Sense and Sensibility and the Church, Part 4: The Clergyman’s Life

Exactly 206 years ago, on October 30, 1811, Jane Austen’s first novel was published! It was Sense and Sensibility, which we continue looking at in today’s post.

“. . . reading prayers in a white surplice, and publishing the banns of marriage . . .” (Edward Ferrar’s brother Robert’s description of a clergyman’s duties in Sense and Sensibility, chapter 41).

Edward's Proposal The_novels_and_letters_of_Jane_Austen_(1906)R.Brimley Johnson_(14781686701)
Edward Proposes to Elinor

In Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars starts out secretly engaged to Lucy, who is penniless (See Part 1).  When his engagement becomes public, he is disinherited.  But Lucy, who looked forward to availing herself of Colonel Brandon’s servants and poultry as Edward’s wife (see Part 2), marries Edward’s brother instead, since he now has Edward’s inheritance. (Yes, it’s a little complicated, and she’s very devious!) Edward immediately proposes to Elinor, who he has loved for a long time. With money from his mother added to the 200-250 pound income from his living (see Part 3), they end up with about 900 pounds a year. This is a respectable gentleman’s income, enough to keep several servants and probably their own carriage.

Improving the Parsonage

On this income, Edward and Elinor marry and move into the parsonage, which Colonel Brandon has kindly fitted up for them. A parsonage is the house provided for a clergyman, generally close to the church. Usually the parson himself paid for improvements to the parsonage, but patrons would sometimes do that, in order to help out a relative or friend, or to attract a better class of parson to their neighbourhood. When Jane Austen’s parents moved into the parsonage at Steventon, their relative Thomas Knight, who had provided the living, probably paid to make it livable. (In Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine de Bourgh micromanages the improvements on the Collins’ parsonage just from her own love of control!)

One rendition of the parsonage at Steventon, where Jane Austen grew up. (It is no longer standing.)

Elinor chooses new wallpaper and plans a “sweep”–a curved carriage drive leading up to the house, and “shrubberies”–areas planted with shrubs or small trees, where ladies could walk outdoors.  This would make the parsonage look more like a gentleman’s residence. However, many parsonages were very simple and small.  In 1818 more than 2,000 parishes in England had parsonages that were not considered in good enough shape to live in.

The Clergyman-Farmer

After their marriage in the final chapter (chapter 50), Edward and Elinor “had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows.” Why would a clergyman have cows? Country parsons and their wives were often farmers like their parishioners. “Glebe,” or “meadow,” as Austen calls it, was often a part of a living; this was land that the clergyman could farm or rent out. Jane Austen’s father had only a few acres of glebe, but leased another 200 acres and employed a steward to supervise the work; this added substantially to the Austens’ income.

Since clergymen depended on tithes, which were usually a tenth of their parishioners’ farm produce, and glebe, which was farmland, they were closely involved in local pursuits along with their parishioners.  A hard winter or falling prices would affect them all.  This enabled the clergy to relate more closely to the people they ministered to.

The Clergyman’s Duties

Edward, as a new clergyman, enjoys “the ready discharge of his duties in every particular.” What were his duties? His foppish brother can think of nothing more ridiculous than “Edward’s being a clergyman, and living in a small parsonage-house, . . . reading prayers in a white surplice, and publishing the banns of marriage between John Smith and Mary Brown” (chapter 41). He was imagining Edward in a parson’s long loose white gown, “reading prayers.”

The Church of England service was a liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, with sections, including prayers, that the parson would read aloud, and sections the congregation would read or repeat. The clergyman might also write sermons, or read them from books of sermons. His other duties included baptisms, funerals, and weddings. The “banns of marriage” were read aloud for several Sundays before a wedding. The banns were an announcement of the upcoming wedding and an opportunity for people to speak up if they knew of any reason why a couple should not be married. The banns had to be read in the parishes of both the bride and the groom.

Colonel Brandon and Marianne’s Wedding, from the 1995 movie Sense and Sensibility

So we leave Edward reading prayers and announcing weddings, which must have included Colonel Brandon and Marianne’s wedding at the end of the book!

For some clergymen, their lives were very much like those of the farmers and landowners living around them.  What do you think of the idea of a minister working at a “regular job,” at least part-time, so that he faces some of the same challenges people in his church do? Would it take away too much time from his “church work,” or would it give him more rapport with the people of the congregation and opportunities to mix with the whole community?

Sources for Sense and Sensibility and the Church, Parts 1-4:

Jane Austen and the Clergy by Irene Collins (Hambledon and London, 2002)

Oxford English Dictionary (online 2017)

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Macmillan, London and New York, 1902; kindle version)

“Money” by Edward Copeland, from The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (2011).

“Charles Simeon” at

For more on the Christian themes of Sense and Sensibility, I recommend Peter Leithart’s Miniatures and Morals:The Christian Novels of Jane Austen. For an academic approach, you might read “The Passion of Marianne Dashwood: Christian Rhetoric in Sense and Sensibility from Persuasions, No. 25.

2 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility and the Church, Part 4: The Clergyman’s Life

  1. Thankyou very much for an interesting and enjoyable set of essays. If I might just make two minor suggestions – firstly the link from part 3 to part 4 isn’t working (at least, not for me), and secondly I rarely hear the generic term parsonage used here – much more frequently I hear vicarage, or in the case of the rector’s house, the word rectory.
    A comment on your final question is that I think most people in those times were farmers on one scale or another, as people generally had to feed themselves, either from their own land or from scratching a living from the common land of the parish. Jane Austen doesn’t explain why the Delaford living is so modest – it could be that the land is very poor for farming thereabouts, but perhaps more likely is that it’s a small parish. In which case perhaps the small number of parishioners creates a smaller burden of work for the rector, giving him time for farming without neglecting his higher duties?
    By the end of Mansfield Park, Edmund succeeds to the Mansfield living of £1,000, implying a very much bigger parish than Delaford, with its living of £200. He might therefore find it a lot more difficult to combine farming with ministering to his human flock, and would need to employ a steward. As you say though, he would still in this way be made keenly aware of the farming issues that were so crucially important to the wellbeing of his parishioners.


    1. Thanks for your insightful comments. I have fixed the link now; I appreciate your pointing that out. I use the word parsonage as it is what Jane Austen uses, most of the time. She also uses the words vicarage and rectory where appropriate, but much less frequently. It is helpful to point out that vicarage and rectory were and are the more specific terms. My comments about parsonages apply to both.
      And, yes, great observation; there was a wide variety in the size of parishes, the income received, and the parson’s responsibilities!


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