was the real Thomas Lefroy?
reported recently in the Longford Leader, the new film about
the life of Jane Austen, "Becoming Jane", documents
the famous author's relationship with Thomas Lefroy, who
went on to purchase Carrigglas Manor. While the film concentrates
on Austen, there is also much interest in Mr Lefroy's background
and how he came to own Carrigglas. Here, in an article written
by Lt Colonel Patrick Lefroy MA MBE, a descendent of Lefroy,
for the 1983 Longford Historical Society Journal, we look
at Lefroy, the man who was said to be the inspiration for
Darcy- one of Austen's most famous characters.
The Right Honourable Thomas Langlois Lefroy, three times
Gold Medalist at Dublin University, Doctor of Law, Queen's
Counsel, Member of Parliament for Dublin University, Privy
Councillor, sometime Baron of the Exchequer and Lord Chief
Justice of Ireland, has no enduring place in the history
of our country; and his name is largely forgotten today.
Yet if few have heard of the nineteenth-century statesman,
many who love the novels of Jane Austen will have heard
of young Tom Lefroy who stirred the affections of the heroine
in the winter of 1796. This is how it came about.
The Lefroy family were protestant refugees who fled from
Flanders to England in about 1580. During the eighteenth
century one of them, Anthony Lefroy, became a banker at
Leghorn in Italy. He married Elizabeth Langlois, a descendant
of another Protestant refugee family. Anthony himself made
(and lost) a fortune, but the Langlois connection was important
because Elizabeth had four brothers, all of whom acquired
wealth and, all dying without legitimate issue, their fortunes
eventually came to the Lefroy family. Anthony and Elizabeth
had three children who survived infancy- Phoebe, who married
the Count del Medico Staffetti who owned the marble quarters
at Carrara, Anthony Peter who became a soldier and George,
who became a parson in the Church of England. George married
a wealthy and well-connected wife, and settled down to the
comfortable life of country parson in Hampshire.
The elder son, Anthony Peter, having entered the army as
an Ensign, was posted to Limerick. While still a very junior
officer he met and married in 1765, Ann Gardner of Doonass
in Co.Clare. Five girls were born to them before, in 1776,
a son arrived and was baptised Thomas Langlois.
Great was the joy and great were the expectations! His great
uncle Benjamin Langlois took a personal interest in the
child's education and bombarded his father with admonition
and advice, which, since he held the money bags, were virtually
commands. It must be the classical studies, of course, but
he must also take exercise ride and fence. Of course, he
must go to the University. Great-uncle Benjamin would have
preferred Oxford where his uncle, Rev. George Lefroy, was
a Fellow of All Souls College in addition to his Hampshire
rectory. But Anthony Peter (remembering, perhaps, how he
had left home and parents in Leghorn at an early age and
had not seen them again for 23 years) drew the line at this,
and urged the advantages of Trinity College, Dublin. Great-uncle
Benjamin agreed "if he can but obtain the great prize
at last of a fellowship, I shall consider him safely landed."
The Colonel - as Anthony Peter later became - and his brother
George between them had seventeen children alive in 1793.
As great-uncle Benjamin pointed out "On such a sure
total, the chance is great that one or two should rise into
distinction and there haul up the rest." Little Thomas
was indeed destined in later life to fulfil this role.
As a child he was reported to be "of a kind disposition
and affectionate heart." He started his education at
home in Limerick and entered Dublin University at the tender
age of fourteen. His tutor was Dr.Burrowes (afterwards Dean
of Cork) who kindly agreed to receive Tom into his family
circle. His relationship with his tutor was therefore, more
like that of a son than a pupil.
In 1790 to read for a Fellowship. Trinity students had special
privileges of attending debates in the Irish Parliament.
Politicians considered it an honour to belong to the College
Historical Society, founded by Edmund Burke in 1747. The
Society had been suppressed by the college authorities shortly
before Tom's time on account for the infiltration of United
Irishmen and the independence of the political views expressed
in its debates. Tom took part in negotiations with the college
board to permit the re-establishment of the famous Society;
and was secretary immediately afterwards - an early example
of the confidence reposed in him by those in authority.
He flung himself into debates in the Tory interest.
