A moralising purpose

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

Jane Austen and the Clergy
by Irene Collins.
The Hambledon Press 2002 (1994).

There’s a neat correspondence between a study examining Jane Austen’s models for fictional clergy, notably the snobby Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and the fact that such a study was undertaken by a scholar by the name of Collins. But this work is more than just a discussion of Mr Collins, Mr Tilney, Mr Elton, Dr Grant, Mr Bennet and others: it underlines how important Jane’s own clerical background was in forming the bedrock of not only her fiction but also her life.

Originally published in 1994, Jane Austen and the Clergy appeared just in time for the reignition of Austen mania brought about by the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for television in 1995, making the late Irene Collins (she died in 2015) a bit of a celebrity for Austen fans. Ever since I began reading Austen for myself I’ve been delving into this volume bit by bit till I now feel able to make some assessment of its undoubted worth.

In fact this study feels like a labour of love for the author. At times it’s unclear whom it’s aimed at: is it other literary scholars, the general public, Austen fans, or church historians? But, approached with care and attention by the reasonably intelligent reader it is undoubtedly enlightening on all fronts and an excellent commentary for those embarking on a reread of Jane’s published oeuvres.

The book is structured into eleven chapters with an evident narrative, though it’s sometimes possible to lose the narrative thread given the copious amounts of illustrative minutiae Collins includes. She begins with a discussion of Jane’s ‘clerical connections’, a web of familial relationships which can’t be overemphasised. Her father was a clergyman, as were two of her six brothers; three of her nephews were rectors or vicars, as were several cousins on her mother’s side of the family, not forgetting an uncle, a maternal grandfather, great-uncle and miscellaneous other relatives.

Jane thus had an intimate knowledge of clerical types and of their position in society, their duties and their responsibilities. And while we don’t hear very much at all of their religious beliefs and practices in her several comedies of manners (and if present they are very much incidental to the stories) her portrayals of those fictional clergymen shows her to be comfortable with them as representative of their calling, even as she focuses on them as individuals with human strengths and failings.

To place both creator and her creatures in context Collins goes on to discuss the social position of the rector (who received the tithes of a parish, and took on additional responsibilities) or vicar (who need only do the minimum required, and could even appoint a curate to do the job instead, for substantially less pay). Many if not most clerical positions relied on patronage by the local landowner, and family connections verging on nepotism played a large part in appointments. Collins then details the education expected of a parson and the income and residence that parson could expect, all with reference to Austen’s fiction and letters as well as to contemporary documentation.

The position of the country parson within local society, both the working class and the more idle gentry, is next considered; conscientious clergy had much to do within their parish in terms of religious services, visiting the sick, preparing sermons; but as Collins says, “It has always been difficult, even with the best intentions in the world, to describe in detail the role of a clergyman outside the range of his normal duties,” and “Jane Austen’s novels are tantalisingly sketchy” in this area. However, one of his roles was tied up with his position in “the neighbourhood”, that is the local gentry and their society, and Collins details at length how he was expected to interact with patrons, landowners and the idle rich and participate in for example dinners, balls, card games and blood sports. Perhaps of more interest to Austen’s readers, ancient and modern, is the role expected of the parson’s wife; Collins has a fascinating chapter on this, ending up with Jane’s sister Cassandra’s eminent suitability for such a position, given that her “moral sense made her seem to Jane a model of proper behaviour.”

The remaining three chapters dealing with manners, morals, worship and belief place Jane’s own religious convictions in the context of Regency society. The piety that seems largely missing from the novels—rightly so, given that these weren’t sermons—actually underlay the moral stance that is very evident in their pages.

It has to be borne in mind that although Jane Austen’s novels were not as pointedly didactic as, say, George Eliot’s, they were nevertheless written with a moralising purpose at least partly in mind.

From the Preface.

Much of their appeal of course lies in the heroines’ innate goodness winning their due rewards, invariably marrying a suitable male who will provide for them, while many of the less morally upright characters tend to stew in their own juices. Here however we also learn of Jane’s personal piety, of her creed which sustained her through vicissitudes; and a short appendix includes three prayers composed by her which express, almost better than any commentary, not only her self-deprecating and yet charitable impulses, her hopes and, last but not least, her faith but also that she was clearly the child of her father.

This gallop through Collins’ detailed examination necessarily omits much, and can only give a quick sketch of its range. Diligent students will pore through the notes and bibliography and make full use of the comprehensive index; others may prefer to enjoy the illustrations and peruse the family trees and plates of family members and of places associated with the Austens. Anyone even faintly interested with Jane’s fiction should be able to find something of interest here.

14 thoughts on “A moralising purpose

  1. How interesting! I’ve never thought of Austen as particularly pious before, but of course there are clergy all over the place. This must be a particularly useful book when needing to place them socially, though, which is probably what most modern readers would need! 😀

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    1. It is definitely useful for placing the clergy in their social context in semi-rural communities, particularly in Austen’s work but even for later writers such as the Brontës, Gaskell and Eliot: in fact Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, set in Austen’s heyday, begins with a comic episode involving three curates which I now see as very true to life. But it’s also riveting for its incidental commentary on other aspects of rural society in southern England during the late Georgian period, an topic Collins seems to have made her own. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this for its insights!

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  2. This sounds an interesting read–I’d never come across this before. And nor had I consciously realized (now thinking back I do) that her portrayal of the clergy didn’t go into religion at all.

    And what fun that the author was Collins as well.

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    1. There are little side commentaries on religion if one looks for them—what’s put into the mouth of Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park for example—but it’s very easy for the modern reader (and that includes me!) to skate over them on a first reading to get onto the next incident!

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  3. Fascinating! I grew up Catholic and get very confused at all the intricacies of rectors, vicars, curates, etc etc. This would probably be a huge help for reading English literature in general.

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    1. Collins is not completely specific about the difference between a vicar and a rector, but I think rectors were more common in rural areas than vicars. Wikipedia gives this definition: “Roughly speaking, the distinction was that a rector directly received both the greater and lesser tithes of his parish while a vicar received only the lesser tithes (the greater tithes going to the lay holder, or impropriator, of the living.” I don’t know if this makes matters any clearer!

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  4. This sounds like a great companion to Austen’s works, Chris. I wouldn’t say I’m an enthusiast, but I do love the windows Austen opened onto Regency life. Irene Collins’ book seems like it opens further windows.

    This line, “Many if not most clerical positions relied on patronage by the local landowner, and family connections verging on nepotism played a large part in appointments,” instantly made me think of the dastardly Wickham, who would undoubtedly have been the sort of vicar who farmed the work out to a curate.

    The discussion of the roles of the clergy in the community made two other fictional parsons from books recently read spring to mind: Francis Davey in Jamaica Inn and Mat Dekker in A Glastonbury Romance, who represent the clergy in two successive centuries that wouldn’t be out of place in an Austen novel, and suggest that the church is slow to modernise.

    I’ve made a note of this book, thank you, Chris.

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    1. As far as I can work out Regency and Victorian vicars and rectors took massive advantage of curates, who were paid peanuts and worked to the bone while the incumbents swanned off on holiday or got involved in non-clerical activities. I’ve yet to read either the du Maurier or the Cowper Powys, but there’s a Trollope or two on my shelves which I’ve yet to get to get immersed in. But Irene Collins’ study is thorough, and I’d be interested in what you thought of it if you ever get to read it.

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