Jane Austen’s Clergymen

“It will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.”–Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park

Did you know there are clergymen in all of Jane Austen’s novels? That’s not surprising since she was the daughter of a minister, the sister of two ministers, and had other relatives and friends in the clergy.

Most people, though, think first of Mr. Collins and assume she thought poorly of all the clergy. But a good novelist doesn’t give us stereotypes. She shows individuals, with a whole range of characteristics. And that’s what Austen does with the clergy.

A few days ago Dr. John Case presented to JASNA’s West Coast Florida Region on “Clergymen in Jane Austen: The Good, the Dim, the Gluttonous, the Vain, the Witty, and the Down-to-Earth.” As he pointed out, Austen knew the clergy well, with all their foibles, faults, and frailties. Dr. Case chose a word to summarize each of Austen’s clergymen.

First, think about Austen’s clergymen and see which one you think would best fit each description:

  • Good
  • Dim
  • Gluttonous
  • Vain
  • Witty
  • Down-to-Earth
  • Shy
  • Downtrodden (I added this category myself.)

If you need help, here are the clergymen: Henry Tilney, Mr. Morland, Edward Ferrars, Mr. Collins, Edmund Bertram, Dr. Grant, Mr. Elton, and Charles Hayter.

Got it?

I’ll tell you which one Dr. Case put in each category, followed by my own thoughts about each. (By the way, at that time the Church of England clergy were all men, though there are many women included today.)

Good

This is Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park. He was too good for Mary Crawford, at least according to Austen’s standards! I love that Edmund is characterized by “active kindness.” He doesn’t just do kind things carelessly, like his brother Tom, but he is actively kind, especially to Fanny. Edmund has high moral values. We see this when Mary calls her brother’s adultery “folly,” while Edmund sees it as a “dreadful crime.” I think Edmund is the best of Austen’s clergymen. He makes it clear that he is choosing to be a clergyman, and that he is committed to living among his people, giving them a good example, and caring for their needs. Many clergymen at this time did not live in their parishes–an issue that Edmund, Henry Crawford, and Sir Thomas discuss. However, once Edmund takes the parish of Mansfield Park, we don’t know if he goes back and forth between that parish and Thornton Lacey, or whether he hires a curate for Thornton Lacey.

Soon-to-be clergyman Edmund Bertram of Mansfield Park practices “active kindness” with Fanny Price.
Dim

Here we have Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice. I think I would have chosen a different word for him, though, maybe “obsequious.” Fawning over Lady Catherine, fawning over everyone, Mr. Collins is actually proud at heart, proud of his role of rector. He thinks himself a great catch for any women, especially for his cousin Elizabeth. But he was certainly “dim” in his failure to hear that her “no” meant “no,” and even in failing to see that she was not interested in him. “Blinded by pride” might be another description of Mr. Collins. As a clergyman, he was apparently committed to his duties of preaching, marrying, burying, and christening. But we only hear of his attentions to Lady Catherine; he does not seem to have done much for the people of his parish.

Gluttonous

This is obviously Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park, an “indolent, selfish bon vivant” (lover of pleasure). His love of food leads him to be bad-tempered with his “excellent wife,” as Mary Crawford says, and eventually leads to his death of apoplexy after three large institutionary dinners in a week! Poetic justice. Dr. Grant represents the self-focused and self-serving clergy of Austen’s England, who were in it for the money—especially those who advanced to high positions, as Dr. Grant did, where they did little work for high pay. However, Fanny and Mary admit that Dr. Grant does preach good sermons, though Mary says his curate does much of his work.

Vain

Mr. Elton of Emma thinks quite highly of himself. Emma recognizes that Mr. Elton is not quite of her class, and he proves it by marrying a vulgar woman. Mr. Elton is vain enough to think himself too good for Harriet (though Mr. Knightley later says she would have been a good wife for him), and good enough for Emma, though Emma disagrees. As a clergyman, he seems to do his work faithfully enough. He preaches sermons that impress the ladies, who write down the Bible texts he preaches from each week. He visits the poor. Mr. Elton also takes care of parish business like seeing to the needs of John Abdy, the former parish clerk, and attending parish meetings.

