Like Catherine Morland, Jane Austen’s young heroine in Northanger Abbey, there are many English people who dream of a romantic existence in “the unpretending comfort of a well-connected parsonage”. The image conjured up by the mellow bricks and mortar of the archetypal Georgian rectory, nestling by the ancient church it was built to serve, remains profoundly evocative, the embodiment of the English rural idyll.
These village homes exude serenity, restraint, civility and continuity; values that have a particular resonance in an age of anxiety and dislocation – and the romance endures, for Anglican and atheist alike, despite the clerical incumbents moving on.
The ideal of rectory living can be found in the diaries and correspondence of country clerics such as the Rev Francis Kilvert and James Woodforde and in the novels of some of Britain’s best-loved 19th-century writers – George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, alongside that most famous of rectory daughters Jane Austen herself – many of whom either grew up in rectories or had clerical links. A closer look through the rectory keyhole, however, reveals a different story, and one often at odds with the popular notion of life in a parsonage.
Archaeo Briton’s recent excavation of Steventon Rectory, Hampshire (demolished in the 1820s) – the results of which will be published later this year – appears to suggest that Austen’s childhood rectory home was a more modest, hard-working household than any reflected in her literary imagination. Like other traditional family homes of church ministers the refined and genteel façade was not necessarily matched by the interior, where rooms were often small and cramped and conditions spartan.
As late as 1955, behind its exquisite 1730s brick front, the inhabitants of the rectory at Farnborough in Berkshire had to fetch water daily from the village pump. There was no light and no heat, according to John Betjeman, who lived there from 1945-51; a visiting Evelyn Waugh described it in blunt terms: “lightless, stuffy, cold”.
In a BBC Home Service broadcast in 1943, Betjeman summed up the appeal of rural living: “For me … England stands for the Church of England, eccentric incumbents, oil-lit churches … modest village inns, arguments about cow parsley on the altar”.
The Old Rectory at Farnborough appeared to offer him the perfect backdrop for a literary life, one rooted in the parish. His wife, the practical and resourceful Penelope Chetwode, knew differently, sensing her husband’s dream of the rural idyll was practically and financially unsustainable. She was proved right and in 1951, after the marriage had foundered, the rectory was sold.
“On Being Cold” was the subtitle for the author and ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s recent talk to The Rectory Society. It speaks volumes about life inside the Chancery at Lincoln, where his father became chancellor in the late 1960s. In winter, his mother, the writer Esther de Waal, would bring Edmund and his brothers their morning porridge in bed as the ancient flagstoned kitchen was permanently below freezing. Any physical hardships were, however, more than compensated for by the surroundings.
The ancient Chancery, perhaps one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the country, stands opposite the east window of Lincoln Cathedral, which has dominated the city for some 800 years. The spaces inside the cathedral struck the young de Waal as “beautiful, interesting and odd” – and as startling as the Chancery itself, which was described by a former inhabitant, AC Benson (the poet and master of Magdalene College, Cambridge) as a magical house: “All mysterious, tortuous, inexplicable, with unaccountable spaces and solitudes everywhere.”
The poet laureate Alfred, later Lord Tennyson, also grew up in Lincolnshire, and his childhood home was at the rectory in Somersby, where his father became rector in 1808. Today, the exterior still conveys a sense of peace and quietude. Yet for Tennyson and his siblings this image of pastoral romance concealed a darker and far more complex reality. Life was overcrowded and claustrophobic, defined by a bitter and melancholic father; “We are three and twenty in family and sleep five or six in a room” the rector complained in a letter of 1824 regarding a proposed visit from one of his well-to-do sisters; “Truly we have great accommodation for Mrs Russell and her suite,” he added sardonically.
The children were forced to turn inward, and upwards, where in their attic room the eldest three brothers, including Alfred, retreated to the inner world of their imaginations to write poetry. They strode the Lincolnshire Wolds howling to the skies or declaiming their verse to the parish graveyard. The black-bloodedness of the Tennysons (now thought to be epilepsy) permeated the overcrowded household and of Tennyson’s six brothers only one, Charles, had a conventional career, following his father into the Church, as well as into battles with alcohol and laudanum. And yet Somersby kept its place in the Tennyson children’s affection.
At Haworth in Yorkshire, where the parsonage looks over the seeping gloom of the graveyard, conditions were similarly testing for the Brontë sisters. “I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their genteel but confined houses,” Charlotte wrote of Austen’s rarefied circles. Certainly, theirs was a more rugged terrain, both literally and metaphorically – “moorish and wild” as Charlotte described the setting of Wuthering Heights in her preface to the 1850 edition of her sister’s novel.
At Haworth, subject to their own brand of isolation, the motherless children retreated to the dark sequestered mansions of the mind where their imagination found a freedom that was not afforded them in their daily lives as daughters of a 19th-century Yorkshire parson.
Rectory life was not unremittingly gloomy. For the literary cleric, wit and co-founder of the Edinburgh Review, the Rev Sydney Smith (1771-1845), such isolation was embraced with humanity and great humour. His Yorkshire posting at Foston might be, in his words, “twelve miles from a lemon” but he nonetheless made the most of his situation. Laughter rang through Smith’s rectory – it was affectionately known as “The Rector’s Head”, a convivial stopping place for friends travelling north – and he felt it one of life’s greatest pleasures to keep his wife and children laughing for two or three hours every day. Such humour extended below as well as above stairs, as one visitor 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.”
It seems these narratives – cheerful or otherwise – further enhance the contemporary appeal of rectory living. And if the notion of the romantic rectory is all a fiction, no more than a lyrical building of the imagination – what of it? As Virginia Woolf wrote in her 1932 essay “Two Parsons”, where she discussed the diaries of the 18th-century Parson Woodforde, “Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last, and some places and some people are not touched by change.” Perhaps the rectory is one such place, the one house that, in Woolf’s words, “withstands the storm.”
‘The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory’ by Deborah Alun-Jones is published by Thames & Hudson
Places to hatch a plot
Rectories for sale
Broadgate House, Steeple Bumpstead, Essex, £1.275m
Nestling close by the church this former rectory was home to AA Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, who lived here with his family during his student years at Trinity College, Cambridge. The property, which dates back to the 16th century and is Grade II-listed, has five bedrooms, a grass tennis court and a pool.
Jackson-Stops & Staff, www.jackson-stops.co.uk
Hitcham House, Ipswich, Suffolk, offers in excess of £4m
A Georgian former rectory, Hitcham was rebuilt in 1814 by James Spiller, a friend of Sir John Soane. Clergyman John Stevens Henslow, a Victorian incumbent and respected botanist and geologist, counted Charles Darwin among his friends. While staying at Hitcham, Darwin is reputed to have started On the Origin of Species. The property is Grade II-listed and has eight bedrooms.
Knight Frank, www.knightfrank.co.uk
Lancelot Andrewes, the Elizabethan clergyman and later bishop and translator of the King James Bible, found inspiration here and his influence echoes down the centuries. TS Eliot wrote an essay on Andrewes and based lines of “The Journey of the Magi” on one of his sermons. The six-bedroom house was extended and refronted in the early 18th century.
Jackson-Stops & Staff, www.jackson-stops.co.uk