Seminar Paper, 2005
14 Pages, Grade: 2,0
2. Main Part
2.1 Jane Austen’s ecclesiastical background
2.2 Presenting Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice
2.3 Austen’s criticism of the clergy
4. Sources of Criticism
Pride and Prejudice is nowadays regarded as Jane Austen’s most enduringly popular novel. It was first published in 1813 and is a rewritten version of her earlier work First Impressions which had been refused for publication in 1797.
Jane Austen worked on this novel during her most productive time, the first two decades of the nineteenth century. The setting of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ falls also to the time she lived and therefore delivers a detailed depiction of the existing society. The novel tells not only the story of love between the wealthy aristocrat Mr. Darcy and the intelligent Elizabeth Bennet, but also describes rural life in ‘Regency England’ with its ideas of values and virtues.
Considerations of a class society are omnipresent in the novel and social position was established in terms of families, not individuals. Generally in those times, the family had a higher rank than today and was principally responsible for the intellectual and moral education of children. In Pride and Prejudice Austen portrays a world in which society took an interest in the private virtue of its members, mainly considering marriage. Especially the church played an important role here.
As religion was an important factor of that age, the clergy also had a significant role in Pride and Prejudice and is represented by the obsequious rector Mr. Collins. As he is the only clergyman in the novel, Jane Austen expresses all her criticism considering the clergy through his character.
Therefore the main part of this term paper concentrates on the way how Mr. Collins is presented in the novel. Afterwards, Austen’s crucial way of presenting him will lead to a general depiction of her criticism of the clergy, as she accuses Mr. Collins only superficially. In order to understand Jane Austen’s relation to the clergy, it is necessary to have a closer look at her clerical background.
In many of Jane Austen’s novels religion plays an important role in the characters’ lives. Although it cannot be considered as the main theme in Pride and Prejudice, being aware of the role of the clergy in Jane Austen’s time is essential to understand her fiction. Knowing about her ecclesiastical relatives and her own piety makes it easier to understand her novels because she was connected to the clerical profession in many ways.
Jane Austen was born in 1775 as the seventh child and second daughter of Reverend George Austen. She grew up in an upper middle-class family in the village Rectory of Steventon in the county of Hampshire, as her father was the Rector of the parish. Two of her brothers became clergymen as well: James Austen succeeded his father George as the Rector of Steventon when he went to Bath with his family. Henry Austen ended up as a country clergyman, too, after he had served in the Oxford Militia. In addition, two of her brothers married sisters whose father was a Rector. Her grandfather and her great-grandfather were clergymen, as well as one of her cousins. Two of Austen’s aunts married clericals and, moreover, she had many ecclesiastical friends.
Considering this list Jane Austen obviously had much knowledge of the rural clergymen, not only through her father’s profession. She was familiar with the conventions and traditions of the church and described English country life in her fiction mostly “through the Rectory window.”
Jane Austen herself can be considered as deeply religious and devout. She is said to have attended every morning and evening service in church and has read lots of sermons. Her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh described that she “had lived the life of a good Christian” and that “piety [...] ruled her in life, and supported her in death”. In general it can be assumed that Jane Austen was as religious as it could be expected from the daughter of a cleric. In spite of that she never used to discuss religion, as her nephew explained: “that is a subject on which she herself was more inclined to think and act than to talk”. However, in her fiction Austen tried to separate her own piety from her imagination. Especially in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ she proved that she was not afraid of being ironic towards clergymen. With the character of Mr. Collins she creates an obsequious clerical who is discovered to be “a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man” by Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of the novel. In her fiction she generally presents clergymen in their social and secular roles as lovers rather than in their ecclesiastical roles. Mr. Collins, for example, is not shown in one of his sermons throughout the whole novel, the reader gets to know him only from dinners, letters or balls. In ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Mr. Collins represents one bad example of a cleric because it must be confirmed that
[...] the novelist is well aware of the difference between what the clergy often are and what they should be; that, even under the old bad system, not all clergymen were bad, that many might be, like the Austens, highly creditable parish ministers.
Jane Austen’s own religious inclination changed throughout her life. In the years after 1814 she became a supporter of the rising Evangelical movement in England, which was one of the several contemporary religious responses to the French Revolution in the early nineteenth century. To a large extent the Evangelists were supporters of the old social order, who saw their movement as a religious instrument for stability, in order to keep up the status quo in England. Pride and Prejudice has not been influenced by this movement, because it was written and published before Austen was attracted by Evangelicalism.
Nevertheless, Jane Austen’s works often have a religious touch, because she was connected to the church and to several clergymen in many ways. In the early nineteenth century religion still was an important factor of everyone’s life, as the Church of England was a powerful and influential institution. Piety and daily prayers determined the lives of many people and therefore religion always had a special place in her literary works. Although it was never considered to be the main theme of her fiction it is useful to be aware of the novelist’s own religious situation as it helps the reader to understand the contemporary religious backgrounds of her novels.
 See Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin 1994, p.1f
 See Bush, Douglas. Jane Austen. London: Macmillan Press, 1975, p.16f
 Roberts, Warren. Jane Austen and the French Revolution. London: Macmillan Press, 1979, p.109
 Ibid., p.111
 Ibid., p.111
 Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin 1994, p. 107
 Bush, Douglas. Jane Austen. London: Macmillan Press, 1975, p. 11
 See Roberts, Warren. Jane Austen and the French Revolution. London: Macmillan Press, 1979, p. 119f
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