An Author and Her Irish Friend | The Fascinating Flirtation of Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy

When it comes to uncovering the lives of notable authors, Jane Austen’s is among the more elusive to researchers.

There is a lot about Jane Austen’s life that remains ambiguous to modern-day readers and historians. She appears to have been a relatively private person and modest about her writing, leaving much to speculation and assumptions. Upon her death, her sister burned much of the correspondence between them, per Jane’s request. Other documentation has simply been lost to time itself, making her all the more intriguing to modern-day readers.

As Janet Todd remarks in The Jane Austen Treasury, “Every new decade interprets her to fit its desires. In general in the late nineteenth century the prevailing image was created by her nephew, who depicted his aunt as a kindly and retiring spinster; the late twentieth century, however, stressed the professional woman writer who knew her own genius. Every reader has a private fantasy that she alone knows the real Jane Austen.”

Among the most wondered at areas of her life is her relationship with Tom Lefroy, which inspired the film Becoming Jane starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy.

There are a few common beliefs regarding the pair and their connection. Some suggest they were merely acquaintances while others believe there was a short-lived romance between them, and a few even attribute Lefroy to being the inspiration for Mr. Darcy himself.

Examining Jane’s own writing and other accounts, it is possible to make some educated guesses about what might have transpired between these two.

Who Was Tom Lefroy?

Thomas Langlois Lefroy (1776-1869) was born in Limerick Ireland and attended Trinity College in Dublin between 1790-1793.

His great-uncle, Benjamin Langlois, helped to fund his legal studies in London.

Tom eventually went on to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland from 1852-1866.

Ties to Jane

Although Tom had an incredibly successful career in law, he is arguably more famous for his brief acquaintance with Jane Austen.

The pair met in the winter of 1795. At the time, Tom was visiting his aunt and uncle in Hampshire, England while on a break from his studies. His relations were acquainted with the Austens.

The assumption is that the introductions would have taken place at a social gathering, perhaps a ball or other party.

Jane, at the time, had just turned twenty years old. Through her neighbors, she became acquainted with Tom. Although they met only a few times, her “Irish friend” made enough of an impression to be mentioned in some of her letters to her sister, Cassandra:

“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…

“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…”

~January, 1796

Of the letters to Cassandra remaining intact to this day, this is the first to mention Tom Lefroy.

Here, Jane admits to “shocking” and “profligate” behavior while in Tom’s company, especially “in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”

Back then, there were certain rules of etiquette established for almost every circumstance, and parties were of no exception. There were plenty of opportunities for scrutiny in such an environment, with almost anything being ripe for gossip. In particular, there were regulations regarding dancing.

In particular, who a lady danced with and how often.

One dance would have been expected, as a lady declining one dance would indicate she intended to sit out for the remainder of the night, though two would have easily been cause for rumors to spark. A third dance or more, and the gossipmongers might begin to speculate when the wedding might be.

With this in mind, the inference might be made from Jane’s letter that she and Tom danced at the very least twice. However, Jane also indicates Tom will be departing soon, so what’s the harm in a short flirtation?

Little did she know such a short flirtation would become one of the most intriguing aspects of her life for scholars and Austenites alike.

In a second letter to her sister, Jane wrote the following:

“Our party to Ashe to-morrow night…I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat…

“How impertinent you are to write to me about Tom, as if I had not opportunities of hearing from him myself!…”

~January 1796

Jane had a reputation for irony and humor, which is shown in this letter. She makes an inside joke with Cassandra about Tom’s coat, which was mentioned in the first letter when she said, “He has but one fault, which will, I trust, entirely remove—it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light.”

Another interesting point to mention is Jane’s writing, “I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening.”

The phrase “making an offer” was commonly used in relation to marriage, so this could have been Jane expressing her belief that despite his imminent departure on the horizon, Tom might propose.

Jane, however, is also apt to satirize in her writing, so this could just as well be intended as a joke and a means of teasing herself for having become attracted to him.

Later, Jane wrote:

“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…There is a report that Tom is going to be married to a Lichfield lass…”

Given Jane’s reputation for irony and humor, the mention of tears flowing at the thought of Tom’s departure could in fact be a means of chiding herself for having developed such an affection for him in a such a short time, there is reason people are eager to speculate.

Looking into Regency Era propriety, one might be inclined to believe the latter.

The use of Christian names was reserved solely for immediate family members and close friends. Couples could not use one another’s first names until they were officially engaged to be married. This is something Jane would have been aware of, evidenced by mentioning when Catherine and Isabella begin to do so in Northanger Abbey. In her novels’ narrations, ladies are called by first name if they are close to the protagonist, as is Elizabeth’s best friend Charlotte Lucas, or in a more formal address like Miss Bingley. Men go by last name more often than not. Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Mr. Wickham are never called Fitzwilliam, Charles, or George. When discussing Tom with Cassandra, Jane would have theoretically called him Mr. Tom Lefroy, Mr. Lefroy, or Lefroy. Yet in this second letter, on two occasions, he is simply called Tom.

The End Is Only The Beginning

Although the film Becoming Jane depicts Jane and Tom leaving to elope, only for her to change her mind and return home alone, this did not happen.

