Address to Jane Austen Society AGM at Chawton House. - 17th July 1993

by Dom Nicholas Seymour OSB

I have no doubt that many of you, whom I have the great honour of addressing this afternoon, were brought up always to tell the truth. I am going to follow that principle now. The truth is that I am so nervous that my knees are shaking as I speak. Assembled before me is a great number of scholars, critics and learned students of the words of Miss Jane Austen, and I warn you now: I am none of those things. What then shall I say to you? What is an Anglican Benedictine monk doing here, talking about Jane Austen's clergymen?

The Abbey of Our Lady and St John lies only 2/3 miles from here [Chawton], in countryside which Jane Austen knew well. For one hundred years our life of prayer, study and work has continued up here on the Hampshire Downs. Some years ago I came to the Abbey after almost twenty years as a teacher of English Literature. During those twenty years, I taught at least one Austen novel to an O level or A level class each year. As any embittered A level pupil knows, the process of "doing" a novel for a major examination can ruin your appreciation of it for life. But what does it do to the one who must teach it, who must introduce a group of young people to the delicate irony, the strong moral sense, the laughter and the charity, of Emma or Persuasion?

I was fortunate. What impressed me most was the wide range of responses to Jane Austen, some of which I remember to this day. I recall the terse comment of the senior boy who wrote a very good essay which began, "Catherine Morland is a nitwit"; I remember the girl who said feelingly in class, "Charlotte Lucas is the real heroine of the novel, marrying that awful man"; and of course I cannot forget the occasion when, threatened with dire punishments unless he broke his Trappist silence and said something, anything, about Mansfield Park, the captain of the rugby team (a very nice boy) said, with genuine effort to please, "Is that the one with the red cover?" (It wasn't.)

And as I struggled with these and other responses, there grew in me, as in so many of us here today, a personal response to Jane Austen's work which is something, I think, between appreciation and love, a response to whose nature I shall return. Meanwhile there came upon me what we monks call a vocation, and after more years and many adventures, I found myself walking into a Benedictine monastery, feeling almost as shaky as I do now. I left behind me, I romantically thought, everything: I should have remembered the old monastic saying that God wastes nothing: everything which is really part of your real self will be brought into the monastery with you and used for God. And almost the first thing I learned about Alton Abbey was its proximity to Jane Austen's house, and very shortly afterwards I was in that house, standing in the very room in which Mrs Elton spoke for the first time, but not the last, of Maple Grove and the barouche-landau.


In due time, I began to help with one of the main works of our Abbey, which is the running of Retreats in our Guest House. Many of these Retreats have a theme, and one day the idea came to one of our brethren that a Retreat could be centered on a novel by Jane Austen. To our surprise and pleasure, there was a real demand for places on the Retreat, and we have continued to hold them each year. This August, for instance, (this is not a commercial) (well, it is), we shall be considering Persuasion as a kind of moral pilgrimage in which the heroine meets what can perhaps be seen as a series of very powerful temptations which challenge her spiritual integrity. One of these Retreats dealt with Jane Austen's clergymen, and this aroused in me a desire to read one day a really good study of the group of clergymen whom she creates. I hope such a study will one day very soon be published; and today I venture, very timidly I assure you, to dare to sketch one or two themes such a study might include.

How does Jane Austen "see" the characters she creates? How, in particular, does she present the reverend gentlemen who are important enough to provide her with William Collins, Edward Ferrars, Henry Tilney, Edmund Bertram, and Philip Elton, in leading roles, and Dr Grant, Charles Hayter and Mr Watson in subsidiary ones?

Realism, Imagination and Charity

Jane Austen once amused herself by collecting and writing down opinions of Emma, and among them one came from a reader who was "displeased with (her) pictures of Clergymen"; and another reader "thought the Authoress wrong, in such times as these, to draw such Clergymen as Mr Collins and Mr Elton". Was her approach to her own creations not "reverent" enough? What do her readers today expect from her "pictures of Clergymen"? And what do we find?

It is a very daring thing to make pronouncements upon the process of literary creation: I venture, very nervously, to suggest that Jane Austen creates her clergymen with realism, with imagination, and with charity. They are realistic enough to be immediately recognisable as human beings, satisfying in their humanity: they are the products of a lively fancy which needs to fit them into the overall scheme of the imagined world of the novels in which they appear, and in no other; and they are also, I believe, seen by "the authoress" with what some have called ironic detachment, some have called delighted amusement, and what I call "charity". This may sound daring: it is not meant to be. From my own religious standpoint, Jane Austen, a great creative artist, is imitating God: in writing a novel, she is making a world and creating men and women to live in that world. She regards her creations as basically good: they are, on the whole, amusing, and the novels end, largely, happily: follies and vices are not over-severely punished - although I often feel very, sorry for Maria Bertram, since the undiluted company of Mrs Norris, "shut up together with little society", must indeed remind us of Sartre's dictum: "Hell is other people". But I think Jane Austen looks upon her characters with an amused, loving acceptance, which is not without a touch of ironic mischief: is this not really charity? Charity which really accepts others first of all as they are?

