Last month I discussed the aristocracy of England, a system that was so pervasive in Jane Austen’s time that she had no need to explain it to her readers. Today I’d like to talk about another system that she could assume her readers understood: the clergy of the Church of England.
The Church of England, of course, was the official church in Austen’s day. Though there were Catholics, Evangelicals, Quakers, and other groups in the country, the majority of people belonged to the state church, which we now call the Anglican church.
The most basic unit in the Anglican church was the parish, which usually consisted of a church and the community that built up around it. The clergyman in charge of a parish church was usually a vicar, and along with the responsibilities of a vicar he received a salary or stipend. But sometimes the parish church was filled by a rector, who was.supported by the tithes from the parish. Confusingly, sometimes a church was overseen by both a rector and a vicar, but in that case the usual work of the parish would still be carried out by the vicar. It’s safe to say that being a vicar was the most common career in the Anglican church.
Vicars were not necessarily financially well off, as Jane Austen’s life shows. If the parish was large and the parishioners were generous, then they might make a decent living. But there were many poor parishes, and some parishes offered such a small salary that they had a difficult time attracting any clergyman at all. Jane Austen’s father was a vicar in a parish with a respectable income, but he also had a large family to support. He therefore found it necessary to tutor students and farm some of his own land in order to make ends meet.
Below the level of rector or vicar was a curate. A curate was the pastor of a church that was not associated with a parish. These churches were smaller than parish churches and usually could not afford to pay their pastor a living wage. So the poor man who got stuck in a curacy would have to find some other source of income and work at that even as he called on parishioners, prepared sermons, and did all the work that his more prosperous brothers in parish churches carried out.
It was possible for a curate to be promoted to a parish church and become a vicar, and for a vicar to be promoted to a rector. Above these levels a man could also be promoted to archdeacon, deacon, bishop, or even archbishop. But the vast majority of the ordained clergy occupied one of these three lowest ranks.
A living was therefore a valuable commodity. A man with an appointment to a parish church could count on the income from that parish for as long as they kept their position, which was presumed to be for life. It was possible to buy and sell livings based on the projected income to be made from that parish, just as we invest in annuities or bonds today. This flies in the face of how we think about pastors, but in Austen’s time, a clergyman did not necessarily need a spiritual calling from God. For many people it was simply a job, something that would provide security and an income once a man was lucky enough to get into it.
How did a man become a rector, vicar or curate? In most cases the right to appoint the pastor of a church belonged to the family who owned the nearby estate. If they had more than one son then they might very well give the living to one of the younger sons. Other times they might sell it to another family who was trying to provide for their own son’s future. And in some cases, such as that of George Wickham or Mr. Collins, the living was given outright by the family who owned it. It is no wonder that Collins was so careful to keep on Lady Catherine’s good side, since his own income depended on her good will. (And Elizabeth thought that Lady Catherine might have other livings to give away, too. Perhaps Sir William didn’t visit Rosings just to check on Charlotte!)
With all of this as a background, we can understand the story Wickham and the Darcy family living much better. Wickham was the son of an estate steward, a nobody in the regency world. He grew up on the estate and was intimate with the Darcy family, but as an adult he had no way to make a living. He could only go into the military or perhaps learn a trade, which would have been a step down the social ladder. So the old Mr. Darcy left him a “valuable family living.” This would have supported him for life, or at least given him a huge head start. Instead Wickham sold the living to someone else for three thousand pounds, squandered all of that money, and afterwards had the audacity to come back to Darcy and ask for the living again. No wonder Darcy sends him packing.
I hope this helps you understand a little about how the system of livings and patronages worked. For more details or further reading you can follow these links: