Do you take this man? [Part I]

After a bit of a hiatus due to an overly busy Spring season with the bookstore, I have returned to my rightful place on the couch with a sick little boy laying on top of me. As an Austen fan it’s probably obvious that I’ve daydreamed about visiting Pemberley or spending a week in Hartfield, getting the lay of the land and catching up on all the latest gossip. But I’ve never been so romantic as to think I’d enjoy living a Regency lifestyle for very long – and this idea is never more clear to me than when I have a child with (thankfully very very mild) pneumonia. I got him in to the doctor before it could make him unbearably ill, and a quick & easy administration of antbiotics in the mornings will soon set him right. What a relief.

Many in Austen’s era weren’t as lucky. Epidemics like tuberculosis and tyhpus could kill hundreds of people, with children the most vulnerable, their tiny bodies not strong enough to fight off these horrifying infectious diseases. A trip to an old churchyard will show you the alarming regularity of child loss in the era before modern medicine.


It’s easy to see old churchyards as charming and quaint, almost decorative additions to village life. In England especially the ancient stone churches feel like monuments themselves – not merely to those eternally resting on their grounds, but to the centuries of small-town concerns these buildings would have witnessed.

But even one of the most iconic images of the classic English church – the Lychgate – is a symbol of death. This quaint wooden structure is the last departure point for an unconsecrated body. Under this roof, the family of the dead would gather for a last time and say their goodbyes. And under this roof they would be joined by their clergyman, whose role was to meet the family at the intersection of unholy and holy ground to perform the rites that would allow their loved one to be given a proper Christian funeral in consecrated ground.

Austen gives us varying views of the English clergy. Herself the daughter of a Reverend, she clearly had great respect for the role of the church in everyday village life, even if that role was often fulfilled by those not up to the task. A few of her ecclesiastical characters actually give us hope for their parishioners; Edward Ferrars’ calm resignation and Edmund Bertram’s thoughtfulness (when not distracted by a pretty woman) both make me think they’d make an honorable showing at the Lychgate, providing quiet and peace to a family embarking on the long and painful journey of mourning. However, there are other members of the clergy in the Austen Canon that make me cringe to think of the way they’d conduct themselves in such a moment.

Though many scholars have taken on Austen’s treatment of the clergy (notably Irene Collins in Jane Austen and the Clergy) I feel as if they deserve another look.

“I always preferred the church”

Although many of her contemporary readers would have been familiar with the standard sibling professional hierarchy, it sometimes comes as a surprise to modern audiences that younger brothers were often assigned careers based simply on the order of their birth. Because of primogeniture, the eldest son was destined to inherit the estate, no matter how terrible he would be at maintaining it. It was ostensibly his choice whether to support his younger siblings financially, although running an estate often didn’t include the financial wiggle room to support more than one family. Also, if you’ve ever spent any time around sibling boys, you can probably imagine that they aren’t exactly fond of sharing their toys.

In Sense and Sensibility Austen does a good job of showing us what happens when sibling relationships deteriorate. Colonel Brandon was the victim of not only his father’s disapproval, but his brother’s abuse. He and Eliza were in love, but she was forced by his father to marry his cruel older brother so that her fortune would stay with the estate. The Colonel was forced into the army to forget Eliza, but he never did. (This is just one example – there are quite a few disfunctional sibling relationships in S&S. It’s pretty much “Boyfights: 1811 edition.”)

Colonel Brandon’s story, however, highlights a dynamic in Regency sibling relationships affected by laws of entailment. Because the younger siblings didn’t inherit an estate they often needed to come up with some sort of income. This usually meant a commission in the Army or the Navy, or if those were “too smart,” the law. And for the son who didn’t fit into any of those roles, there was always the clergy.

We never could agree in our choice of a profession. I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family. They recommended the army. That was a great deal too smart for me. The law was allowed to be genteel enough; many young men, who had chambers in the Temple, made a very good appearance in the first circles, and drove about town in very knowing gigs. But I had no inclination for the law, even in this less abstruse study of it, which my family approved. As for the navy, it had fashion on its side, but I was too old when the subject was first started to enter it, — and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be the most advantageous and honourable – Edward Ferrars

Of course, Edward Ferrars’ situation was a bit different. He was an older child left waiting for the death of his mother to inherit his fortune. His younger brother’s heartless manipulations allowed Robert to triumph over Edward financially, but one cannot help pitying the man taken in by Lucy Steele.

Mansfield Park‘s Edmund Bertram is truly the younger brother left to the whims of his older brother’s financial indulgences. And like Edward Ferrars, Edmund is luckily rather happy with the idea of being a clergyman. These Austen heroes both find happiness in a life of quiet solitude and reflection – a choice reflected in both of their marriages to quiet, reflective women.

But not all of Austen’s clergymen make such sensible matrimonial decisions.

Mr. Elton, of course, finds his Augusta at a popular watering-place. They were presumably brought together by their mutual desire to impress others at all costs. I often defend my dear Emma, and in this case it’s easy to see that her being fooled by Mr Elton was due as much to her naivety as to her vanity. Elton, however, proves himself to be exactly what Mr Knightley warned Emma he was.

She remembered what Mr. Knightley had once said to her about Mr. Elton, the caution he had given, the conviction he had professed that Mr. Elton would never marry indiscreetly; and blushed to think how much truer a knowledge of his character had been there shewn than any she had reached herself. It was dreadfully mortifying; but Mr. Elton was proving himself, in many respects, the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.

Emma expected Mr Elton to share her values. She valued a friend who would listen to her and be a submissive and pleasant companion – a role she had played for her own father her entire life. But Mr Elton’s choice of wife shows us that he’s driven almost solely by financial and social ambition. It’s easy to imagine that a man “very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others”  would choose appearance over substance not only in courtship, but likely in his his choice of profession as well. After all, what gives a more pleasant appearance than a clerical collar? A man as interested in social position as Elton would likely have seen the church as his ticket into the drawing rooms of elegant young ladies. His appearance at the Lychgate, however, would most likely expose his parishioners to the moral failings of their Shepherd.

Mr Elton supervising Emma's painting of Harriet
Mr Elton supervising Emma’s painting of Harriet

I have to break here because it’s taken me quite a while to get this far and I’m just about to dive into my two favorite clerical characters: Mr Collins and Henry Tilney. I started this blog entry in May (the little one got over his pneumonia very quickly, thank you) but between work and motherhood I’ve been struggling to keep up with it. I’ll get the second half up as soon as possible – until then, what are your thoughts on Austen’s clergymen? Do you think any of them would make good husbands?

2 thoughts on “Do you take this man? [Part I]”

  1. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say about Mr. Collins…. Not that I’m voting for him as a good potential husband, of course, but because I know you and I share an interest in the complexities of his character.

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