Jane Austen & Tom Lefroy
The facts behind the romance.
Here is The Vyne estate in Hampshire, where Jane Austen attended balls as a young woman.
We've all heard the rumors and watched Becoming Jane, and we want to think that Jane Austen might have had such a whirlwind, dramatic romance and run off with "her Irish friend," as she calls him. But I'm afraid the real story is just a bit less romantic than that – just a little. For, as we will see, it seemed that she and Tom Lefroy set the neighborhood talking.
Here is the story as we have it from Jane herself.
She wrote to her sister Cassandra on January 9, 1796 (when she was twenty years old):
Mr. H. began with Elizabeth, and afterwards danced with her again; but they do not know how to be particular. I flatter myself, however, that they will profit by the three successive lessons which I have given them.
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.
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. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you.
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.
After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well-behaved now; and as for the other, he 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, which he did when he was wounded
In another letter to her sister on January 15 she wrote:
Our party to Ashe to-morrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us, and I. I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat.
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 don't care sixpence.
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.
And that is all! No secret assignations to run away, no mad dash to Gretna Green, not even a proposal. I don't mean to say that there was no inclination to do any of those things – and Jane may have accepted a proposal if he'd made one. But I would argue that the sense and responsibility that pulls them back from the brink in the story's dramatic retelling actually took hold long before that – which is why Tom went away to pursue his profession and Jane went cheerfully on with her life (for the most part, as we will see).
Taking into account Jane's propensity to purposefully exaggerate for comic effect there is no hint that anything more serious than an obvious flirtation went on, but is sounds as if Jane did feel something for Tom Lefroy. It was apparent enough for Cassandra to have cautioned her to be on her guard. Jane obviously ignored this advice to some degree, as her letters reveal, and she and Tom seemed not to care too much about hiding their preference for each other – it's just the degree of preference that is the mystery.
Jane most likely knew that he would be going away without making any serious declarations by the time she wrote the second letter, which would account for her rather extreme expressions that swing from not caring sixpence for him to her tears flowing at the idea of his leaving. This seems to show that she was trying to harden herself to the idea, using humor to soften the blow in her own mind.
For it sounds very much as if she still thought about him in a letter from almost three years later, written in November of 1798:
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, and of her friend very little.
She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any inquiries; 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.
Mrs. Lefroy must have seen her nephew recently, but Jane is too proud (feeling it would be embarrasing) to ask about him.
Now this seems to show that she had cared rather more than sixpence about him. It is interesting to speculate on whether she would have been happy to pick up where they had left off if he had come back and done so. Who knows!
We do actually have a few words from Tom himself when he was a much older man – married, with many children, and the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland – that shed a tiny bit of light on his romance with Jane.
In Jane Austen: A Family Record by Deirdre Le Fay she tells us this about him:
Although he was very happy in his marriage, he never forgot Jane Austen, and 'to the last year of his life she was remembered as the object of his youthful admiration –', when he admitted to a nephew that he had had a 'boyish love' for her.
So there you have it in Jane's (and Tom's) own words. Now you can decide what really happened!