never wondered who built the English churches or what Fid. Def. on a penny stands for.[9]

Before analysing this passage, let us explain a bit about Orwell’s novel.

A school in the 1930s

A Clergyman’s Daughter is a novel and, unlike his remarks on Robin Hood in Down and Out in Paris and London, cannot be read as taken from ‘real’ life experiences. Every novelist does, however, draw upon his or her experiences of the world around them in order to create the setting and characters of the novel, which renders A Clergyman’s Daughter equally worthy of study as those of books recounting his sojourn in the poorer districts of Paris and London. After all, novels, which aim to be a reflection of real life and manners, tell truths in a fictional manner.

As the title suggests, Orwell’s novel tells the tale of a clergyman’s daughter named Dorothy, a character who, were she real, would have had a thoroughly middle-class upbringing. She would have received a good schooling—perhaps at one of those “dreary little private schools you read about in Victorian novels”—and she would have been “well versed” in English literature and history, and probably the classics.[10]

Robin Hood Books
A sample of some Robin Hood children’s books in my collection

After a bout of amnesia, during which she goes tramping because she cannot remember who or what she is, she is returned home safely. Because of a rumoured scandal (explained in full here), she is sent away from her family to serve as a teacher in a “fourth rate” suburban academy, which is a school for the children of the lower middle classes. It is a massive con; the headmistress is a bad manager and the children do not receive a very good education, all the while the school charges local tradesmen fees.

As Dorothy begins teaching the children at the academy, it becomes clear that history was the hardest subject for her to teach. This was because the children came from “bookless” homes. The result of this lack of access to books at home meant that the children only had a vague idea of English history, its heroes, and its periodization. To them, antiquity was indistinguishable from the Middle Ages. This was not necessarily because books were unaffordable. Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917) was fairly expensive, retailing at a price of around 10 shillings but would have been affordable to small business owning families. In the 1920s and 1930s some children’s books were presented as prizes to children for good attendance and high achievement in a certain subject. For Dorothy the more staggering fact was that the parents thought that history had no value for the world work—what use was learning history when the parents would likely be sending their child out to complete some practical activities to prepare them for the job market? It did not seem as if it would impact their children’s lives too much if they did not know the difference between a Roundhead and a Cavalier or Robin Hood.

We see debates such as these play out today when public discourse turns towards the ‘usefulness’ of ‘soft’ subjects like history (which often is unfairly singled out): these subjects won’t get students a well-paying job and there is a growing perception that the humanities are becoming subjects which only the upper classes can afford to study. Essentially, what was being drilled into Dorothy’s children by their parents was the following message: a knowledge and appreciation of history was not yours to have—your intellectual development should be strictly confined to mathematics and science. This is what your parents and employers wanted.

1930s children celebrating Empire Day

Of course, this is not to say that all lower middle-class children in the 1930s came away from completing their schooling with no knowledge of history at all. Although the British Empire was on its way out in the 1930s, paradoxically the empire, and with it a celebration of British, and often English, history became more prevalent.

Empire Day was officially recognised as a national holiday in 1916. It was an event targeted towards children; schools in local towns and villages were encouraged to hold pageants at which children would dress up as historical figures while patriotic songs would be sung. School plays based upon key dates and events in English history were also encouraged. Local churches affiliated with either the Scouts or the Guides—which although these organisations were open to the working classes were pretty much for the lower middle classes—were encouraged to hold pageants celebrating English history.

Dorothy soon finds herself organising a village pageant.

