Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Grueling Life of a Vicar

While reading Jane Austen's books do you find yourself wondering why so many characters' love interests are either in the clergy or planning to enter the clergy as their career path?  Well, the answer could be as simple as the fact that Jane was the daughter of a rector herself, but I believe it has something to do with most of her books dealing with love interests in the upper classes.

In the age of the aristocrat, younger sons were notoriously out of luck when it came to inheriting titles and lands and all other good things that came with be born into a wealthy family.  That meant they had to get a job.  No, not one where they'd actually have to work, Silly! They were still blue blood after all.  The two common options for these younger sons was a career in the military (like Frederick Tilney in Northanger Abbey) or the clergy (like Henry Tilney or Edmund Bertram from Mansfield Park).  Although the two career paths seem quite opposite, one did not necessarily have to have a strong faith in order to become an Anglican vicar or rector.  In fact, having your own rectory or vicarage was quite easy, hence the blue blood career choice, there were books of sermons which you could read from every Sunday in church (most of England didn't attend regularly at the time anyway so it didn't matter).  Local farmers were forced to pay the salary of the local clergy so quality of work was of little consequence.

It's no wonder so many rich young men chose this "humble" career.  It allowed for a lot of free time in order to pursue other hobbies; hobbies which had nothing to do with being a man of God.  In Bill Bryson's book, At Home, he has laid out what a few of these clergymen managed to accomplish with their free time:
  • Reverend Thomas Bayes (1701-1761) came up with the extremely complex math theorem which is used today to do things like predict stock market behavior and climate change.
  • Laurence Stern (1717-1768) wrote The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
  • Reverend John Michell (1724–1793) taught William Herschel how to build a telescope, which he did and then discovered Uranus.
  • William Buckland (1784-1856) wrote the first scientific description of dinosaurs, and was the one who named Dr Plot's discovery, Megalosaurus.
  • Reverend Jack Russell (1795-1883) bred a new breed of terrier.
  • Reverend George Garrett (1852–1902) invented the submarine
 The list goes on and on. I wonder what sort of hobbies Henry Tilney and Edmund Bertram picked up after their marriage.


  1. What I never understood, given Miss Austen's brothers successes in the Royal Navy, is why more of the love interests in her novels weren't Nelson or Cochrane style sailors. But perhaps that's a personal bias...

  2. While I was aware of the whole younger sons and their professions, I wasn't really aware of that list. Impressive!

  3. @Pauline, At least you have the dreamy and seemingly cold-hearted Captain Wentworth. Just mentioning him makes me want to reread Persuasion.

    @Risa, The list in Bryson's book was actually longer, I just selected a portion from it!

  4. I think Edmund is dull enough that he would have been active in his parish. I'd like to think that Tilney would devote his time to becoming a landscape designer.

  5. *swoon* Oh so sorry, was just visualizing Tilney doing landscape work.

  6. One of the analyses I read regarding Mansfield Park was that it was a novel set in the newly sprung up evangelism. Edmund Bertram is actively studying for the clergy, and Fanny's choices are based on her beliefs and her morality, as well as her love for Edmund.

    The theme is carried through with the bad choices the others in the story make. It's an interesting take on the changes which led to the stronger non-Anglican evangelical movements, leading out of the Regency and into the Victorian Age.

  7. And I must add here that I never thought that Edmunch was dull. I thought he was serious and I thought he regarded his responsibilities as something to look forward to, but then I like Mansfield Park.

    Doesn't mean I wouldn't like to have seen what might have happened if Fanny married Henry--but as the character was written, she wouldn't have. (And Edmund would never forget her birthday.)

  8. I actually found Fanny to be quite dull (Mansfield is probably my least favorite of Austen's novels) but there is no denying Fanny and Edmund being a good match!

  9. What I got out of this post is: Tristram Shandy is a real book. I now have to read it.

    Very interesting!

  10. Somewhat later in time: Charles Darwin was a clergyman for a while too.

  11. Tristram Shandy is a wonderful and frustrating work, one of my real favourites.

    I reviewed it here.


  12. I would take the cold-hearted (but hot blooded) Captain Wentworth any day over Edmund... but mostly because it wasn't fair that Fanny was his second choice.

  13. The minister cum probability theorist is Thomas Bayes, not 'Baynes'. (Pardon the pedantry, but Bayes' Theorem is a big deal for historians of philosophy and mathematics!)

  14. I can't understand how anyone can call Captain "You pierce my soul!" Wentworth cold.