Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                            Pages 82-87



Canadian Connections of Jane Austen and Her Circle



Toronto, Ontario 


Neither Jane Austen nor any of her close relatives ever came near Canada, which in their day was not regarded as exactly a shining jewel in the British Crown; ambitious persons of both sexes were more apt to head, as indeed some of her characters do, for India or the West Indies.  However, I propose to discuss five people who had some kind of connection with Jane Austen and with a country she at least knew about, though her only direct references to it involve locations shared with the United States.

“A Mock Panegyric on a Young Friend” begins:


In measured verse I’ll now rehearse

The charms of lovely Anna:

And first, her mind is unconfined

As any vast savannah.


Ontario’s lake may fitly speak

Her fancy’s ample bound;

Its circuit may, on strict survey,

Five hundred miles be found.


Her wit descends on foes and friends

Like famed Niagara’s Fall;

And travellers gaze in wild amaze,

And listen, one and all.


Jane Austen couldn’t have learned about Lake Ontario or Niagara Falls from her sailor brothers, for the ships on which they served could then get no farther up the St. Lawrence River than Quebec City.  But neither did she necessarily get those names out of an atlas, for at least twice she was entertained by a couple who had spent many years in Canada, and shaped a good deal of its subsequent history.

On December 28, 1798, Jane wrote to Cassandra: “Mrs. Lefroy has just sent me word that Lady Dortchester means to invite me to her Ball on the 8th of January, which tho’ an humble blessing compared with what the last page records, I do not consider as any Calamity.”  Then, the day after the ball she reports: “There was the same kind of supper as last year, and the same want of chairs.  There were more dancers than the room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good ball at any time.”  But how did she know what the supper was like in 1797 unless she had attended that ball also, perhaps along with Cassandra?  In a letter of November 1, 1800, she describes a ball held on Thursday, October 30: “It was a pleasant Ball, & still more good than pleasant, for there were nearly 60 people, and sometimes we had 17 couple.  The Portsmouths, Dorchesters, Boltons, Portals & Clerks were there, and all the meaner and more usual &c. &c.’s – There was a scarcity of Men in general, & a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much.”

The part of Jane’s assessment which relates to Lord Dorchester is down-right unkind, for in 1800 he was 76 years old, and knew he was slowing down; perhaps that is why he was breeding race-horses at Kempshott Park, the estate he had recently bought in Hampshire.  Nor would any of his sons, some of whom were around Jane’s age, have been at that ball, because they entered the army as soon as they were old enough; as things turned out, all nine of them died on active service.  But forty years earlier Lord Dorchester, then plain Guy Carleton, had been with General James Wolfe when he captured Quebec in 1759; and ever since, he had carried increasing responsibility for governing the conquered colony.  By 1772, he felt ready to return to England to advise the government on a permanent policy towards its new possession – and to look about for a wife, as he had put off doing, for whatever reason, until the age of 48.  Neither his public nor his private project turned out quite as he presumably intended, although the repercussions from his marriage, unlike those from the advice he gave the government, are not affecting ordinary people’s lives to this very day.

He proposed to Lady Anne Howard, the second daughter of the Earl of Effingham, unaware that she was in love with his nephew, whom she later married and followed to Canada.  She relieved her feelings by telling her younger sister, Lady Maria, and a friend by the name of Miss Seymour, how badly she felt about having to reject such a fine man as Carleton; but she got less sympathy than she may have expected.  Lady Maria, aged 18, commented, “The more fool you.  If he made me an offer, he’d get a better reply.”  Away ran Miss Seymour to let Carleton know that Lady Maria had an answer all ready if he chose to ask the right question; he did, and returned to Quebec on schedule with this bride.  She fitted in there extremely well, since she had spent her early teens at the court of Versailles, and knew how to speak and behave as the leading citizens of Quebec could appreciate.

But perhaps Miss Seymour, though she doubtless meant well, did North America no kindness when she diverted Carleton’s mind from statecraft.  On the basis of the information he supplied during his home leave of 1772, the British government drafted the Quebec Act of 1774, which did not cause the American Revolution, but arguably hurried it along.  The Act allowed French Canadians to go on living much as they had before the Conquest; and recently, Canadian historians have been pointing out that, if the French Canadians had not been treated far more generously than the losers in any other eighteenth-century war, they could never have flourished to the point of developing Quebec nationalism and eventually separatism.  New Englanders, however, took fright: did the home government intend to clamp down on their liberties by subjecting them to the same restrictive laws as Quebeckers were used to?  Surely, the colonists reasoned, the French Canadians would rejoice in getting rid of British rule altogether, so that they could do exactly as they pleased instead of just mostly.