In her clergymen, Jane Austen is dealing with men who are both professed Christians and professional men with, in her day, a recognised and fairly well defined social position. For me, one of the fascinating problems here is this: how important is it that the character she describes is a clergyman of the Established Church? Does she see an interplay between the man's Christian conduct, and his professional position? The answer is, I venture, that this varies according to the novel's scope and theme.

Edward in Sense & Sensibility

In Sense and Sensibility, does it matter very much that Edward is a clergyman? He is "a gentlemanlike and pleasing young man", but diffident and undistinguished. The idea of his being a clergyman is mentioned late in the novel, when he himself admits that although he "always preferred" the church, his family's rather vague ambitions for him kept him "properly idle" ever since his leaving Oxford. Indeed, compared to Elinor and Marianne, he seems a lightweight character, perhaps? It is very clearly pointed out that he owes all his knowledge of the "house, garden, and glebe, extent of the parish, condition of the land, and rate of the tythes (at his parsonage), to Elinor herself" ... "so little interest had he taken in the matter". Edward appears in scenes suggesting he is a mere third in the contest between Elinor's love and Lucy's ambition: and even in the great scene where his freedom to marry is revealed, he does not cut a heroic figure:

When Elinor had ceased to rejoice on the dryness of the season, a very awful pause took place.  It was put an end to by Mrs Dashwood, who felt obliged to hope that he had left Mrs Ferrars very well.  In a hurried manner, he replied in the affirmative.

Another pause.

Elinor, resolving to exert himself, though fearing the sound of her own voice, now said: "Is Mrs Ferrars at Longstaple?" "At Longstaple, he replied, with an air of surprise - "No my mother is in town." "I meant," said Eleanor, taking up some work from the table, "to enquire after Mrs Edward Ferrars."

She dared not look up; - but her mother and Marianne both turned their eyes on him.  he coloured, seemed perplexed, looked doubtingly, and after some hesitation said, "Perhaps you mean  - my brother - you mean Mrs - Mrs Robert Ferrars"

The scene is richly comic, and one of the best treatments of embarrassment I know - but Edward's profession does not enter into it in any significant way. Even after their marriage, there is no mention of pastoral concerns at Delaford.

Henry in Northanger Abbey

In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney seems at first to be like Edward in that his profession is very casually introduced: he is "a clergyman, and of a very respectable family in Gloucestershire", but his dancing, his teasing of Catherine, his appearance, are much more important. But Henry defies convention, worldly ambition and his father's anger to marry Catherine and is in this sense, a very satisfyingly romantic hero. It is noticeable that his sense of duty towards his parish is firm: he makes a point of being in residence for "the parish meeting" and for the Sunday services. Somehow these touches of attention to duty seem to point forward to the Henry who can come to an "open and bold" breach with his father for Catherine's sake, can part from him in "dreadful disagreement" and can act with "reason ... conscience ... justice ... honour ... fidelity". Powerful language, indeed! Is there about Henry Tilney a suggestion of a maturity, even at 26, which has something to do with the beliefs he quietly professes? Finally, in the scene where he opens Catherine's ideas to "the extravagances of her late fancies", and in her reflections following it, does not Henry speak with a wisdom, a sanity, a tender loving patience that is not afraid to mention, clearly and simply and without embarrassment, religious faith:

Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained.  What have you been judging from?  "Remember the country and the age in which we live.  Remember that we are English, that we are Christians ... Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

Philip Elton in Emma

When the reader of Emma first encounters the Vicar of Highbury, the Rev Philip Elton, his profession as a clergyman seems rather more important. It helps to define his social status when the question of his marrying Harriet Smith arises, and even more so when his aspirations to Emma's hand become clear. It is also apparent that Mr Elton is a respected and efficient clergyman: he is good to the poor, and indeed we meet him visiting them and arranging for their welfare; he is assiduous in discussing parish business with the gentlemen of Highbury. Very gradually his real character - or rather another side to his character - emerges: he is rather too well aware of his own worth in the marriage market; and during the wonderful comedy of his courtship of Emma (or Harriet?), with the hilarious incidents of the charade and the portrait, this "good humoured, cheerful, obliging and gentle" man begins to emerge as tiresome.

