Was it daring for Austen to portray clergymen in this light? Was it radical? More importantly, did she actually oppose the Church of England, as discussed in my previous post?
Complaints about incompetent or corrupt clergy were quite prevalent in conversation and literature during the long 18th century. One of the first English novels, Tom Jones, featured a sadistic clergyman, Mr. Thwackum.
Austen deliberately included several explicit discussions about the clergy in Mansfield Park. Perhaps these might serve as a better guide to her opinions.
Edmund Bertram, the second son of Sir Thomas Bertram, will not inherit the title and the mansion and the slave plantations in Antigua, but there are two "livings" set aside for him--that is, two parishes, and he is to become a clergyman. Mary Crawford, a sophisticated young lady from London, is dismayed by this news. She thinks clergyman are lazy, selfish and, worst of all, unfashionable. "A clergyman is nothing."
Edmund replies that her opinions are a "commonplace censure" of the typical clergyman.
Commonplace, but I still was surprised to find, in the memoirs of Henry Hunt, a conversation between father, mother and son which makes exactly the same points.
Henry Hunt was a radical activist and famous orator of Regency times, most famous for being the featured speaker (though he was arrested as soon as he started speaking) at the Peterloo Massacre. He was sent to prison by the authorities. And though Hunt was a radical, he was able to publish his memoirs from prison in 1820. There's no reason to suppose that Hunt cribbed from Mansfield Park, but the two books do show, indeed, how commonplace the censure of the clergymen was.
Hunt's father doesn't actually want his son to become a clergyman, as will become clear. But the father's description is similar to Mary Crawford's: "It is indolence, Mr. Bertram, indeed. Indolence and love of ease; a want of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable, which make men clergymen. A clergyman has nothing to do but be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.”
Edmund replies that she is painting with too broad a brush: "There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character."
This is also how Henry Hunt's mother reacts. She says to her husband: "[R]eally, my dear, although there is too much truth in the picture you have drawn, yet you have been a little too severe upon the clergy, when speaking of them in the mass. There are many excellent and worthy men, who follow the precepts of their great master, who are an ornament to that society to which they belong, and are, therefore, most deserving members of, and do great credit to, the profession which you have so indiscriminately reprobated."
And so does Henry Hunt's father: "Do not tell me about ornaments to society; the best of them are the drones of society, and, without contributing any thing to the common stock, they feed upon the choicest honey, collected by the labour of the industrious bees... they may be very necessary evils; but you are aware, my dear, that what I say is true as to most of them that we know...." (This part about feeding on honey is a reference to the fact that clergymen were supported by tithes, a percentage of all the produce of the farms in their parish, a tax which Hunt's father obviously resents.)
Mary Crawford also suggests that lazy clergyman don't even write their own sermons: "How can two sermons a week, even supposing them worth hearing, supposing the preacher to have the sense to prefer Blair's to his own, [improve public morals?]"
The 1836 version of Hunt's memoir adds the detail of Hunt's father saying, "by a visit to the metropolis, you can lay in a stock of manuscript sermons, which will last you for the whole of your life."
"What must induce such men to become preachers?" Tovey asks. "Not for the good of souls, but for the sake of tithes, or to get a good living or benefice."
We have, then, a sophisticated woman from London, an old-style country squire, and a cranky Evangelical farmer, who all agree that clergyman (or some of them) are lazy, greedy, hypocrites. Even though Henry Hunt, Mary Crawford, and Edward Tovey differ widely in their world views in general (and Mary is a fictional character), they all unite in the "commonplace censure" of the clergy.
The satirical cartoon above is from "A Clerical Alphabet" which features 26 unflattering portraits of clergyman. It shows an avaricious clergyman carrying away the produce of his parishioners.
Miss Crawford, who had been repeatedly eyeing Dr. Grant and Edmund, now observed, “Those gentlemen must have some very interesting point to discuss.”
“The most interesting in the world,” replied her brother—“how to make money; how to turn a good income into a better. Dr. Grant is giving Bertram instructions about the living he is to step into... They were at it in the dining-parlour. I am glad to hear Bertram will be so well off. He will have a very pretty income to make ducks and drakes with, and earned without much trouble. I apprehend he will not have less than seven hundred a year... and a sermon at Christmas and Easter, I suppose, will be the sum total of sacrifice.”
Tithes and farming (in addition to tutoring) was how Austen's own father supported his family. Recall, as well, that Austen made a merry joke out of the idea that she include the abolition of tithes as a theme in one of her novels, and this was after she'd written Mansfield Park, her supposedly anti-Church novel.
I should note that according to Dr. Kelly, Edmund Bertram is not a good guy. It is not just that she dislikes him, she thinks Austen intends for us to dislike him. It's not just that he's boring or preachy, it's that he's complicit in the slave trade and she thinks he doesn't really love Fanny. But that's another debate.
"If," said [the father] "you intend to lead a quiet, easy life, that of a clergyman will exactly suit you, if you be disposed to make one of the common herd of mankind,,, But if you have any ambition to be a shining character in the world, that is the very last profession I would recommend..."
This was also Mary Crawford's chief objection. She compares the profession unfavorably with more glamorous ones: "The profession, either navy or army, is its own justification. It has everything in its favour: heroism, danger, bustle, fashion. Soldiers and sailors are always acceptable in society. Nobody can wonder that men are soldiers and sailors.”
Edmund answers: “A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind, individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence."
Although Edmund expresses himself in euphemisms, as Austen tends to do when talking about religion, he is speaking very seriously about Christianity, salvation, and society. It's clear he really believes in the doctrines of Christianity.
I think Jane Austen's gravestone proclaims that she and her family did, too.