During a festive
four-week period over Christmas and New Year’s, 1795-1796, Jane Austen and Tom
Lefroy, both just twenty, met, talked, laughed, danced, and then parted. Was it only a giddy flirtation or did they
fall in love? Biographers rely on two
sources of information for answering that question: the letters that Jane wrote her sister Cassandra at the time, and
subsequent events that involved Jane and Tom.
If we rely on the letters themselves we might conclude—due to Austen’s
use of a flippant, adolescent language of romance—that it was only “a
light-hearted affair” (Cecil 70). But
recent discoveries suggest that the couple had a longer relationship and that
Jane’s feelings were deeply engaged (Radovici 8-10, Spence 98-99). In light of new evidence of the intensity of
their bond, the tone of the letters seems perplexing until one realizes that
Austen employed many of the phrases and situations she had invented in 1792
when she was sixteen and writing “Catharine, or the Bower.” To protect her vulnerable feelings, Jane
seems to have drawn on that story to couch her letters in a private language
that Cassandra alone would understand.
“A very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant
Lefroy was the nephew of I. P. George Lefroy, a minister, who with his wife,
Anne Brydges Lefroy, moved to Ashe, near Steventon, in 1783. Tom and his uncle George were the
great-nephew and nephew, respectively, of Benjamin Langlois, a powerful banker
and statesman, who exerted great influence as head of the family. He had given the living of Ashe to George
and was paying for Tom’s education with a view to seeing him established in a
lucrative legal career that would enable Tom to aid his ten siblings, to be the
one who “should rise into distinction and there haul up the rest” (J. Lefroy
150). Benjamin’s generosity did not
waver when Tom’s father, Anthony, an English soldier who had settled in
Ireland, refused to send Tom to college in England but insisted on his being educated
at Dublin University. Tom completed his
degree there in April, 1795, having taken the highest prize in all his class
examinations (T. Lefroy 12).
In Tom, Benjamin
had chosen well. Benjamin himself
thought Tom had “[a] good heart, a good mind, good sense, and as little to
correct in him as ever I saw in one of his age” (T. Lefroy 8). He was a devout, bright, ambitious, and
successful student, whose college tutor, Dr. Robert Burrowes, wrote of him when
he completed his studies at Trinity College, Dublin, “no young man has left our
College with a higher character—none so much respected by all the Fellows, or
more regretted by a numerous acquaintance” (T. Lefroy 13).
In 1795, Tom began law studies in London,
attending the courts at Lincoln’s Inn, beginning either at Michaelmas term
(which in the eighteenth century ran from November 2 to 25), or Hilary term, which
began January 11, 1796. Between these
terms, he came to Ashe to visit his uncle and aunt. J. A. P. Lefroy, his twentieth-century descendent, seems to have
begun the rumor that Tom came to Ashe to recover his health and restore his
weakened eyesight (151). He also
claimed that “it seems fairly clear that Jane made all the running” (152). The result is an unflattering portrait of a
weak young man hunted down by the frantic, husband-hunting Jane Austen. In fact, Tom’s health problems belong to an
earlier time. According to his son, Tom’s
eyesight, strong throughout his long life, gave him problems only in 1791 and
1793, when correspondence between Tom’s father and uncle Benjamin discussed
whether Tom should stand for a fellowship (T. Lefroy 6-9). Tom probably came to Ashe simply to meet his
English family. The young man who
arrived in the neighborhood in 1795 was—and was expected to be—hale. In her letters describing him Jane did not
need to bring Cassandra up to date on the state of his health.
Surely Jane and
Cassandra had long heard about this Irish paragon from Anne Lefroy, who had
become something of a mentor to Jane, and from her husband and children
(especially Lucy, sixteen, and George, thirteen). In none of her letters to Cassandra about Tom did Jane have to
waste precious space identifying him or describing his situation in life. Had Jane and Cassandra shared, perhaps even
with Anne Lefroy, dreams of an alliance between Jane and Tom? Here was a young man of promise, whose
talents and intelligence were clearly a match for the prodigy of Steventon
rectory. Jane had already written three
volumes of juvenilia, beginning nearly a decade earlier when she was eleven,
and had recently completed “Elinor and
Marianne,” later revised as Sense and Sensibility.
