Throughout Jane Austen’s life she developed close friendships with a number of women that survived her moving from Steventon in Hampshire, to Bath, Southampton and its surrounds, and then back to Hampshire to the little village of Chawton. These friendships endured despite quite an unsettled period in the middle of Jane’s life where she was in quite straightened circumstances. These friendships endured despite the fact that she held a very humble place in the society of her time; she was unmarried and poor. Both of these factors meant that no one would befriend her for an ulterior motive. Her friendships endured obviously because they must have embodied the principles that she so often wrote about.
It seems that Jane’s first significant friendship outside of her family was Madam Lefroy. She was a young married mother with young children who lived within walking distance from Jane. Anna Lefroy, became an older mentor for Jane. Jane was a young girl living at Steventon rectory in a busy house, full of brothers, a sister and students. She must have loved the respite afforded by a quieter house and an older mentor. She would have gossiped about people, books and clothes; she would have enjoyed the older woman’s experience, the aunt-like qualities. But this friendship was to be tested. As we know it was Madam Lefroy who persuaded Tom Lefroy, her husband’s nephew to leave Steventon when he was becoming attached to Jane. Jane was obviously hurt. She could not bring herself to talk to Madame Lefroy about Tom. One can assume that she resented the interference; she would have resented the persuasion that Madame Lefroy must have used to get Tom to leave.
Jane maintained the friendship until Madame Lefroy was thrown off her horse and died, coincidently on Jane’s 30th birthday. Four years later, Jane is still haunted by the coincidence and writes a poem about her friend, “Thou friend and ornament of human kind”. There seems such a similarity, except for the gender, between the persuasion of Anne Elliot by Lady Russell in the novel, Persuasion and of Tom Lefroy by Madame Lefroy in Jane’s own life. It is the last completed novel that Jane worked on and the overturning of Lady Russells’s persuasion could be translated into the wishful thinking of Jane about what could have been if Tom Lefroy had been more like an Austen hero; if love not money had won the race; if patience and time had been allowed to work their magic. The truly remarkable aspect of the Madam Lefroy and Jane Austen friendship is that despite such undercurrents, they remained friends. Letters and visits continued after the departure of Tom Lefroy. Jane Austen did not appear to blame her friend for her interference. Or if she did, she did not let it ruin her friendship. Austen valued friendship, even when it did not run smooth.