In Jane’s own life there is ample evidence that women can live a fulfilled and contented life without getting married. As we have seen Jane writes in Emma, “it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible.” As far as we can tell, Jane Austen, herself, lived a contented single life enjoying her family, her friends, her writing and a country lifestyle. Sure she might have liked to marry one of the loves of her life but it was not to be. Like today, a variety of reasons can conspire to leave a woman single. However, Jane certainly knew what love was and her first love was indeed a wonderful experience both in the highs but also in the lows. Her first love was indeed heart wrenching and disappointing like many first loves can be.
Jane certainly fell in love. First, when Jane was twenty-one, there was Tom Lefroy, who she describes in a letter to Cassandra as her ‘Irish friend’. He was a young Irishman visiting a relative who happened to be an older friend of Jane’s, Madame Lefroy. An attachment undoubtedly occurred. How much time Jane actually spent with Tom is open to conjecture. In this the first letter of Jane’s written in 1796, she writes that she has ‘been particular’ with her “Irish friend” for three balls. Jane teased her sister that she had thrown caution to the wind, “Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together”. (This delightful letter was sent from Jane to Cassandra while Cassandra was visiting her fiancé’s family. It was subsequently bequeathed to Jane’s niece Fanny by Cassandra but the original manuscript is untraced since its publication by Fanny’s son.) Jane describes Tom Lefroy to Cassandra, as Cassandra has clearly not met him. It is possible that given the close situation of the two houses Jane and Tom might have spent quite a time together. Biographer Jon Spence is convincing when he suggests that Jane and Tom might have been much closer than at first thought. Jane might have stopped at his uncle’s house on her next visit to London as shown in the film, Becoming Jane Austen, very loosely based on Jon Spence’s biography of the same name published in 2003. There may have been more contact between them than was at first assumed. But the fact is, despite both being interested, the romance ended. In 1798, two years after that first letter, Jane writes to Cassandra, “I was too proud 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.” It seems that Tom had little money and had to make his own way in the world under the supervision of his uncle. Jane was without a dowry: hard as it is for us to imagine, in the late 18th Century, it was impossible to marry under such circumstances. The film Becoming Jane, has Jane Austen almost participating in an elopement. This is sheer fancy, but it may well have gone through her mind, as this would have been the only way they could have married at that time. Young adults had no means to rent or purchase a home to set up a family without family support and hence needed family acquiescence.
Jane was a “nobody”, a daughter of a country parson. Anecdotes from her contemporaries suggest she was attractive and vivacious as a young woman but in the superficial values of the 18th Century, this was not enough of a recommendation except in the world of Jane’s imagination, the Austen Six. It is not the real world. Alas I’m afraid I don’t like Tom Lefroy much. Tom didn’t persevere; he obviously gave up his suit. He became a highly successful lawyer, rising to be Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, married an heiress and would have promptly been forgotten, except for the small footnote, that he had once inspired love in the heart of a “nobody” who turned out to be one of the most successful authors in English Literature.
Did Jane blame Tom for his lack of persistence and patience? If Tom Lefroy had indeed had a grand passion, he would have returned instead of marrying the Irish heiress. Jane realised perhaps the truth of being wary about one’s feelings when there is no hope. A sensible older Aunt in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Gardiner, says to Flawed-But-Fabulous-Elizabeth Bennet, “Do not involve yourself or endeavour to involve him in an affection which the want of fortune would make so very imprudent”. Jane was a realist; marriage was not for the poor in a world where there is no financial support for those at the bottom. Or one had to be very loyal and persistent. Love had many hurdles and only a real love might last in these circumstances.
And as Jon Spence has told us, it was in the throes of this love for Tom Lefroy, and its accompanying disappointment that Jane wrote and revised Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. I imagine Jane to be a little like Marianne in the former. Of course Sense and Sensibility is not autobiographical, but Jane would have drawn on those feelings of throwing caution to the wind and displaying her feelings for all to see when she wrote it. As one would expect Jane Austen wrote of one’s first love in her fiction so realistically. We all remember our first loves and Jane’s has been translated into the finest embodiment of English Literature. The picture of Tom Lefroy displayed at the beginning of this blog is so serious and reflects Lefroy’s importance. However, even in the most important lurks the seeds of one’s first love.
See Bibliography for an extended list. However, for this post I am indebted to Jon Spence.
Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen A Life. London, UK: hambledon continuum, 2003.