Friday, June 27, 2014

Jane Austen and Clergymen (Or When Assumptions Are Made in High School English)

Mr. Collins in the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice.
It's been a long time since doing a post like this. I've been in a bit of a state of writer's block (and suggestions for posts are welcome!), but then this popped into my head and I thought it would make a great post!

So, one day, I recalled my junior year British Literature class in high school. We were reading Pride and Prejudice (something which I had already done, so I needn't worry -- I aced all my pop quizzes with little trouble) and we came upon the subject of Mr. Collins and how, interestingly enough, Jane Austen's own father was a clergyman. One of the students remarked that because of the representation of clergymen in Mr. Collins, Jane Austen must not have had a very good opinion of the profession.

I didn't say anything.

I probably could have. Should I have? Maybe. But nevertheless, I didn't. How could someone make an assumption on Jane Austen's opinion of clergymen based upon one character in one of her books? That would be like throwing out a notebook because of of the pages is ripped, right?

Clerical Observations
While we can't ask Jane herself what her opinion of clergymen was exactly, we can speculate what it could be. If you delve into Jane Austen's life a little bit, you will find that she was close to her father (a clergyman), attended Church regularly, and even wrote prayers. From this information, we can deduce that she was religious and followed the teachings of the Anglican Church, something that probably wouldn't happen if she didn't respect her father or his occupation. And through her father, she probably would have seen plenty of his colleagues (other clergymen) and, as she did with everyone, observed their behaviors, both good and bad. It's possible these good and bad observations made it into her books as various characters who are apart of the clergy.

Clergymen in Austen's Novels
Mr Elton in the 2009 miniseries of Emma.
Now, if we go beyond Pride and Prejudice, Jane had other clergymen characters in her other books. Aside from Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, there is Mr. Elton from Emma, Dr. Grant and Edmund Bertram from Mansfield Park, Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey, and aspiring clergyman Edward Ferrars from Sense and Sensibility. If you are familiar with Jane's other works, you will see that Mr. Collins isn't the only "bad" clergyman in the list:

  • Mr. Elton is a fortune hunter and spiteful. He certainly isn't friendly with Emma after she rejected his marriage proposal, and let's not forget at the Highbury ball when purposely and obviously snubbed Harriet Smith for a dance as a way to humiliate both Harriet and Emma; not the actions of a gentleman to be sure.
  • Dr. Grant is glutton (ironically, one of the seven deadly sins) who argues with his wife a lot (leaving his half-sister-in-law, Mary Crawford, to gain a bad opinion of clergymen altogether). 
So, certainly, any fan of Jane Austen cannot claim that Mr. Collins was a fluke and that he was the only "bad" clergyman in all of Jane Austen's novels because he certainly was not. But never fear: there are also "good" clergymen in Jane Austen's novels who are often ignored.
Henry Tilney in the 2007 TV Movie Northanger Abbey

  • Edmund Bertram, despite his faults and the fact that he tends to be an unpopular hero, is a decent, moral, and honorable man. He was kind to his cousin, Fanny, when she first came to Mansfield Park when no one else was. 
  • Henry Tilney has a good sense of humor, was witty and a good brother, and is kind to Catherine. 
  • And Edward Ferrars, despite his faults as well, was still an honorable man. Even though he fell in love with Elinor and was no longer in love with Lucy Steele, he still kept his promise to Lucy. Even though he wasn't a clergyman until the epilogue, I'm going to include him in this list.
So, while there are some "bad" clergymen in Jane Austen's books, she does include a fair amount of "good clergymen" as well. What Jane Austen gave us was a wide range of clergymen: some to show what a clergyman should be and others to show what a clergyman should not be.

How Did We Get Here?
The Mr. Collins Wave
So how did this perception of Jane Austen and clergymen come about? My opinion is that it's due to the Austen books that are popular. Look at Jane's most popular books: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion (although Sense and Sensibility might also tie with Persuasion). Persuasion doesn't really have prominent characters that are clergymen (I almost want to say Captain Wentworth's brother and Charles Hayter were clergymen, but I'm not entirely sure -- but either way, they weren't big enough characters to form a decent opinion on). So, focusing on the top two popular Austen books -- Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Both Pride and Prejudice and Emma feature prominent characters who are clergymen that fall short of what a clergyman should be. The average reader/watcher of Jane Austen doesn't usually know about Henry Tilney or Edmund Bertram because the average reader/watcher has either not read or not heard of Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park. And although there's Edward Ferrars is in Sense and Sensibility, another popular Austen novel, he isn't a clergyman for most of the book and his aspirations to the clergy are a small detail that, at the very least, movie watchers don't usually pick up on.

What do you think? Do you think the popularity of Pride and Prejudice and Emma are what leads casual Jane Austen fans to think Jane had a low opinion of clergymen? Or is there another issue? Have you noticed similar sentiments about Jane Austen's view of clergymen? Leave comments!

 God Bless,
God Bless, Miss Elizabeth Bennet


  1. I think you could say Mr Collins and Mr Elton are negative portrayals but...
    There is a small bit in the book where you get a glance at the family background he grew up in...which explains why he tries his best to please even if he gets it wrong. And he WAS trying to be good in proposing to one of the bennet sisters to keep the estate in the family.
    Mr Elton, if you look at it from his point of view Emma led him on then she hurt his feelings, no wonder he is off-ish to her. And think how awkward it would be if someone who you think has a massive crush on you but your married asks you to dance and maybe the wife has heard the gossip. No wonder he tries to politely back away.

    1. Thank you Lady D. for this comment. I never saw it from Mr. Collins' or Mr. Elton's point of view. Mr. Knightley did try to warn Emma about Mr. Elton not being suitable for Harriet. Emma was blind to the situation and had to learn the hard way.