The vanity he reveals in the proposal and its aftermath, once satisfied and inflated by his wooing of Augusta Elton, shows a resentment which is capable of a cruel revenge during the ball at the Crown. But even during the conversation between Emma and Mr Knightley, when they agree that there is "a littleness about him", no one expresses surprise that a clergyman should behave like this. It is plain to the reader of the novel that Philip Elton's conduct is not as deeply influenced by his professed beliefs as might be expected: but Jane Austen seems here to be suggesting that what she is exposing is the vulgarity which is due to an underlying insecurity, beautifully brought out in the "anxious parade" and self-centered vanity of his wife. This I find charitable on Jane Austen's part: there is nothing here of the curious attitude, still prevalent in parish life today, which unfairly places the clergyman on a (rather shaky) pedestal because he is a clergyman - and then criticises him very sharply for being human as well. Will some sociologist please write a good book soon on "Attitudes to clergy: expectation, projection and compensation: fantasy and revenge"? (The title may be used - there is no copyright.) (An alternative title might be: "Three years is a parish clergyman's life: Idolised,  Criticised,  Scandalised".)

It would seem that Jane Austen's clergymen fit into the overall moral world of her novels as men first and clergymen second: they are not seen as "examples" of clergymen for study as such. They are, largely speaking, socially presentable members of a well-defined social group. She herself protested, when requested to write a novel about a clergyman, that she could create "the comic part of the character" but not "the good, the enthusiastic". She was of course being very modest here in order politely to refuse an unwanted commission. I feel that her clergymen are in her moral universe as moral beings - that is, capable of growth or decay: they are products (as she often says of her creations) of their experiences - witness her frequent link between a lack of early education and a later lack of social poise - and their clerical life is part of what they are. Let us therefore consider two men among her characters whose vocations, or professions, (I deliberately balance these words) seem to me to be more significant.

Mr Collins

First, the Reverend William Collins. I seem to be spending a lot of time this afternoon asking scholars to write books. Here is another request: will someone please write a book on Mr Collins which does justice to the author's subtle genius? So often he is seen as merely comic. He is pompous, silly and self-satisfied; he is excessively obsequious to those of higher social rank; he has become, literally, a household word for solemn, wordy speeches and thank you letters. But he is much more than this. He is presented as a man whose mainspring motive is avarice: he constantly discusses money, possessions, incomes, and costs - a theme sharply summed up by Mr Bennett's final advice to him:

Dear Sir, I must trouble you once more for congratulations. Elizabeth will soon be the wife of Mr Darcy. Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But, if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.

Secondly, Mr Collins is one of Jane Austen's most interesting examples of psychological truth. The powerful opening paragraph of Chapter 15 is an acute analysis of the effect of early environment and of heredity: he is "not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature (has) been but little assisted by education or society": the effect on him of his repressive father and of his condescending patroness Lady Catherine is that he is "a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility". He does not change in the course of the novel: his "parading and obsequious civility" pays court to Darcy at the end just as before.

But it is in his very strange view of a clergyman's duties that something darker emerges. There is no exaggeration in his opening letter to Mr Bennet, in which credo he states:

"it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England".

This is exactly how he behaves throughout the novel: these are his priorities. By the close of Pride and Prejudice, I find that the word "patroness" has taken on strange reverberations in my mind. It seems to me that in the Rev William Collins something quite serious is being said about a man's moral vulnerability when his social status and professional employment and his very income depend upon a system of patronage. A final witness to this might be the gloating malice of the letter of "condolence" he sends to Mr Bennet after Lydia's disgrace. There is, indeed, a darker side to the humour in Mr Collins. (But I sometimes also reflect that in him she does create, as she once said she could not, an "enthusiastic" clergyman - although not in the sense she meant.)

Edmund in Mansfield Park

Lastly, Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park, the novel which so seriously deals with ordination.  Edmund can be seen as her most serious male character, and his profession as a clergyman is integral to his character and to the plot. By the second chapter we know he will be a clergyman: but his character and his destiny are linked very firmly indeed - it is made clear that his character and his profession are interdependent: "... the character of Edmund, his strong good sense and uprightness of mind, bid most fairly for utility, honour and happiness to himself and all his connections. He was to be a clergyman..."

Edmund is a good man: and we all know the hardest task in literary creation is to produce a credible good character. No one really knows why: there is a certain energy in evil which dazzles: but goodness needs very solid foundations: and solidity can seem dull. How often I have had to tell Senior girls that to say "Edmund Bertram is a wet!" is hasty judgement and poor literary criticism as well. Early in the novel, Edmund's serious nature points forward to the conversations with the Craw fords which are such a feature of the scheme of the book. His tactful, sensitive and mature educating and protecting Fanny point forward to a leader's teaching role. As a foil to this, the presence of that easily irritated epicure, Dr Grant, is there in the background.

