Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 3 - The Position of the Clergy

Jane Austen was a clergyman's daughter. At the present time there are undoubtedly wide differences in the social standing of the clergy according to their own birth and breeding, but yet it may be taken for granted that a clergyman is considered a fit guest for any man's table. It was not always so. There was a time when a clergyman was a kind of servant, ranking with the butler, whose hospitality he enjoyed; we have plenty of pictures of this state of affairs in The Vicar of Wakefield to go no further. But before Jane was born, matters had changed. The pendulum had not yet swung to the opposite extreme of our own day, when the fact of a man's being ordained is supposed to give him new birth in a social sense, and a tailor's son passes through the meagrest of the Universities in order that he may thus be transformed into a gentleman without ever considering whether he has the smallest vocation for the ministry. In the Austens' time the status of a clergyman depended a very great deal on himself, and as the patronage of the Church was chiefly in the hands of the well-to-do lay-patrons, who bestowed the livings on their younger sons or brothers, there was very frequently a tie of relationship between the vicarage and the great house, which was sufficient to ensure probably at its best, obviating any inducement to servility; but there was a very evil side to what may be called local patronage, which was much more in evidence than it is in our time. Archbishop Seeker, in his charges to the clergy of the diocese of Oxford, when he was their Bishop in 1737, throws a very clear light on this side of the question. He expressly enjoins incumbents to make no promise to their patrons to quit the benefice when desired before entering into office. "The true meaning therefore is to commonly enslave the incumbent to the will and pleasure of the patron. "The motive for demanding such a promise was generally that the living might be held until such time as some raw young lad, a nephew or younger son of the lord of the manor, was ready to take it. The evils of such a system are but too apparent. We can imagine a nervous clergyman who would never dare to express an opinion contrary to the will of the benefactor who had the power to turn him out into the world penniless; we can imagine the time-server courting his patron with honied words. This debased type is inimitably sketched in the character of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. "'It shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her ladyship, and be very ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England.' Lady Catherine [he said] had been graciously pleased to approve of both the discourses which he had already had the honour of preaching. She had also asked him twice to dine at Rosings, and had sent for him only the Saturday before, to make up her pool of quadrille in the evening. Lady Catherine was reckoned proud, he knew, by many people, but he had never seen anything but affability in her. She had always spoken to him as she would to any other gentleman; she made not the smallest objection to his joining in the society of the neighbour-hood."

In his delightful exordium to Elizabeth as to his reasons for proposing to her, he says--

"'My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and, thirdly, which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford--between our pools at quadrille while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh's footstool--that she said, '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.'"
And when, after his marriage with her friend, Elizabeth goes to stay with them, and is invited to dine with them at the Rosings, Lady Catherine's place, he thus encourages her--
"'Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin, Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us which becomes herself and her daughter. I would advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest, there is no occasion for anything more. Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved."
In the case of Mr. Collins, the patron happened to be a lady, but the instances were numberless in which clergymen spent all their time toadying and drinking with a fox-hunting squire.

Arthur Young says of the French clergy--

"One did not find among them poachers or fox-hunters, who, having spent the morning scampering after hounds, dedicate the evening to the bottle, and reel from inebriety to the pulpit," from which we may infer that many English clergymen did.
Cowper's satire on the way in which preferment is secured is worth quoting in full--
"Church-ladders are not always mounted beut
By learned clerits and Latinists professed.
The exalted prize demands an upward look,
Not to be found by poring on a book.
Small skill in Latin, and still less in Greek,
Is more than adequate to all I seek.
Let erudition grace him or not grace
I give the bauble but the second place
His wealth, fame, honours, all that I intend
Subsist and centre in one point--a friend.
A friend whate'er he studies or neglects,
Shall give him consequence, heal all defects.
If is intercourse with peers and sons of peers--
There dawns the splendour of his future years;
In that bright quarter his propitious skies
Shall blush betimes, and there his glory rise.
'Your lordship' and 'Your Grace,' what school can teach
A rhetoric equal to those parts of speech?
What need of Homer's verse or Tully's prose,
Sweet interjections! if he learn but those?
Let reverend churls his ignorance rebuke,
Who starve upon a dog-eared pentateoch,
The parson knows enough who knows a duke."
At the end of the eighteenth century the Church was at its deadest, enthusiasm there was none. Torpid is the only word that fitly describes the spiritual condition of the majority of the clergy. Seeker says, "An open and professed disregard of religion is become, through a variety of unhappy causes, the distinguishing character of the present age" and the clergy, as the salt of the earth, had certainly lost their savour, and did little or nothing to resist an apathy which, too commonly, extended to themselves.

The duties of clergymen were therefore almost as light as they chose to make them. One service on Sunday, and the Holy Communion three times yearly, at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, was considered enough.

