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By Brenda S. Cox

Church livings play an important part in most of Jane Austen’s novels.

For example:

A fortunate chance had recommended him [Mr. Collins] to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his right as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.—Pride and Prejudice chapter 15

Mr. Collins “venerates” his patron Lady Catherine, who gave him a living as a rector. (C.E. Brock)

A church living was a permanent job as rector or vicar of a parish, and the income, house, and farmland that went along with that.

In a country parish, most of the income came from tithes. People in the parish were legally required to pay the clergyman 10% of their income, which was usually from farming. It might be paid in crops, animals, and eggs, or in cash. During Austen’s time the system was changing over to cash, but many still paid in produce.

The clergyman also sometimes got income from glebe, the farmland that was part of the living. (Austen usually calls this land “meadow.”) And he might get a few pounds a year from the fees people paid for weddings, funerals, etc.

Some parishes in England traditionally had (and still have) a rector. Others traditionally had (and still have) a vicar. Mr. Collins was a rector, like most of Austen’s clergymen. Edward Ferrars is also offered a position as a rector:

“It is a rectory, but a small one”—Col. Brandon on the church living he is offering Edward Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility chapter 39

Colonel Brandon with Elinor; he gave a living to Edward Ferrars as a parish rector. (C.E. Brock)

The word rectory could mean either a job as a rector, or the rector’s home (also called a parsonage) that was provided with the living. Here it means his position. The word rector, by the way, is related to the words right and rectify. The rector was supposed to lead his parish in the right direction, and he had certain rights, which Mr. Collins is proud of.

Mr. Elton, though, is not a rector. He’s a vicar.

“He [Mr. Elton] had a comfortable home for her [Harriet], and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property”—Emma chapter 4

Emma does not recognize Mr. Elton’s need for money, thinking he will marry Harriet. (C. E. Brock)

The word vicarage, like the word rectory, could refer to his position or his home; here it means his position. Vicar is related to vicarious, it means standing in the place of someone else.

A rector or a vicar had the same duties. They led church services, preached, officiated at ceremonies like baptisms, met with the vestry to deal with parish issues, helped the poor, and so forth. However, they did not receive the same level of pay.

There were two kinds of tithes. Parishes had their own agreements and definitions about what was included in each. But most commonly:

Greater tithes included everything that came from the ground, like wheat, oats, and barley.

Lesser tithes were usually fruit, eggs, and the young of animals.

If a clergyman was the rector of a parish, he got all the tithes.

If a clergyman was the vicar of a parish, he only got the lesser tithes, usually about a quarter of the total tithes. Someone else, probably the patron, was actually the rector and took the greater tithes.

Farmers brought their tithes of grain and animals to the parish clergyman. From A Clerical Alphabet, Richard Newton, Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

So, I think Austen is very intentional when she makes Mr. Elton a vicar. Emma knows that he doesn’t make a lot of money as vicar (“the vicarage . . . was not large”). Austen also gives us another clue:

“Mrs. Bates, the widow of a former vicar of Highbury, was a very old lady . . . She lived with her single daughter in a very small way . . . her [daughter’s] middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible.” —Emma chapter 3

Mrs. and Miss Bates, the widow and daughter of the former vicar of Highbury, live in poverty. (C.E. Brock)

Mrs. Bates’s husband, the former vicar, had not made enough money to leave much for his wife and daughter. So the income of this parish, at least for the vicar, is certainly low.

Emma, as usual, is clueless. She doesn’t realize that Mr. Elton, a vicar, is going to need to marry for money (though her readers would have known). So, the fun begins!

 

The third major type of clergyman was a curate. You can read more about curates in my post Nothing But a Country Curate

 

Brenda S. Cox blogs on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen at brendascox.wordpress.com . She is working on a book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England.

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