03 September 2013

The Cultural and Literary History of Rectories

In a topic close to my heart, I wrote that village rectories, the traditional family homes of Anglican ministers, have a sad history. Although rectories and vicarages have had their ups and downs since the early 18th century, the period since the early C20th has posed perhaps the greatest challenge for protectors of church heritage. Real estate agents are, however, delighted. Old vicarages, all the defrocked plant of the Church of England, are in hot demand - these substantial and elegant homes propose permanence and stability, and some sort of evocative past.

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.

Sir John Betjeman's former home in  Farnborough, Berkshire had been built as a vicarage in the mid 18th century.

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.

I am not sure where the impact of the rectory was greater. Perhaps it was where the writer had been a child who grew up in a rectory with his/her clerical father (eg Tennyson, Sayers). Or was it where the adult writer chose to live in an old rectory (eg Brooke, Betjeman), perhaps because of the values that these houses symbolised. The Old Rectory in Berkshire certainly spread its magic on John Betjeman. He ran a campaign to revive and sustain local parish life.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson lived in his father's rectory in Somersby Lincolnshire. It was built in the early C18th

In either case, it must have worked. Deborah Alun-Jones showed that the serene exterior of the rectory did indeed prod­uce a golden age of literature. Eight Poet Laureates, presumably the greatest writers and poets in the English language, were brought up such homes. The Bensons were clearly impacted! Their father EW Benson became Archbishop of Canterbury later in his career, and in the meantime the four children all grew up to be writers.

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.


Andrew said...

I've always thought of them as dark, secretive, restrictive, formal and not a place to be creative beyond embroidery. Obviously they were not. Very interesting.

Hels said...


I love the idea that we have strongly conceived notions about rectories (or any other historical issue).

My view was based probably on the Brontes - intensely literate women, desperately trying to study and create, in a world that wasn't ready for them. The father of the household, the rector, may have pushed the children's education vigorously or may have been coldly distant. My fantasy rectory doesn't seem to include any mothers.

We Travel said...

Poor old Rupert Brooke. He must have loved the Old Vicarage Granchester! But he died so young, he didn't even have a chance to buy the house.

I saw the old vicarage. It is lovely to look at.

columnist said...

I've always fancied one, (to own), as they seem to combine fine architecture, (preferably Georgian), and are not too large, such as the mansions, ("Halls, Abbeys, Castles") of their time, which are just too ridculously large to live in with comfort, (viz having the wherewithal to heat them, and not to have a route march to get from the dining room to the kitchen etc.) Very few people have the staff to manage such establishments today, and you do need a few to keep the place ticking over. It helps if you're the Queen or the Prince of Wales in these situations...!

Hels said...

Oh We Travel

Brooke's Old Vicarage Granchester is delightful.. almost picture postcard perfect!


But he died so terribly young (1887-1915)..still in his 20s. What a waste of a young life.

Hels said...


since all the rectors seemed to have a lot of children and visitors, I suppose Georgian vicarages had to be large enough.

The problem was that because housing was taken care of, the salaries must have been very modest. So the vicar's family might have been well housed and well educated, but otherwise would have had to have lived rather frugally.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I don't think that America has such a tradition of rectories fostering literary creation, but they tend to be handsome and roomy residences. I wouldn't mind living in one of them, as long as I didn't have to assume the rector's duties.

I had never thought of it until this moment, but I don't think that I have ever been inside of any rectory. I assume that the more elaborate ones are nice, but one that I saw in a real estate ad had a curious lack of interior finish.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


Likewise for me. Of the squillions of Old Rectories still standing, I have only been in a couple that went on to become important literary museums.

Have a look at Lewish Carroll's biography. When Carroll was 11, his father was given the living of Croft-on-Tees in North Yorkshire and the entire family moved to the spacious Rectory, wherein they resided for the next 25 years of their life. Since it was a remote countryside, the 11 children had to discover their own source of entertainment! Carroll was extremely creative in the art of creating games and entertaining his family. He began writing a personal periodical at the age of 12, called the Rectory Magazine, which was meant for the children’s education as well as enjoyment.

So... rural, huge family, isolated, nothing for the children to do and a religiously active father.

Country Life said...

Re a competition for England's finest parsonage, the architectural editor of Country Life, said: This is not simply a competition about architectural merit. The particular appeal of parsonages lies in their combination of architecture and location; set among fine gardens or in a prominent location on a village green beside the church.

Hels said...

Country Life

I absolutely understand that the competition could only be regarding the rectories' architecture, gardens and village location. The cultural history of each rectory would be very difficult to assess.

Jim said...

In my post today, those cranes are at the Garden Island dockyard which is between Darling Point and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Hels said...


as much as I think I know Australia (as well as Britain and Israel), there is more and more to learn. Thank you.

National Theatre Live said...

The acclaimed re-imagining of Bronte’s masterpiece was originally performed over two nights, and is now presented as a single, exhilarating performance. This bold and dynamic production uncovers one woman’s fight for freedom and fulfilment on her own terms. From her beginnings as a destitute orphan, Jane Eyre’s spirited heroine faces life’s obstacles head-on, surviving poverty, injustice and the discovery of bitter betrayal before taking the ultimate decision to follow her heart.

Screening at: Palace Brighton Bay, Palace Centro, Chauvel Cinema and Palace Nova Eastend from February 13th 2016

Hels said...

Thank you for sending the invitation. The Brontes were very special.