Did Jane Austen Ever Fall in Love?

A/N: This was a guest post I did several months ago that I would like to revisit with a few additional comments.

I love a good mystery. And I’ve read some excellent mystery stories down through the years. However, I wonder if some of the most intriguing mysteries might be those from real life rather than those of the imagination.

One of those mysteries involves Jane Austen. Her sister Cassandra destroyed a number of her letters after Jane died. Was Cassandra protecting her sibling or did Jane ask her to perform that task? Did Jane write of things that were so private she didn’t want them known other than to her sister? Could some of those writings have referred to a broken heart and to the man who broke it? And could that man have been Tom Lefroy?

Ah, was it just friendship, puppy love, or much more between Jane Austen and Thomas Lefroy? It’s an interesting question that a number of writers have pursued even to the point of the movie ‘Becoming Jane’ being produced which indicated it was much more.

Earlier, I made a short post on Facebook considering this very question. In this article, I’ve pursued the topic a little deeper because I’m still intrigued with what might have been the case. How about you? Do you think Jane Austen was in love with Tom Lefroy? Do you think that Tom Lefroy loved Jane Austen? If there was an ill-fated love on Jane’s part, that could explain why her romances seem so real. Let’s take a closer look at what might have been the case.

Jane Austen was a very good writer of Regency romance. Else why would the tale of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet and other couples in her books be celebrated and remembered much more so than during her lifetime. But could a young woman who was an innocent write of romantic love if she had never experienced it? I doubt Fitzwilliam Darcy’s declaration of love to Elizabeth Bennet would have come from Austen’s brain unless her heart had been touched at some point with romantic love.

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

We know Jane loved her family especially her older sister Cassandra. But romantic love is different from the love of family. It not only involves the heart, it involves all of the person mentally, emotionally, and physically. That is an undercurrent throughout the whole of Pride and Prejudice, and, I daresay, all of Jane Austen’s works.

Thomas Langlois Lefroy was considered an honorable man who married Mary Paul in 1799. He met Jane Austen when visiting with his aunt and uncle the winter of 1795-1796. During that Christmas season, he and Jane met at four balls and possibly other occasions where they danced and conversed. He also loaned her the scandalous book Tom Jones which would have added to her imagination along with other novels she might have read. Even if this had contributed to her writings, it is doubtful it would be the complete explanation for the romantic undercurrent of her books.

Did Jane Austen develop a tendre or more for Tom Lefroy? Did he begin to love her? When we remember that he married Mary Paul, the sister of a fellow student, we need to consider that he knew her before he met Jane Austen. Letters from his uncle and LeFroy’s Memoir written by his son indicate that Tom was dedicated to his study of the law and his determination to make that his life’s work. He was a diligent student even winning a number of prizes along the way wholly devoted to his studies. When he met Jane Austen, he was taking a much-needed break and relaxing before returning to them.

Because he was an honorable man, if he really was planning to wed Mary Paul at some point, he would not have lead Jane on. It’s possible that one of two things might have happened. He enjoyed Jane’s company and considered her a friend or he began developing feelings for her. He wouldn’t be the first person who found that their heart was taking over their life. That might be the reason he ran one day when the Austens came to visit his aunt.

Or it’s possible that an affair of the heart was one-sided with Jane Austen falling in love with Tom but with it not being reciprocated. Her surviving letters to Cassandra, to me, seem a little bit “the lady doth protest too much.”

“Tell Mary that I make over Mr. Heartley and all his estate to her for her sole use and benefit in future, and not only him, but all my other admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence. Assure her also, as a last and indisputable proof of Warren’s indifference to me, that he actually drew that gentleman’s picture for me, and delivered it to me without a sigh.”  – Jane Austen to Cassandra, January 14, 1796

Why would Jane want a picture of Tom Lefroy? Didn’t the desire for a memento such as a lock of hair or a picture of someone indicate a little more than just friendship? This occurred close to the time Tom would be returning to his studies.

I find one of Jane’s quotes from Pride and Prejudice interesting.

To be fond of dancing [is] a certain step towards falling in love. 

Jane and Tom did a lot of dancing during his stay. And they seemed to have had much in common and enjoyed each other’s company as well. Many a young person has fallen in love under similar circumstances.

However, if Tom was developing feelings for Jane, would his feelings of duty toward his family as the eldest son interfere? He was the heir with nine siblings that he could help elevate in life with the goals he had set, and he was very ambitious. When he did become engaged to Mary Paul, it was two years before they wed showing his dedication to his law studies.

His family’s expectations were more than just wishful thinking. His great-uncle, Benjamin Langlois, who was the family’s wealthy benefactor had great expectations for Tom regarding the law and Parliament. It would be difficult for a young man of only twenty years to override those expectations even if he hadn’t been very ambitious on his own. His younger brother Anthony did marry for love and lost Langlois’ support when he wed a young woman of no consequence. Tom might have suffered the same if he didn’t live up to his family’s expectations. With the loss of his great-uncle’s support, he would not have been able to help his family including his six sisters. Jane Austen’s next to last reference to Tom Lefroy in a letter was January 14, 1796, to Cassandra.

“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.”

