Sense and Sensibility and the Church, Part 2: Getting a Church Living

“ . . .every thing depended. . . on his getting that preferment, of which, at present, there seemed not the smallest chance” (about Edward Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility, chapter 38).


In chapter 38 of Sense and Sensibility, Edward is headed to Oxford to seek ordination, and is half-heartedly hoping for a “living,” a job in the church. (Half-heartedly because it will enable him to marry Lucy, whom he is bound to by honor, although he is now in love with Elinor!) (See Part 1.)

These livings were generally in the “gift” of a “patron,” often the main landowner of the parish (though it might also be a university or school, the Crown, a bishop or a cathedral). The patron chose who received the living. A clergyman held a living until he died. At that point the patron would give it to someone else, usually to a relative or some other connection.

Since Edward has no such connections, Lucy asks everyone she knows for help. Their friend Mrs. Jennings says, “Wait for his having a living!—ay, we all know how that will end:—they will wait a twelvemonth, and finding no good comes of it, will set down upon a curacy of fifty pounds a-year, . . . Lord help ’em! how poor they will be!” (chapter 38).


Those without a living would take a “curacy.” The curate of a parish did all the duties of the regular clergyman, who gave him a small fraction of the clergyman’s income. As Mrs. Jennings says, he might receive only fifty pounds a year, and many received even less than that. A curate might temporarily work for a clergyman who was ill or traveling, or more often for one who had another parish elsewhere that he lived in. He might wait for years before receiving a permanent living, or might never receive one.

Colonel Brandon Offers a Living
Colonel Brandon Offers a Living

However, Edward is suddenly given a living, from a man he barely knew! Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Marianne’s friend, is impressed by Edward’s integrity in keeping to his engagement despite his family’s rejection. In chapter 39 Brandon offers Edward the living of Delaford, where his estate is located. He says it is “now just vacant,” meaning the incumbent clergyman just died. Brandon asks Elinor to inform Edward of his new position, which will enable Edward to marry Lucy; awkward!

A Rectory

Colonel Brandon, though, doesn’t think it will give them enough income to marry. “It is a rectory, but a small one; the late incumbent, I believe, did not make more than 200 L per annum [pounds per year], and though it is certainly capable of improvement, I fear, not to such an amount as to afford him a very comfortable income. . . .” He goes on to apologize that his “patronage ends with this”; he has no more livings to give away.

A “rectory” was best for the clergyman, as it meant that he, the rector, would receive all of the tithes. A “vicar,” like Mr. Elton in Emma, only received part of the tithes. Being “capable of improvement” meant that the rector could go around and re-negotiate tithes with the parishioners, some of whom were probably not paying as much as they should have. The income would still be marginal, however. In 1802, over a third of the benefices (livings) in England were worth 150 pounds a year or less; 150 pounds was considered to provide only basic necessities for a single clergyman.

Chawton church
The Delaford church may have been similar to St. Nicholas’ at Chawton, near Austen’s home. You can just see the red roof and chimney of Chawton House, the manor, behind the church; they are very close.

Edward’s fiancée Lucy is thrilled by this unexpected gift. “As for Colonel Brandon, she was not only ready to worship him as a saint, but was moreover truly anxious that he should be treated as one in all worldly concerns; anxious that his tithes should be raised to the utmost; and scarcely resolved to avail herself, at Delaford, as far as she possibly could, of his servants, his carriage, his cows, and his poultry” (chapter 41). As always, her concerns are selfish. The Colonel’s tithes, collected from all those living in the parish, will be Edward and Lucy’s income, so of course she wants them increased. Since the church and the parsonage which would be their home are near the Colonel’s house, Lucy plans to take advantage of the situation as much as possible!

Elinor’s selfish half-brother John was particularly shocked that Brandon gave Edward a living. In Part 3 we’ll see why.

The system of patronage often meant that the local landowner, possibly the best-educated person in the parish, and who contributed the most in tithes, could choose the clergyman serving his church.  If he took this responsibility seriously, it might mean he could choose someone well-suited for his parish.  Unfortunately, in many cases he did not. How do you think such a system might be abused?

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