In the 21st century, Church of England clergy are hard-working men and women – usually running a number of parishes, as well as struggling to pay for the upkeep of churches which may be in need of serious repair. They are expected to have several services on Sundays, possibly in different parishes, and to see to the spiritual needs – and often the material needs, if the parish is a poor one, of their parishioners. They are also pretty poorly paid. Still, at least they can count on a roof over their heads and the job carries a pension and the security of knowing that they will have somewhere to live once they retire.
Henry Tilney at Woodston, Northanger Abbey
It was not always thus. In fact, the system was so different that I was shocked at how arbitrary and unfair it used to be.
Three of Jane Austen’s heroes are clergymen, and all of her novels have clergymen in them, most of whom are important to the story. As well as the heroes, Edward Ferrars in Sense & Sensibility; Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey; and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park; Pride & Prejudice also has Mr Collins, and Emma has Mr Elton.
Mary Crawford tries to entice Edmund Bertram, Mansfield Park
The whole system depended on patronage. There were 11,600 benefices, that is, church livings in the UK, from a position in a cathedral, to being a clergyman living in a humble vicarage, or in a more wealthy rectory. About 2500 of the benefices were in the gift of bishops or cathedral chapters; and these obviously went to the relations and dependents of bishops, canons and so on. 600 benefices were in the gift of various Oxford or Cambridge colleges and public schools; 1,100 were in the gift of the Crown; and 5,500 benefices were in the gift of private landowners – like General Tilney and Sir Thomas Bertram, both of whom have respectable livings they are nursing for their younger sons. And readers of Pride & Prejudice will remember that Darcy’s father had intended that the good living in his gift should go to his god-son, Mr Wickham.
Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, ‘Mansfield Park’
It was virtually impossible to become ordained without having been to either Oxford or Cambridge University – which, of course, meant that there was a serious class (and financial) barrier from the beginning.
Furthermore, the value of the livings varied hugely from a mere £100 p.a. to the £700 p.a. which awaited Edmund Bertram at Thornton Lacey in Mansfield Park. But the annual amount a living brought in could be greatly augmented if the benefice were a rectory, rather than a mere vicarage. The living of Hunsford, which Lady Catherine bestowed on Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, was a good one – possibly worth £500 p.a., and as rector, Mr Collins was entitled to a tithe, that is 10%, of all the farm produce within the parish, as well as the revenue from the glebe, the farmland which went with the parsonage itself. We know that Hunsford has at least two meadows and that the Collinses keep cows and poultry.
Edward Ferrars returns to Barton Cottage, Sense & Sensibility
The whole point of getting a living, however small, was that it came with a parsonage, that is, a place to live, a garden, and, one hoped, a couple of fields. It was essential that the vicarage was capable of being self-sufficient. The newly-married Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars (Mrs Ferrars having given her son the promised £10,000) settled down in Delaford Parsonage, a living worth £250 p.a. and were able to grow enough to feed themselves.
Furthermore, in Jane Austen’s time, the Church of England offered no pensions to retired clergymen and there were no provisions for widows and orphans. Mrs and Miss Bates, wife and daughter of a former vicar of Highbury in Emma, have been left very badly off, and live in poor lodgings on very little money. They rely on the generosity of other, wealthier, parishioners to keep their heads above water.
Henry Tilney – the country gentleman, ‘Northanger Abbey’
Another difference which struck me was how much free time vicars had on their hands. Henry Tilney, for example, spends much of his time with his dogs and horses, and he employs a curate, (who would probably have been paid between £50-100 p.a. and whose job it would have been to take the actual services).
I had also taken for granted that church services in Jane Austen’s time would be as frequent as they are today – that is Morning Service, Holy Communion and Evening Service every Sunday; a daily early morning service, a possible service mid-week, Sunday School, and so on. Furthermore, I also assumed that the churches would be full on Sundays. Wrong. The typical early 19th century church was probably medieval and little altered since the Reformation in the 1530s. Non-attendance was commonplace, many churches were in an appalling state of repair; one vicar observing that the inside of his church had not even been whitewashed within living memory.
Mr Collins reads aloud from Fordyce’s Sermons, ‘Pride & Prejudice’
A vicar was expected to take a Holy Communion Service only three or four times a year. He didn’t even have to write his own sermons, there were plenty of published ones, like Fordyce’s sermons which Mr Collins chose to read out loud at Longbourn when he visited in Pride & Prejudice – and which Lydia so rudely interrupted.