The closeness of the Austen sisters is reflected in their lifelong correspondence. They had gone off to school together when Cassandra was ten and Jane, seven, and they were the only girls in a family of eight children. At the time Jane wrote the first of her surviving letters to Cassandra, Cassandra was already engaged to her own Tom—Tom Fowle. If Cassandra had not been with his family, bidding him farewell on his fateful trip to the West Indies (which would end in his death the next year), we would have no letters about Tom and Jane.
“Dancing and sitting down together”
have written Cassandra that Jane was behaving badly, flouting the conventions
of behavior for well-bred young ladies at balls. If her parents or older brothers wrote, they apparently left the
restraint of their wayward daughter and sibling to her older sister. Perhaps whoever it was had already tried and
failed to reason with Jane, or had left such a sensitive matter to the one
person to whom they felt Jane would attend.
heard, imagine Cassandra’s consternation and her concern that Jane’s behavior
might drive Tom away. She must have
written sternly to Jane, in alarmed language appropriate not to warn her about
just any young swain briefly passing through, but about one of whom they had
nourished special hopes. Jane’s
response to Cassandra’s apparent chastisements, written January 9 and 10, 1796,
is the very first letter we have of Austen’s correspondence.
Referring to another
couple’s having danced together twice, Jane brags that she and Tom have behaved
much more egregiously, underlining words that Cassandra herself must have used
in her warning: “but they do not
know how to be particular.” She
continues: “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.”
The tone suggests both defiance at being chastised and confidence in the
strength of the lovers’ mutual attraction.
Mere convention would not limit the right conferred on her by love to
act however she chose, just as it would not for Marianne Dashwood in Sense
and Sensibility (53). Jane
expresses neither contrition nor apology and fairly bursts with pride for “my
Irish friend” and “my friend.”
That she had
fantasized about him with Cassandra before his arrival is also suggested when
she remarks that her sister “must be impatient to hear something about him.” Jane has found Tom everything she hoped he
would be, knows that Cassandra too would be pleased with him, and wishes that
Tom Fowle’s brother, Charles, had stayed on for the last ball “because he would
have given you some description of my friend.”
She is worried,
however, that there haven’t been more opportunities to get to know him, and
that there is no prospect of improvement.
“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.” The lack of
meetings was brought about in some measure by Tom’s cousins at Ashe, whose
teasing must have annoyed him for its presumption or its accuracy. “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.”
His reputation for conviviality at college does not fit with this image
of a teased, shy boy (T. Lefroy 13).
That Tom was
teased means that he was behaving like a man interested in a woman. Yet that evidence seems to have become
an obstacle to his visiting Jane more often, thwarting further acquaintance. But then, in the midst of writing this very
letter, Tom appears nearly before our eyes.
“After I had written the above,” she continues, “we received a visit
from Mr Tom Lefroy and his cousin George.” Then she remarks that Tom “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, as he did
when he was wounded.” Her tone is
cheerful: the visit was satisfying, but
she writes nothing specific about what took place between them, nothing about
Tom’s gestures, looks or speech, which she must have studied with some
intensity. Instead, she writes
frivolously about Tom Jones’s morning coat.
Many readers have deduced from this allusion to Tom Jones, the
racy novel by Henry Fielding, that Jane and Tom had an uninhibited,
unconventional, and thus very real relationship (Spence 96, Tomalin 115).1
Jane wrote a
second letter while Tom was at Ashe—on Tuesday, January 12 or Wednesday,
January 13—that has been lost. In the
next, labeled by Le Faye as Letter 2, written Thursday and Friday, January 14
and 15, the tone has changed; it’s almost superstitious. Three statements begin with expressions of
hope and emotion that swerve into farce:
The beginnings of these assertions, in the left hand column, read
like the heartfelt statements of a woman in love who believes that her feelings
are reciprocated. Yet she also avers
that she wouldn’t mind missing the ball:
“it would be no sacrifice to me to give it up.”
have been read as evidence that by this point her white-coated knight had let
her down, but it is as likely that they were simply signs of her anxiety
bubbling up. There was objective reason
to take heart. She wrote in the first
letter, “we are to have a dance at Ashe after all,” from which we can
infer the overcoming of an earlier reluctance on the part of Anne Lefroy. Perhaps she had held off giving a ball in
case their meeting had gone badly. Did
Anne Lefroy, to whom both Tom and Jane had perhaps opened their hearts, wish to
give the couple one last chance? Or had
she in the interim sought and obtained permission from Benjamin Langlois for
Tom to return after the opening of court on January 11? Either way, Jane’s superstitious negations
of hopeful if jokingly expressed feelings seem like jitters as she faced the
night when she would laugh with him and touch him for the last time.