Witty

Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey is such a delight. He gently teases Catherine, while helping her to form right opinions and learn to recognize folly. He is quite intelligent, but what he finds in Catherine is goodness and innocence: the ability to see good in others, to speak truth, to do what is right, to assume the best. Henry apparently leaves a curate to perform his duties for extended times, but he does attend parish meetings. Apparently once he is married he will live in his parish and be a more involved clergyman. Catherine, raised as a clergyman’s daughter, will no doubt turn out to be a good helpmeet for him, caring for the poor and loving the people of the parish. Henry shows his moral character when he insists on staying faithful to his implied commitment to Catherine, even when his father forbids their marriage.

Henry Tilney is a delightful, witty clergyman in Northanger Abbey.
Down-to-earth

Dr. Case identifies this clergyman as Mr. Morland, Catherine’s father. The Morlands seem to be people of honesty, common sense, and sound moral values. Austen describes them as “plain, matter-of-fact people who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun . . .”. I expect Mr. Morland is a good clergyman, kindly advising the people of his parish and doing his job faithfully. Certainly he and his wife have raised Catherine well.

Shy

Edward Ferrars of Sense and Sensibility does not want to be a fashionable soldier, or to put himself forward in any way. He says he has “always preferred the church,” but was not strong enough to stand up to his family and go that direction. However, he is strong enough to stand up for his engagement to Lucy, showing his moral character. And his moral values lead him to stay engaged to her when he believes she loves him, even though his heart is elsewhere. Once he becomes a clergyman, he’s characterized by “the ready discharge of his duties in every particular.” In other words, he does all that a clergyman should do, and he does it cheerfully and happily. I think I might characterize Edward as “quietly faithful,” rather than shy.

Downtrodden

I’ve added this category for the curates of Persuasion, especially Charles Hayter. Mary Musgrove describes him as “nothing but a country curate.” Sir Walter Elliot mentions a Lord St. Ives, whose father was “a country curate, without bread to eat.” And Captain Wentworth’s brother was a curate when Wentworth and Anne met; Sir Walter describes him as “nobody.” Curates were the lowest-paid clergy, doing the jobs of rectors and vicars who lived elsewhere or were sick or traveling. See “Nothing But a Country Curate”  for more on the trials of curates. Charles Hayter, in any case, presumably does his job faithfully. He gets a better job through connections—as most gentlemen of the day got promotions, through who they knew.

Good or Bad?

So, are the clergymen in Austen’s novels mostly good or bad?

All of them apparently do their work faithfully, or at least make sure a curate does it. Edmund Bertram, Edward Ferrars, Henry Tilney, and Mr. Morland are all men of good moral character, good examples for their flocks. By the end of each novel, they are all living in one of the parishes they serve, though Edmund and Mr. Morland serve more than one parish.

The other clergymen show us some of the difficult issues in the church of the day. Mr. Collins sees his work as a job. He plans to make the most money he can (negotiating better tithes) and advance as quickly as he can (by pleasing Lady Catherine). Mr. Elton is looking to move up in society, through a good marriage. Dr. Grant, as Mary Crawford points out, wants to do as little work as possible and enjoy the pleasures of good food. All are unpleasant in some way, but none are truly bad characters. They are meant to satirize certain types of people, and to make us laugh.

Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice is probably the funniest clergyman in Austen’s novels.

Who is your favorite clergyman in Austen’s novels, and who is your least favorite? Would you describe them with different terms than those above?

We all have shortcomings and areas where we are not all we should be. In Austen’s novels we see communities who rub along with one another despite each others’ foibles. But she also brings us people who learn and grow (for example, Elizabeth and Darcy). The Bible tells us to get rid of the log in our own eye before trying to remove the splinter from our neighbour’s eye. In what areas do you need to grow right now?

 

Dr. John Case gave a fascinating presentation. He offers Oxford-style tutorials online to those who want to learn more about English literature. If you’re interested, check out his website at www.oxoniantutor.com or email him at john@oxoniantutor.com

(Note that ideas in this post are mostly mine, but Dr. Case came up with the classifications for each clergymen and pointed out some facts about each.)

4 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Clergymen

  1. I really enjoy your compare and contrast approach. That’s what makes for a healthy, beneficial analysis. As you point out, these stories are an excellent (and funny) reminder that we all fall short of God’s expectations. Thank you for giving us something to think about. Now I want to go back and read more Jane. Thank you again!

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  2. You’re welcome, Cheryl! Anything that makes you want to read more Jane is good, right? 🙂 But don’t turn to the movies for Austen’s clergymen; I think modern film-makers don’t know how to interpret them, especially the good clergymen!

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