Getting a Job as a Priest: Richardson and Austen's Clergymen

The office of clergyman rears its head in the sixth installment of Mr. B Speaks!

Reverend William Holwell Carr paid a curate
to handle duties in his parish.
He was unusually generous,
paying almost triple the usual wage,
though the usual wage wasn't much to begin with.
To summarize a huge topic very briefly: in the 18th and 19th centuries, various wealthy and noble patrons had authority to grant "livings" to clergymen. These clergymen would usually come from the gentry or upper middle-class, and their livings would enable them to exist quite comfortably--so much so that such a clergyman, known as a parish priest or rector, would often hire a curate to do part of his job.

As may be obvious, an Anglican rector with such a living could lead a godly, charitable life in tune with his parishioners; he could also lead an exceedingly indolent life, having almost no contact with the people he supposedly served.

Jane Austen tackles the full range of English clergymen from the saintly Edmund to the deplorable Wickham (who does not become a clergyman due to Darcy's good sense). Between these two extremes lies Mr. Collins, who--as he unceasingly reminds people--owes his living to Lady Catherine De Bourgh. I think it is safe to say that although Mr. Collins does not appear to have many charitable impulses, he does have to work for a living (ha ha).

Pamela's Mr. B controls a specific living which Mr. Williams angles for throughout the book. (Mr. Williams spends an enormous amount of time hovering around the Lincolnshire estate, waiting for the living to become available.) Although an initial reading of Pamela paints Williams in a chivalric light (he does try to help Pamela), closer readings bring this portrayal into question. Richardson, like Mr. B, seems to believe that Williams overstepped his bounds by biting the hand that (wants to) feed him. Mr. Collins may be obsequious, but at least he knows which side his bread is buttered on.

However, Richardson later redeems Williams by making him, like Pamela, an agent of reform.

In the 1700s, Anglicanism was still feeling the effects of Puritan reformation (even though most Puritans had already departed Europe and England for America) which showered disgust on indolent clergymen, quasi-pagan/religious ceremonies (i.e. the church's sacraments), and idol worship (i.e., the church's stained glass, religious vestments, etc.). In general, the aristocracy tended to side with what became known as High Church Anglicanism while middle-class members, like Richardson, tended to side with the reformers or Low Church Anglicanism. (The peasants tended to side with whomever gave them an excuse to party.)

This cliched image of dour Puritans was
shared by the English aristocracy much
as it is by academic intellectuals today.
When, towards the end of Pamela, Mr. B defends Pamela's reforming attitude, his sister retorts by calling him a "Puritan." Only a few decades later, she would have accused her brother of going "Methodist."
Like John Wesley and his followers, Williams (naively) and Pamela (much more strategically) wish to counter the more egregious hypocrisies of Anglican clergymen by emphasizing personal conversion and charity for the poor. Pamela holds personal worship services at home (she also goes to church; unlike American Puritans and European Calvinists, Richardson was not advocating full-fledged dissent). She establishes a school for the poor and becomes the equivalent of the parish's local free clinic. Williams ultimately takes a less prestigious position than the one offered him by Mr. B in order to serve where he can do the most good. Mr. B then agrees to supplement his income. Mr. B later undergoes his own personal conversion.

It should be noted that Pamela--like Jane Austen--does not perceive religion as an ethereal calling. Austen's characters rarely advocate eschewing the world; rather, they propose adapting the world to one's religious impulses. Consequently, Pamela has no trouble marrying a man who is not, ostensibly, as religious as she. After all, she can do more good as a wealthy woman than as a poor one; sack-cloth and ashes never got a person very far.

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