In the throes of anxiety, Austen’s confidence may have been bolstered by the fact that others saw them as a couple. She wrote to Cassandra that John Warren “actually drew that Gentleman’s picture for me, & delivered it to me without a Sigh.”
“He ran away”
Did Tom actually
flee? Was he sent away? One of Jane’s nieces, Caroline Austen,
believed that Anne Brydges Lefroy took it upon herself to separate Tom and Jane:
“Mrs. Lefroy sent the gentleman off at
the end of a very few weeks, that no more mischief might be done” (Family Record 251). Mrs. Lefroy’s interference has also been
assumed by Austen biographers, beginning with the Austen-Leighs (87) as well as
Halperin (61), Nokes (160), Tomalin (119), and others. Tom left
immediately after the Ashe ball not because he fled or was sent away from Jane
but simply because he was a student who was already late for the opening of the
court on January 11. It seems that one
necessary revision of the story of Jane and Tom must be the lifting of
responsibility for its end from the shoulders of Anne Lefroy.
For the next
chapter in the relationship to have taken place, Anne Lefroy almost certainly
had to have been working on the young couple’s behalf. Thanks to brilliant sleuthing by Jon Spence,
we no longer can assume that the Ashe ball was the last chapter in the story of
Tom and Jane (98-99). He also makes a
persuasive case that Jane clung to hopes of marrying Tom for almost three
years, until November 1798.
Austen wrote Letter 3 seven months after
their January parting, on August 23, 1796, from London, when she was soon to
leave for Rowling with her brothers Edward and Frank. The letter was written from Cork Street, probably, as Spence
suggests, from the very home of Benjamin Langlois, Tom’s uncle, during the
period when Tom was still studying in London.
Spence assumes that Tom was there (98), but this conclusion is
doubtful. Spence says that it is with
relief that she writes Cassandra, “We are to be at Astley’s to night, which I
am glad of,” as though a noisy diversion were to be welcomed (99). If Tom were there, and Jane nervous about
whether or not her visit would end in a proposal, Astley’s Circus would not be
best choice. But since August 23
fell between Trinity and Michaelmas terms, during the Long Vacation (July
through October) when the courts were not in session, Tom would very likely not
have been in London at all.
This letter is the
most anxious Jane ever wrote Cassandra.
She writes as if she has arrived in the lion’s den, and that what she
has dreaded is now upon her. She writes
quickly, seemingly upon the moment of arrival, perhaps in the brief respite
when she has retired to her room to rid herself of travel dust before making
her appearance. If Tom were away, this
anxiety certainly couldn’t be caused simply by being in a house redolent of his
presence; she had the poise to cope with that.
How to explain
such anxiety? What she was dreading was
not Tom, but Benjamin Langlois. Perhaps
Anne Lefroy, Tom, or the two acting together had persuaded Langlois to meet
Jane, as the object of Tom’s interest.
Benjamin had passed judgment on many aspects of Tom’s education and must
have expressed concern about his interest in a woman of Jane’s poor
prospects. But Jane had one point in
her favor: she was English. Langlois was no friend to the Irish and may
have also felt concern for Tom’s safety there.
As early as 1763, he had written the Duke of Portland, “the Indians are
scalping away in America” and segued seamlessly to the “Irish Savages,” who
also seemed disposed to turbulence (Langlois).
