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15 August 2007

Becoming Tom: the Real Lefroy


Like many Jane Austen fans I am fascinated by Jane's early infatuation with the young Irishman Tom Lefroy. In fact, in my novel, By a Lady, my heroine, C.J. Welles is an actress auditioning to play Jane in a semi-biographical Broadway show about the thwarted romance between Jane and Tom.


The Jane Austen pseudo-biopic Becoming Jane is packing the cinemas this summer, and some movie critics were quick to inform their readers that Jane Austen’s love interest Tom Lefroy was the model for Mr. Darcy. Well, no. While there are several hints in Pride and Prejudice that are homages to Tom Lefroy, with regard to the love story element of the plot—if anything, this young man and distant relation of Jane's provided the literary fodder for the Willoughbys and the Wichkams, Jane’s feckless (though charming) heroes who give every inclination of proposing to one of the penniless heroines, only to wriggle off the hook and swim off in search of a wealthier bride.

During the time Jane knew Tom Lefroy (Christmas-time, 1795 into January of 1796) she was hard at work on her novel Elinor and Marianne, which would finally be published in 1811 under the title Sense and Sensibility. So it’s far more likely that her feelings about Tom’s departure, and the reasons for it were in the forefront of her mind and infused her imagination as she continued to revise Elinor and Marianne.


Though we’re all rooting for the despondent Marianne after Willoughby so caddishly (and so publicly) jilts her, the economic realities of the late Georgian era made things very difficult for potential bridegrooms as well. It was all very well and good to fall in love, but without an income, many of them simply could not afford to marry where they wooed. Class dictated one’s place in society, and in Austen’s immediate world, the gentry, gentlemen were not brought up to work for a living. Trade was sneered at. If a man did not have the means to support a wife and family, he would have to find a way to gain it through acceptable means. And those avenues were limited, even for an oldest son. Many young men applied themselves to the study of the law.

Such was the case with Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen.



Thomas Langlois Lefroy was born in January, 1776. He was raised in Ireland, and at Christmas, 1795, had come to Hampshire to visit his aunt and uncle, Anne and George Lefroy. Anne Lefroy was a dear friend of the Austen family, who lived in nearby Steventon; and it was at one of the several local balls held during the holiday season that Tom was introduced to Jane.


“A very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man,” was the writer’s first impression. Tom, just a few days shy of his twentieth birthday, boasted boyish good looks, with large, expressive, ever-so-slightly-shy eyes , a slightly aquiline nose, and a cupid's bow mouth. Their flirtation began at their very first meeting, and after enjoying three balls they were dancing together with enough regularity to excite comment from Jane’s cautious and conservative elder sister Cassandra. But Jane laughed it off in a letter to Cassandra, writing:


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.


The pale coat and the mention of Fielding’s lovestruck hero, Tom Jones, was a veiled allusion to Tom Lefroy’s emotional state: he was in love. Jane mentioned him frequently in her letters to Cassandra from that time. Anne Lefroy seemed to encourage a match as well, hosting a ball herself, evidently in the hope of bringing the young couple into an understanding. I look forward with great impatience to it, Jane wrote to her sister, 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.

Yet something must have happened at this ball. Or not happened--because Jane learned that Lefroy was soon to depart for London (gee—just like Willoughby!) In a letter Jane began on Thursday, January 14, 1796, and completed the following morning, there is another mention of Tom. 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 London, Tom resided in Cork Street with his great-uncle Benjamin Langlois (who was very much his benefactor) and applied himself to the study of law. The Austens soon followed, taking lodgings on the same short street, but there is no evidence that Tom and Jane’s flirtation continued. In a letter to Cassandra, Jane seemed grateful for the evening entertainments that provided a distraction—from her broken heart, perhaps?

In 1798, Tom came back to Ashe for a visit, but he did not pay a call on the Austens. Jane learned from Anne Lefroy that he was to return to Ireland, where he would practice before the bar. Although his own father had married for love, Tom either had a stronger sense of familial duty, or else thought it would be selfish to marry a woman he had no present means of providing for. Perhaps we have him to thank, for Jane--who had every expectation that he would offer for her--channeled her experiences and disappointment into her writing, where they are as plain on the page today as they were nearly two hundred years ago. Tom never became Jane's husband, but he remained in her fertile imagination until the end of her days. He probably was The One for her, because never again did she wax rhapsodic (if wryly so) about any other gentleman who entered her life.


Tom did become a lawyer in Ireland, and married well. His personal life and career flourished. Tom fathered several children and was eventually named Chief Justice. As for Jane, on July 18, 1817, she died of what is now believed to be Addison’s disease. Tom Lefroy outlived her by fifty-two years, dying on May 4, 1869 at the age of ninety-three.




Thomas Langlois Lefroy, Chief Justice of Ireland

Toward the end of his life, Lefroy was asked about his relationship with Jane Austen. In a letter written long after Tom's death, from his nephew T.E.P. Lefroy to Jane’s great-nephew, James Edward Austen Leigh in 1870, the younger Lefroy wrote My late venerable uncle . . . said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly & private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.


A marble bust of Tom Lefroy, sculpted during his days as Ireland's Chief Justice, occupies a venerable place in the Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin. There, visitors can gaze at the craggy jowls, the Roman nose, and the bald pate of the elderly Tom Lefroy and wonder what might have been had it become him to marry Jane Austen.






12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just the movie critics who imply that Tom Lefroy was the inspiration for Darcy, the whole movie implies it. At various points in the film, after Movie Jane meets movie Tom, she is seen scribbling bits of Pride & Prejudice. There is even a Lady Catherine de Bourgh stand-in in the person of Maggie Smith, and the portrayal of Mr. & Mrs. Austen it the film owes more to the portrait of Mr. & Mrs. Bennett in from P&P, than any resemblance to Jane's real parents.

