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The darker truth that lurks within

03 May 2013

There is a literary romance, evoked by the country rectory, that speaks of gentility, serenity, and unchanging values. But this is a long way from the truth, says Deborah Alun-Jones


Inner resources: Somersby Rec­­­­tory, home of the Tennysons

Inner resources: Somersby Rec­­­­tory, home of the Tennysons

CATHERINE MORLAND, Jane Austen's heroine in Northanger Abbey (1817), daydreams of a future life in "the unpretending comfort of a well-connected parsonage". Even now, in the 21st century, the romance of rectory living endures, despite the clerical inhabitants' moving on.

These traditional village homes of the rector or vicar epitomise, for many, Anglican and atheist alike, a sense of serenity, civility, and continuity - values that have particular resonance in an age of anxiety and dislocation. The mellow bricks and mortar of the archetypal Georgian rectory, nestling close by the church it was built to serve, evoke a sustaining image of a pre-lapsarian rural idyll, deeply familiar and profoundly reassuring.

And yet did such parsonic perfection ever exist beyond the pages of literary fiction? And what was the practical reality of life behind the elegant façade of these buildings, which have come to figure so centrally in our cultural and literary landscape?

The idea of genteel rectory living is perpetuated in the diaries of 18th-century country clerics such as the Revd Francis Kilvert and the Revd James Woodforde, as well as in the works of some of our best-loved novelists, such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Anthony Trollope, many of whom either grew up in parsonages, or had clerical connections.

If we dig a little deeper, however, such a presented fiction was often at odds with some of the harsher realities of rectory-living, where the high aesthetic of the rectory's exterior was not matched by the interior; where rooms were often smaller, and the conditions more crowded, than the outside suggested.

Despite their testing living conditions, they were, none the less, seedbeds of creativity, and the underlying and often unrevealed tensions have produced some of the greatest writers and poets in the English language.


THIS was certainly true for Alfred, later Lord, Tennyson at Somersby, in Lincolnshire, where his father became Rector in 1808. From the outside, the former rectory conveys a sense of quietude, a fitting breeding ground for poetic sensibilities, with its whimsical ecclesiastical Gothic addition. Yet inside, for Tennyson and his siblings, this image of pastoral romance concealed a darker and more complex reality.

Life was overcrowded and claustrophobic: "We are three and twenty in family and sleep five or six in a room," the Rector complained. For the 11 children, there was little escape from their father's brutal and bitter outbursts, as he tried to reconcile life in a cramped rural rectory to the one he had envisaged for himself, as the eldest son of an ambitious and prosperous lawyer.

The children were forced to turn inwards and upwards, seeking refuge in an attic room, where the three eldest boys (including Alfred) retreated to the inner world of their imagination. An early poem, "O Darling Room" (1832), celebrates this attic refuge, turning the cramped reality into a poetic idyll:

O darling room, my heart's delight,
Dear room, the apple of my sight,
With thy two couches soft and white,
There is no room so exquisite,
No little room so warm and bright,
Wherein to read, wherein to write.

THE atmosphere at Haworth Parsonage, in North Yorkshire, could be similarly intense, and equally creative. "I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their genteel but confined houses," Charlotte Brontë wrote of Austen's rarefied circles.

The Brontës' landscape was a more rugged, imaginative terrain - "moorish and wild", as Charlotte described the setting of Wuthering Heights (1847). Yet within the thick stone walls of Haworth, the motherless children were subject to their own brand of isolation.

Overlooking the seeping gloom of a brimming graveyard, the Brontës turned inwards to the dark sequestered mansions of the mind, creating their own fictional worlds to escape the monotony of reality. It could be a stifling existence, as Charlotte revealed when writing to her friend Ellen Nussey: "I feel as if we were all buried here."

