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
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
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
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
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.
(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
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
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);