  2. Haha! This is very interesting.

    I used to think 'What has Jane Austen against clergy-men?'

    But then when I read that Henry and Edmund and Edward were also clergymen I changed my mind about that, heehee.

    I don't think Jane Austen had anything 'against' clergymen, after all, I believe her father was one. Tell me if I'm inventing this, but wasn't a clergy-man some-one not-too-poor but not-to-wealthy? Maybe she needed that in quite a few of her characters. I don't know.

    So, long story short, I don't think J A had anything against clergymen, no.

    I loved this post, Elizabeth! Thanks so much for writing it.

    1. Sorry I'm getting to this so late.

      I looked at Sense and Sensibility: there are references to Edward making 200-250 pounds a year when he takes over the parsonage for Colonel Brandon. I'm not entirely sure if that was a whole bunch of money (certainly not a gentleman's income of 2,000 a year that the Bennets have coming in). I suppose that because he didn't have to pay for the parsonage (since Colonel Brandon would have been paying for that), it was enough to live a comfortable life. If I remember correctly about Jane's life, the Austens were apart of the gentry but they weren't very wealthy, but at the same time, they mingled with some wealthier gentry families. I think being a clergyman was a respectable job to have and a respectable status, but it wasn't very wealthy either.

      A lot of this answer is based off my memory, so if anyone else has anything to add, feel free to comment! :-)

  3. What a good post! Considering that Henry Tilney is one of my all-time favorite heroes, whenever I hear people say that Jane didn't have a good opinion of clergymen, I'm always a bit taken aback. I think you're exactly right in your opinion that she shows a good balance of what a preacher should and shouldn't be. And since Jane was so involved in church- her father being a clergyman himself- I'm sure she saw both the good and bad in the profession- those who truly believed in their calling, and those who saw it just as a job and fell fully into hypocrisy. She was probably very quick to see the flaws of those in the church because she was in that environment so much, which was probably why she was so quick to criticize them...but then again, she wasn't exactly shy in doing that to people in other professions/walks of life, either.

    Anyway, I think that because Pride and Prejudice is so overwhelmingly popular that when people think of the clergy in Jane's books, they immediately think of her portrayal of Mr. Collins, so yes- that probably has something to do with it.

  4. What a fun post! I had forgotten Edward Ferrars as being a clergyman, but I enjoyed this. It would be fun if you did a post on Jane Austen parents/older couples, because some people think most of her older couple's marriages weren't as happy or good as the young folks pairing off. I would be curious to see what you came up with! :)


  5. I did an author project on Jane Austen, and the book I used said basically what you did: that she was around clergymen a lot and gained both good and bad opinions from them. If one were a casual Jane Austen fan, they probably wouldn't be worried about her opinion of clergymen, but yes. If they've only read P&P and Emma, then they've probably got a bad impression of clergymen. (Pardon my slaughter of verb tenses and pronouns ;)

  6. I am a Jane Austen fan. And a Christian. I agree with your observations and opinion, entirely, regarding Miss Austen's presentation of clergymen being a mixed bunch, that we cannot jump to conclusions that she found all clergymen to be clowns or worse, just because her most popular books show these men to be egotistical. I think that she clearly respects the position and that she must have respected her father's position and ministry. Her characters are all a mixed bag. Some have good manners steaming from a strong conscience. Others have less restraint and are not truly courteous at heart.

    Just the other evening I was reading the introduction to the book, "Letters of John Newton." The very first paragraph passes on this historical insight: "In the first half of the 18th century England was in a state of religious and moral decay. . . . The National Church was in such a dead condition that instead of being the salt, preserving nation form corruption, she was only adding to the immorality by weakening the restraints which Christianity imposed . . . God was pleased to send a religious revival which in the course of fifty years transformed the religious and moral life of the land." John Newton was part of the this revival as well as others. This shed a little light on Jane Austen's life for me.

    John Newton lived 1725-1807. Jane Austen lived 1775-1817. Their lives overlapped. I think Miss Austen must have seen and heard things as a consequence of the revival in the land, that enabled her to make distinctions - as evidenced in her "mixed bunch." Thousands upon thousands of Puritans (members of the National Church) had fled England in the 17th century, for New England - perhaps leaving England cold.

    I like to escape into the world of Jane Austen - where her characters are warm.

    I'm not usually this bookish with my comments, but your question provoked me.
    Karen A.

    1. Very interesting about John Newton! If I remember English history correctly, the Restoration took place sometime in the mid-1600s which was also when the Puritans started leaving England. I remember that the Restoration was notorious for suggestiveness (plays, books, etc.), which might have something to do with the "state of religious and moral decay" of the early 1700s (like overflow from the previous century?).

  7. Interesting post. I've often thought about this topic. I agree with what you said, also I think in Jane Austen's day there were certainly men who became clergymen just for the sake of living in comfort and having a profession. I guess there were both good and bad!

  8. What an awesome post! I really enjoyed this thoughtful analysis - I have to say, I'd never thought of analyzing Jane Austen's opinions on clergymen before, but it's intriguing!

    In my opinion, Jane Austen didn't have any better or worse an opinion of clergymen than she did of anyone else. Of every type of person portrayed in her books - men, women, rich people, poor people, clergymen, married couples, single people, farmers, soldiers - she portrayed good and bad members of each type. We could just as easily take Wickham and say that she hated soldiers, while ignoring Colonel Brandon and Captain Wentworth and William Price and the other lovely soldiers and sailors she portrayed.

    Lovely post!! :-)

  9. I'm glad so many people liked this post! Thank you all for your comments! :-)


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