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 young man”
Thomas Langlois 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”
Somebody must 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.
However she 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.”
These statements 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 the 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.
Austen’s 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 first letters.
“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.
Whatever reason 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 memory:
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 moment?
The second 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 things unsaid.
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 wrote,
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 down.
The parallels 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. Both are 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.
There are 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.
“Catharine, or 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 draft.
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, 1978.
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.
Lefroy, Thomas. Memoir of Chief Justice Lefroy. Dublin: Hodges, 1871.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Farrar, 1997.
Radovici (or Nahmias-Radovici), Nadia. A Youthful Love? Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy. Braunton: Merlin Books, 1995.
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.