Dorothy is eventually sacked from her job as a teacher but luckily on the same day her old associate Mr Warburton comes to tell her that she can return home to her father, Rev. Hare, because all previous rumours of the scandal she was said to be involved with have been disproved (for a full account see this excellent blog post). Her life falls back into the same routine of enjoyed by a many a middle-class clergyman’s daughter—she helps out with tea mornings, serves her father’s dinner, and her whole life becomes intimately connected with the church again, even though she has lost her faith in God by this point. As she prays to her God for guidance, she suddenly remembers that she was in the middle of making the costumes for a village pageant. It is here that our outlaw again appears, as Dorothy plans the costumes she is making for the play:

There was still a minute or two before the glue would be ready to use. Dorothy finished pinning the breastplate together, and in the same instant began mentally sketching the innumerable costumes that were yet to be made. After William the Conqueror–was it chain mail in William the Conqueror’s day?–there were Robin Hood– Lincoln Green and a bow and arrow–and Thomas a Becket in his cope and mitre, and Queen Elizabeth’s ruff, and a cocked hat for the Duke of Wellington. And I must go and see about those potatoes at half past six, she thought. And there was her ‘memo list’ to be written out for tomorrow. Tomorrow was Wednesday–mustn’t forget to set the alarm clock for half past five.[11]

From a Robin Hood scholar’s perspective, it is interesting that, among the major players in English history—William the Conqueror, Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Wellington—which Dorothy thinks should be featured in the history pageant, Robin Hood deserved a place in children’s education and celebrations of national history at village pageants. Perhaps this is because Dorothy was something of a rebel herself—she strives to, even if she does not always succeed, in breaking the confines of her “woman’s place” and she was savvy enough to recognise when the headmistress of the school was, in a very sheriff-like manner, ‘robbing’ or conning the kids’ parents, not only of an education but also, literally, robbing their money as well.

Illustrations from Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

As we have seen, a major theme in the novel is of Dorothy’s loss of faith and frustration with the church. I think Orwell was also tapping into the long-standing anti-clericalism present in retellings of Robin Hood. Orwell had an Edwardian upbringing and would at some point have probably read one of the several reprints of Robin Hood ballad anthologies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (I have shown elsewhere how he was definitely aware of the obscure Robin Hood ballad ‘The Death of Robin Hood’). He could not have missed the anti-clericalism in either the ballads or the many novels. To quote just one instance of anti-religious sentiment from a Robin Hood tale (from practically all retellings), I quote Joseph Ritson (who was still being reprinted in the twentieth century):

Our hero, indeed, seems to have held bishops, abbots, priests, and monks, in a word, all the clergy, regular or secular, in decided aversion.

“These byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes,

Ye shall them bete and bynde,”

was an injunction carefully impressed upon his followers. The Abbot of Saint Mary’s, in York, from some unknown cause, appears to have been distinguished by particular animosity; and the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, who may have been too active and officious in his endeavours to apprehend him, was the unremitted object of his vengeance.[12]

Later on, Ritson also mentioned

The aversion in which [Robin Hood] appears to have held the clergy of every denomination.[13]

Clearly, it is not simply anti-Catholicism which pervades Robin Hood tales but an aversion to all denominations. This is likely to be a reason why Orwell specifically chose Robin Hood as one of Dorothy’s heroes: here was a woman who recognised a con in the school when she saw it (Robin Hood being ‘the terror of engrossers’—people who sell shoddy goods for high prices) and she is frustrated with the church of which she is part, so it is natural that she warms to a figure from English history who has always been conceived as an anti-religious, anti-clerical one.

[1] See Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560—Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

[2] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[3] Stephen Basdeo, ‘A Critical Edition of Little John’s Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727)’, Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 1 (2017), 15–31.

[4] Charles Johnson, Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (London: T. Tegg, 1834) and Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers, ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), pp. 408–12.

[5] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood the Brute: Representations of the Outlaw in 18th-Century Criminal Biography’, Law, Crime & History, 6: 2 (2017), 54-70

[6] Stephen Basdeo, ‘The Changing Faces of Robin Hood: Rethinking Gentrification in the Post-Medieval Tradition, c.1700–c.1900’ (Unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of Leeds, 2017).

[7] Rodney Hilton, ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’, Past & Present, 14 (1958), 30–44.

[8] J.C. Holt, ‘The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood’, Past & Present, 18 (1960), 89–110.

[9] George Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, rev. edn (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 221.

[10] Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, p. 211.

[11] Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, p. 296.

[12] Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, rev. ed. (London: Longman, 1820), p. ix.

[13] Ibid.

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