Langlois had consistently tried to woo Tom to England, for his school
work, to attend the English bar and to take a seat that he could use his
influence to obtain for him in Parliament (T. Lefroy 4). If indeed Langlois favored Jane as an anchor
to England, it may have raised the hackles of Tom’s father and Tom himself,
who, born in Anglo Ireland, eventually cast his lot with it when he married
Mary Paul of County Wexford. We cannot
tell whether Langlois was pleased with Jane and would have liked Tom to settle
down with her in England, or disapproved of her and dissuaded Tom from further
contact with her.
letter(s) immediately following the one from Cork Street are missing, and the
next we have, Letter 4, dated September 1, 1796, apologizes for the “conciseness”
in the missing correspondence and promises to provide Cassandra with “elaborate
details” when they meet, the phrase a reprise of the mocking tone of her very
“It will be over”
Tom Lefroy became
engaged to Mary Paul at the time he was called to the Irish Bar, “in Easter
Term, 1797” (T. Lefroy 14, 20). Ray
argues that Tom, a “Type-A personality” who knew exactly what he wanted, always
meant to marry Paul and experienced only “a momentary attraction” to Jane (313).2 She argues that unlike Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility,
who was “actually engaged to be married” (312), Tom had not spoken but merely formed
a determination to marry the woman he’d met “at least two years prior to his
meeting Jane Austen” (313). It is not
clear why Ray assumes Tom had met Mary Paul at least two years before he met
Jane. Tom’s son wrote about his parents’
courtship, giving no dates: “A warm
friendship which existed between [Tom] and one of his fellow students, during
their College course, opened the door for him as an acquaintance and guest in
the family of Jeffry Paul, Esq., of Silverspring, in the county Wexford, the
father of his fellow-student, and, very soon, an attachment sprung up between
him and Mr. Paul’s only daughter” (14).3 Nonetheless, however long Tom knew Mary,
it was she he ultimately married.
Tom had for not marrying Jane—his uncle’s disapproval, his loyalty to and prior
love of Anglo Ireland and an Irish fiancée—he did not inform Anne Lefroy (or,
by extension, Jane) that he was engaged.
In fact, he may not have even told his aunt he had already been called
to the bar. In November 1798, Anne
Lefroy told Jane that Tom “was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where
he is called to the Bar and means to practise” (17 November 1798). The verb tenses suggest that Anne may have
thought he was only just called to the bar, or perhaps she meant to convey that
impression to Jane in order to soften the blow. But in fact he had been called a year and a half earlier.
Did Tom act
duplicitously or recklessly, pursuing Jane while engaged to Mary? Was he a Willoughby, acting out of guile? Or was he an Edward, caught in a mess of his
own creation? How aggressively did he
pursue Jane? Did he make later trips to
Steventon that we don’t know about?
Just how deep into deception or denial did Tom allow himself to go? During Jane Austen’s long silence from
September 1796 to April 1798, a period from which no letters survive and that
included Tom Fowle’s death in February 1797, Jane’s feelings for Tom Lefroy
would be shrouded in mystery, except for a dramatic incident that occurred in
Bath, in November or December 1797, the image of which we can perceive as a
reflection mirrored in two later references.
Jane and Tom may have met again in Bath. Both
Radovici (8-10) and Perlstein4 have
discovered in a letter written April 8, 1805, to Cassandra at Godmersham, an
oblique account of a moment that seared Jane’s heart forever. Jane, writing from Bath, summoned up the
Richard Chamberlayne & a young Ripley
from Mr Morgan’s school, were there; & our visit did very
well.—This morning we have been to see Miss Chamberlayne look hot on
horseback.—Seven years & four months ago we went to the same Ridinghouse to
see Miss Lefroy’s performance!—What a different set are we now moving in! But seven years I suppose are enough to
change every pore of one’s skin, & every feeling of one’s mind.
We know that Jane, Cassandra, and their mother visited Jane and
James Leigh-Perrot in Bath in late 1797 (Family
Record 95). From Jane’s
description, we can also infer that Anne Lefroy was there, too, watching her
daughter ride. The “different set”
Austen refers to was a Hampshire gathering—the Ashe Lefroys and Steventon
Austens—a set now very freshly and painfully decimated by the deaths of Jane’s
father in January 1805 and of Anne on Jane’s birthday in 1804.