Jane and Tom would have known marriage or even attempting to marry would not have been practical. As the film shows, Tom was dependent on his great-uncle’s finances and still only beginning to establish himself in a law career. Meanwhile, Jane was not wealthy, either.

Once Tom took his leave, Jane never saw him again.

He did eventually return to Ireland where he married an heiress and started a family. Throughout his lifetime, he held the positions of Privy Councillor of Ireland and Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, and lived to be 93.

Jane never married. Though she found success as an author still wildly popular centuries later, her life was much shorter. She died of an illness at age 41.

A Lasting Impression

Even though there is a lot left unknown about the relationship between Jane and Tom, it is clear that neither forgot about the other.

In November 1798, Jane wrote to her sister and mentioned she had tea with one of Tom’s relatives. She indicates wanting to inquire after him, but in the end could not bring herself to do so.

“Of her nephew she said nothing at all,” she tells Cassandra. “[Mrs. Lefroy] did not once mention the name of [Tom] to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries.”

In 1804, Tom’s mother was killed by a fall from her horse. The day happened to be December 16 — Jane’s birthday.

This sad coincidence remained in Jane’s mind for years, evidenced by this poem she wrote four years later.

To the Memory of Mrs Lefroy

The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes. –

The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory! –

 

(You can find the poem in its entirety here)

It’s worth mentioning Tom’s eldest daughter was named Jane. Some believe it was in honor of Jane Austen as implied by the ending of Becoming Jane, though others including myself believe she was instead named after Tom’s mother-in-law, Lady Jane Paul. There is also a third possibility, in that he named the girl in honor of Jane Austen but was able to get away with it because his mother-in-law bore the name as well. Jane was a very common name in that period, so much so that there are several Janes in Austen’s books.

When Jane died in 1817, Tom reportedly visited England to pay his respects. At an auction, he later purchased one of her publisher’s rejection letters—for Pride and Prejudice, the book so many people are convinced is about him.

The catch here, though, is it may not have been Jane’s Tom Lefroy, but rather, his nephew Thomas Edward Preston Lefroy (who wrote a biography about the Tom Lefroy in question).

This is based on a letter from Caroline Austen to James Edward Austen-Leigh in April 1869:

I enclose a copy of Mr. Austen’s letter to Cadell—I do not know which novel he would have sent—The letter does not do much credit to the tact or courtesy of our good Grandfather for Cadell was a great man in his day, and it is not surprising that he should have refused the favour so offered from an unknown—but the circumstance may be worth noting, especially as we have so few incidents to produce. At a sale of Cadell’s papers &c Tom Lefroy picked up the original letter—and Jemima copied it for me –

It is not necessarily probable that Caroline Austen would have referred to Jane’s Tom as “Tom Lefroy.” She actually addressed him as the still living ‘Chief Justice’ in the later part of the letter.

If it is true that Jane’s Tom purchased the letter after she passed away, he could have given it to his son, who would later give it to Caroline for reference.

Whatever the case may be, there is some evidence that Tom did not forget his feelings for Jane.

As his nephew wrote in an 1870 letter to James Edward Austen-Leigh, “My late venerable uncle…said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.”

Is Tom Lefroy Mr. Darcy?

This is a question that seems to accompany discussion of Tom Lefroy.

We know Jane sometimes took inspiration from those around her when creating her characters. I think it’s safe to assume the relationship between sisters Jane and Elizabeth Bennet could have been inspired by the Austen sisters, and Mr. Wickham is believed to have been inspired by Jane’s brother Henry.

As far as Mr. Darcy having ties to Mr. Lefroy, that one is a little harder to confirm—but perhaps not impossible.

Tom was acquainted with Jane around the time she was writing Pride and Prejudice, and there are some notable similarities between the two.

Tom, at the time, had just completed his law degree at Trinity College in Dublin. Being a gentleman of his class and wealth, Mr. Darcy likely attended the finest of schools in Regency Era England, the likes of Eaton or Oxford. Both are wealthier than their female counterparts, which creates tension. Class was a factor in the end of Jane and Tom’s romance, much like it was in that of Elizabeth and Darcy.

Another consideration to be made in this regard comes from Elizabeth hearing Darcy was meant to marry Anne de Bourgh because it was the wish of their mothers. The match was seen as more appropriate because Anne de Bourgh was of Darcy’s social standing and wealth, whereas Elizabeth was beneath him. Even though Tom may have held Jane in high regard and might have even been attracted to her, he ultimately wed an heiress, a woman seemingly more suitable for him.

In some ways, Pride and Prejudice can be regarded as Jane making things right for herself in her own mind and trying to rewrite history in a way that would have allowed her and Tom to be together, exploring what could have been and for once allowing her pen to “dwell on guilt and misery.”

We may never know the true extent of Jane and Tom’s feelings for one another. The beginnings of attraction were there, though the relationship ended almost as quickly as it began. What is clear is its lasting impact not only on the involved parties, but her admirers and historians alike.

Jane’s nephew summarizes it best.

In his memoir about the author, James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote:

“At Ashe also Jane became acquainted with a member of the Lefroy family…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.”

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Last summer, I took part in an online course about Jane Austen’s life, and you can read about my experience in this post.

 

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