Vicars appear regularly in romance fiction as secondary characters. Who can forget Jane Austen’s clergymen—the obsequious Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, the vain and greedy Philip Elton in Emma, the admirable Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park? Less memorable is the worthy vicar in Georgette Heyer’s Arabella whose character is best revealed in the values he has imparted to his daughter. Heyer set the precedent here as in so many ways; vicars in popular romance are most commonly fathers or, somewhat less often, deceased husbands of the heroines. A quick count of just my personal catalog yielded more than seventy historical romances that feature a vicar’s daughter or a vicar’s widow.
In many of these books, the vicar is not a character in the true sense; his presence is restricted to references and memories. In others, he plays a definite role. Authors may choose to make the vicar a man with a true vocation beloved by his family and parish (Anthony Drew whose character is revealed through the memories of his wife and daughters in Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand by Carla Kelly), flawed in a way that marks him as clearly unsuited for his office (the heroine’s father in Father Christmas by Barbara Metzger), or steeped in villainy (the morally corrupt Dorian Thorne in Dame Durden’s Daughter by Joan Smith or the Reverend Jack Gardeyne in Skylark by Jo Beverley).
Rare indeed is the vicar as hero. In fact, after much searching, I found only nine historical romances featuring vicars as heroes that I can recommend: seven I recommend with a warning that they range from the sweet to the spicy, from the simple to the complex, and from the light-hearted to the angst-ridden. The last two I place in a separate category: one because it is already widely considered a classic of historical romance, and the other (one of the most popular titles of 2012) because I predict it will someday be so labeled.
1. The Parson’s Pleasure (1988), Patricia Wynn
Filled with allusions to Jane Austen, Wynn’s first book features a rector (not exactly a vicar, but the difference is one of income, not vocation) newly arrived in the community where matchmaking immediately ensues. Denied a career in politics, the hero (Mr. Bennett) devotes himself to the poor of his parish and concludes he cannot marry his true love because his liberal politics will make her unpopular. He is also unenthusiastic about marrying a woman far wealthier than he. Despite the too convenient ending, this Harlequin Regency Romance is entertaining.
2. A Gift of Daisies (1989), Mary Balogh
The Reverend David Gower is a noble but poor vicar with a true vocation. Dedicated to God and to doing God’s work among the poor, he is the antithesis of the heroine who is “beautiful, wealthy, and frivolous,” according to the cover copy. The worthy hero has as much to learn about making judgments as the heroine does about what makes life most satisfying. Try to imagine Balogh writing an Inspy, and you’ll have a fair idea of this book. Most readers agree that this is not Balogh’s best, but it is Balogh and worth a read.
3. Winterburn’s Rose (1996), Kate Moore
Leigh Nash, Earl of Winterburn, is among the most unusual heroes I’ve encountered. Expected to marry an heiress to repair the family fortune, he chooses instead to become a curate in Wiltshire rather than grant the living to someone else. Troubled by his war experiences, he thinks he’ll find peace in serving the people of a small village. Instead he finds Rose, Rosalind Merrifield, who is indignant at so unsuitable a man filling the role of priest and determined to end what she sees as a travesty. Things get rather too predictable from this point, but the premise is original and Moore is a fine writer.
4. A Woman Scorned (2000), Liz Carlyle
Cole Amherst, religious scholar, curate turned army officer, and tutor to the two young sons of a suspected murderess, is the “hunky vicar” that Myretta Robens mentioned in two Heroes and Heartbreakers posts, “The Liz Carlyle Family Reunion” and “Top 5 Historical Romance Sex Scenes from Ashworth, Balogh, Barnett, Carlyle, and Laurens!” The latter offers evidence that Cole is indeed one sexy vicar. Cole is the hero in A Woman Scorned, and it is that book, of course, in which his characters is most fully explored. He is an honorable, courageous man who is also complex, introspective, and struggling with guilt, qualities particularly compelling in a man of God, but to fully appreciate Cole in his role as vicar, I recommend reading A Woman of Virtue (2001) as well.
