June 2014 Meeting: The Clergy in Jane Austen’s novels

The topic of discussion at the June Meeting was the clergymen in Jane Austen’s novels. Members had consulted a number of secondary sources in preparation for the discussion, including

  • Christopher Brooke, Jane Austen: Illusion and Reality
  • The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen
  • Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy
  • Michael Giffin in Sensibilities December 2012
  • Various blogs and websites as well as the primary sources of the six novels

The ensuing discussion was both lively and wide-ranging, beginning with the observation that, in the masculine world of Jane Austen professions were becoming more respectable, reflecting a change in attitude and the move from Regency to Victorian values.

Clergy were considered gentlemen, as they were landowners with the right to vote. However the role of the clergy in the novels would not be recognised by us, as there seems a distinct lack of vocation and no training per se. Although all clergy had to attend either Oxford or Cambridge, the degree course, largely based on the classics, was very general.

In his address to the Jane Austen Society AGM in 1993, Dom Nicholas Seymour, an Anglican Benedictine monk, commented that

 Jane Austen’s clergymen fit into the overall moral world of her novels as men first and clergymen second: they are not seen as examples of “clergymen” for study as such. They are largely speaking, socially presentable members of a well defined social group . . I feel that her clergymen are in her moral universe as moral beings . . . they are products of their experiences – witness her frequent link between a lack of early education and a later lack of social poise – and their clerical life is part of what they are.

while Irene Collins ponders

Readers of Jane Austen’s novels can be excused for wondering what duties her clergymen . . . were supposed to perform since they seem to have endless amounts of time and leisure to devote to their private concerns.

And Michael Giffin in Sensibilities, December 2012 commented

Like other members of Austen’s real and imagined society, her priests are flawed and Anglicans accommodate priestly flaws by maintaining the Catholic principle of ex opera operato in Article XXVI of the 39 articles- this acknowledges that within the church “the evil be ever mingled with the good and sometimes the evil have chief authority”. Austen’s priests are often unworthy of their office but their unworthiness does not detract from the efficacy of the sacraments they mediate or the word they preach, because they are “of Christ’s institutions and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

This background helps us understand Austen’s attitude towards her priests. She took their office seriously but did not defer to them as persons. She did not require them to be paragons of holiness or remain separate from society: however she expected them to fulfill their priestly role.

To Irene Collins

 Jane Austen combined a high regard for the role of the clergy with a total acceptance of their leisured existence: to her, they were more important for what they were than what they did.

Discussion then turned to the specifics of Jane Austen’s clergy men: the quiet nature of Edward Ferrars, although he had no sense of calling, means that the church suits his character and ensures for him a profession and an income so that he can marry; the inimitable Mr Collins could have been based on Jane Austen’s cousin, the Rev Edward Cooper who sent his sermons to her. Cooper believed that there should be no indulgence in any form of worldly pleasure on a Sunday. Austen disagreed and perhaps in creating Mr Collins she was making a private joke for her family as the famous letter Mr Collins sends to Mr Bennet after Lydia’s disgrace was rather like the letters of Rev Cooper. Discussion of Mr Collins inevitably led to discussion of patronage.

Mr Collins however is a dutiful clergyman as is Mr Elton. Neither of them shirked their duty.

One member then pointed out that Jane Austen suggests in Mansfield Park that the role could improve the man, saying through Fanny about Dr Grant:

 A man – a sensible man like Dr Grant, cannot be in the habit of teaching others their duty every week, cannot go to church twice every Sunday and preach such very good sermons in so good a manner as he does, without being the better for it himself. It must make him think, and I have no doubt that he oftener endeavours to restrain himself than he would if he had been any thing but a clergyman.

Having established that most clergymen didn’t write their own sermons and that clergymen in a country parish were not expected to celebrate Holy Communion more than once a month, the discussion moved to the role of the clergy in local government, in upholding the Poor Laws and dispensing charity.

Christopher Brooke describes the rector:

as a central figure in the village community . . . second only to the squire in status, helping . . . to preserve social harmony or . . . as an instrument of social control.

 And finally the role of the parson’s wife and her expectations of poverty after the death of her husband with old Mrs Bates the obvious example from the novels.

We agreed with Dom Seymour that Jane Austen creates her clergymen with realism, with imagination and with charity.

After afternoon tea, an entertaining and instructive meeting finished with a quiz and quotes.

One Response to June 2014 Meeting: The Clergy in Jane Austen’s novels

  1. Great report 11Elsey. We also talked a little about terminology – the difference between Rector and Vicar, and the fact that if you’re not sure the best term to use would be Parson. It was a great discussion.

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