Tom LeFroy

What we know for certain about these events in JA’s life is to be found in a few pieces of correspondence among Jane’s family, some bits of scholarly research, and a brief mention of it in a posthumous memoir of Jane by her nephew. This is all that is known about Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy. In 1795-6, she met Thomas Lefroy (an Irish relative of Jane Austen’s close older friend Mrs. Anne Lefroy, who lived at Ashe Rectory).

She mentions him in some of her letters.

In Letter Number 1 (From the Le Faye Edition of Jane Austen’s Letters), she wrote:

To Cassandra Austen: written from Steventon: Saturday, January 9th 1796:

In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr. Tom Lefroy’s birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age

You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago…

We had a visit yesterday morning from Mr. Benjamin Portal, whose eyes are as handsome as ever. Everybody is extremely anxious for your return, but as you cannot come home by the Ashe ball, I am glad that I have not fed them with false hopes. James danced with Alithea, and cut up the turkey last night with great perseverance. You say nothing of the silk stockings; I flatter myself, therefore, that Charles has not purchased any, as I cannot very well afford to pay for them; all my money is spent in buying white gloves and pink persian. I wish Charles had been at Manydown, because he would have given you some description of my friend, and I think you must be impatient to hear something about him…

After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well-behaved now; and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove — it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.

In Letter number 2, she wrote:

To Cassandra Austen: written from Steventon: Thursday ,January 16, 1796:

Friday. — At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea. Wm. Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being so civil. There is a report that Tom is going to be married to a Lichfield lass. John Lyford and his sister bring Edward home today, dine with us, and we shall all go together to Ashe. I understand that we are to draw for partners. I shall be extremely impatient to hear from you again, that I may know how Eliza is, and when you are to return.

She wrote Letter number 3 (dated Tuesday 23rd August 1796 from Cork Street in London). Deirdre Le Faye in Jane Austen: A Family Record, assumes that she stayed there with Tom Lefroy’s uncle and benefactor, Mr. Benjamin Langlois, who lived in that street in London.

It is thought that Tom Lefroy was, at that time, staying with his uncle while he studied law in London. It is not known if he met Jane Austen while she stayed in Cork Street.

Tom Lefroy visited Ashe rectory in October/November 1798. He did not meet Jane Austen while he was staying there.

Deirdre Le Faye in Jane Austen : a Family Record wrote about their friendship, as follows:

“It is highly unlikely that Tom proposed or that Jane ever really believed he would do so. However, Mr. and Mrs. Lefroy had seen enough of their mutual attraction to take fright at the idea of an engagement between so youthful and penniless a pair, and Tom was sent off rapidly to London to live under the watchful eye of his great-uncle Benjamin while he studied at Lincoln’s Inn.

The Lefroy parents were vexed with him, and told their sons that Tom was to blame for paying attentions to Jane when he knew full well that he was in no position to think of marriage; and years later George and his younger brother Edward Lefroy recalled how ‘[their] Mother had disliked Tom Lefroy because he had behaved so ill to Jane Austen, with sometimes the additional weight of the Father’s condemnation..

Although Tom stayed at Ashe again in the autumn of 1798, no meetings with the Austens took place during this visit, and it was not until Madam Lefroy called at Steventon parsonage in mid November that Jane had any news of him. ” (Page 93-4)

In Letter Number 11 dated Saturday 17-Sunday 18th November 1798 Jane Austen wrote about this visit :

To Cassandra Austen

…Mrs. Lefroy did come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy’s arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any inquiries; but on my father’s afterwards asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise…

Descendants of Jane Austen made these comments on her friendship with Tom Lefroy:

Lord Brabourne (Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen, the first Baron Brabourne, lived 1829-1893), who published the first edition of Jane Austen’s letters in 1844 wrote in that first edition:

 

The first two letters which I am able to present to my readers were written from Steventon to Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra in January, 1796. The most interesting allusion, perhaps, is to her “young Irish friend,” who would seem by the context to have been the late Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, though at the time of writing only “Mr. Tom Lefroy.” I have no means of knowing how serious the “flirtation” between the two may have been, or whether it was to this that Mr. Austen Leigh refers when he tells us that “in her youth she had declined the addresses of a gentleman who had the recommendations of good character and connections, and position in life, of everything, in fact, except the subtle power of touching her heart.” I am inclined, however, upon the whole, to think, from the tone of the letters, as well as from some passages in later letters, that this little affair had nothing to do with the “addresses” referred to, any more than with that “passage of romance in her history” with which Mr. Austen Leigh was himself so “imperfectly acquainted” that he can only tell us that there was a gentleman whom the sisters met “whilst staying at some seaside place,” whom Cassandra Austen thought worthy of her sister Jane, and likely to gain her affection, but who very provokingly died suddenly after having expressed his “intention of soon seeing them again.” Mr. Austen Leigh thinks that, “if Jane ever loved, it was this unnamed gentleman”; but I have never met with any evidence upon the subject, and from all I have heard of “Aunt Jane,” I strongly incline to the opinion that, whatever passing inclination she may have felt for anyone during her younger days (and that there was once such an inclination is, I believe, certain), she was too fond of home, and too happy among her own relations, to have sought other ties, unless her heart had been really won, and that this was a thing which never actually happened. Her allusion (letter two) to the day on which “I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy” rather negatives the idea that there was anything serious between the two, whilst a later reference (letter ten) to Mrs. Lefroy’s “friend” seems to intimate that, whoever the latter may have been, any attachment which existed was rather on the side of the gentleman than of the lady, and was not recognised by her as being of a permanent nature.