5:18 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

The filmmakers and critics are on the Darcy gravy-train. He's the hero who is a household name among those who like Austen's work, but haven't memorized every tidbit of her life and oeuvre. Think how many fans heard of Darcy through the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle miniseries adaptation and from BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY, and of course from the recent Keira Knightley film (don't get me started). So they figure by making BECOMING JANE as much like versions of P&P, they will put more butts in seats. It's about making money, not factual accuracy ... hence my post today.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating, Amanda! I saw "Becoming Jane" with a guy friend who has seen most of the Austen film adapataions (though not read her books). He commented that he "liked the movies of her books better than the movie about her life." And then he said, "it seems more believeable when the heroine falls in love with the cad in the movies of her books than it does in this movie." So he went right to comparing Lefroy to Willoughby/Wickham.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great post, Amanda.

Funny, but something about Tom LeFroy makes me not like him very much. it started when he "ran away" when Jane visited the Steventons and she commented that he was worried that he "was laughed at about her."

Not my kind of hero.

I can't put my finger on what it else is...maybe it's that he appears to have led Jane to believe he intended to ask her to marry him...then he didn't.

She was too intelligent to have been led that far along without grounds.

I will always wonder what happened. My intuition tells me he chickened out.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think Jane was impressionable back in 1795-6. After all, she was only 20 years old herself when she met Tom, a relatively sheltered vicar's daughter with little idea of the world beyond what she herself had read in books, nor had she much opportunity by then to sit back and watch the world, which led to so many of her famous observations. As to "Anonymous's" post re: BECOMING JANE'S treatment of Mr. & Mrs. Austen as avatars for M/M Bennet in P&P, evidently, they were quite a lot like the Bennets ... Mrs. A. was quite the hypochondriac, and Mr. A somewhat wryly removed from family goings-on. But just because Jane's parents were like the Bennet characters she later created, it does not automatically mean that Lefroy was Mr. Darcy. Only to the movie-makers.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post. I haven't seen BECOMING JANE yet, but I'm sure I will eventually . . .

7:59 PM  
Anonymous worderella said...

This was an amazing post, and I'm so glad you did it! I've been torn between feeling happy that the Jane Austen mania doesn't die, and depressed that so many people don't know the truth about her and are more than willing to believe the half-truths and/or lies. I'm linking to you so more people will read about Jane and Tom as they really were!

7:24 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Worderella, you made my week!

As an actress as well as a writer, a viewer as well as a reader, and even as a participant, I know that there are differences between the disciplines of the page and the stage (or the screen) and I appreciate what is required of each genre.

That said ...

My feeling about all these pseudo-literary adaptations and skewing of biopics for the purposes (or excuses) that the story is more "entertaining" the made-up way rather than the actual way -- is that the REAL story can be made just as entertaining, and is ever so much more poignant for being the truth. Since the writers need to do a bit of research to begin with, it's just as easy to get it right, than to willfully ignore the facts and make it inaccurate.

And then there's the snark in me who cringes at the audacity of a screenwriter to out-write Austen (or Shakespeare, for that matter), believing they are somehow making it "better" or more accessible to contemporary audiences. I do think they underestimate our intelligence. But given the now-international penchant for the stupidest reality TV, what amounts to "stupid human tricks," small wonder that Hollywood thinks we're all morons.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Hollywood taking the easy way out by not doing the research necessary, or deciding that the made-up story is more exciting. I think of the liberties they took in Elizabeth or The Tudors on Showtime.

One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare in Love was the tongue in cheekness of it. Stoppard knew that what he was writing was a fantasy. The makers of Becoming Jane declare that is the "true story of her inspiration", and it's just not factual.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Speaking of The Tudors on Showtime (I don't pay extra $ for the channel, so I only caught the first 2 episodes online through a preview link), I heard from someone who watched the whole season that the creators have Cardinal Wolsey slitting his own throat in the Tower with a paring knife!!!! EVERY detail about that is wrong, and it's an egregious re-write of history. Wolsey never made it to the Tower...he was ill and died at the abbey in Leicester where he stopped enroute to London. AND even if he'd survived long enough to be imprisoned, a man of the cloth who knew that suicides go to Hell, would NEVER kill himself! Why would he kill himself anyway? He believed himself to be right, and Henry wrong. So even if he died, he assumed he was going north. I really hate it when the filmmakers pervert the facts so enormously, can't even make their revision make logical (or historical) sense, and then fob it off on viewers as the truth.

10:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the show yet (I've only just gotten BBC America), but I've also heard that they've combined two of Henry VIII's sisters together as well. Margaret who married James IV, and became grandmother to not only Mary Queen of Scots but Darnley as well, and Mary (married to the King of France and then Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk)who's granddaughter was Lady Jane Grey. I guess having two sisters whose names began with M would have been too confusing.

10:36 AM  
Blogger janegeorge said...

When I saw the movie I thought it was obvious that LeFroy was the charming bad boy and Wisley was Darcy. (Helped along by the charming McAvoy.) But the film did intimate lots of eclectic bits of experience that I could place in more than one book. That was fun. But I don't watch TV and didn't read any reviews, so expectations were kinda blank.

I enjoyed Becoming Jane. But I put my butt in the seat not really expecting AUSTEN, but a likeable enough costume drama, which it was. My young daughter, however, was disappointed. Not in any way related to Austen, but because the story did not have a happy ending.

Your time travel sounds fun. C.J. *Welles*, huh? LOL. Thanks for the informative post.

6:02 PM  

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