But why, of all
the events that had taken place in Bath during that month-long 1797 visit, was
Jane, in 1805, invoking the memory of a riding school performance? Tomalin offers support for the possibility
of Tom’s having been with the Lefroys when she notes that in December 1797 the
Lefroys had taken a “young nephew” to dinner at the Chutes’s home (119). Had Tom accompanied the Lefroys from Ashe,
where he may have stayed with them? Or
could Tom have come to Bath, perhaps unexpectedly, to join his aunt and
cousins? Were Jane and Tom together as
friends or lovers for the last time at the earlier visit to the riding house,
on a hot, close August day in 1797? Or
did she see him then in a way that cruelly brought home his indifference to
her, perhaps with a woman—with Mary Paul?
The latter would have been the kind of shock that Jane reserved for
Marianne, when, across a hot, crowded room, she suddenly saw Willoughby
with Miss Grey (S&S 176).
Can we infer the depth of Jane’s pain from her remembering the interval of
time with such mathematical precision?
Had she hung on, against all hope, to her dreams of Tom up to that very
reference in Austen’s writing that reinforces such an inference is found in Persuasion,
written in 1815-1816, when Anne Elliot reflects on the passage of time
following her own great romantic loss.
Anne inventories her life, not down to her very molecules, as Jane did,
but in terms of what has disappeared and what remains from a time when she was
happy. Anne remembers the years since
she lost Wentworth, almost exactly the same length of time as elapsed between
the end of 1797 and April 1805:
More than seven years were gone since this
little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close; and time had
softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him. . . .
No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison
with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory. (28)
Eight years, almost eight years had
passed, since all had been given up.
How absurd to be resuming the agitation which such an interval had
banished into distance and indistinctness!
What might not eight years do?
Events of every description, changes, alienations, removals,—all, all
must be comprised in it. . . .
Alas! with all her reasonings, she found,
that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing. (60)
Whatever had happened in December 1797, it
is certain that by November 1798 the book of Tom and Jane was closed
forever. Any shred of hope Jane may
have held onto was destroyed when Anne Lefroy came to her house on November 17
and either told her for the first time, or acknowledged what Jane either knew
or suspected, that Tom had “gone back to London” after having been to visit the
Lefroy’s without seeing her (17 November 1798). He may have accompanied his uncle Benjamin to Ashe. Langlois spent the last years of his life
with his nephew’s family, and was buried at Ashe in November 1802 (Le Faye, Letters
544). How sad that Jane had in her
neighborhood, until 1801 when the family moved to Bath, a constant reminder of
this painful episode of lost love.
We don’t know how
Jane found out about Tom’s engagement—whether Anne Lefroy told Jane that Tom
was engaged, or even whether Anne knew it herself. It is possible that Tom and Mary kept their engagement secret
(although doing so was considered dishonest) since he returned to London to
study and they wouldn’t marry until March 1799—after which he returned again to
London, until 1800, to study (T. Lefroy 15, 20). But surely sometime between Easter 1797 and November 1798, Anne
Lefroy heard of the engagement. In
Letter 11, written November 17-18, 1798, Jane writes as though Cassandra already
knows of Tom’s latest snub, and brings it up only to confirm it. The letter is stiff with pain and full of
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.
. . . She did not once mention the name of [Tom] to me, and I
was too proud to make any enquiries; 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.
And so it ended. Aside
from noting in December 1798 that one of Tom’s sisters was to be married,
Austen wrote nothing about Tom except as he and her painful love for him were
transmuted into characters and situations in her novels.
It seems likely
both that Anne Lefroy had tried her best for Jane and that she ended a party to
her pain. Unlike her cousin Caroline,
Anna Austen Lefroy, Mrs. Lefroy’s daughter-in-law, believed that Anne Lefroy
had been on Jane’s side. In 1869, she
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 . . .
[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—. (Le Faye, “Tom Lefroy” 9)
Did Tom love Jane? In May 1869, Anna Austen Lefroy heard from her son-in-law Thomas Edward Preston Lefroy about a conversation he had with his uncle “on the subject of [Tom’s] early acquaintance with my Aunt Jane,” which she didn’t pass on because she considered it private. James Edward Austen Leigh pursued the matter and asked T. E. P. Lefroy to repeat the conversation, which he did in a letter written in August 1870: “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 a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public” (Family Record 275 n 106, 252). The words “boyish love” can be read two ways. Tom Lefroy could have meant that it was boyish love, nothing compared to the mature and lasting love he felt for his wife. But there is another interpretation that might even be seen as an apology made by an old man in the year of his death, fifty-two years after hers. Perhaps Tom had always felt shame and was confessing the boyish, irresponsible, and harmful way he had pursued his love for Jane Austen.