One writer suggested she was joking. My thought when I read it was that she was trying to leave the impression she was joking. It seems to me to be underscored with tremendous sadness.

I admit that I’m a hopeless romantic, but I did find two curious occurrences after Jane Austen died.

‘Upon learning of Jane Austen’s death (18 July 1817), Thomas Langlois Lefroy travelled from Ireland to England to pay his respects to the British author. In addition, at an auction of Cadell’s papers (possibly in London), one Tom Lefroy bought a Cadell publisher’s rejection letter—for Austen’s early version of Pride and Prejudice, titled First Impressions.’ – Wikipedia

Now remember, that was in 1817. No airplanes, no cars for speedy trips. The distance was also 666 km (414 miles) from Mountrath to Dublin to Liverpool to London. Part of that trip was by ship and the rest by coach. And if Lefroy went to Winchester and Chawton first and then to London, the trip would have been even longer. How many people do you know that would travel that far for a friend they had not seen or communicated with in over 20 years? Something to ponder.

The second is Thomas Lefroy’s confession in regard to Jane Austen when in a discussion with his nephew.

“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.” –Wikipedia

I would imagine that even a boyish love could linger if it was strong enough. Can a man love two women at the same time? Chief Justice Lefroy apparently lived with and loved his wife for over 50 years. After all, he had seven children with her. He was also known as a God-fearing man. Possibly he had a tendre for what might have been, but, for a number of reasons, I doubt he would have acted on it.

So, the debate rages on as to whether or not there was a great love between Jane Austen and Thomas Langlois Lefroy. Two things are certain: Jane Austen is a writer beloved by many, and Tom Lefroy was a good man, after all.

References:
Wikipedia
JASNA.org
HistoryofParliamentOnline.org
Becoming Jane Fansite
JaneAusten.co/uk

18 Responses to Did Jane Austen Ever Fall in Love?

  1. Incisive musings on a topic that is poignant on many levels. Can fiction writers truly imagine situations in which they have no experience? Can observation without experience be enough? Having written only one short piece of fiction I truly do not know the limitations, or limitlessness, of the writer’s imagination.

    I would like to think that Jane has the opportunity to experience true romantic love even if it was a star-crossed love. Perhaps her stories are rewrites of her own life, with the happy endings for the lovers that she never had. And why not? I’m sure many of us think occasionally about past loves and what might have been.

    While I would like a definitive answer to this question, in a way I’m glad that her private letters are not available to our prying eyes. People are entitled to the sanctity of their own private thoughts — even those people in the public eye.

    A touching and thought-provoking study, Gianna. Many thanks for sharing it with us and giving us this question to ponder.

    • You’re quite welcome, Janis. I also wish that Jane had an opportunity to know romantic love. As to her letters, Cassandra probably had very good reasons to destroy some of Jane’s letters. If they did mention Tom Lefroy, he probably would have been a married man at that point. As it is, we will probably never know and, perhaps, that is best.

  2. Sure they fell in love. They were young and personable but were aware that fate had other plans. it adds something to the wonderfulness of young love. I don’t think their hearts were broken when they parted but there might always be a measure of “what might have been” nostalgia. I still vividly remember my first love and I was a bit older than Jane was. That didn’t stop me for later marrying a wonderful man.
    BTW I think that Darcy’s proposal and Wentworth’s letter are more examples of what a sentimental female would like to receive than what a man would write.
    No experience with loving needed to write either; imagination alone could provide it especially for a genius.

    • Thank you, Diana. I still think about this topic and wonder what we missed. In one of Jane’s letters, she mentioned that she hesitated to ask about Tom and Mrs. Lefroy didn’t say anything about him as well. And over that twenty year period, they apparently had no contact at all. That’s why I found it odd he traveled to England to honor her. It’s one mystery I’d love to solve.

    • Me too. All the ingredients were there for them to fall in love: young, common interests, dancing, enjoying each other’s company. I think an attachment of some sort was formed that never really went away with time. And if there was real love between them, they would have known that there was no future for them. That makes me sad.

  3. Those who love Jane Austen all wish that she had a loving relationship at least once in her life, but as the daughter of a country rector, opportunities to do so would be slim. As I consider writing an “obsession,” I can imagine Jane needing to get the ideas out of her head and on paper. Those with a creative slant often feel as such.

  4. Your thoughts were nice to read and I did see that movie. I guess we’ll never know. I do find the topic interesting and like what certain authors, i.e., Shannon Winslow, did with the premise of JA having a love. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. This was a very interesting subject that I have pondered for quite awhile. My thoughts are that Jane was in love at one time or another, but I do think she had loved Tom in someway or another, whether it be friend or hoping for more. Was there someone else that she had a fondness? Perhaps her characters were based on others in her life such as Colonel Fitzwilliam, since her brothers were in the military and perhaps one of their friends she met. There are many things that can be left to the imagination.
    One can write from one’s life and have a great story or does one have a great imagination as talent for writing? We will never know but whatever it was, we all love her for what she had accomplished in her life without any fanfare until after her death. She will always in my mind be thought of as one of the greatest writers of all times.
    Thank you for the great article and research that went into it!

Your thoughts are precious!