50: The truth about Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy
Before all the hubbub starts, here's a primer on what happened between Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy. Forgive the long post -- wanted to get this all in one. (You can also see excerpts from Jane's letters to her sister about Tom here.)
50: Jane and Tom
Jane Austen essentially created the chick lit genre. We all know the formula—girl meets guy, girl falls in love with guy, guy breaks her heart, girl meets nicer, better-looking guy with more money and they live happily ever after. Obstacles abound in Austen’s stories—lack of money on the part of the otherwise lovely heroine, meddling family members who pull lovers apart because they disapprove the match—but these things are always overcome by the abundant worth of two good people who truly love each other.
The love stories in Austen’s own life echo these themes, but without the “happily ever after” ending.
Jane’s first love, at twenty, was Tom Lefroy. He was a law student from Ireland, the nephew of her dear friend Anne’s husband, and Anne may have introduced them. We know little about the relationship, really. Much of what we know of Jane’s life is from her letters, but her sister Cassandra burned many and mutilated more before passing them on to nieces and nephews late in her life. Perhaps Cassandra cut out the juiciest bits, or, as Austen expert Deirdre Le Faye suggests, the parts that could have offended one family member or other. Either way, there are gaps.
Jane and Tom spent some time together over the course of a few weeks, over Christmas and New Year's. He was fairly serious, quiet and very good—maybe a balance for Jane’s energetic humor. They bantered over Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and after a ball, Jane wrote jokingly to Cassandra of “everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” She writes about how Tom is given a hard time in the Lefroy household for the attachment, so that when she pays a visit he manages to hide. But he would pay her another visit, as was the custom, to thank her for partnering him at the ball, and the only fault she could really find with him was that his morning coat was “a great deal too light.”
There is much debate these days about just how in love Jane was with Tom, and how much this relationship influenced her writing. Some say it was just a flirtation—clearly, in Jane’s letters, she is being sarcastic, they say. To me she writes like there is some depth to her feelings, in spite of trying to laugh them off. “I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening,” she writes of their last meeting. “I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat.” She sounds a little bit like my friends and I as well, telling stories of a romance that fell into the middle of a life that was largely without romantic interest, making much of a little thing. Yet, it’s easy to imagine her being teasing and sharp with Tom.
Tom was from a good family but not wealthy. His father had been in the army. He was the oldest son, but it was a large family, eleven children with five daughters ahead of him, and he was made to feel that the future of the family was on his shoulders. He was expected to do well, to do much. Though the attachment seems to have been mutual, Anne and her husband stepped in and quickly sent Tom home. The family history is that Anne Lefroy was forever frustrated with Tom over this, his leading Jane on when he knew there was no chance he could propose.
Tom eventually married someone with an appropriately large fortune, had seven children, and went on to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. He was no Darcy—not heir to great estates or wealth—but clearly his family had expectations Jane did not meet. If Jane wrote about family interference, she learned it firsthand. Tom may have adored her and she him but she hadn’t enough money to qualify. Most likely Jane never saw him again.
When it ended, Jane wrote to Cassandra: “At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over—My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea.” She was joking, of course. How deeply she felt the joke we will never really know. But her heart had been engaged for likely the first time.
No doubt this relationship and her repartee with Tom fueled her writing. Whether it was "her greatest inspiration" as the trailers for Becoming Jane claim, well, that's debatable. But I'm sure it provided as spark.
Excerpted from my book, A Walk with Jane Austen. Read more at www.followingausten.com or read the first chapter online.
Check out the new Jane Austen's England Calendar for 2009! Featuring pictures of the places Jane lived, loved and wrote about, including Steventon, Chawton, Box Hill, Bath, Lyme, Winchester.
Also includes dates from Jane's life -- the writing and publishing of each of the books, dancing with Tom Lefroy, the moves to Bath and Chawton ... and much more!
Jane Austen's Letters (ed. Deirdre Le Faye)
Jane Austen: A Family Record (Deirdre Le Faye)
Jane Austen: A Life (Claire Tomalin)
Picture is of Ashe House, Anne Lefroy's home.