Therefore, in the fall of 1775, troops from the Thirteen Colonies moved northward under the command of Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold.  They had no trouble occupying Montreal, whose young ladies spent the winter behaving much like Lydia Bennet at Brighton; but when they attacked Quebec City on New Year’s Eve, they came up against a combination of Carleton, cannon, a blinding snowstorm, and apathy in the people they were trying to liberate, whose notion of the pursuit of happiness seemed mainly to involve being left alone.  Once Montgomery and his soldiers had straggled back home as best they might, Carleton had little trouble keeping Quebec completely out of the American Revolution.  As it ended, he was sent to New York to organize transportation to Canada for all residents of the new United States who wished to continue living under British rule; then he oversaw the granting of land to these refugees, who proceeded to lay the social foundations of present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario.  All his attempts to retire failed until he was past 70, when he was allowed to buy three estates in Hampshire, including Kempshott Park, where he welcomed Jane Austen to the ball. 


Quebec City 


Now it is hardly likely that Lady Maria, after twenty years as the undisputed leading lady of Quebec society, turned meek and mild on moving to Hampshire.  She was used to leading the conversation, and might well regard her new neighbours’ ignorance of Canada as a defect to be overcome rather than to be indulged; they could more easily learn enough to follow what she chose to say than deflect her.  How was she to know that Jane Austen, after accepting her hospitality, went home and worked on First Impressions?  How much did she unwittingly contribute to the development, in Jane’s mind, of Lady Catherine de Bourgh – likewise the daughter of an earl who married beneath her?  And if the story of how Lady Maria’s marriage came about was widely enough known to fetch up in the Canadian school history textbooks where I found it, probably it was also familiar to their Hampshire neighbours, though hardly the kind of subject they would mention in the couple’s presence.

We turn now to some distant relatives of Jane Austen on her mother’s side.  Mrs. Austen was very aware of her descent from Sir Thomas Leigh, the first Lord Mayor of London under Queen Elizabeth; he bought and enlarged Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, where Mrs. Austen and her daughters visited whenever the owners remembered to invite them.  One of Sir Thomas’s younger grandsons, who was in line to inherit neither Stoneleigh Abbey nor the title which by then went with it, acquired an estate in Lancashire called Lea, and changed the spelling of his surname to fit it.  This man’s descendants maintained contact with the successive owners of Stoneleigh Abbey until one of them decided in 1818 to emigrate to the United States; but after spending a year in Philadelphia, he decided that the city was too crowded.  What made him think of Ontario, we do not know; but if what he wanted was space, it had plenty of that.  In January 1820, he bought 200 acres with road access to Toronto when he wanted it, and solitude when he did not.  But Toronto already had some highly cultivated residents, who kept up as well as they could with events in the England to which they hoped to return once they had made enough money.

John Lea’s farm prospered until, in 1829, he could build himself a brick house with four fireplaces, each with a chimney, in full knowledge that any house with more than one chimney would be taxed extra.  Conceivably pride goeth before a fall, because these fireplaces were believed responsible for the fire which destroyed the house in 1912; still, they behaved themselves for 80 years, which is more than many people do.  And perhaps tending the fireplaces was what kept John Lea safely away from the bitter battle over ownership of Stoneleigh Abbey after the last peer died; it rose to a climax in 1844 when 32 descendants of Sir Thomas Leigh stormed the great house, and all but four fetched up in jail.

When John Lea’s eldest son William grew up, he bought land just south of his father’s, and erected (1851-54) a house distinguished for a different reason: it was octagonal, so fittingly he called it Leaside.  He wanted an impressive house because he was active in local politics; when eventually he was rewarded with a magistracy, he held court on his own premises.  When he wasn’t laying down the law, he sketched and wrote verses.  He was about as adept a poet as Jane Austen, as demonstrated by one sample, published in the local newspaper, complaining about the pollution of the nearby Don River; a century later, people are still talking about cleaning that stream up.


One summer’s eve on fancy’s wing

By Don’s enchanting way,

I wandered by the winding stream

Till closed the gates of day.


I saw it then ere busy life

Had marred that sylvan vale,

Where trees and flowers grew undisturbed

And covered hill and dale.


No mills were there, no dams, but those

The busy beaver spread –

No sawdust choked the fishes’ gills,

No odours of the dead.


