On the eve of the bicentenary of the death of Jane Austen, historian GORDON LUCY examines her relationship with the noted Irish lawyer and politician and asks if he was, at least partially, the inspiration for ‘Pride and Prejudice’.
Jane Austen was the seventh child and second daughter of the Rev George Austen, a Church of England clergyman, and his wife Cassandra Leigh.
Of her brothers, two became clergymen, one inherited rich estates in Kent and Hampshire from a distant cousin and the two youngest became admirals in the Royal Navy.
Jane led an uneventful life and never married but wrote six of the finest novels in the English language.
She died in Winchester on 18 July 1817, at the age of 41 and was buried in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral. The epitaph composed by her brother James praises Austen’s personal qualities, expresses hope for her salvation and acknowledges the ‘extraordinary endowments of her mind’, but makes no reference to her achievements as a writer. This ought to be the cause of no great surprise. Those novels published during her life time were published anonymously.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ is undeniably her most popular novel and Jane regarded Elizabeth Bennet as her favourite character, an assessment almost universally shared by modern readers who readily appreciate Elizabeth’s intelligence, wit and energy.
P. D. James was surely correct in describing Elizabeth as ‘probably the most enchanting female character in English literature’.
The novel’s arresting opening sentence – ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’ – accurately conveys that marriage is one of the book’s three key themes, the others being money and class.
Many novels have a significant autobiographical content. Elizabeth’s close relationship with her sister Jane is paralleled by Jane Austen’s close relationship with her sister Cassandra. Does ‘Pride and Prejudice’ owe anything to Jane’s flirtation with Tom Lefroy? Does Tom Lefroy inform the character of Mr Darcy? Jane wrote the original version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ around the time of her flirtation with Tom Lefroy, the nephew of Anne Lefroy, an older female friend of Jane’s.
Of Huguenot descent, Thomas Langlois Lefroy was to become a significant political and judicial figure in Ireland. A Tory, between 1830 and 1841 he was one of the two MPs for Trinity College Dublin. In 1835 he was appointed to the membership of the Irish Privy Council and in 1841 he was appointed to the Irish judiciary. In May 1848, Lefroy presided at the trial of John Mitchel for treason felony. Between 1852 and 1866 he was Lord Chief of Ireland.
In the early 1790s Lefroy had academically distinguished himself at Trinity College, Dublin. He may well have been proud and intellectually arrogant, like Mr Darcy. As the eldest son of a large family, 11 children with five daughters ahead of him, Lefroy was made to feel that the future of his entire family was on his shoulders. Unlike Mr Darcy, Lefroy was not the heir to great estates or wealth. Tom’s family expected him to marry well. It is perfectly possible Tom adored Jane and she him but she unfortunately lacked the wealth to meet his family’s expectations.
In a letter started on Thursday (January 14 1796), and finished the following morning, Jane wrote: ‘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.’
In March 1799 Tom married Mary Paul who possessed an appropriately large fortune. They had seven children. Their first daughter, born on June 24 1802, was called Jane. While it is possible that the child was named after the author of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, it is more likely the girl was named after her maternal grandmother.
Tom Lefroy certainly did not forget about Jane. Learning of Jane’s death, he travelled to England to pay his respects in 1817. Furthermore, at an auction of Thomas Cadell’s papers, one Tom Lefroy bought Cadell’s rejection letter for First Impressions.
In old age, Tom was reported to have answered in the affirmative to the question, ‘Were you ever in love with Jane Austen?’ ‘With a boyish love.’
Jon Spence in ‘Becoming Jane Austen’ (London, 2003) offers an interesting thesis which turns things on their head. Spence suggests that Jane used herself as a model for Mr Darcy (and his measured demeanour) and Tom Lefroy provided the model for the more gregarious Elizabeth Bennett.
In November 1798 Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra that Tom’s aunt Mrs Lefroy had been to visit, but she had not said anything about her nephew ‘to me, and I was too proud [perhaps lending weight Spence’s thesis] 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’.
Claire Tomalin, the distinguished literary biographer and the author of a biography of Austen published in 2000, believes this letter demonstrates Austen’s ‘bleak remembrance, and persistent interest’ in Lefroy.
So while the exact influence of Tom Lefroy on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ may continue to be a subject for debate for many years to come, it does seem plausible that his presence in Austen’s life is in some way reflected in the novel.
Jon Spence’s book provides the title for a fictional film version of the romance between Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen which appeared in 2007. The film is less circumspect than Spence’s book and strays well beyond the evidence. James McAvoy played the role of Tom and Anne Hathaway the role of Jane.
Life often imitates art but ‘Pride and Prejudice’ may constitute an example of life informing art but without the happy ending. Perhaps we should console ourselves with the thought that if Jane Austen had become Mrs Lefroy we might have been deprived of some the finest works that English literature has to offer.