Kitty, another “profligate” girl
From the events
and accounts detailed above, we know that Jane Austen had intense and
long-lived feelings for Tom and can assume that their romance did not end with
the ball at Ashe. Thus the language of
the letters she wrote Cassandra at the time she fell in love with him becomes
even more baffling. It is time to look
to the source of that language.
Nokes writes of
her romance with Tom that Austen “should have realized this disappointment was
entirely predictable; had she not, indeed, predicted it in the concluding pages
of ‘Catharine,’ where Mr. Stanley, equally careless as her own dear Tom about
his coat, was suddenly dispatched to France by his father the very morning he
might have proposed to the heroine?” (160). But of course Austen did not
predict her relationship with Lefroy in “Catharine, or the Bower.” Instead it was the other way around. Austen was fond enough of the 1792 story to
update it in 1809, changing the name of a book referred to in the original to
one just published (Family Record
164). In 1795-1796, she used the language
and themes of that story, written when she was sixteen and dedicated to
Cassandra, to communicate with her sister about Tom in ways that have been
obscure to later readers but were intimately familiar to the two of them.
In “Catharine, or
the Bower,” Kitty (Catharine), an orphan, lives with an aunt, Mrs. Percival,
who watches over her with “scrutinizing . . . severity” (192) because
she fears that Kitty will marry imprudently.
Into their lives come distant relatives, the Stanleys, with their
daughter, Camilla. When a neighbor
holds a ball, and everyone in the household precedes Kitty to it, she is alone
in the house when the Stanley’s son, Edward, arrives so precipitously from
France that he has come away “without another coat” (222). Kitty rides to the ball alone with the
impetuous and charming Edward, and they enter the ballroom without being
announced—two breaches of etiquette that Edward revels in. Kitty’s spirits are too high for her to heed
her aunt’s scolding, and the next day, a kiss Edward plants on Kitty’s hand is
seen by the aunt, who berates Kitty.
Unchastened, Kitty finds that Edward’s “Spirits & Vivacity” suit her
own (234). He does not, however, say he
loves her. She awakens the next day to
find him gone without declaring his love, but Camilla tells her that Edward has
sent Kitty his love through her. Soon
the Stanleys leave, Kitty hears nothing more from Edward, and the story winds
between the story and Jane and Tom’s weeks together are astonishing. Both heroes appear from foreign lands, and,
although strangers, they are legitimate objects of interest due to family
ties. Both men are as bright as the
women, interested in history, politics, and books, and capable of arguing both
sides of an issue. The couples are together for a very brief time, and their
behavior defies convention. Neither Jane nor Kitty regrets or apologizes for her flirtations, but
both delight in their high spirits and their beaux.
impervious to the scoldings and harangues of their older female mentors. Both Jane and Kitty are unsure how to read
the men’s intentions. Although both men
behave in such a way as to make the women hopeful, they leave without having
spoken of love or future meetings.
parallels beyond those of plot and character.
Nokes points out the eccentricities of Tom’s and Edward’s attire. But perhaps the most important reference in Jane’s
letters pointing back to “Catharine” is the word “profligate.” Mrs. Percival censures Kitty after the kiss
she witnesses: “‘Profligate as I
knew you to be, I was not prepared for such a sight’” (232). Austen, in her first letter, invites Cassandra
to “[i]magine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of
dancing and sitting down together” (9 January 1796). Because Austen uses the word only once in her mature novels, and
then with a more serious moral intensity, to describe the “false and deceitful”
Wickham (P&P 284), the word
becomes something of a banner waving over the heads of Jane and Kitty as they
dance their way into romance.
the Bower” posed the drama of a young woman pulled in one direction by family
wanting to keep her virginal and safe from predators and in another by an
attractive man wanting to lead her into the world of sensuality. This drama became internalized in Austen’s
later heroines, in which parents are absent or aligned with the hero as in Sense
and Sensibility (48), and the heroine struggles between the two forces
within herself. In parallel fashion,
Edward and Tom drew Kitty and Jane out of childhood into womanhood.
