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For most of Jane Austen’s characters a parsonage or rectory was a familiar piece of architecture. As it was, of course, for Jane Austen , born into a clerical family at the Rectory at Steventon.
And she was used visiting them all her life: rectories near to home, as at Ibthorpe to see her friends the Lloyds, and those further apart in Devon, at Colyton
(Colyton Church, Devon, circa 1820 from my collection)
A rectory was not as desirable as a Pemberley House perhaps, but when allied with a hero such as Henry Tilney, well then, a well-built ,well proportioned, modern rectory could become quite the object of much Austenian feminine interest (with the dishonorable exception of Mary Crawford)
(Yaxham Rectory,Norfolk from The English Parsonage in the Early Nineteenth Century)
Catherine Morland was innocently entranced by Henry’s substantial and newly-built stone rectory with its unfinished decoration at Woodston
Catherine’s mind was too full, as she entered the house, for her either to observe or to say a great deal; and, till called on by the general for her opinion of it, she had very little idea of the room in which she was sitting. Upon looking round it then, she perceived in a moment that it was the most comfortable room in the world; but she was too guarded to say so, and the coldness of her praise disappointed him…The room in question was of a commodious, well–proportioned size, and handsomely fitted up as a dining–parlour; and on their quitting it to walk round the grounds, she was shown, first into a smaller apartment, belonging peculiarly to the master of the house, and made unusually tidy on the occasion; and afterwards into what was to be the drawing–room, with the appearance of which, though unfurnished, Catherine was delighted enough even to satisfy the general. It was a prettily shaped room, the windows reaching to the ground, and the view from them pleasant, though only over green meadows; and she expressed her admiration at the moment with all the honest simplicity with which she felt it. “Oh! Why do not you fit up this room, Mr. Tilney? What a pity not to have it fitted up! It is the prettiest room I ever saw; it is the prettiest room in the world!”
“I trust,” said the general, with a most satisfied smile, “that it will very speedily be furnished: it waits only for a lady’s taste!”
“Well, if it was my house, I should never sit anywhere else. Oh! What a sweet little cottage there is among the trees — apple trees, too! It is the prettiest cottage!”
“You like it — you approve it as an object — it is enough. Henry, remember that Robinson is spoken to about it. The cottage remains.”
Northanger Abbey, Chapter 26
Fanny Price is first settled at 8 miles remove form Mansfield at the rectory at Thornton Lacey a place by no means as desperate for “improvement” as Henry Crawford would have us believe ,and then finally at the Parsonage at Mansfield Park:
On that event they removed to Mansfield; and the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.
Mansfield Park, Chapter 48
Edmund Bertram and Henry Tilney are of course, lucky second sons who were able to improve their residences, using family funds (eventually, in the case of Edmund and Fanny). Mr Collins, however, is lucky too for, due to the superintendence of his noble patroness Lady Catherine, his rectory- his humble abode- has been fitted out with every modern convenience, even down to shelves in the closets
As for the odious Mr Elton in Emma, his vicarage at Highbury, save for the yellow curtains that entranced the stupid Miss Nash so much, seems to have been a pitiful place, in need of much redesign:
…about a quarter of a mile down the lane rose the Vicarage; an old and not very good house, almost as close to the road as it could be. It had no advantage of situation; but had been very much smartened up by the present proprietor; and, such as it was, there could be no possibility of the two friends passing it without a slackened pace and observing eyes.
Emma, Chapter 10
His new wife’s fortunes –as many thousands as will always be called ten- will no doubt be used to beautify and improve that place.
But what of the poorer parson ? With no wife’s pretty dowry to help improve his home and no family money and/or living as incentive to improve it either, what could he do?
Until the late 18th century there was little he could have done to improve his dwelling and many were in a parlous state.
However, a spate of legislation, beginning with the The Gilbert Acts, enacted from 1777 onwards, allowed the governors of the Church of England access to the fund known as Queen Anne Bounty in order to lend money to the clergy for the repair and/or rebuilding of existing parsonages, using their income from tithes as a security.
The rush to build new style parsonages also coincided with the social status of the clergy becoming more and more important, and the houses built in the early part of the 19th century, for those who benefited for Queen Anne’s Bounty and/or from their own family wealth, reflected this.
This situation was also echoed in Jane Austen’s family, for after her death, on his son becoming rector of Steventon, Edward Knight, Jane’s brother, commissioned the demolition of Jane’s birthplace and a replacement modern rectory, shown above, to be built on a site just across the valley (see this old AustenOnly post here for details)
This book, The English Parsonage in the Early Nineteenth Century by Timothy Brittain-Catlin, explores the extraordinarily rich archive of architectural pans and drawings this rush to build produced, and follows the development of the parsonage from the small Georgian villa of the period 1800-1820, to the large, grand, substantial gentleman’s residences they became during the middle of the 19th century.
The book is wonderfully produced, and is extremely well and clearly written. Profusely and well illustrated it has reproductions of ground plans to satisfy even me( for you do know I love to study a set of plans for a house).
Individual parsonages are studied in some detail, one of my favorites being Walkerinham Vicarage in Nottinghamshire, shown below.
Mr Brittain-Caltlin details the changes in architectural fashions during the first half of the 19th century as reflected by the designs for parsonages by such famous designers as Loudon, Blore and Pugin. This is a fine book, and a useful one for Janeites to refer to,the parsonage playing as it does so important a part in her life and in the lives of her characters.
Desirable residences still, this book is a fabulously detailed examination of the type of building-the parsonage- that has become an important part of English country life. And if you want to speculate on what Mr Elton did with his Augusta’s lovely money, then this book is the perfect place to start ;-)