1. Tom Lefroy
Biographer Jon Spence is convinced that Thomas Langlois Lefroy was Jane Austen’s one and true love and that she suffered for years following her loss. His book Becoming Jane Austen inspired the film, Becoming Jane, in which Jane’s relationship with Tom is portrayed as a full-blown romantic affair. Other biographers have also stressed the importance of the affair in Jane’s life.
Young Tom Lefroy. Image from Wikipedia Archives.
Jane and Tom met during the Christmas season of 1795, when Jane was 20 years old. He was visiting his aunt and uncle, George and Anne Lefroy, at Ashe Parsonage, on his way to London where he was to study law. Anne Lefroy was a close friend of Jane Austen’s and a neighbour to the Austen family. Jane and Tom met at 4 balls and danced together. Jane obviously liked him, describing him as “a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man”.
Jane told Cassandra, “imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together”. Lively Jane must have flirted with Tom very openly, as Tom was “excessively laughed at about me at Ashe”, to the point that he once ran away when she visited Ashe!
Jane always describes Tom with light humour in her letters. Before a ball at Ashe, she wrote “I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend… I shall turn it down, however, unless he promises to give away his white coat”. She also joked, “I mean to confine myself in the future to Mr Tom Lefroy… for whom I do not care a sixpence.”
The flirtation with Tom was not to last. Before their last ball together, Jane ironically wrote, “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.” Tom was to proceed to London and the young couple never met again. It was Mrs Lefroy who sent him away, realising that the youngsters were about to form an attachment and neither of them had money to sustain a good living. He was certainly a practically-minded man, as on his return to Ireland, he married a rich heiress and moved on in life.
Tom Lefroy later became Chief Justice of Ireland and lived up to the old age of 93. In his last years his nephew asked him if he had loved Jane Austen, and he admitted that he had been in love with her, although it had been “a boyish love”.
The Chief Justice. Image from Wikipedia.
It is clear that there was a romance between the two, but how much this affected Jane Austen is unknown. According to Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh and niece Caroline, the romance had been nothing out of the ordinary. Caroline wrote, “there was something in it, is true – but nothing out of the common way…nothing to call ill usage & no very serious sorrow endured” - a youthful, innocent flirtation, perhaps. There is no evidence to suggest that she had been deeply touched by this affair.