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.