[September 17, 2016]
Ah, was it just friendship, puppy love, or much more between Jane Austen and Thomas Lefroy? It’s an interesting question that a number of writers have pursued even to the point of the movie ‘Becoming Jane’ which indicated it was much more.
Recently, I made a short post on Facebook considering this very question. In this article, I’m going to pursue it a little deeper because I’m still intrigued with what might have been the case. How about you?
Jane Austen was a very good writer of Regency romance. Else why would the tale of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet and other couples in her books be celebrated and remembered much more so than during her lifetime. But could a young woman who was an innocent write of romantic love if she had never experienced it? I doubt Darcy’s declaration of love to Elizabeth would have come from Austen’s brain unless her heart had been touched at some point with romantic love.
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
We know Jane loved her family especially her older sister Cassandra. But romantic love is different from the love of family. It not only involves the heart, it involves all of the person mentally, emotionally, and physically. That is an undercurrent throughout the whole of Pride and Prejudice, and, I daresay, all of Jane Austen’s works.
Thomas Langlois Lefroy was considered an honorable man who married Mary Paul in 1799. He met Jane Austen when visiting with his aunt and uncle the winter of 1795-1796. During that Christmas season, he and Jane met at four balls and possibly other occasions where they danced and conversed. He also loaned her the scandalous book Tom Jones which would have added to her imagination along with other novels she might have read. Even if this had contributed to her writings, it is doubtful it would be the complete explanation for the romantic undercurrent of her books.
Did Jane Austen develop a tendre or more for Tom Lefroy? Did he begin to love her? When we remember that he married Mary Paul, the sister of a fellow student, we need to consider that he knew her before he met Jane Austen. Letters from his uncle and LeFroy’s Memoir written by his son indicate that Tom was dedicated to his study of the law and his determination to make that his life’s work. He was a diligent student even winning a number of prizes along the way wholly devoted to his studies. When he met Jane Austen, he was taking a much needed break and relaxing before returning to them.
Because he was an honorable man, if he really was planning to wed Mary Paul at some point, he would not have lead Jane on. It’s possible that two things might have happened. He enjoyed Jane’s company and considered her a friend or he began developing feelings for her. He wouldn’t be the first person who found that their heart was taking over their life. That might be the reason he ran one day when the Austens came to visit his aunt.
Or it’s possible that an affair of the heart was one-sided with Jane Austen falling in love with Tom but with it not being reciprocated. Her surviving letters to Cassandra, to me, seem a little bit “the lady doth protest too much.”
“Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence. Assure her also, as a last and indisputable proof of Warren’s indifference to me, that he actually drew that gentleman’s picture for me, and delivered it to me without a sigh.
Jane Austen to Cassandra, January 14, 1796
Why would Jane want a picture of Tom Lefroy? Didn’t the desire for a memento such as a lock of hair or a picture of someone indicate a little more than just friendship? This occurred close to the time Tom would be returning to his studies.
I find one of Jane’s quotes from Pride and Prejudice interesting.
To be fond of dancing [is] a certain step towards falling in love Pride and Prejudice.
Jane and Tom did a lot of dancing during his stay. And they seemed to have had a lot in common and enjoyed each other’s company as well. Many a young person has fallen in love under similar circumstances.
Even if Tom was developing feelings for Jane would his feelings of duty toward his family as the eldest son interfere? He was the heir with nine siblings that he could help elevate in life with the goals he had set, and he was very ambitious. When he did become engaged to Mary Paul, it was two years before they wed showing his dedication to his law studies.
His family’s expectations were more than just wishful thinking. His great-uncle, Benjamin Langlois, who was the family’s wealthy benefactor had great expectations for Tom regarding the law and Parliament. It would be difficult for a young man of only twenty years to override those expectations even if he hadn’t been very ambitious on his own. His younger brother Anthony did marry for love and lost Langlois’ support when he wed a young woman of no consequence. Tom might have suffered the same if he didn’t live up to his family’s expectations. With the loss of his great-uncle’s support, he would not have been able to help his family including his six sisters.
Jane Austen’s second to last reference to Tom Lefroy in a letter was January 14, 1796, to Cassandra.
Friday. — At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.
One writer suggested she was joking. My thought when I read it was that she was trying to leave the impression she was joking. It seems to me to be underscored with tremendous sadness.
I admit that I’m a hopeless romantic, but I did find two curious occurrences.
Upon learning of Jane Austen’s death (18 July 1817), Thomas Langlois Lefroy travelled from Ireland to England to pay his respects to the British author. In addition, at an auction of Cadell’s papers (possibly in London), one Tom Lefroy bought a Cadell publisher’s rejection letter—for Austen’s early version of Pride and Prejudice, titled First Impressions. Wikipedia
The second is Thomas Lefroy’s confession in regard to Jane Austen when in a discussion with his nephew.
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. Wikipedia
So, the debate rages on as to whether or not there was a great love between Jane Austen and Thomas Langlois Lefroy. Two things are certain: Jane Austen is a writer beloved by many, and Tom Lefroy was a good man, after all.
This was originally a post to Austen Authors June 19, 2016.