Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Jane Austen and the clergy

Jane Austen and the Clergy, Irene Collins

As I've mentioned before, my TBR pile has several strata, one of which is books about Jane Austen.  Like many Janeites, I now own far more books about her than by her.  I really enjoy the ones that focus on an aspect of her life or of her novels, and Jane Austen and the Clergy does both.  It is not a biography of Austen, though it covers the facts of her life.  It places her life in what Irene Collins argues is its most basic context:
"The life in which [Austen] felt thoroughly at home was that of the country clergy. Biographers usually mention as important the fact that her father, two of her brothers and four of her cousins were clergymen, but none so far has demonstrated the extent to which she was involved in their situation and way of thinking."
The book is organized topically, with chapters on Austen's clerical connections, the training of clergymen, their parishes, rectories, and income.  I particularly enjoyed the chapters on patronage and on the parson's wife.  During Austen's lifetime, landowners like Colonel Brandon and Lady Catherine de Bourgh controlled the appointments to at least 5,500 churches.  Most of Jane's clerical connections, starting with her father, received appointments from family and friends.  Jane's sister Cassandra could not marry her clergyman fiancé, Tom Fowle, until he got a good parish from his family's patron.  While waiting, Tom accepted a position as a chaplain on a military expedition to the West Indies from the same patron; he died there of yellow fever.  Cassandra never married, though she would have made an excellent clergyman's wife, in Collins' view.

Collins argues that there has been little serious study of the Church of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in part because of a lack of primary sources.  In exploring her topics, she draws from the few contemporary sources as well as later historical works.  But she also draws from Austen's life, letters, and novels:
"Parsons' daughters were thick on the ground at the time, but few have left as many of their own writings or been honoured with as many reminiscences by friends and relatives as she has. The evidence provided by this material is worthy of at least as much attention as the journals of the handful of contemporary parsons . . .  much quoted by historians."
It was interesting to see how Collins weaves these different sources into her history.  I really enjoyed seeing Austen's clergymen used as examples, and also put into the context of the real Church of England at the time.  Characters like Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton are so memorable, and stand in such contrast to Henry Tilney or Charles Hayter.  Though Austen may have made the occasional error in her writing, like having apple trees bloom out of season, she made none in the clerical parts of her books.

The last chapter, "Worship and Belief," considers Austen's own faith and religious practices.  An appendix includes three prayers written by Austen and probably used for family worship on Sunday evenings.  I have read these before in other books, and I find them touching in their pleas for forgiveness and anxiety to do better tomorrow.

My only quibble with this book is that Collins seems to assume a familiarity with the Church of England, using terms like "rector" and "vicar" without explaining the difference, as she does also with "living" and "benefice."  In a discussion of tithes, Collins explains that
"In almost half the parishes of England the 'great tithes' (levied on cereal crops such as wheat and oats) had been 'impropriated' by a layman, leaving only the 'small tithes' (on produce such as lamb, chickens, fruit and eggs) for the parish priest . . .  Whoever held the great tithes was technically the rector of the parish. He might himself be a clergyman, willing to carry out the spiritual duties of the benefice; if not, he must appoint a vicar or a curate."
I had not known this, I'd never heard the word "impropriation" before, and now I want to know more: how did one go about impropriating the great tithes, and how did that practice develop?  Was it passed on in families as an inheritance, or did each new generation have to impropriate for itself?

This was a very interesting and informative read, and when I meet Edmund Bertram or Edward Ferrars again, I will better understand them and their place in Jane Austen's world.


  1. This sounds excellent and yet I'd never come across it before! Austen's clergymen, great and small, are so important to her novels and, besides, I am endlessly fascinated by vicars, rectors, reverends and all the rest, historical and modern. Granted, I still don't completely understand the differences indicated by all the different titles, but I am always intrigued to learn more!

  2. That's too funny about your JA strata on the TBR piles -- I have the same problem. And mine is about to get bigger because I'm going to the JASNA convention next week! I hadn't seen JA and the Clergy, but at the 2009 convention, I bought JA and Crime, which I still haven't read. I'm awaiting delivery of In The Garden with Jane Austen which should arrive sometime today.

    It's an addiction -- is there any hope for a cure??

  3. Claire, I share that fascination. For me there's a straight line from Austen's clergymen, through Trollope's cathedrals and closes, to Thirkell's 20th century version. And speaking of Trollope and Thirkell, I'd add deans, canons and prebendaries to your list.
    Karen - snap! I have JA and Crime in the strata as well, though I got my copy at Half Price Books. I wish I was able to get to JASNA - several people from our Houston chapter are going. I haven't heard of JA in the Garden, so I'll be interested to see your review. Have fun in Fort Worth!

  4. Dang, I got the HTML tag wrong again.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!