IN A letter to her sister, Cassandra, dated 29 January 1813, penned immediately after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote: “Now I will try to write of something else, and it shall be a complete change of subject — ordination.” It was a profession that she surely felt authoritative to write about, given that her father and two of her brothers were clergymen.
Mansfield Park was published the following year, and its main male character, the Revd Edmund Bertram, is perhaps the most sympathetically drawn character of all Austen’s clergymen. Bertram says, in defence of his profession: “It will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.” It is a statement that can be applied to most ordained characters in Austen’s works: for good or ill, they are representative of their time and station in life.
The Revd William Collins, surely the most famous of all Austen’s parsons, is an obvious place to start. In the 1940 Hollywood film Pride and Prejudice (an adaptation that Christopher Brooke, an eminent church historian and avid Austen fan, said bore merely a “coincidental” relationship to the book), Melville Cooper’s interpretation of Collins adds additional pantomime to the novel’s satirical caricature. When proposing to Elizabeth Bennett, Collins comically follows her across the room on his knees, crying “Be my wife, be my wife!” It is played for laughs, and yet Cooper hints that behind this buffoonery lies a vulnerability that is compensated for with pomposity and avarice.
Tom Hollander’s performance of the same part in Joe Wright’s 2005 film production is more nuanced. He nervously proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, unaware of the futility of his suit, and we can detect in his refusal to accept Elizabeth’s answer the pressure that he is under from his benefactor, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, to find a wife. We have yet to see how Collins is portrayed in the forthcoming film Longbourn, out later this year, a below-stairs view of the Bennet household.
IN THE 1999 film version of Mansfield Park, Edmund is played by Jonny Lee Miller. The Canadian director Patricia Rozema presents the female lead, Fanny, as a high-spirited young woman introducing discussions about abolition and other topics in a manner more akin to modern thinking, whereas in the novel Fanny is less confident. The film ends when Edmund proposes to her, before being ordained; gone, therefore, are any significant references to parish life.
On screen, Austen’s Christian hero and heroine become the voice of liberation, especially in relation to discussions about the slave trade. The secularising of Christian virtues which occurs here is nevertheless redolent of the way Austen perceived true vocation. Rozema may have updated the social issues, but her version retains the Austen trope of having characters question their principles before fiercely renewing them.
In many contemporary versions, however, there is no pretence of reproducing Austen’s milieu. The 2003 film Pride and Prejudice, for example, is set in Utah within a Mormon community. William Collins is a missionary, and “President de Bourgh”, a high-priest leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a substitute for Collins’s patron Lady de Bourgh.
ALAMYTom Hollander’s, in 2005, reveals Collins’s vulnerabilityThen there is Bride and Prejudice (2004), a Bollywood musical in which Mr Collins becomes Mr Kholi. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) goes further out on a limb. Matt Smith (a former Doctor in Doctor Who) plays an especially oleaginous Parson Collins, who wards off the living dead while eating crumpets.
The film Clueless (1995) is a good example of an original retelling. By loosely basing the narrative on Emma, it succeeds in its own right as an American high-school comedy. Alicia Silverstone is Cher, the equivalent of Emma, whose classroom matchmaking goes badly awry. (There was an opportunity, within a year of the film’s release, to compare it with the Gwyneth Paltrow version: a straight adaptation of the novel, in which the young vicar, Philip Elton, is played by Alan Cumming.)
In Clueless, the character “Elton” is not a clergyman, as he is in the novel, but a high-school heart-throb who is wealthy and arrogant. One of the reasons that sensitive updates give the Elton character a different career is to bring out these distasteful aspects of his character, to emphasise Austen’s assessment of the “littleness about him”, born of his underlying insecurity.
In the novel, the Revd Mr Elton is patronisingly good to the poor of the parish, but he and his wife, Augusta, are mostly focused on exalting their own position in society, usually by denigrating others. Fortunately, these vices are no longer as commonly associated with the clergy; so other more stereotypically avaricious identities have to be constructed — as in the film Aisha (2010), another Indian version of Emma, in which Elton becomes Randhir, a rich executive.
We see this contrast between a modern interpretation of the story versus a straight retelling in two of the film versions of Sense and Sensibility. In the 1995 film, Hugh Grant as a tongue-tied aspiring cleric, Edward Ferrars, is the dullest of Jane’s church representatives, whose mumblings to Elinor (Emma Thompson) are all but unintelligible. But in From Prada to Nada, a modern-day Latino version of the same story, Ferrars is no longer a vicar, and is depicted as dynamic, charming, successful, and confident — in other words, the implicit suggestion is that someone like that cannot be a clergyman.
THERE has yet to be a made-for-cinema adaptation of Northanger Abbey. There have been five TV serials, the first in 1952. The latest one, screened in 2016, is also the longest, at 11 episodes. The main problem with this version, as with many TV adaptations of Austen, is its tendency to be over-reverential to the original plot and dialogue.
Departures from the text can sometimes add a welcome frisson to proceedings. In the 2007 television film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, for example, the writer Andrew Davies plays on the fact that the heroine, Catherine Morland, has a fevered imagination that makes it difficult for her to differentiate between illusion and reality. This gives scope to go off in very un-Austen directions.
As Catherine (Felicity Jones) is having a bath, she fantasises about being the heroine of a Gothic novel. All of sudden, Henry Tilney (J. J. Feild) appears, pulling her up with the words, “Nothing to be ashamed of. It’s all God’s creation.” It takes a while before we realise that Henry is a clergyman. It is perhaps unsurprising that it was the same writer, Andrew Davies, who brought us Colin Firth as Mr Darcy, wet shirt and all, emerging from the lake in the 1995 BBC TV series of Pride and Prejudice.
REXMatt Smith as Parson Collins wards off zombies in 2017That said, Tilney’s more sensuous portrayal is perhaps not as “un-Austen” as we might think; for, as the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, the Church of Austen’s day was “at one with the tendency of secular feeling; its preoccupation may be said to have been less with the achievement of salvation than with the performance of duty”. Austen’s clergy are gentlemen before they are priests.
THE successive screenplays of Persuasion — of which there are four — provide an interesting history of the declining prominence of clergy in our society. Charles Hayter is a cleric awaiting preferment, who is casually engaged to his cousin Henrietta Musgrove. Superficially, he is polite enough, although he does not seem interested in other people unless they can be influenced to his advantage.
The book is clear, however, that times are changing (Captain Wentworth is a self-made man by dint of working rather than inheritance), and parsons, with other gentry, find that the power to persuade others to do their bidding increasingly resides elsewhere. In a meritocratic society, the noblesse oblige of the powerful is no longer to supply spiritual leaders.
It is unsurprising, then, that in the 1960 and 1971 TV series, Hayter features very briefly, but the other clergy characters have been dropped. By the time of Roger Michell’s 1995 film, or Simon Burke’s 2007 TV adaptation, no clergy remain, nor are their parts replaced by declericalised characters.
Austen’s screen parsons, with the exception of Ferrars, give cinemagoers little confidence that clergy are, as he says, “what they ought to be”. Perhaps that is because churches have become remote or unknown territory in recent times. Perhaps it is also because directors have not found much to like in Austen’s clerical characters.
Yet this would be to miss the subtlety of her work; for Austen never sets out to deride her ordained characters, but, rather, to show them as complicated, flawed, and vulnerable, just like “the rest of the nation”. Her hope for her clergy — as it was for all her characters — is that they would learn to be better.