“Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence. Assure her also, as a last and indisputable proof of Warren’s indifference to me, that he actually drew that gentleman’s picture for me, and delivered it to me without a sigh.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
January 14, 1796
Thomas Langlois Lefroy (1776-1869 ) was an Irish Politician and judge, who eventually rose to the position of Chief Justice of Ireland. He was one of 10 children born to Colonel Anthony Lefroy of Limerick and Anne Gardiner. As the eldest son, the family depended on him to “rise into distinction and there haul up the rest.”
This rise in distinction, from being the son of a soldier, to the chief Justice of Ireland was facilitated by Tom’s uncle, Benjamin Lefroy. Uncle Benjamin, in reality, great-uncle to young Thomas and his brothers and sisters, had made his money in the banking industry in Italy, before returning to London to take on life as a politician. He was greatly concerned with the welfare of his family and provided generously for his relative’s education, praising his “good heart, a good mind, good sense, and as little to correct in him as ever I saw in one of his age”.
Tom graduated with top honors from Trinity College in Dublin in 1775 and soon began studying law in London. At some point, however, it was decided that he should take a break. Family history maintains that long nights poring over books had weakened his constitution and his eyesight. It was clear that he needed a rest. With a new term beginning in January, 1776, Tom took several weeks off in December of 1775 to visit his Uncle and Aunt, Rev. George and Anne Lefroy in Ashe, nearly 60 miles away.
It was there that this young law student made his mark on history, for nearby to Ashe, at Steventon, lived the Austen family. Their younger daughter, Jane, was a great favorite of Tom’s Aunt Anne, though close to 30 years separated them in age. Anne Brydges Lefroy was, by all accounts a handsome woman who held great powers of persuasion over her children and friends, and in return was respected and loved by many. She was in many ways Lady Russell to young Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot.
Although it is clear that many letters are missing, the account of this meeting that we do have is due to the fact that Jane Austen’s dearest friend and older sister, Cassandra, was at the time of Tom’s visit, visiting her own fiancé, Thomas Fowle. She was absent for the whole of Lefroy’s visit to Ashe and in fact never met this man who might have been her brother-in-law. Only two letters survive from this period of Jane Austen’s life, but they are invaluable to the scholar seeking information about this only known love interest who obviously shaped Jane’s outlook on love and life.
Many have argued that the tone of these letters does not sound like a woman deeply in love. It is important to consider, however, that Jane, but 20 years old at the time, no doubt expected them to be read to or at least shared with the Fowle family, with whom Cassandra was staying. She perhaps wished to express less than she felt in order to avoid embarrassment with her friends. It is also known that after Jane’s death, Cassandra ruthlessly purged her letters, lest any that might seem too personal fall into the wrong hands. We will never know what the missing letters were that Jane wrote to her sister.
It is not unlikely for two attractive young people to fall in together and enjoy each other’s company. A few years earlier, Jane’s cousin, the worldly wise Eliza de Fuillide, had described Cassandra and Jane as “perfect beauties [who] of course gain hearts by the dozen.” A portrait* drawn of Tom Lefroy in 1796 shows a serious young man with the light hair typical of the family. His prominent nose and deep blue eyes certainly present an overall picture of a “very gentleman like, good-looking, pleasant young man.”
To be fond of dancing [is] a certain step towards falling in love
-Pride and Prejudice
Tom and Jane first met in mid December. As it was the Christmas season, balls were held frequently and Jane and this young student from Ireland met often and danced often. Jane even teased her sister about how often they stood up together and how they taught other couples a lesson on “being particular”. The two found much in common, sharing opinions and books. Their relationship was a close one, as evidenced by the fact that he lent her Tom Jones, an amazingly racy novel, not likely to be found on the shelves of her clergyman father’s library. Others, too, thought them a couple, as evidenced by one acquaintance sketching a picture of Tom for Jane to keep.
Visits were exchanged at each other’s homes and this whirlwind relationship ended after four weeks with Jane rather expecting to receive an offer of marriage from Tom. Was such an offer made? One tends to think not. Though she steadfastly refuses to accept him in her letter (unless he gets rid of his white coat) her later sentence in the same letter betrays her cavalier attitude, “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.”
