“Mr. Darcy they had seen only at church.”–Pride and Prejudice
We’ve been enjoying the wonderful illustrations in Hugh Thomson’s “Peacock” Pride and Prejudice. Many of them show everyday life in Jane Austen’s England. Last week we saw what it might mean for a young lady to be accomplished in “covering screens.” Today we’ll look at another picture that may surprise you: the inside of a Georgian-era church.
Mr. Darcy at Church
When Elizabeth Bennet and Maria Lucas are visiting Charlotte Lucas Collins at Hunsford, Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam come to see their aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The gentlemen call on the ladies at the parsonage once, and Colonel Fitzwilliam visits again during the following week, but they next see Mr. Darcy at church. Thomson pictures the scene:
The ladies are sitting in the Collins’s family box pew, watching Darcy pass by. At churches in Austen’s England, families with money rented, or bought, box pews on the main floor of the church. Poorer people sat on benches in the back of the church, sat in the balconies (called galleries), or stood wherever they could.
The box pews were benches surrounded by walls. These walls kept out drafts in the cold churches and gave the family some privacy. Fees for these pews helped to pay for church expenses. The pews could even be locked to keep others out.
Similar Pews in Williamsburg, VA
How accurate is Thomson’s illustration? It reminded me of the box pews I saw at the Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg, when I attended the JASNA AGM last fall. Their website says such “pews with doors were typical of unheated eighteenth-century English churches.”
The Squire’s Box Pew
Some box pews had much higher walls than these. The Digweed box pew at Jane Austen’s church in the small village of Steventon is an example. It was for the squire’s family to sit in, and was originally at the front of the church.
How could the congregation see and hear the preacher, if some of them were surrounded by high walls? The clergyman probably preached from a high pulpit, with two or three levels, so that those in the box pews and those in the galleries could see him, and he could see them.
Many aspects of life in Austen’s England were different than they are today, including seating arrangements in church. If you were well-off, you had your own private pew where you and your family might sit across from each other. If not, you would be much less comfortable.
During Jane Austen’s lifetime, the first “free church” was built in Bath. Christ Church was paid for by donations. Seating on the main floor was free for poor families, while wealthier families rented pews in the galleries (balconies) to help pay church expenses.
If you attend church, do you have your favorite pew where your family always sits? What do you think it would be like to have to pay for your seating in church, or be relegated to the back if you couldn’t afford to pay?
In the Bible, James chapter 2 begins: “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James goes on to call favoritism “sin,” and reminds us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
In churches you are familiar with today, do you see examples of discrimination against those with who have fewer financial resources than others do? How can we better love one another in our churches?