The Anglican Clergy in Jane Austen’s Novels

By Jacob Swain (appearing as Mr. Collins in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)

The clergy occupy an essential place in Jane Austen’s work, even more than the Royal Navy, because Jane Austen’s father himself was a clergyman, as were her brother James, and briefly her brother Henry. The moral principles taught by her father are found in the moral precepts sprinkled throughout the novels.

An Anglican church, circa 1800.

An Anglican church, circa 1800.

The position of clergyman at the time was a special one from several points of view. Firstly, becoming a clergyman was a profession. Any well-educated, well-spoken man of sound morals could enter it, and no particular religious vocation was called for. The living attached to the post of vicar guaranteed a good income for work that was not onerous. Moreover, thanks to the living, a clergyman was in a position to start a family earlier than a naval officer, who might have to wait years before raising enough money to do so.

Clergymen in the novels do not benefit from any special consideration on the part of the author. On the contrary, they are frequently depicted in a very unflattering light, although there are some who are shown as sympathetic and admirable characters.

For example, Mr. Elton in Emma demonstrates an excessive social ambition in proposing to the eponymous Emma Woodhouse, and once he is married later in the novel, he and his wife Augusta patronize the villagers and disgust Emma with their pretentiousness.

In Pride and Prejudice Mr. Collins is an example of what a clergyman ought not to be. He is obsequious towards the powerful, arrogant towards the weak, sententious and narrow-minded. In spite of his faults, however, he seems to be more involved in his job than Edward Ferrars or Henry Tilney.

In fact, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is absent from his parish half the time and takes holidays in Bath, so that in spite of his intellectual and moral qualities, he bears witness to the lack of commitment of certain clergymen towards their flock.

As for Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility, he does give evidence of a more definite vocation when he insists that he has “always preferred the Church” as his profession, even though his family consider a career in the army or the Royal Navy “more appropriate”, or the law more worthy of a gentleman.

Edmund Bertram alone, in Mansfield Park, shows an unshakeable vocation that all Mary Crawford’s charm and seductiveness never succeed in weakening. Try as she may, incessantly praising the superior merits and prestige of a military career, the solidity of his principles and his deep conviction prevent him from doubting.

Revenues of the clergyman

The income of a clergyman varied a great deal depending on the living assigned to him. A small, poor, rural parish like Steventon (where Jane Austen’s father served as rector) might be worth only about £100 (or $5600 today) a year, while a good parish could be worth nearly £1000 (or $56,000 today). The allocation of the living, and therefore of the benefits attached to it, was in the hands of the local lord of the manor. (This right was called the right of advowson.) The two components of the living were the tithe and the glebe of which the incumbent was the beneficiary.

The tithe

The caption of this painting reads, "The vicar of the parish receiving his tithes."

The caption of this painting reads, “The vicar of the parish receiving his tithes.” Circa 1790.

The tithe in theory guaranteed the clergyman one tenth of the product of all the cultivated land in the parish; it constituted a sort of tax which had existed in England since the 9th century, with the clergyman himself as the tax-collector. Legally, however, the beneficiary of the tithe was not the clergyman (who might find that only part was allocated to him), but the rector. Thus when Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility informs Edward Ferrars that “Delaford is a rectory”, he is also informing him that if he were awarded the parish, he would receive the whole of the corresponding tithe. Jane Austen’s father was himself rector of Steventon. Once collected, the revenue had to be managed carefully, since in a poor rural economy the tithe was often paid in kind. This led to a clergyman’s needing to have the use of a tithe barn in which to store what he had collected. He also had to negotiate with his parishioners in order to get all that he was owed. The parishioners did not always react well to his role as tax collector, which took up a large part of a clergyman’s time, so much so that Mr. Collins lists it as the first of his duties, ahead even of writing sermons, which comes in second place. The patron of the living also of course had an interest in increasing the revenue raised by the incumbent since this raised the value of the charge he could sell or bestow. The curate or rector’s protector is a major personage in the region (as for example is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins’ patron). Moreover, this patron may want to reserve a living for a younger son.

The glebe

The glebe was a parcel of land donated to the church, often in the distant past, whose produce was designated for the incumbent of the corresponding parish. This necessarily made the clergyman into a farmer, a job which therefore took up a large part of his time. This necessary farm work further reduced the time actually spent on religious tasks as such. In addition to the tithe and glebe, there was some money to be made from collecting fees from weddings, baptisms, and funerals, as well as tutoring boys in their home, as Jane Austen’s father did.

The circumstances and amounts involved in collecting monies made it almost impossible for the clergyman to have a secure old age; there was no home ownership and never enough money available to save for one. The Austen ladies’ insecure situation when Mr. Austen died points out to us how difficult it was for the parson’s family left with no home, and even before that, when Mr. Austen retired, how little there was to live on and how pitiful their circumstances. While entering the Church was seen as a respectable, well-regarded profession, it did not provide much promise for security in one’s old age.

The Parson’s wife

The Parson's wife, circa 1815.

The Parson’s wife, circa 1815.

A brief word about marrying a clergyman: When women seem eager and well-suited to marry men bound for the Church, do we wonder, at times, why is this so? Unless there is some family money behind them, we now know that they might not always live comfortably or in pleasant circumstances. Certainly, The Collinses will be cared for by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but not every clergy couple had it so good. The parson’s wife and family was accepted immediately into the neighborhood by the gentry because they represented the Church. Their financial state did not matter, so they were always included in the parties at the “big house” and were not expected to entertain in kind. “Mrs. Parson” would be expected to make the rounds of the parish, visiting the sick and the elderly, dispensing jellies and herbal remedies, if possible, and helping out wherever needed, sitting at sick beds, helping new mothers. A young woman, hoping to marry the new, unwed clergyman in town, had surely better know what she was letting herself in for! It goes without saying that when her own children came along, they had best be paragons of virtue, because it would be their mother who would be criticized if they were not, rather than their father.

Sources:

“Georgian society in Jane Austen’s novels.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 24 Jan. 2014.<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgian_society_in_Jane_Austen’s_novels>.

Capitani, Diane . “JASNA-GCR.” The Clergy in Jane Austen’s Time. Jane Austen Society of North America, Greater Chicago Area, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2014. <http://www.jasnachicago.org/jane-austen/online-exhibits/96-jane-austen/online-exhibits/115-the-clergy-in-jane-austens-time#clergy-revenues&gt;.

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