“My dear Miss Elizabeth, I have the highest opinion in the world of your excellent judgment in all matters within the scope of your understanding, but permit me to say that there must be a wide difference between the established forms of ceremony amongst the laity, and those which regulate the clergy; for give me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom — provided that a proper humility of behaviour is at the same time maintained. You must therefore allow me to follow the dictates of my conscience on this occasion, which leads me to perform what I look on as a point of duty. Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.”
Ah, Mr. Collins: Austen’s biggest buffoon. Her most famous clergyman does not reflect well on his profession. Based on Pride and Prejudice alone, it would be easy to conclude Austen thought rather poorly of churchmen. After all, the only character who even considers entering the church is Mr. Wickham. Yet in her other novels she provides several examples of excellence in the calling. Nearly half her heroes are clergymen, and Henry Tilney, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertram are all precisely what one would wish for in a spiritual guide: sincere, compassionate, and capable. In them Austen shows us what a good parish rector ought to be. In contrast, Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton are revealed as thoroughly undeserving of their preferment, a situation that was all too common in her time.
A man of genteel birth but not enough income to support himself had three options in the Regency world: he could join the military, study law, or take orders. It also happened to be a time in which the duties of the parish rector were being hotly debated. At issue was the custom of pluralism, or the holding of more than one living at a time. A living was the assignment (usually gifted) of a parish to a rector, which included a house and annual salary. There was a shortage of livings, which were typically held for life or until retirement, and the salaries attached to them were often not enough to live upon. About 1/5th of gentlemen in orders would spend their lives as poorly paid curates, while those that held livings often had more than one and still struggled to support their families.* As the daughter of a clergyman and the sister to two more, it is no wonder that Austen voiced her opinion on the subject in her novels.
Jane Austen’s father held two livings, as did her eldest brother upon inheriting them. So do Mr. Morland in Northanger Abbey and Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park. While offering no criticism of pluralism, she also clearly sympathizes with the plight of the curate, as illustrated in the struggles of Charles Hayter in Persuasion and, potentially, Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility. However, it is only in Mansfield Park that she explicitly develops the subject. Here Edmund acts as defender of the clergy, while Mary Crawford makes her case against it.
At length, after a short pause, Miss Crawford began with, “So you are to be a clergyman, Mr. Bertram. This is rather a surprise to me.”
“Why should it surprise you? You must suppose me designed for some profession, and might perceive that I am neither a lawyer, nor a soldier, nor a sailor.”
“Very true; but, in short, it had not occurred to me. And you know there is generally an uncle or a grandfather to leave a fortune to the second son.”
“A very praiseworthy practice,” said Edmund, “but not quite universal. I am one of the exceptions, and being one, must do something for myself.”
“But why are you to be a clergyman? I thought that was always the lot of the youngest, where there were many to chuse 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.”
“The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But 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. No one here can call the office nothing. If the man who holds it is so, it is by the neglect of his duty, by foregoing its just importance, and stepping out of his place to appear what he ought not to appear.”
“You assign greater consequence to the 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 all that you speak of? govern the conduct and fashion the manners of a large congregation for the rest of the week? One scarcely sees a clergyman out of his pulpit.”
Interestingly, the worldly Mary is only restating the very criticisms that the bishops of the English church had been leveling at their underlings for years. If a rector held a plurality of livings and did not live in a parish, he might only see its members on Sundays, and then only on those when the curate wasn’t performing the honors. How can a clergyman be a shepherd to his flock if he never sees it? Concerns for clerical non-residence led to the Residency Act of 1803, which required clergymen to obtain a license in order to hold the living of a parish in which they did not live. The act was amended in 1809 and 1810 to assist bishops in keeping track of resident and non-resident clergy and further distinguishing between those who performed Sunday services and those who did not. Acceptable explanations for holding a plurality of livings included the parsonage being unlivable, the salary of a parish being inadequate to live upon, or the ill-health of the clergyman.* Sense and Sensibility provides examples of the first two cases: the parsonage at Delaford is uninhabitable until Colonel Brandon institutes repairs upon it, and the salary, at only 200 pounds a year, is not enough to support a family. Thus the Colonel estimates how the living might be improved, and promises further patronage (like using his influence to procure Edward an additional living). It is only Mrs. Ferrars’ gift of 10,000 pounds that provides Edward the means to marry Elinor Dashwood.
In Persuasion we have an example in Dr. Shirley, Rector of Uppercross, of how ill-health might permit non-residency. Hopes for the marriage of Charles Hayter and Henrietta Musgrove depend upon the former’s attainment of a living, and the young couple rest their best hopes on Dr. Shirley being so infirm that he will hire Charles as his curate and pay him unusually well. Henrietta even hopes he will be accommodating enough to retire to Lyme, leaving the parsonage available for their occupation. In the end, a better solution arises. Hayter is given the holding of a living until the young man for whom it is intended reaches an age to take orders. By that time, Dr. Shirley will presumably be conveniently dead and the living at Uppercross available.
Two of Austen’s heroes, Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey, enter the clergy because their families hold livings for which they are destined. Despite this lack of a calling, both are well-suited to the profession and can be expected to prove model clergymen. Edward Ferrars’ decision to enter the church without any expectation of patronage, on the other hand, is extremely risky, perhaps even foolish. Edward is the only character in Austen who appears truly called to serve, and it is only Colonel Brandon’s generosity that saves him from being one of many hungry curates in need of a living. Other clergymen in Austen get lucky, too. We are not told through what means Emma’s Mr. Elton ascends to the living at Highbury (his lack of connection to the area suggests he was appointed by a bishop), but along with his additional “independent property” he is situated well enough to both marry and provide him with an inflated sense of his own importance. Certainly his callous behavior towards Harriet Smith proves he is ill-suited for the clerical life: his ego so in command that he wounds a parishioner to assuage it. Mr. Collins is even worse and even luckier, for at least Mr. Elton shows a degree of competence that can account for his preferment. Mr. Collins, on the other hand, receives ordination with no prospects on his horizon, yet just so happens to come almost immediately to Lady Catherine’s attention and rise to all the glories belonging to the Rector of Hunsford, all without doing anything to merit such fortune. That patrons like Lady Catherine had the disposal of livings in their power and would choose to bestow them on sycophants like Mr. Collins was a serious problem. It is no coincidence that the same book gives us an example in Mr. Darcy of the conscientious patron: one who will not leave the moral guidance and care of his tenants to wastrel like Wickham. That Wickham even attempts to secure a living – merely a means to an annual income, with no concern whatsoever for the welfare of the parishioners – illustrates the dangers of the system. I think it safe to assert that Austen thought the appointment of undeserving clergymen to parishes a bigger concern than pluralism.
Mr. Collins makes an impromptu speech at the Netherfield Ball, elucidating for both the readers and all the guests of the house the duties and obligations of a rector, as he understands them:
“The rector of a parish has much to do. — In the first place, he must make such an agreement for tithes as may be beneficial to himself and not offensive to his patron. He must write his own sermons; and the time that remains will not be too much for his parish duties, and the care and improvement of his dwelling, which he cannot be excused from making as comfortable as possible.”
Clearly, he does not belong to that category of clergymen receiving that iota of Mary Crawford’s approval for having the sense to not write their own sermons, instead utilizing those widely published by Hugh Blair. The parishioners of Hunsford have my heartfelt sympathy.
*For more on this subject please read Celia Easton’s essay “‘The Probability of Some Negligence’: Avoiding the Horror of the Absent Clergyman,” published in 2010 in Persuasions: No. 32. It largely inspired this blog post.