THIS day in 1817 the novelist Jane Austen died. She was 41 years old.
When she was a young girl, her father, rector of Steventon in Hampshire, let her scribble in the parish register the names of imaginary husbands. But Jane never married.
However, in 1795 her life might have turned out differently. Thomas Langlois Lefroy of Limerick had recently graduated with distinction and four gold medals in oratory from Trinity College, Dublin. Suffering from overwork, he was spending Christmas with his uncle and aunt at Ashe near Steventon. Jane Austen, with her bright hazel eyes and rosy complexion, was a great favourite of his aunt who introduced her to Tom at a local ball.
His fair hair and deep blue eyes enchanted Jane; he was “a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man”. Writing to her older sister Cassandra, she said they behaved in a most “profligate” and “shocking” manner by dancing several times together without changing partners and breaking more rules by sitting down, joking, and discussing books. All very scandalous.
They were dance partners at three more balls, and appeared so close that a family friend presented Austen with a portrait of Lefroy.
At 20, Jane had reached the age when Cassandra had become engaged. She joked that if Lefroy proposed marriage she would only accept if he got rid of his white morning coat.
But four weeks after they met, Austen and her ‘Irish friend’ were forced to part: he had to travel to London to study at the Bar. Jane wrote: “At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy ... My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.’
But theirs was more than a whirlwind romance. In August 1796, on her way to Kent, Jane and two of her brothers stayed with Lefroy and his great-uncle Benjamin in London. A rich bachelor, he had seen Tom through college, and was about to finance his law studies. He wanted him to marry a girl with money and family influence.
Jane’s father was heavily in debt, had to sell the family carriage, and resort to taking pupils into the rectory. Lefroy needed someone who would bring a large dowry, and could not risk entangling himself with a girl who depended on her parents’ small allowance.
Jane waited for Tom but he did not come. When he visited Hampshire in autumn 1798, his aunt sent him packing to London, so as not to give Jane false hopes. The next time she saw his aunt, Jane did not dare ask about Tom and never mentions him again in her letters.
Their relationship is fictionalised in the 2007 film Becoming Jane, which shows them eloping by stagecoach, and meeting many years later when a bewhiskered Tom introduces his teenage daughter — who bears the name of Jane.
Austen had been spared living in an unknown country, with no money of her own, ground down by a life of almost continuous pregnancy. Instead she had time to write three novels before she was 24. Lefroy found a more ‘eligible’ match in Mary Paul from Wexford, sister of a college friend. They were married in Wales where many Wexford families had taken refuge during the 1798 Rebellion, and went to live in Dublin where Tom practised at the Bar.
When her brother suddenly died a year later, Mary became heiress to the Paul estates. Lefroy had indeed made a fortunate match. As the eldest son, his family depended on him “to rise into distinction”: he did not let them down. Daniel O’Connell claimed Lefroy, a Protestant, was promoted above more worthy Catholics.
Lefroy always carried a Bible, and argued that only a proper system of education could improve the morals of the lower classes. He opposed Catholic emancipation, and founded a society to send Protestant missionaries into Catholic areas. Elected Tory MP for Dublin University in 1830, he was against extending the vote to the middle classes.
While his wife and children settled into a Gothic mansion at Carriglas, Co Longford, Lefroy stayed in Dublin, within easy reach of his work as a judge.
Many of his decisions were harsh: during the Famine he transported leaders of the Young Ireland movement for encouraging tenants not to pay rent.
Lefroy’s hand in the oppression of Catholics, when his Huguenot ancestors had fled oppression in France, is an irony Jane Austen would not have missed.
Lefroy’s ruthless efficiency in dealing with political cases was recognised in 1852 by the Tory government that promoted him to Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, the most senior judge in the Court of Queen’s Bench.
He held the position until he was 90 when, by one account, he was still reading his newspaper without spectacles.
Shortly before he died, aged 93, Lefroy confessed to a nephew that he had once loved Jane Austen; quickly adding that it was only “a boyish kind of love”.