Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Village Life in Jane Austen's World: The View from the Parsonage

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Village Life in Jane Austen's World: The View from the Parsonage

Article excerpt

HOW CAN THE twenty-first-century reader begin to grasp the atmosphere of Jane Austen's village world? Bernard Bailyn, the noted historian of the American eighteenth century, has captured the difficulty of intellectually and emotionally absorbing everyday life during that era:

we can have little notion of what were commonplaces to them, underlying but shaping circumstances so ordinary and unremarkable as to have been subliminal--everyday discomforts (of clothing that itched, of shoes that tore the feet, office, fleas, and vermin); the ubiquity of filth in public places; the constant sound of urban bells in medieval Europe; the automatic, unthinking management of personal hygiene; the constant expectation of incomprehensible illnesses and sudden death; the sense of the reality, urgency, and plentitude of animist forces; the absence or scarcity of print; the slow pace of communication and travel; the assumption of utterly unbridgeable social distances, distances so great as to stimulate awe, not envy. All of those ordinary circumstances of fife are almost completely unrecoverable precisely because they were so ordinary, so unremarkable hence unremarked. (Bailyn 23-24)

One group of Jane Austen's contemporaries, however, did remark upon those unremarkable details of Georgian village fife. Clergy and their families, who were sometimes the only literate inhabitants of a village (Hart 72), often wrote diaries, memoirs, letters, and other records of daily fife. Their surviving recollections, including Jane Austen's own letters, are a significant source of information about village life during Austen's lifetime.

Jane Austen herself was a village parson's daughter, and her twenty-five years of closely observing the fifty-odd families in her father's small parishes of Steventon and Deane formed her acute understanding of human behavior that so enriches us today (Collins, Clergy 86-88). In Jane Austen and the Clergy and Jane Austen: The Parson's Daughter, Irene Collins enhanced Austen scholarship by illustrating how the Steventon experience lay the groundwork for Austen's creativity. (1)

The village rectory offered clergy families a superb platform for contemplating human drama, for, as Peter Virgin, an expert on the Georgian clergy, notes, "The Georgian parsonage was often the hub of the local community, the centre around which everything revolved" (Virgin, Church 94). Distinctly religious duties did not require much pastoral time in the typical rural parish of 400 to 500 people. Church services were conducted at most twice on Sunday; the longer communion service was generally held only quarterly; and there were few baptisms, weddings, and funerals (Collins, Clergy 93-96; Virgin, Church 144). Writing one's own sermons was often regarded as a sign of dangerously Evangelical fervor; the congregation was often just as happy to have the parson read a published sermon by a noted preacher like Hugh Blair, as Mary Crawford advises Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park (Collins, Clergy 96-97; Virgin, Church 144; MP 92-93).

But such distinctly religious obligations were only part of the duties of a Church of England parson during this period. The parson and his family, when resident in the community, were often the only medical, educational, and social service providers in the village (Virgin 94). (2) In addition, in the age before police forces or other authority, one in every six clergymen was a magistrate, in charge of keeping order in the countryside and adjudicating minor offenses (Virgin, Church 94, 114-15). Thus, the entire range of village issues--secular and moral, physical and emotional--might pass through the parson's study, and those 400 to 500 people in a typical parish would provide a conscientious chronicler with abundant material.

Even with the many roles the village clergy family had to play, there was generally abundant time to write for those who were so inclined. (3) The extant manuscript diary of William Jones (1755-1821), for instance, covers nearly 3,000 pages, and missing are his extensive Journal of Health, detailing the ailments of parishioners, and the over 600 pages of his Book of Domestic Lamentations, where he hid his complaints about his wife, Theodosia, and his family (Jones xii). …

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