"A sacrament might easily be interposed in the long interval between Christmas and Whitsuntide, and the usual season for it, the Feast of St. Michael, is a very proper time, and if afterwards you can advance from a quarterly communion to a monthly one, I make no doubt you will." (Secker.)
Baptisms, marriages, and funerals were looked on as nuisances; the clergyman ran them together as much as possible, and often arrived at the last minute, flinging himself off his smoking horse to gabble through the service with the greatest possible speed; children were frequently buried without any service at all.

The churches were for the most part damp and mouldy; there were, of course, none of the present conveniences for heating and lighting. Heavy galleries cut off the little light that struggled through the cobwebby windows. There were mouse-eaten hassocks, curtains on rods thick with dust, a general smell of mouldiness and disuse, and a cold, but ill-ventilated, atmosphere.

In some old country churches there still survive the family pews, which were like small rooms, and in which the occupants could read or sleep without being seen by anyone; in one or two cases there are fire-grates in these; and in one strange example at Langley, in Bucks, the pew is not only roofed in, but it has a lattice in front, with painted panels which can be opened and shut at the occupants' pleasure, and there is a room in connection with it in which is a library of books, so that it would be quite possible for anyone to retire for a little interlude without the rest of the congregation's being aware of it!

The church, only opened as a rule once a week, was left for the rest of the time to the bats and birds. Compare this with one of the neat, warm, clean churches to be found almost everywhere at present; churches with polished wood pews, shining brass fittings, tessellated floor in place of uneven bricks, a communion table covered by a cloth worked by the vicar's wife, and bearing white flowers placed by loving hands. A pulpit of carved oak, alabaster, or marble, instead of a dilapidated old three-decker in which the parish clerk sat below and gave out the tunes in a droning voice.

Organs were of course very uncommon at the end of the eighteenth century in country parishes, and though there might be at times a little local music, as an accompaniment, the hymns were generally drawled out without music at all. This is Horace Walpole's idea of church in 1791: "I have always gone now and then, though of late years rarely, as it was most unpleasant to crawl through a churchyard full of staring footmen and apprentices, clamber a ladder to a hard pew, to hear the dullest of all things, a sermon, and croaking and squalling of psalms to a hand organ by journey-men brewers and charity children."

The sermons were peculiarly dry and dull, and it would have taken a clever man to suck any spiritual nourishment therefrom. They were generally on points of doctrine, read without modulation; and if, as was frequently the case, the clergyman had not the energy to prepare his own, a sermon from any dreary collection sufficed. The black gown was used in the pulpit.

Cowper gives a picture of how the service was often taken--

"I venerate the man whose heart is warm;
Whose hands are pure, whose doctrine and whose life
Coincident, exhibit lucid proof
That he is honest in the sacred cause.
A messenger of grace to guilty men.
Behold the picture! Is it like? Like whom?
The things that mount the rostrum with a skip,
And then skip down again; pronounce a text,
Cry, ahem! and reading what they never wrote,
Just fifteen minutes, huddle up their work,
And with a well-bred whisper, close the scene."
In this dismal account the average only is taken, and there were many exceptions; we have no reason to suppose, for instance, that the Rev. George Austen marred his services by slovenliness or indifference, though no doubt the most earnest man would find it hard to struggle against the disadvantages of his time, and the damp mouldy church must have been a sore drawback to church-going.

Twining's Country Clergyman gives us a picture of an amiable sort of man of a much pleasanter type than those of Cowper or Crabbe.

We gain an idea of a man of a genial, pleasant disposition, cultured enough, and fond of the classics; who kept his house and garden well ordered, who enjoyed a tour throughout England in company with his wife, who thoroughly appreciated the lines in which his lot was cast, but who looked upon the living as made for him, and not he for the parishioners. A writer in the Cornhill some years ago gives a series of pleasant little pen-pictures of typical clergymen of this date. "Who cannot see it all--the curate-in-charge himself sauntering up and down the grass on a fine summer morning, his hands in the pockets of his black or drab 'small clothes,' his feet encased in broad-toed shoes, his white neckcloth voluminous and starchless, his low-crowned hat a little on one side of his powdered head, his eye wandering about from tree to flower, and from bird to bush, as he chews the cud of some puzzling construction in Pindar, or casts and recasts some favourite passage in his translation of Aristotle."

There was the fox-hunter who in the time not devoted to sport was always "welcome to the cottager's wife at that hour in the afternoon when she had made herself tidy, swept up the hearth, and was sitting down before the fire with the stockings of the family before her. He would chat with her about the news of the village, give her a friendly hint about her husband's absence from church, and perhaps, before going, would be taken out to look at the pig."