In writing to Cassandra
about Tom, Austen used a tone of voice that cries out “unreliable narrator”
until we realize that she was employing the themes and language of “Catharine,
or the Bower.” This tone was the young
Austen’s language for exuberant love, for sexual confidence, for pride in her
wit and intelligence. We find its traces
in the language of the chief couples of her first three novels. In the letters, she became her own heroine
and wrote of herself as she wrote of them.
Like Kitty, she was charming, giving off “Sparklings of Wit” (201), and
her behavior was “profligate and shocking.”
What a thrill it must have been to go from being the writer of dramas of
romance to being the star of one. The
only audience she had for this display was her sister, who shared with her an
intimate knowledge of the themes and language of “Catharine.” In later works, her language of love would
become more subdued but also more tender and erotic, as when Wentworth lifts
the child from Anne’s back (80).
While Jane danced
with Tom Lefroy, Cassandra was with her fiancé, Tom Fowle, and Jane may have
suspected that her sister would read her letters to him. In such a vulnerable state, meeting a man on
whom she may have pinned great hopes, she needed a language that would speak to
Cassandra over the heads of the Fowles.
Using “Catharine” as a code, she undercuts Cassandra’s anxious
criticisms and reassures her. She may
have had specific codes with Cassandra for judging Tom’s behavior toward her;
the invocation of Tom Jones may have been one of these. The veiled references to “Catharine” may
also have been a way for Jane to invoke Kitty’s difficulty in reading
Edward. For Jane, there were some signs
that Tom favored her—the mutual exclusivity at the balls for which Cassandra chastised
her, perhaps his sensitivity to being teased, and the perception of others that
they were in love—but nothing completely reassuring.
What would Austen
the storyteller have done with Edward Stanley?
When he departs, he is the untrustworthy charmer—a Willoughby without
evil, a Wickham without vengeance, a Mr. Elliot without greed. Would he reform? Darcy is the only Austen hero to reform, and he only has to
moderate his pride. The sins of Edward
Stanley are those of youth and impetuosity; although his disdain for his
father’s authority is a more serious flaw, it too might possibly be corrected
by years, wisdom or love. On the other
hand, Austen may have concluded that she would need to import a more fitting
hero to the story. No doubt Jane and
Cassandra discussed Edward and his future, and the lack of resolution might
have been why she dropped “Catharine,” one of the most mature of her early
works. She may also, as her writing
took a more realistic direction, have been reluctant to move the action to
London, as the plot seems to call for.
Although we don’t know what was to become of Kitty and Edward, Jane and
Cassandra presumably did.
In the end, all
we have are stories. Every word written
about Jane and Tom is a story. Jane
herself played with their romance, turning it into a story from her story
“Catharine” and later transforming it into even more stories, creating endless
reflections in a hall of mirrors. We
can never know for sure what happened between Jane and Tom that winter or in
the years that followed. Our best attempts
to understand—the most deeply imagined, most carefully researched, most
faithful to the texts—in the end are only glimpses into a mirror darkly.
One of the great
ironies of Austen’s legacy is that so many of the commentaries handed down to
us from on high have been written by people named “Lefroy.” She could not bring about a marriage to her
Lefroy, but Anna Austen married Ben Lefroy, the son of Anne and George, and in
1846 their daughter Jemima married Tom’s nephew. Indeed, Jane’s niece Anna
Austen lived in the same neighborhood with George and Anne’s sons and became
Ben’s wife in 1814. With these links,
it is likely both that news of Tom drifted back to Jane and that Tom knew of
Jane’s doings and read her books. We
know that he remembered her after more than seventy years, spoke of her, and
said that he had loved her.5
Did Jane speak of Tom? One of the things she may have heard through the family grapevine was that Tom called his wife, Mary, “Mabs” (J. Lefroy 153). In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen named Willoughby’s horse Queen Mab (59). It’s a name easy to overlook and unimpeachably Shakespearean. Was it also sly?
1. It is also possible
that in the absence of a specific description of the encounter, the “Tom Jones”
reference was a coded communication from Jane to Cassandra. The Austen family loved word play, and the
name “Tom Jones” repeated in a letter by a “Jane” about a “Tom” is not far from
“Jane’s Tom.” Was this a sign to
Cassandra, perhaps prearranged, that things were going well?
