Madam Lefroy In Her Own Words
The Letters of Mrs. Lefroy: Jane Austen’s Beloved Friend
Edited by Helen Lefroy and Gavin Turner.
The Jane Austen Society, 2007. xi + 258 pages. Paperback. £9.95.
Map. 5 B/W illustrations. 4 color plates.
Reviewed by Kelly McDonald.
Jane Austen’s letters have been available in various abridged/facsimile/critical editions since 1884. Now comes an opportunity to broaden our acquaintance with her era and locality through the correspondence of her friend Anne Lefroy (nee Brydges). Wife of the Reverend Isaac Peter George Lefroy of Ashe, a village two miles north of Steventon, Mrs. Lefroy became a confidante to Jane Austen despite a twenty-seven-year age difference. The 140 letters included here date from September 1800 to December 7, 1804, and were written during the absence of son Christopher Edward Lefroy, who had gone to study law under Richard Clarke of Newport, Isle of Wight. The closing letter—from Winchester surgeon Charles Lyford to Mr. Clarke—conveys the news of Mrs. Lefroy’s death (following a riding accident) on December 16, 1804, Jane Austen’s 29th birthday. In an 1808 poem Austen marked the dual anniversaries:
The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since Thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.
“Snatch’d,” with its scratchy, snarling sound, clearly conveys a depth of pain still felt over her loss.
Like Jane Austen, Anne Lefroy sprang from Kentish roots, and this background is the focus of one of the five opening essays. Other essays lead readers through the lives of various Lefroy family members. Supplementary information is provided in biographical and topographical indexes (copying the format of Le Faye’s Jane Austen’s Letters), as well as annotations.
Within the social sphere of Ashe Rectory came families like the Bramstons of Oakley, the Bigg-Withers of Manydown, the James Austens of Steventon, the Terrys and the Digweeds, names recognizable from Jane Austen’s correspondence. Mrs. Lefroy’s references to visits from “the Miss Austens,” in the years following their 1801 relocation to Bath, in fact pinpoint Jane and Cassandra’s whereabouts in absence of other evidence. Whether transmitting incidents of wife, mother, hostess or friend, Mrs. Lefroy’s letters acquaint us with the ordinary women Austen knew; they also contribute to our understanding of early-nineteenth century Hampshire life. Some of the most heart-rending portions concern little personal histories of neighbors and parishioners, people who helped define daily living for a country clergyman’s wife or daughter.
One such history, dated June 2, 1801, brings to mind Austen’s Persuasion:
. . . at noon the little old woman to furnish [whom] we made the needle books & pin cushions, came to say she had sold them all, & with the produce had bought herself an apron, & replenished her stock of needles, pins, garters which she had been accustomed to deal in; this gave me great pleasure how easy is it my dear Boy to be charitable even those who have not money to bestow can sometimes give their time & attention to the poor. . .the only trouble was the work of a few hours, yet they afforded such comfort & support to this poor woman by producing to her more shillings than they cost pence to me.
In Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s school friend Mrs. Smith, an invalid fallen on hard times, reveals that her landlady’s sister “put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood.”
The letters also take a wider worldview. They chronicle England’s relations with post-union Ireland, where Mr. Lefroy’s brother Anthony Peter Lefroy resided. He and daughter Kitty visited Kent and Hampshire relatives in 1803, and later that year Mrs. Lefroy repeated Kitty’s reports of unrest in Dublin. The persistent Napoleonic threat, with its possibility of invasion, resulted in the Lefroy sons clamoring to join local volunteer corps and the Lefroy parents trying to quash such notions. Mrs. Lefroy’s history of the Chandos barony lawsuit, instituted by her brother the Reverend Edward Tymewell Brydges, underscores the sluggish incompetence of the courts later skewered by Charles Dickens.
Samuel Egerton Brydges described his sister as “one of the most amiable andeloquent women I ever knew. . . . She was fond of society, and was the life of every party into which she entered.” Jane Austen evidently found her a congenial companion. Poetic verses, an Austen outlet for comic or heartfelt expression, flowed just as easily from Mrs. Lefroy’s pen; she also possessed pleasing artistic skill (one watercolor is reproduced). The Madam Lefroy of these letters, aged 52 to 56, suffered personal stress over an ill husband and an emptying nest, but experienced joy in prattling grandchildren and a wide circle of friends. With The Letters of Mrs. Lefroy, co-editors Helen Lefroy and Gavin Turner present a worthy companion volume to Austen’s own letters, one that ably portrays the routine within Austen’s Hampshire milieu.
Independent scholar Kelly McDonald’s research into diaries and letters of sisters-in-law Mary Gosling and Emma Smith resulted in the article in the 2007 issue of Persuasions “Edward Austen’s Emma Reads Emma,” which considers Miss Smith’s 1828 engagement to Jane’s nephew, James-Edward Austen-Leigh.
JASNA News, vol. 24, no. 2, Summer 2008, p. 17