Deirdre Le Faye in an article written for the Jane Austen Society in 1985 wrote:

In the late 1860s, when James-Edward Austen-Leigh was planning Memoir of Jane Austen, he consulted his sisters, Anna Lefroy and Caroline Austen, for information relating to any romantic episodes in Jane’s life, and in particular to her flirtation with Tom Lefroy at Ashe Rectory in the winter of 1795-96.

By the time of these enquiries, Tom had become the austere, venerable Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, head of a large family and the owner of a rich estate in Co. Longford.

In April 1869 Caroline wrote anxiously to her brother, maintaining that the flirtation had been brief, that Tom could not be said to have jilted Jane in favour of marrying for money elsewhere, and that any rumours to the contrary had been spread by another branch of the Lefroys, settled in York, who had their own reasons for disliking him; she would prefer that no mention of the episode be made in the Memoir, in view of the fact that Tom was still alive.

However, only a few weeks after Caroline’s letter, Tom died, aged 92, and almost immediately Anna Lefroy wrote to James-Edward’s wife Emma, passing on just the kind of rumour that Caroline wished so much to stifle:

“Mrs. Austen Leigh Southern Hill Bray Vicarage Reading Maidenhead May 24th [postmark 1869]

My dear Emma,

few days ago I recd. a long letter from Tom Lefroy in the course of which he tells me of a conversation he had with his late Uncle last September [i.e., September 1868] on the subject of his early acquaintance with my Aunt Jane – I wish I were at liberty to copy verbatim, as I think Tom’s own remarks rather amusing, but as the conversation was private he thinks it ought not to be made use of – in the way of publication I suppose – In reply I assured him he need have no fears of that sort, as, in the first place it was no part of the Memorialist’s plan (as I believed) to enter upon those sort of particulars, & in the next that I am the only person who has any faith in the tradition – nor should I probably be an exception if I had not married into the family of Lefroy – but when I came to hear again & again, from those who were old enough to remember, how the Mother had disliked Tom Lefroy because he had behaved so ill to Jane Austen, with sometimes the additional weight of the Father’s condemnation, what could I think then? Or what now except to give a verdict, as Tom himself expressed it “under mitigating circumstances” As – First, the youth of the Parties – secondly, that Mrs. Lefroy, charming woman as she was, & warm in her feelings, was also partial in [Page 3] her judgments – Thirdly – that for other causes, too long to enter upon, she not improbably set out with a prejudice against the Gentleman, & would have distrusted had there been no Jane Austen in the case. The one thing certain is, that to the last year of his life she was remembered as the object of his youthful admiration – They were within a short month of the same age . … Believe me my dr. Emma yr. affect. Sister, J.A.E. Lefroy”

Anna’s opinions had obviously been formed from information given by her elder brothers-in-law, John Henry George and Christopher Edward Lefroy, who were 13 and 10 years of age respectively when their Irish cousin Tom had visited Ashe in 1795-96. She would also have heard more from her son-in-law, a member of that York branch of the family who, as Caroline said, had been at odds with the Lord Chief Justice in past years.

James-Edward then wrote direct to T. E. P. Lefroy, who cautiously confirmed that his uncle had admitted to a “boyish love” for Jane; and in the event only a very brief reference to the matter appeared in the Memoir. (JAS Report 1985. Pages 336-338. )

James Edward Austen Leigh wrote in A Memoir of Jane Austen:

At Ashe also Jane became acquainted with a member of the Lefroy family, who was still living when I began these memoirs, a few months ago; the Right Hon. Thomas Lefroy, late Chief Justice of Ireland. One must look back more than seventy years to reach the time when these two bright young persons were, for a short time, intimately acquainted with each other, and then separated on their several courses, never to meet again; both destined to attain some distinction in their different ways, one to survive the other for more than half a century, yet in his extreme old age to remember and speak, as he sometimes did, of his former companion, as one to be much admired, and not easily forgotten by those who had ever known her. (Page 56.)

This is all that is know about Jane Austen and Tom Lefory. The rest is speculation.

On February 17, 2007, in an interview in the Telegraph Magazine regarding promotion for “Becoming Jane,” Deirdre LeFaye says,

The vexed question , of course, is whether any of it is true. “Its nonsense ” argues Dierdre Le Faye…”You might as well say Lady Hamilton was a vestal virgin living in a convent”

Le Faye doesn’t dispute the meeting, flirtation and family disapproval- it’s all in a letter from Jane to Cassandra…But Le Faye maintains it was all short lived: “She’d obviously been flirting with him. And it does rather sound like, for a time, Jane was regretting his absence,but that is all there is to it”

Jane never saw Lefroy again after his Christmas visit.

And as for Lefroy inspiring her to write:” Its like saying Shakespeare murdered people to give him enough information to write “Macbeth”. Poppycock. She was a highly intelligent girl. She’d have been a good writer in any circumstances”

 

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