The Stereotype of the Self-Indulgent Clergyman (Rowlandson’s Parsonage)

By Brenda S. Cox

“A clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.”—Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park

At this year’s JASNA AGM, I spoke about “Satirical Cartoons and Jane Austen’s Church of England.” My article on that topic should be online around the middle of December, and the talk will soon be available with other AGM talks for JASNA members who sign up.

However, I thought I’d share with you a cartoon that I didn’t have time for in the presentation.

public domain via PICRYL https://picryl.com/media/the-parsonage-7f7cce also at https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:tq57p8502
The Parsonage (or, Inside of a Parsonage) by Thomas Rowlandson (undated, estimated between 1780-1825)

The Parsonage by Thomas Rowlandson (undated) shows a country parson in his parsonage, the clergyman’s home. The parsonage was usually close to the church. If the parson was a rector who received all the tithes, it was also called a rectory. Henry Tilney, Edmund Bertram, and Edward Ferrars would live in rectories. If he was a vicar who received only part of the tithes, the parsonage would be called a vicarage. Mr. Elton lived in a vicarage.

This parson (unlike many others) is obviously well-off. He looks overweight, sleepy, and self-satisfied. Both his feet are bandaged because of the gout, which implies that he ate too much meat and drank too much wine. He’s been drinking with his friends, who appear to be getting drunk. More bottles on the floor reinforce the idea of drunkenness.

Dr. Grant of Mansfield Park immediately comes to mind. Mary Crawford calls him “an indolent, selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in everything.”

The dogs at the cartoon parson’s feet and the guns over his head tell us this parson is a country “squarson.” He is a parson (a minister or preacher), but lives like a country squire, enjoying his hunting. He needed a substantial income to do that. Clergyman Henry Tilney also apparently hunts. Jane Austen’s brother James also enjoyed hunting, though early on he found that his clerical income was not enough to cover the expenses of dogs, horses, and guns.

A lady plays the pianoforte for the gentlemen’s entertainment; perhaps she is the clergyman’s wife or daughter. Mary Crawford might have played the harp for her brother-in-law Dr. Grant and his cronies.

Above the clergyman’s head are two books. One appears to say “The Far Chace—A Poem” (the title is not very clear). It may be a book about hunting or about other aspirations. The second book says “Church Preferment in the Gift of _____.” This implies that the clergymen is looking for patrons (like Col. Brandon and Lady Catherine in Austen’s novels) who can give him further livings. Clergymen could hold multiple livings and receive the income from all of them, while paying curates a small stipend to do the work at the additional churches.

The picture on the wall is intriguing. It shows a clergyman flying! In the background are sketches of large churches, perhaps St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. I suppose this means the clergyman is dreaming of moving upward in the church hierarchy. Once again, he’s like Dr. Grant. Mrs. Grant hopes that Dr. Grant will get a recommendation to the dean “of Westminster or St. Paul’s” so they can move to London. Finally, “through an interest on which he had almost ceased to form hopes” (that is through his social connections; maybe someone in that book on church preferment), Dr. Grant “succeeded to a stall in Westminster.” This was a prebendal stall, a job with minimal duties but a substantial income.

The clergyman in the cartoon may be on the same route as Dr. Grant, who, aptly, kills himself by overeating. He brings on “apoplexy and death, by three great institutionary dinners in one week.” Austen, like Rowlandson, is criticizing over-indulgent, ambitious, lazy clergymen.

However, Dr. Grant is not all bad. We see his kindness when Fanny is caught in the rain and he goes out himself with an umbrella to convince her to come in. Also, Fanny and Mary both tells us that he preaches very good sermons. However, he does not have a good temper.

While Austen shows us this stereotype, she also softens it. When Mary says that clergymen go into the profession out of laziness, Edmund tells Mary, “”There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character.” It’s been estimated that Jane Austen herself knew at least a hundred clergymen. So probably she knew a few gluttonous ones like Dr. Grant, who she chose to satirize in Mansfield Park. But she did not think such clergymen were common.

Are there stereotypes today of what church pastors are thought to be like? How is it harmful when we think of any group of people according to a stereotype, rather than as individuals like us with strengths and weaknesses?

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