November 2011 Meeting: No. 10, or the Rectory (Parsonages and Jane Austen)

November 20, 2011
Engraving of Steventon rectory, home of the Au...

Engraving of Steventon rectory, Austen’s home for much of her life (Public Domain: Courtesy Wikipedia)

Prepared by Jessie, with a little help from Sue.

At our meeting on Saturday, 19th November a nice turn-up of members enjoyed Margaret’s entertaining and informative talk* on English parsonages, rectories and vicarages, with particular reference to those of Jane Austen’s times and the fictional ones of her novels. Margaret pointed out that Jane, being the daughter (and granddaughter and great-granddaughter) as well as sister, niece[?] and cousin of Anglican clergymen, not surprisingly featured clergy and their residences in most of her novels. In fact, in only two – Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion – the heroine does not marry a clergyman, though Elizabeth did have to endure Mr Collins’ excruciatingly embarrassing, though hugely entertaining for the reader, proposal.

In the 18/19th centuries, 4/5ths of England’s population lived in country towns, villages and hamlets and in each the parsonage was one of the three most important buildings, the others being the church itself and the local manor. Often they were situated next to each other and were usually, though not always, imposing buildings. There is no typical architectural style for parsonages.

Of most interest to us though was how Jane, in her inimitable fashion, used descriptions of and references to parsonages to expand our knowledge of her characters, often to their detriment. For example, General Tilney, trying to impress his supposed heiress future consort for Henry describes the parsonage at Woodston with mock humility, calling it “a mere parsonage” while Austen the author tells us it is “a new–built substantial stone house”. This is, in fact, Margaret told us, the only time building materials are mentioned, drawing our attention to the fact that this discrepancy is a point to note!

Austen’s descriptions of parsonages in her books also reflect the general craze  in her time for making improvements to homes, but here too she uses this to reflect on her characters. Generous Colonel Brandon, for example

talked to her [Elinor] a great deal of the parsonage at Delaford, described its deficiencies, and told her what he meant to do himself towards removing them.

Meanwhile, sensible Edmund Bertram is not greatly interested in unnecessary improvements of Thornton Lacey:

I must be satisfied with rather less ornament and beauty. I think the house and premises may be made comfortable, and given the air of a gentleman’s residence, without any very heavy expense, and that must suffice me; and, I hope, may suffice all who care about me.

But Henry Crawford sees it differently:

I never saw a house of the kind which had in itself so much the air of a gentleman’s residence, so much the look of a something above a mere parsonage–house …

Mr Elton’s vicarage, on the other hand, is “an old and not very good house” that he had merely “smartened up”. The only person to admire it is Harriet.

After showing us black and white photos of some of these old parsonages, many with their impressive sweeps so necessary to accommodate the gentleman clergyman’s (and his visitors’) carriages, Margaret brought us into the 21st century with a selection of real estate agents’ brochures. It seems that the elegant clergy residences of the past have become highly desirable (with appropriate price tags) laity residences of today. She quoted one recent real estate agent as saying “If it ain’t the manor, the rectory is the next best thing”. Their proximity to (or to the access motorways to) London and other large centres ensure they command prices of well over £1,000,000 – some quite a long way over a million, depending upon their state of repair as well as location.

We were all grateful to Margaret for the time and effort she had put in to bring us this information and hope those who were not able to be present will at least get a glimpse of our pleasure in it from this report.


  • Our focus for 2012 will be Pride and prejudice, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary since publication in January 2013. The  first three meetings of the year, commencing in January (see Sidebar for dates), will be devoted to discussing this book, volume by volume.
  • Our annual Jane’s birthday/Xmas lunch will, this year, also be our 10th birthday celebration. It will be a progressive lunch at the homes of two members. Details will be emailed to members.
  • We will discuss asking for a guest speaker, from the list send by JASA, at our January meeting.
  • At afternoon tea, member Jenny produced a special cake, suitably inscribed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility, which Jenny believes was in November. We all felt well treated!
  • Quotes were shared as usual but, with our quizmaster absent, our respective grey matters were given a little rest.

* Repeat of a talk, titled “No. 10 or the Rectory”, that Margaret gave at this year’s JASA Country Weekend. The weekend’s theme was Jane Austen and Architecture.