No jail nor brickyard crowned its height,

No hidden cave was there,

No gluey odours then were known

To taint the ambient air …


During the last decade of William Lea’s life, he sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway a few acres which happened to be flat enough to permit construction of sidings and a station.  As a compliment to him, and also perhaps because of his local prominence, the CPR named the station after his house.  It was not until 1912, the year in which both his house and his father’s burnt down, that the CPR started assembling land around the Leaside station for a planned town, which has maintained its name and distinctive character even after merging first with the borough of East York and later with the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto.

Earlier I quoted stanzas from one of Jane Austen’s light verses; to bring my wheel full circle, I direct your attention to her only surviving serious lyric, which recalls her cherished friend, “Madam” Anne Brydges Lefroy, who fell from her horse and died of her injuries on Jane’s 29th birthday.  This lady had come into the Austen circle by a rather complicated route.  A generation earlier, George Austen’s wealthy uncle Francis had bought presentation rights to three adjacent Hampshire parishes, intending to set George up in whichever one fell vacant first, which turned out to be Steventon.  Later on, considering George and his family sufficiently provided for, Francis sold three generations’ worth of presentation rights to the parish of Ashe to Rev. Isaac Peter George Lefroy.  This priest survived his wife’s fatal accident by just over a year, whereupon their son, John Henry George, became rector of Ashe, and in time the father of a very large family.  By the time his son John Henry was born in January 1817, the arrival of a new baby at Ashe Rectory was hardly headline news, so John Henry’s birth may not have registered sharply on Jane Austen’s consciousness.  He turned out, however, to be exactly the kind of grandson she would have deemed worthy of Madam Lefroy.

Since the rectorship of Ashe went to his oldest brother, John Henry fetched up in the Royal Military College at Woolwich.  Here he came under the influence of a far-seeing instructor with a specialized interest: mapping the earth’s magnetic fields.  Scientists believed that magnetic fields must influence climate, though they were not sure how.  With the expansion of the Empire, the British army had to be prepared to fight a campaign practically anywhere in the world, and without some understanding of weather patterns, it could bring little efficiency either to equipping soldiers or to developing tactics.  Thus it seemed well worth the Army’s while to make sense of Canadian weather if at all possible, instead of just enduring it; and John Henry Lefroy, as a presentable, resourceful, and conscientious young officer, seemed ideal to begin this long-range task.

On arriving in Canada in 1843, he found one observatory functioning in Montreal, though not very satisfactorily – and soon he determined why.  Montreal happens to lie near a line of magnetic activity, which was affecting the observatory’s instruments. Lefroy got the facility moved onto the campus of the fledgling University of Toronto, which he hoped would eventually train people to run it.  Then he set off for the prairies with the Hudson’s Bay Company’s spring brigade of canoes, and visited, by canoe, as many trading-posts as he could, persuading their managers to keep records of the weather they experienced, and forward these records to England each year, in hopes that patterns would emerge from the mass of data thus accumulated.  After penetrating as far into the North-West Territories as Bay Company canoes would take him, he returned to Toronto, where he set about persuading local decision-makers that scientific exploration might be to their advantage if they would only support it – especially the observatory, which the British Army could not be expected to finance permanently.  His marriage to the daughter of a prominent Toronto official did his lobbying no harm; by the time he left Canada, the Ontario Legislature had agreed to maintain the observatory, young scientists to staff it were emerging from the university, and the way to understanding North America’s weather patterns at least lay open.  Probably, before you go to sleep tonight, you will listen to a reasonably accurate weather forecast, whereas, without the work of John Henry Lefroy and his successors, we would have to ask someone to assume the mantle of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and “determine what weather they were to have on the morrow.”

Back in England, Lefroy sorted through reports from the Hudson’s Bay trading-posts until he was sent off to the Crimean War, where he became one of the few army officers to earn Florence Nightingale’s respect.  After that, he served as governor of Bermuda, and later still of Tasmania.  Wherever he went, he encouraged people to observe their environment and try to figure it out, presenting such studies as a religious obligation.  The better we understand how the natural world works, he argued, the more cause we will see to praise and thank the God who created and sustains it – and us as well.

Lefroy may have known Jane Austen’s tribute to his grandmother, which appeared in print well before his death in 1890; but modesty might have prevented him from recognizing how accurately one of its stanzas applied also to him:


Listen!  It is not sound alone, ‘tis sense,

‘Tis genius, taste, and tenderness of soul:

‘Tis genuine warmth of heart without pretence,

And purity of mind that crowns the whole.

Back to Persuasions  #13 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page