Two Austen Qs: Pronouns and Money.

I’m re-reading the novels of Jane Austen at the moment, and I’m reminded of a couple of questions that have puzzled me since I first read Emma about 20 years ago. They’re not related, but I thought I’d combine them rather than create two threads.

1: Pronouns. In her dialog, Austen often has characters, when talking with their siblings, speak of “my father” or “my mother.” To me, as a 21st-century American, this sounds odd, because the use of the possessive has a connotation of exclusion, i.e. my father, not yours. Talking to my sister, I would refer to Dad or Father, but not “my father,” because it would seem like I’m saying he’s not her father. With a friend, I’d speak about “my father” but not with my sister. It is my impression that virtually all Americans follow this usage.

So my question is, do people in the U.K. (or other English-speaking countries) still use this form today, or is it an outdated 19th-century usage? (Bonus question: Can you recall other writers who used the construction? I haven’t read many other writers from that period, but off the top of my head, I don’t recall Dickens or others using it. Is it peculiar to Austen, perhaps?)

  1. “Livings.” In pretty much every Austen novel, there is at least one clergyman who is given a “living” to serve at a local parrish. The context makes the situation relatively clear: a fund of money has been provided to support the minister. Apparently, though, this fund is usually under the control of the local squire, who can choose who will get it and when. I have inferred that the “living” is sometimes a stream of income from some investment or property.

Am I right about that? Can you provide any more factual details about how these “livings” worked? Where did the money come from? The church? The squire? If the former, why would it be under the control of the latter? What portion of the English churches of the day were supported by such arrangements? Do you know any other interesting facts about “livings”?


Well I cannot answer you in the context of Austen, but I can say that I know plenty of people who refer to their parents as “my mom” or “my dad” when speaking to a sibling.

My friend and her sister:

Friend: “My mom said to do the dishes.”
Sister: “My mom said you were supposed to do the dishes.”

…It’s weird to me, but whatever.

Not absolutely certain about these, but have read all of Austen’s novels so at least I know what you’re referring to.

I don’t know of anyone who would deliberately say “my father” to their siblings, so I assumed it was an old, and more formal, way of speaking. I don’t remember it happening that often though. Could you list which characters said it, and to who? It might also be a class thing.

Dickens didn’t write until several decades after Austen so he might not be the best point of comparison. Some contemporary writers to Austen were Sir Walter Scott, Mrs Radcliffe and Fanny Burney, plus the Romantics (although she wasn’t really influenced by the latter, she’d probably share colloquial ways of speaking).

Livings belonged to the local land-owner, who could give them to whoever they liked. For example Lady Catherine gives one to Mr Collins in P&P, and Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park gave one to Mr Norris, then Dr Grant (if Norris had lived longer, it probably would have gone to Edmund straightaway). They were the position of parish priest with an income attached, were sometimes sold if the owner didn’t have anyone to give them to, and I believe the income was from the land-owner not the church. It was pretty common for a long time.

Because there was an income to go with the position, but not usually a large one, some priests would take livings in several parishes and appoint another priest to do some of the duties. This also happened because being a priest was seen more as a job suitable for younger sons, rather than as a spiritual calling. It’s touched on in Mansfield Park, when Mary assumes Edmund would live in town even after he became a priest. There were eventually reforms to prevent that sort of thing from happening - people wanted their parish priest to actually live in the village and be a part of the community.

Should also have mentioned: if you’re enjoying Austen’s novels, it might be worth getting hold of the Penguin Classics editions. They have endnotes explaining various customs and info that Austen would have assumed her readers knew about - stuff like what income you need to be able to afford to keep a carriage (about a thousand pounds a year), what “enclosure” is, how the postal system worked, etc. Just little bits and pieces of info that I’ve found interesting.

Oh, and livings were sometimes passed from father to son, as happened in Austen’s own family. Her father held the living at Steventon and when he died, it was given to his eldest son James.

I vaguely recall similar usages in Charlotte Bronte’s works - perhaps in Jane Eyre where Eliza and Georgiana Reed are talking? I’ll check tonight when I get home.

Cunctator, I searched the online version of Jane Eyre available here, and the only occurrence I found that was similar to it was when Diana is telling Jane about the troubles between their (St. John, Diana, and Mary) father and their uncle. Her siblings are in the room with her, but she refers to her father and uncle as “my father” and “my uncle.” There was no mention of fathers by either Georgiana or Eliza when Mrs. Reed dies or before, and Jane loses contact with them after that.

I’m quoting the passage I’m talking about below. It’s the second to last paragraph in the thirtieth chapter, if you want to compare it to your book’s version.

I’m going to try to search the Brontes’ other novels before I go to bed, but I think I’ll probably get lazy before then. I’m going to use the Hyper Concordance, if anyone wants to beat me to it.

Excellent work Miss Purl. I was obviously confusing the Eliza/Georgiana scenes with the St John/Diana/Mary one that you have quoted.

No problem, Cunctator. It’s not as if I have anything better to do at 2:30 in the morning . . .

This site explains some of the peculiarities, I think, but briefly: some parish churches came under the authority of the local land owner, who received the tithes of the parishioners, and employed a vicar to do the actual preaching.

Don’t know about Jane Austen, but I just wanted to chime in with the fact that “living” is still used in the U.K. to mean an income and indirectly, the occupation that supplies that income e.g.

“What do you do for a living?”
“I make a living selling books”

As for the the other point, it sounds weird to me too, but I’ve definitely heard some families talk like that. I can’t pin it down to a certain region or background though.

That’s common in the U.S. as well, wayward, but it’s a slightly different sense of the word.

It also leads to an old joke. A man is walking down the street on a hot day when he collapses. Several pedestrains tend to him, give him water, that kind of thing. One of them props his head up on a rolled up jacket and asks “Are you comfortable?” The old man replies, “Enh, I make a living.”


You might want to get a copy of What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist - the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England by Daniel Pool, a useful guide to the background of 19th century British novels.

P.G. Wodehouse, while much later than Austen, also has stories where a major plot point turns on giving a “vicarage” to a curate. Here, too, the local squire seems to control who would get the position, although in one case the squire happened to also be a local magistrate. I gather that his position was somewhat like that of a J.P., and he could only try minor infractions like moving pigs without a permit.

Why did the local squires have so much influence over Church appointments?

Thanks to all for the replies so far, and particularly to WotNot for the link. That site answered many of my church questions.