Or "the pleasant genial old gentleman in knee-breeches and sometimes top-boots, who fed his poultry, and went into the stable to scratch the ears of his favourite cob, and round by the pig-stye to the kitchen garden, where he took a turn for an hour or two with his spade or his pruning knife, or sauntered with his hands in his pockets in the direction of the cucumbers . . . coming in to an early dinner."

Mr. Austen seems to have been a mixture of the first and third of these types, for he was certainly a good scholar, and yet some of his chief interests in life were connected with his pigs and his sheep.

But though these are charming sketches, and their counterparts were doubtless to be found, we fear they are too much idealised to be a true representation of the generality of the clergy of that time; and, charming as they are, there is an easy freedom from the responsibility of office which is strange to modern ideas.

Livings, many of which are bad enough now, were then even worse paid; £ 25 a year was the ordinary stipend for a curate who did most of the work. Massey (History of England in the Reign of George II.) estimates that there were then five thousand livings under £ 80 a year in England; consequently pluralism was oftentimes almost a necessity. Gilbert White, the naturalist, was a shining light among clergymen; he was vicar of Selborne, in Hampshire, until his death in 1793; but while he was curate of Durley, near Bishop's Waltham, the actual expenses of the duty exceeded the receipts by nearly twenty pounds in the one year he was there. To reside at all was a great thing for a clergyman to do, and we may be sure, from what we gather, that the Rev. George Austen had this virtue, for he resided all the time at Steventon.

The Vicar Receiving His Tithes

The Vicar Receiving His Tithes

But though the clergy frequently left all the work to their curates, they always took care to receive the tithes themselves. In the picture engraved by T. Burke after Singleton, in the period under discussion, we see the fat and somewhat cross-looking vicar receiving these tithes in kind from the little boy, who brings his basket containing a couple of ducks and a sucking pig into the vicarage study.

Hannah More gives us an account of the usual state of things in regard to non-residence--

"The vicarage of Cheddar is in the gift of the Dean of Wells; the value nearly fifty pounds per annum. The incumbent is a Mr. K., who has something to do, but I cannot find out what, in the University of Oxford, where he resides. The curate lives at Wells, twelve miles distant. They have only service once a week, and there is scarcely an instance of a poor person being visited or prayed with. The living of Axbridge annual value is about fifty pounds. The incumbent about sixty years of age. Mr. G. is intoxicated about six times a week, and very frequently is prevented from preaching by two black eyes, honestly earned by fighting."

"We have in this neighbourhood thirteen adjoining parishes without so much as even a resident curate."

"No clergyman had resided in the parish for forty years. One rode over three miles from Wells to preach once on a Sunday, but no weekly duty was done or sick persons visited; and children were often buried without any funeral service. Eight people in the morning, and twenty in the afternoon, was a good congregation."
She evidently means that the service was sometimes held in the morning, and sometimes in the afternoon, as she says there were not two services.

She also speaks of it as an exceptionally disinterested action of Dr. Kennicott that he had resigned a valuable living because his learned work would not allow him to reside in the parish.

By far the best account of what was expected from a contemporary clergyman is to be gathered from Jane Austen's own books. It is one of her strong points that she wrote only of what she knew, and as her own father and two of her brothers were clergymen, we cannot suppose that she was otherwise than favourably inclined to the class. Her sketch of Mr. Collins is no doubt something of a caricature, but it serves to illustrate very forcibly one great error in the system then in vogue--that of local patronage.

The other clergymen in her books are numerous: we have Mr. Elton in Emma, Edmund Bertram and Dr. Grant in Mansfield Park, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.

It is impossible to deny that Edmund Bertram is a prig, or perhaps, to put it more mildly, is inclined to be sententious, so sometimes one almost sympathises with the gay Miss Crawford, whose ideas so shocked him and Fanny; yet though those ideas only reflected the current opinion of the times, they were reprehensible enough. When Miss Crawford discovers, to her chagrin, that Edmund, whom she is inclined to like more than a little, is going to be a clergyman, she asks--

"'But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to choose before him!'

"'Do you think the Church itself never chosen, then?'

"'Never is a black word. But yes, in the never of conversation which means not very often, I do think it. For what is to be done in the Church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the Church. A clergyman is nothing.'"
And in reply to Edmund's defence, she continues--
"'You assign greater consequence to a clergyman than one has been used to hear given, or than I can quite comprehend. One does not see much of this influence and importance in society, and how can it be acquired where they are so seldom seen themselves? How can two sermons a week, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair's to his own, do ail that you speak of, govern the conduct and fashion and manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit !'

"'You are speaking of London, I am speaking of the nation at large.'"
But it is noteworthy that even Edmund, who is upheld as a bright example, does not in his defence assert anything relative to the careful looking after the lives of his flock which nowadays is a chief part of a parish clergyman's duty. He speaks of conduct, and declares that "as the clergy are or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation," but all the retort he wins from the girl he so much admires is that she is just as much surprised at his choice as ever, and that he really is fit for something better!