Tom returned to his uncle’s house in London and to his studies. Many readers persist in thinking that Anne Lefroy sent him away in order to avoid an imprudent match on Tom’s part. Certainly, it would have been in his best interest to marry well. Anna Austen Lefroy, Anne Lefroy’s daughter in law and Jane Austen’s niece, refutes this theory. Though alone among her relatives, she wrote, in 1869,
I am the only person who has any faith in the tradition…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 . . . [of] ‘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 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—
Perhaps the blame was Tom’s. Before he had even left the countryside, rumors of an engagement to another were being spread. It is true that by the next spring, in 1797, he was engaged to Mary Paul, the sister of a college mate. Was this alliance in place before he ever met Jane Austen? Did Jane work this angle into Sense and Sensibility when she rewrote it years later, allowing Edward Ferrars to be trapped by a youthful engagement while falling in love with Elinor Dashwood?
Romantics may find it difficult to forgive the man who loved and left our favorite author, breaking her heart, perhaps forever—and yet, we must be grateful to him, as well. It is obvious that Jane knew love and could write with authority about love. Though she never admits it in the letters we have, it seems clear that she did love Tom Lefroy, and when asked about Jane, at the age of 94, Tom, too, admitted to loving Jane, though he qualified it by calling it a “boyish love”.
If she had married, it is doubtful that Jane would have had time or encouragement to write and without this period of awakening, without this loss, we may never have seen Jane Austen’s novels in print. It is possible to see aspects of Tom Lefroy and his relationship with Jane in every hero she created, and in working out the lives of her heroines, is it not surprising that she gave each of them the happy ending she longed for?
We cannot know if that night in Ashe was the last Jane ever saw of Tom. The very next letter that she wrote to Cassandra (August, 1796) is dated from Cork Street, London, where Tom lived with his uncle Benjamin. “For the Austens to have stayed there by chance at this particular time, in the very street where Tom Lefroy was living, would have been a strange coincidence”, suggests Jon Spence in his new book, Becoming Jane. History shows that there were no boarding houses or hotels in Cork Street during that time. “There is no direct proof that they stayed with Langlois and his nephew, but it looks as though they did.”
Others suggest that Jane at least caught a glimpse of Tom later on that year in Bath.** He did visit his aunt in Ashe in 1797, but departed the country without visiting the Austens. This was clearly a difficult time for Jane, who wrote of this visit to her sister in November, 1798,
“Mrs. Lefroy did come last Wednesday…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.”
Thomas Lefroy been called to the Irish Bar in 1797, did Jane but know it, and there he became a prominent member, publishing a series of Law Reports on the cases of the Irish Court of Chancery. He married Mary Paul in 1799 and they had seven children. The eldest son Anthony Lefroy was also an MP for his father’s old seat of Dublin University. A daughter named Jane is often thought to have been named for Jane Austen, though a more likely candidate is his mother-in-law, Jane Paul.
Thomas was elected to the House of Commons for the Dublin University seat in 1830, as a Tory (the party later becoming known as Conservative). He became a member of the Privy Council of Ireland on 29 January 1835. He continued to represent the University until he was appointed an Irish judge (with the title of a Baron of the Exchequer) in 1841.
He was promoted to Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Ireland in 1852. Despite some allegations in Parliament, that he was too old to do the job, Lefroy did not resign as Chief Justice until 1866 when, at the age of 90, a Conservative government was in office to fill the vacancy. He died in 1869.
The Lefroy family home, Carrigglas Manor, in County Longford, Ireland, is an imposing Victorian Limestone house with oriel windows, pitched gables and battlemented turrets. Just the kind of place Catherine Morland would have delighted in. Carrigglas was designed in 1837 for Thomas and his family by Scottish architect, Daniel Robertson. It remains in the Lefroy family to this day and is open seasonally for tours.
*This portrait is part of a private collection, but can be found in Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author.
** Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy: Stories, by Linda Robinson Walker, Persuasions, On-line
Biographical information borrowed from Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia.
Film stills from Becoming Jane, in theaters March 9, 2007.
Laura Boyle runs Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom made hats, bonnets and reticules in the Regency style.