The old romantic images fly thick and fast. For many people, the archetypal Georgian rectory nestling beside an ancient church evokes a scene from Jane Austen. For others it conjures up something much darker and elemental, such as the parsonage on the Yorkshire Moors where the Brontë sisters led such confined yet creative lives. In more modern times, we might think of Vikram Seth at the Old Rectory near Salisbury, where George Herbert lived, or Edmund de Waal growing up in the Chancery at Lincoln, home to the very creative Benson family a century earlier. In general, we might agree that 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, despite the clerical incumbents moving on.
Now a book has come out that talks not about the rectories’ architecture and financial values, but about the long association rectories have had with writers in Britain. Deborah Alun-Jones wrote The Wry Romance of the Literary Rectory, published by Thames and Hudson in 2013. For her, as for most Anglicans I suspect, the British rural idyll was epitomised by the mellow walls of the rectory: an icon of serenity and history. Sir John Betjeman's home (photo below) was even voted best parsonage by Country Life magazine for its exceptional architecture, beautifully-kept gardens and spectacular views over the Berkshire Downs.
Deborah Alun-Jones paired up eight English rectories with the authors who lived in them. Each chapter offered an architectural history of each rectory and a biography of each writer’s family. The authors were: 1] Sydney Smith, 2] Alfred Tennyson, 3] Dorothy Sayers, 4] Rupert Brooke, 5] John Betjeman, 6] RS Thomas, 7] George Herbert and 8] the Benson and de Waal families. Each chapter explored the life of the writers during the time they lived at a particular rectory and the effect it had on them.
Life in the rectory was often creative and supportive, but sometimes the residents had to overcome great adversity eg parental psychosis. And the bitter, unrelenting cold. Nonetheless there was a common experience that created and nurtured talent. It says a great deal about the place of religion in English life, about the cultural consequences of having an educated and married clergy, and about the effect on the imagination of being simultaneously privileged and isolated, well-connected and poor.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived in his father's rectory in Somersby Lincolnshire. It was built in the early C18th
One reviewer remained unconvinced about whether Alun-Jones achieved her goal of proving that “these structures mirrored the stereotype of the national psyche: the cool, calm exterior concealing the turbulence and drama of the inner self.” Surely that was true of most homes, Lee Randall said; life inside a rectory was only as rich and varied, as good and as bad, and as creatively inspiring as life in any other dwelling? I suppose that was true, but I still wept when reading of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s really horrible childhood.
In 1842 Charlotte and Emily Brontë went to Brussels to board at the pensionnat run by Claire Zoë Parent and Constantin Heger. An unpublished homework essay by Charlotte, in French, on the subject of L'Amour Filial/the love of a child for her parents was marked by her teacher, Constantin Heger, who left his corrections and comments. Hand-writing analysis has since confirmed the identity of the author.
What is the connection with rectories? A fund was raised on behalf of the Brontë Society from three different sources, paying £50,000 for the essay in December 2012. The essay's future home will be at the Bronte vicarage-museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire where everyone will be able to see the document on public display.
In June 1913 Constantin's son, Paul Heger, donated the four surviving letters Charlotte wrote to his father to the British Museum.