5. The Scottish Bride (2001), Catherine Coulter
Catherine Coulter’s Sherbrooke series, eleven books published over nearly twenty years, is a favorite of many readers. The Scottish Bride, which falls toward the middle of the series, is the story of Tysen Sherbrooke, something of a misfit among the Sherbrooke family. Tysen was once an idealistic young vicar, but time and an unhappy marriage have turned him into a saturnine, self-righteous man, or so he appears. Coulter allows readers to see past the surface to the dedication and compassion that lie at the heart of this widowed vicar. Seeing him as a father interacting with his children, especially a young daughter who is definitely all Sherbrooke, may be the best part of the book.
6. Seducing Mr. Heywood (2002; reissued in 2005), Jo Manning
Charles Heywood, the third son of a viscount, is a clergyman because the church was an acceptable choice for younger sons, especially bright ones. He takes his duties, social and spiritual, seriously, although he does not feel divinely called to his work. He is paired with an unusual heroine, a pleasure-seeking, unfaithful beauty who abandoned her children for a decade, who is bent on seducing him. He struggles with his attraction for her but refuses to believe she is beyond redemption. Parts of the plot are over-the-top, but the characters make it worth the reader’s investment.
7. Hot Under the Collar (2012), Jackie Barbosa
Walter Langston, the hero of the second book in Barbosa’s Lords of Lancashire series, is a third son, but that is the only thing that makes him an appropriate candidate for a clerical office. He is better known for his rakish ways and irresponsibility than for his scholarship and good works. A brief military career ended when Walter was wounded and disinclined to offer himself as target for a second bullet that might strike something less likely to heal than his collarbone. Surprisingly, Walter comes to care sincerely about his parishioners even as he is aware of their hypocrisies, but he remains a man more concerned with earthly matters than spiritual ones. One of these earthly matters is an infamous local citizen who has returned to Grange-Over-Sands after a successful career in London as a courtesan. Unlike other fictional vicars who have struggled against the temptations of the flesh as embodied in a desirable fallen woman, Walter is ready to yield to temptation at the first opportunity. This one has an abundance of spice and some nice humor, but it also has substance.
8. To Love and to Cherish (1995), Patricia Gaffney
This book is the first of Gaffney’s Wyckerly trilogy, a series that its fans praise passionately but which inspires almost equal intensity among its detractors. I would include the trilogy on a list of highly recommended romance classics. The hero Christy Morrell, a native of Wyckerly, is the parish vicar. Much beloved by the people of the village, he is a genuinely good priest with a deep sense of spiritual commitment and a sincere devotion to the people he serves. And he does see himself in service to God and to his parishioners. He falls in love with the wife of a boyhood friend. Thrown together constantly by village activities, the pair are severely tested to remain true to the beliefs and loyalties that are vital to who they are. Making the situation more complex is the man who stands between them, a character diseased in body and spirit. If you like characters who are multi-dimensional, stories that are emotionally wrenching, and prose that delights, look for this one immediately.
9. A Notorious Countess Confesses (2012), Julie Anne Long
Adam Sylvaine, cousin to the Everseas, is the hero of this seventh book in the Pennyroyal Green series. Long shows Adam engaged in all the activities expected of a vicar. He struggles to write sermons, he prays privately, he visits the sick and the poor. He loves his work, although he sometimes feels unworthy of it. With all this, he is never sanctimonious. He is a man, with a man’s passions and flaws and vanities—and a sense of humor. When he falls in love with a courtesan, he is realistic about the risks his association with her entails. Adam is the fullest, richest representation of a vicar that I have seen in romance fiction since Gaffney’s Christy Morrell. Recently participants in All About Romance’s annual reader poll chose A Notorious Countess Confesses as Best Romance of the year and Adam Sylvaine as Best Romance Hero. I guess I’m not the only one who fell for this vicar hero.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.