John Henry Newman – before he left the Church of England to embrace Roman Catholicism – criticised Jane Austen for her failure to understand what being a priest meant. He was not alone. Both in her own time and since, Christians from both high and low church persuasions have found fault with Jane Austen for depicting the clergy in a less than flattering light and thereby bringing the church into disrepute.
A sense of humour failure or missing something? Jane Austen was a devout Anglican all her life. She was private about her faith, and not much given to talking about it or making her characters be any more expressive. But serious Christianity is there in her novels all the time, it’s the air the characters breathe, something understood. Wanting Jane Austen to be more explicit is wanting her to be a very different kind of author.
Her intentions and choices were essentially literary; she was not trying to make a point. The clergymen in her novels are never villains, nor are they based on anyone she knew. She merely invites us to laugh along with Elizabeth Bennet at ‘follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies’ in people of all sorts, clergymen included.
In half of Jane Austen’s six finished novels the hero is a clergyman (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park); in three the heroine is a daughter of a clergyman (Northanger Abbey and the two unfinished novels Sanditon and The Watsons).
Jane Austen certainly knew a vast number of clergymen. Her father was the rector of Stevenage in Hampshire; her brother James was a clergyman; in her letters there are references to over ninety of them. Clergymen were everywhere in society, and at a time of war they were particularly in demand.
But how the profession was viewed, who entered it, and why they did so, was very different to today. Some sixty per cent of graduates from Oxford and Cambridge went into the church, apparently accepting that being a clergyman was a job rather than a vocation. The scholarly range was wide; neither a degree in theology nor any training was required.
Young men of genteel birth but no income had only three available choices of profession: the military, the law, or the church. Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility ‘prefers the church’ but this doesn’t appear to be for especially religious reasons. When his snooty mother thinks this isn’t grand enough for him, idleness seems to be the only alternative.
The livings of almost half the parishes in England and Wales lay in the gift of landowners; this was therefore an ideal way of providing for younger sons – as Sir Thomas Bertram does for Edmund in Mansfield Park. Vicars paid the salaries of their often poverty-stricken curates, sometimes leaving a curate in charge while holding another living elsewhere. As we see with Charles Hayter in Persuasion, without a parish, marriage and a decent standard of living were impossible, and without a patron or connection with a bishop, it was difficult to obtain one. But while pluralism and patronage, together with the way the Church of England was structured, may have opened the way for abuse and worldliness among the clergy, Jane Austen doesn’t criticise the system; she was more interested in illustrating how human beings behave within it.
Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice is a caricature of the greedy clergyman greasing up to his patron, a stock figure of comedy recognisable to Jane Austen’s contemporaries. The clergy in her day were not necessarily expected to be above the ordinary material concerns and weaknesses of other human beings – and it’s in this way that she writes of them. They were food for wit and amusement alongside everyone else in society; as Jane Austen tells us in Northanger Abbey, the novelist must convey ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature’ and ‘the happiest delineation of its varieties.’
That other most repellent clergyman, Mr Elton, is less of a figure of fun than Mr Collins. Becoming a clergyman was a way of social climbing at that time, and Mr Elton’s background is trade. In Highbury he can enter the small circle of gentry and seek to better himself by marriage within it. This would have been seen as natural enough by Jane Austen, if not by Emma. According to Mr Knightley (with whom one cannot possibly disagree) he is ‘a very respectable vicar of Highbury’ and known to perform his clerical duties efficiently and to visit the poor. His only real crime is his cruel behaviour to Harriet.
The formal duties of a parish priest at that time were two services on Sundays, a communion once a month, and baptisms, weddings and funerals. Although there was the extra work of glebe land and the often troublesome business of tithe collecting, in most of the novels there is a sense that the clergy have plenty of time to indulge in pleasurable pursuits the same as other gentlemen. Henry Tilney, whilst clearly a young man of high principle and religious conviction, is able to abandon his parish for weeks on end to attend balls in Bath. Mr Elton takes himself off to secure the appalling Augusta without anyone thinking he is neglecting his calling.
It is not until Mansfield Park, the most overtly religious of her novels, that Jane Austen examines the role of the clergy in any depth. For all Sir Thomas Bertram’s deficiencies as a father, he can think rightly on other matters: ‘a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident … 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, their well-wisher and their friend, he does very little either for their good or his own.’
The pleasure-seeking, wrong-thinking Mary Crawford considers that the clergy are a self-indulgent waste of space – not altogether surprising given that she is daily witnessing her brother-in-law Dr Grant’s obsession with the food on his plate. It is through the arguments between her and Edmund Bertram that a spiritual dimension enters into the writing and will eventually become essential to the plot. Edmund insists ‘I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally – which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence.’
Edmund is presented as an almost perfect clergyman in spite of his occasional lapses of judgment, though we have to hope he is less obtuse with his parishioners than he was with Fanny at the height of his love for Mary. Jane Austen knew that good men are not always as perceptive as they ought to be. Edward Ferrars, too, will no doubt develop more gumption with the strong-minded Elinor beside him in the parish. The scintillating Henry Tilney, by standing up to his avaricious bully of a father, proves that he is not just extremely attractive and entertaining, but that Christian principles thoroughly govern his conduct.
Yet while we acknowledge the undoubted virtue and excellence of these three clergymen heroes, it has to be admitted that it’s Mr Collins and Mr Elton in whom we take the most enduring delight. It’s 200 years today since Jane Austen died: a good moment to feel endlessly thankful for such delicious and unforgettable characters.