And at important, well spaced intervals, in a series of conversations with vivacious, dangerous Miss Crawford, Edmund's sense of vocation is challenged and he must defend it. If anywhere in her works Jane Austen considers the clergyman's life as a vocation as distinct from a profession, it is here. The sparkling, charming, worldly Mary Crawford attacks him on every side: does the clerical life satisfy a man's honourable ambition? Can a clergyman be really a man? Surely such a profession is the last choice, worthy only of the youngest son? Already in Chapter 9 she states her challenge: "a clergyman is nothing". And Edmund responds with a positive, credal statement: "I cannot call that situation nothing, which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind ..." This interplay is kept up throughout the novel: but Edmund, alone among Jane Austen's clergymen, pursues a vocation and it costs him something - Mary Crawford's love: only Henry Tilney, risking alienation from his father for Catherine's hand, came near this - and Edward Ferrars' loyalty to his engagement to Lucy.

By Chapter 11, Mary is attacking again: ordination is a cruel parental "sacrifice"; is he becoming a clergyman simply because "a very good living" is available? Is it a profession for manly men? Her view of the clergyman is a stereotype - a slack, indolent drone: she brings Dr Grant to witness - that "indolent selfish bon vivant", no matter how "very respectable" he may be. And Edmund to some extend, yields - but only to turn her faults into virtues, to see in her only good humour, a graceful walk - and a readiness to fall in with the inclinations of others - the exact opposite of her real nature.

At this point, the theme of acting enters the novel with the scheme of producing Lovers' Vows. Since the roles they play in the drama so closely reflect their conduct off the stage, Edmund's point about a clergyman's conduct is proved by the play they are acting, and yet, through Mary's seductiveness, he is drawn to deny his integrity and take a part. (I often feel the significance of Lovers' Vows is underestimated, and I would dearly love to see the Jane Austen Society perform or at least read it. I shall not take a part myself. Well - if you insist: and only in a pink satin cloak.) The irony is compounded when Edmund acts the part of a clergyman, despite giving six separate reasons why he will not.

Now Henry Crawford brings pressure on Edmund; teasing him about his first sermon, pretending he will do very little work beyond "a sermon at Christmas and Easter". We are now virtually at the mid-point of the novel, and we reach the great central conversation about a clergyman's duties. Here the main speech, a model of sober eloquence, is given to Sir Thomas, the moral grand figure.

"We shall be the losers," continued Sir Thomas. "His going, though only eight miles, will be an unwelcome contraction of our family circle; but I should have been deeply mortified if any son of mine could reconcile himself to doing less.  It is perfectly natural that you should not have thought much on the subject, Mr Crawford.  But a parish has wants and claims which can be known only by a clergyman constantly resident, and which no proxy can be capable of satisfying to the same extent. Edmund might, in the common phrase, do the duty of Thronton; that is, he might ride over every Sunday, to a house nominally inhabited, and go through the divine service; he might be the clergyman of thornton Lacey every seventh day, for three or four hours, if that would content him.  But it will not.  He knows that human nature needs more lessons than a weekly sermon can convey; and that if he does not live among his parishioners, and prove himself, by constant attention, their well-wisher and friend, he does very little either for their good or his own." (Ch 25)

It has a simple theme: the clergyman's life must reflect his professed beliefs. To use a formula,


It is striking that as Edmund accepts and affirms his father's words, he sums them up thus:

"Sir Thomas ... undoubtedly understands the duties of a parish priest - we must hope his son may prove that he knows it too."

The word "priest", strikingly, occurs here at possibly the most serious moment in the novel: perhaps a better scholar than I could say where and if the word is used as seriously elsewhere in Jane Austen's works. The novel's further events - Edmund's care of Tom, his loss of Mary - show that he is what he professes to be. And for me, Jane Austen's last word on the theme of professed belief comes as she comments, firmly and gravely, on Maria and Julia Bertram: "They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice."

And finally

This afternoon I have tried to raise some ideas about Jane Austen's approach to her clergymen. A Benedictine monk does not have time for deep and wide research: but he may love and respect a writer whom he sees as very deeply spiritual. I therefore conclude by hoping that these immortal reverend gentlemen themselves, their great and gifted creator, and this kind and distinguished audience would all feel that my words, however sketchy and defective, have been "fairly reverent". Thank you.
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