2. Mary Paul inherited the
entirety of her father’s estate as a result of her brother’s death after her
marriage. Of course even without his
death she would have inherited much more than Jane Austen could ever have hoped
for. To be fair to Tom, he did not woo
a woman who was expecting to inherit everything. When Ray, Tomalin and others call Mary Paul an heiress, it is
necessary to remember that at the time Tom and Mary became engaged, her
brother, also Tom, was his father’s heir.
In 1798, the Paul home was sacked by Irish rebels, and Tom and Mary
married in Wales where the family had taken refuge. Tom Paul—Mary’s brother, Tom Lefroy’s friend and his father’s
heir—died around 1800, and only with his death did Mary come to inherit her
father’s estate (J. Lefroy 154).
3. Thomas Lefroy’s “Memoir
of Chief Justice Lefroy” was not written in a vacuum. The first edition of James Edward Austen Leigh’s “Memoir” was
published in December 1869, and the family had been collecting information for
it since early in the year. JEAL wrote
to Tom Lefroy’s nephew, T. E. P. Lefroy, asking about his uncle’s feelings
about Jane, and the nephew’s response came in August 1870 (Family Record 275 n 106).
In 1869, Tom Lefroy died. The
confluence of these events led to Lefroy’s son’s “Memoir,” which was published
in 1871 and says nothing about Jane Austen, by then a well-known writer. Thomas Lefroy might have been trying to protect
the memory of his mother from slights, or he might have been trying to protect
the reputation of his august father from the affront of anyone’s assuming that Jane
Austen was as important as the Chief Justice of Ireland.
4. Arnie Perlstein, an
independent scholar writing about the subtext in Austen’s work, pointed out
Letter 43 to me independently of Radovici’s article. He also discovered and directed me to the relevant quotations
from Persuasion and made many other insightful suggestions.
5. Radovici (55)
and Farrell (8) suggest that Tom named his first daughter, Jane, after Jane
Austen. It is more likely that Tom’s
daughter was named for his mother-in-law, Jane Paul. We have her name from letters Tom’s son included in his 1871 Memoir
(15ff). I am grateful to the History of
Parliament Trust for allowing me to see Stephen M. Farrell’s article in
Austen, Jane. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W.
Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.
Austen-Leigh, William, and R. A.
Austen-Leigh. Jane Austen: Her Life
and Letters, A Family Record.
1913. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Boston: Hall, 1989.
Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. London: Constable,
Farrell, Stephen M. History of Parliament Trust, London,
unpublished article on Thomas Langlois Lefroy/Dublin University, for 1820-1832
Section, by Stephen M. Farrell. To be published 2009/2010.
Langlois, Benjamin. Letter to W. H. C. Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd
Duke of Portland. 19 July 1763. Catalogue of Papers of William Henry
Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland: Pw F 6169. Online summaries. 8 Dec. 1998.
2 Dec. 2006 <http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/is/services/mss/online/online-mss-catalogues/cats/port_3rdduke21cat.html>.
Le Faye, Deirdre,
ed. Jane Austen’s Letters. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
_____. “Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen.” Jane Austen
Society Report 1985: 8-10.
Lefroy, Helen. “The Lefroys at Ashe Rectory.” Ashe. Nov. 2005.
2 Dec. 2006 <http://www.ashevillage.co.uk/helenlefroy.html>.
Lefroy, J. A. P. “Jane Austen’s Irish Friend: Rt. Hon. Thomas Langlois Lefroy, 1776-1869.” Proceedings
of the Huguenot Society of London 23 (May 1979): 148-65.
Thomas. Memoir of Chief Justice
Lefroy. Dublin: Hodges, 1871.
David. Jane Austen: A Life. New
York: Farrar, 1997.
Radovici (or Nahmias-Radovici),
Nadia. A Youthful Love? Jane Austen
and Tom Lefroy. Braunton: Merlin
Ray, Joan Klingel. “The Real Tom Lefroy.” Notes and Queries 53 (2006): 311-14.
Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen. New York: Hambledon, 2003.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen, a Life. New York: Knopf, 1997.