Holding a regular Sunday service was the exception rather than the rule. When the young Queen Victoria talked to Lord Melbourne about the importance of regular church-going, Lord Melbourne replied that in his youth church-going was not much done, but added, ‘But it is the right thing to do.’ His private view can probably be summed up by his remark after hearing an evangelical sermon, ‘Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.’
Mr Elton admires Emma’s portrait of Harriet Smith in ‘Emma’
So what did the vicar of a parish actually do? Elizabeth Bennet and Sir William and Maria Lucas visited the Collinses around Easter – today, the busiest time of the church year. Nevertheless, we hear of Mr Collins driving his father-in-law round the countryside every day during his visit, and of dinners at Rosings with Lady Catherine de Bourgh; but there is no mention of any church activities.
Mr Elton was always happy to play backgammon with Mr Woodhouse of an evening; the only engagement we hear of is him going up to London to have Emma’s picture of Harriet framed, which caused him to miss a meeting of the whist club at the Crown. Hardly what one expects of a vicar. And yet Mr Knightley himself calls Mr Elton a ‘very respectable vicar of Highbury’ – and he does visit old Mrs Bates.
Mr Elton on a hot day, ‘Emma’
However, we must note the Monday parish meetings, which were an important part of the way the church was run. (Both Mr Elton and Henry Tilney mention Monday parish meetings.) They discussed practical problems in the parish, like repairs to the church which, if serious, could entail the churchwardens levying a rate on all parishioners depending on the value of their property. All male residents who owned land were entitled to have their say at the parish meetings which took place in the church vestry.
The Monday parish meeting was also a good place to meet your neighbours if you wanted to rise in the world. It is a place where Mr Cole, in Emma, for example, could meet other landowners and become involved in the general smooth running of Highbury. Mr Knightley is the chief magistrate, and Mr Weston and Mr Cole are his assistants, and we note that both men, having been involved in Trade, need to prove that they are now taking on the responsibilities proper to gentlemen landowners.
Mr Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas, Pride & Prejudice
One gets the impression that a large part of a country vicar’s job was to provide a sort of social glue. Visiting the sick, certainly, but also giving advice to churchwardens or anyone else, and seeing that village life ran smoothly.
It was also important that a vicar get married. Lady Catherine de Bourgh was firm on that point: ‘Mr Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry – choose properly, choose a gentlewoman for my sake, and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way.’
Charlotte Lucas was the perfect choice. It is interesting that a clergyman’s wife’s status was rather more fluid than most. Mr Elton obviously feels that his status is high enough to allow him to aspire to Emma Woodhouse’s hand in marriage. Emma herself feels that the beautiful but socially dubious Harriet Smith would be a more suitable match. In the end, he goes for Augusta Hawkins, a parvenu young woman with a good dowry but vulgar manners.
Mr Collins accosts Mr Darcy at the Netherfield Ball
Mr Collins, however, has the firm conviction that his being a clergyman has put him on the same social level as Mr Darcy, and accosts him at the Netherfield Ball – to Elizabeth Bennet’s huge embarrassment. It is made very clear that Mr Darcy thinks that Mr Collins’ intrusion is an impertinence.
I want to end by looking briefly at the case of Charles Hayter, Charles Musgrove’s first cousin in Persuasion. Charles Hayter is an eldest son, and heir to the small estate of Winthrop together with another farm with good agricultural land. Young Charles had ‘chosen to be a scholar and a gentleman’ and, somehow, (unlike his brothers) he has had a decent education and gone to university. He is now a curate.
It is a good example of how a young man, willing to work hard, and with a bit of help could rise up the ladder. If Charles won a scholarship to a decent public school, he could also have won a further scholarship to university. We are also told that, ‘Charles has a very fair chance, through the Spicers, of getting something from the Bishop in the course of a year or so . . .’ In other words, Charles has connections and friends in high places.
The snobbish Mary Musgrove looks down on the Hayters, and is very against a match between Charles Hayter and her sister-in-law, Henrietta Musgrove, considering it ‘a most improper match.’ but she is mistaken. It sounds as though Charles has his head screwed on; he could, if sponsored by a friendly bishop, do very well indeed.
Illustrations: All the illustrations are by Hugh Thomson, apart from those for Pride & Prejudice which are by Charles E. Brock, and originally drawn for Macmillan’s Illustrated Pocket Classics. The Thomson and Brock illustrations for Jane Austen’s novels have always struck me as being perfectly matched to her books.
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