Written by Linda Dennery, contributing writer, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!
Jane Austen was the daughter of one clergyman and the sister of another. She was a dutiful daughter and devout Christian, why then did she choose to make Mr. Collins a comic buffoon of a clergyman?
Even when a gentleman’s chosen profession was the church, he was not expected to hold deep spiritual convictions. In 18th and 19th century novels, we frequently encounter clerics who revel in avoiding clerical pursuits. We find characters like Henry Crawford assuming a vicar will immediately install a curate to avoid the daily demands of his parish. A desirable parish church was deemed a sinecure for the incumbent. Once installed in a living, the vicar was “in” for life!
Vicars were not expected to be very learned gentleman even though ordination did require a degree from Oxford or Cambridge. Examinations were notoriously lax. A testimonial from your particular college saying you were “fit” for ordination was easy enough to obtain and place before a bishop. (Money or connections helped.) Then arrangements had to be made (presumably with the bishop’s administrative assistance) to demonstrate competency in Latin, knowledge of Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine. This examination, too, was frequently little more than a formality.
You had to be 23 before you could start your clerical career as a deacon assisting an ordained priest. At 24, you could become fully ordained and qualified to administer all the Sacraments. You also became eligible to assume charge of a parish. A parish church entitled you to a residence as well as its “living”—income funded by parish tithes (taxes) and land belonging to the parish that you could rent out or farm yourself.
There were 11,500 benefices or livings in England. Livings were ultimately controlled by the church, but the ability to confer more than half was held by the upper classes. Livings were considered their property, to be bought, sold or inherited. In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram sells the living of Mansfield to Dr. Grant. A living usually sold for five to seven times its annual value.
In Austen’s time a clergyman needed an annual income of £300-400 to live as well as the lesser gentry. A curate was paid out of the vicar’s pocket, typically earning about £50 a year, a sum equivalent to our minimum wage.
The easiest and surest way to a parish was to be related to someone with the right to appoint the living. There were many more clergymen in search of a parish than there were livings available. Over half never received preferment.
Mr. Collins was extremely lucky to have attracted the attention of his “noble patroness.” Lady Catherine de Bourgh was neither his relative nor particularly discriminating in her selection. Janeites have been gratefully laughing ever since.