In another place, where the same discussion is reopened, she says: "It is indolence, Mr. Bertram, indeed--indolence and love of ease--a want of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable, which make men clergymen. A clergyman has nothing to do but to be slovenly and selfish, read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.'"

This type is exemplified in the same book by Dr. Grant, who is not drawn vindictively, but is described by his own sister-in-law, Miss Crawford, as "'an indolent, selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in everything; who will not stir afinger for the convenience of anyone; and who, moreover, if the cook makes a blunder, is out of humour with his excellent wife. To own the truth, Henry and I were driven out this very evening by a disappointment about a green goose, which he could not get the better of. My poor sister was forced to stay and bear it.'"

And when Edmund is about to enter on the living, Henry Crawford gaily observes, "I apprehend he will not have less than seven hundred a year. Seven hundred a year is a fine thing for a younger brother; and as, of course, he will still live at home, it will be all for his menus plaisirs, and a sermon at Christmas and Easter, I suppose, will be the sum total of sacrifice.'"

After all this, it is pleasant to know that some upright and serious men, even in those days, thought differently of the life and duties of a clergyman, for Jane makes Sir Thomas Bertram reply--

"'A parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thornton, that is, he might read prayers and preach without giving up Mansfield Park; he might ride over every Sunday to a house nominally inhabited, and go through divine service; he might be the clergyman of Thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him. But it will not. He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself by constant attention to be their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.'"
It is also striking to see how very much the taking of Orders depended upon some living to be obtained; there seems to have been no special idea of suitability, and still less of preparation, only the merest and most perfunctory examination was demanded of the candidate for Orders. There is a story of this date of one examination for ordination where only two questions were asked, one of which was, "What is the Hebrew for a skull?"

In an entertaining book on Jane Austen by Miss Constance Hill, published in 1902, there is a quotation from a letter anent the ordination examination of Mr. Lefroy, who married Anna, Jane's niece. "The Bishop only asked him two questions, first if he was the son of Mrs. Lefroy of Ashe, and secondly if he had married a Miss Austen."

It is said also that Brownlow North, Bishop of Winchester, examined his candidates for ordination in a cricket-field during a match. One candidate is described by Bosweil as having read no books of divinity, not even the Greek Testament. There were, of course, serious and learned bishops enough; Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, who lived from 1643 to 1715, was horrified at the ignorance of candidates, who apparently had never read the Old Testament and hardly knew what was in the New. "They cry, and think it a sad disgrace to be denied Orders, though the ignorance of some is such that in a well-regulated state of things they would appear not to know enough to be admitted to the Holy Sacrament."

It is probable that the Bishops judged a great deal more, on the whole, by the appearance and manners of the man before them, and the prospects he had of holding a living, than by his own knowledge, and in the case of a well-born, serious-minded man like Edmund Bertram there would be no difficulty whatever about his lack of divinity. Of Henry Tilney's duties in Northanger Abbey, very little can be said or gathered, he never appears like a clergyman at all. We are told that the parsonage was a "new built, substantial stone house." We know that he had to go there, much to Catherine Morland's distress, when she was a guest at his father's house, Northanger Abbey, because the engagements of his curate at Woodston obliged him to leave on Saturday for a couple of nights. But at all events he does seem to have spent most of his time at the parsonage, though he still kept on his room at home.

Of Edward Ferrars' clerical avocations we also hear so very little that he might almost as well have been of any other profession.

The only other clergyman in the novels is Mr. Elton, a specimen not quite so egregious as Mr. Collins, but sufficiently so to be very amusing. On him the waves of Emma's match-making break with force--

"Poor Mr. Elton! You like Mr. Elton, papa! I must look about for a wife for him. There is nobody in Highbury who deserves him, and he has been here a whole year, and has fitted up his house so comfortably that it would be a shame to have him single any longer; and I thought when he was joining their hands to-day, he looked so very much as if he would like to have the same kind office done for him!'"
Emma thinks he will do admirably for her somewhat ambiguously placed friend Harriet Smith, while Mr. Elton himself fixes his eyes on the heiress Emma. A nice little illustration of the social status of the cleric, who would not have been thought entirely out of the question for the heiress, though doubtless a little beneath her. Mr. Elton is represented as a handsome, ingratiating, debonair young man, who spends his time playing the gallant, reading aloud, making charades with the young ladies, and preaching sermons that please everybody. However, he meets his match in the dashing and vulgar Mrs. Elton, whom he picks up, soon after his rejection by Emma, at a watering place, and thereafter they spend their time in a blissful state of mutual admiration.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.