For another, earlier, literary cleric, such isolation within the presented parsonage perfection was borne with humanity and humour. The 18th-century wit the Revd Sydney Smith, co-founder of the Edinburgh Review, recognised that, although his North Yorkshire posting at Foston was "twelve miles from a lemon" (a privation indeed for an urban gourmand such as Smith), he would embrace his responsibilities as parson, doctor, magistrate, and agriculturalist with gusto.

Unlike Tennyson and his siblings, Smith was his own master inside the rectory, subject to no one's whims but his own. Finding the rectory nothing but a hovel on his arrival, in 1812, he set about building a "snug parsonage" to his own design. Life within both the house and the parish was infused with, and reflected, his ebullient personality. Here he dispensed medical as well as spiritual advice, with inventively named potions such as "Rub-a-dub, a capital embrocation; - Dead-stop, settles the matter at once". He declared it a "delicate compliment when my guests have a slight illness here".

He also thought it one of life's greatest luxuries to keep his wife and children laughing for two or three hours every day. One visitor, his friend and co-founder of the Edinburgh Review, Henry Brougham, remarked: "I have seen him at Foston . . . drive the servants from the room with the tears running down their faces, in peals of inextinguishable laughter."

SUCH conviviality was not a defining feature of Dorothy L. Sayers's childhood, nearly a century later, at Bluntisham-cum-Earith, on the edge of the Fens, where her father was Rector from 1897 to 1917. Here life seemed to resemble that of Trollope's fictional Framley Parsonage, untroubled by doubt and satirical portrayals of Church hierarchy.

Behind the fine façade, the ex-headmaster of Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford, and his more sociable wife, Helen, found numerous quaint and much smaller rooms in a state of disrepair. Disliking the draughty cold passages and shallow winding staircase, Helen often escaped back to her Oxford life, leaving their only child, Dorothy, in the care of her disciplinarian father, maiden aunt, and widowed grandmother.

Precociously intelligent (like many children of the rectory, she had access to her father's library and learning), the young Dorothy was set apart from both adults and the company of other children. Up in her nursery quarters, she had endless opportunities for self-dramatisation.

She was the centre of the lively drama of her own carefully constructed imaginary world, "with a perfect realisation that I was the creator and not the subject of these fantasies". She later turned the secrets of conventional parish life on their head to become something more sinister in her detective story The Nine Tailors.

DESPITE social pressures on the parochial model in the inter-war years, the sustaining image of the rural rectory persisted. Writing from Dublin in the middle of the Second World War, John Betjeman summed up what the country meant to him. "For me", he wrote, "England stands for the Church of England, eccentric incumbents, oil-lit churches. . ."

The romantic vision that rose before him was centred in the rural parish, with the rectory at its core. When, returning to England, he found that Farnborough Rectory was being sold by the Church Commissioners, he was enchanted.

To him, it was a dream of a house. But his wife, the practical and resourceful Penelope Chetwode, saw behind the beautiful façade, recognised the amount of work that it needed, and pronounced it not very attractive.

Betjeman threw himself into parish life as rector manqué, retreating, as many previous incumbents had done, to his book-lined study in the afternoons, to write at his desk overlooking the lawn, and the ancient, thatched tithe barn.

There was no water, no light, no heat. One visitor remarked that it was like living in the dark ages, and, after five years, the Betjemans gave up trying to live out the dream. As Penelope had remarked when they moved in: "It will probably kill us in the end." Her premonition was partly accurate; it did witness the death of their marriage.

The romance of the rectory still persists, even if the example of the lives of some of the characters is not an entirely happy one. The hidden desires, domestic dramas, and isolation of rectory living behind ordered parsonage walls has proved to be highly creative - both for those who lived in working rectories, and those who have found their imaginative pull irresistible.

The literary voices from the rectory continue to resound in the 21st century. At Bemerton, near Salisbury, for example, Vikram Seth lives and works in the same space as his poetical forebear, the 17th-century poet and divine the Revd George Herbert.

Deborah Alun-Jones's new book  The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory is published by Thames & Hudson at  £18.95 (Church Times Bookshop £17.10); 978-0-500-51677-5.

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