Romantic nationalism and the doctrinaire philosophy of revolutionary
France as preached by Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Tom Moore
and Lord Cloncurry, Who were contemporaries in the Society,
were not the taste of the son of a protestant Colonel of
Dragons. Corry, Plunkett, Bushe and Beresford were all members
of this company. Tom won three gold medals and was elected
Auditor in 1795 he took his degree and at this point, surprisingly
for one whose mental and bodily vigour became a byword in
later years, his health broke down and his eyesight gave
cause for concern. The kindly Dr. Burrowes advised against
the idea of a fellowship for Tom. His health simply would
not stand the strain. A holiday would be the best cure,
and the best place to secure a rest and a change of scene
would be his uncle George's Rectory in England. It was peaceful,
his uncle and aunt moved in the best of local society and
there were plenty of other young people around.
There are two descriptions of Tom at this time. Great-uncle
Benjamin describes him as having "everything in his
temper and character that can conciliate affections. A good
heart , a good mind, good sense and as little to correcting
him as ever I saw in one of his age" (and great-uncle
Benjamin had a sharp eye for things to correct in other
people). Dr. Burrowes testified, "No young man has
left our College with a higher character. Of his conduct
in London, however seducing its idleness and its evils,
you need not have the slightest doubt. He is, in his religious
principles, in his desire of knowledge, in his just ambition,
fortified in every place."
This then was the young man who was to sojourn in the pleasantly
ordered country society of Hampshire. A bit of a prig? -
Perhaps - although Miss Austen's description of him a few
weeks later suggests that he was a sensitive lad with a
hauteur of manner caused by great shyness. Footloose? Yes.
Fancy-free? Ah - there is the question! Tom's closest friend
in college was another Tom - Thomas Paul, son of Jeffry
Paul, who owned much property and a mansion at Silverspring,
Co. Wexford. Tom Paul had one sister, Mary. Tom Lefroy became
engaged to Mary Paul the following year. Had they, at any
time, any previous "understanding"?
However, to his uncles Hampshire rectory Tom went and, being
there at Christmas, took part in all the seasonal festivities,
dancing and charades which were a feature of young people's
life. The nearest neighbours were the Austens at Steventon
Rectory about two miles away by road and one and a half
across the fields. Tom's aunt, Mrs. Lefroy, was the sort
of person who is always 'getting up to things' and although
25 years older than Parson Austen's daughter Jane and and
mother of a family, she was one of Jane's best friends.
Tom was a bit older than his cousins, who were schoolboys,
but he and Jane were, more or less, of an age. It is hardly
surprising that they flirted; and when Jane wrote to her
sister Cassandra in January 1796 she and Tom were obviously
'getting themselves talked about'. The flippant references
to him in her letters have a familiar ring. The behaviour
was "everything most profligate and shocking in the
way of dancing and sitting down together" But "he
is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe (his uncle's
rectory) that hes afraid of coming to Steventon."He
has but one fault - "that his morning coat is a great
deal too light" (evidently according to the fashion
of the period this was very dashing!). She expects him to
propose to her at a ball at Basingstoke. "I shall refuse
him, however, unless he promises to give away his white
coat." She makes over all her other admirers to a friend
- "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 don't care sixpence."
How serious was all this? Unfortunately we have only one
side of the story - Jane's. From the letters which have
come down to us it is fairly clear that Jane made all the
running. She was evidently attracted to Tom - but would
she of married him? She says not - but we are left wondering
as she does not protest too much.
And Tom - might his reluctance to become embroiled at Steventon
have been due not only to fear of ridicule but to memories
of someone else in Ireland? These - and a proper objection
for being only 'a scalp' for Jane - might have been the
reasons why the expected proposal was not made. As an old
man Tom is alleged to have said that to know Jane was to
love her and that he had loved her - but it was a boy's
love - which might mean anything.
Perhaps Jane was more deeply involved than she cared to
admit. Mrs. Lefroy evidently thought so. She took fright
and bundled Tom off as quickly as possible. Remembering
the famous literary figure which Jane afterwards became,
it is easy to forget that at this time she was simply the
penniless daughter of a country parson well connected, it
is true, but a most unsuitable match for a young man expected
to rise into distinction and haul up the rest of his numerous
relations with him.
So Tom was sent to London to read for the Bar. He was entered
at Lincoln's Inn and lodged with great-uncle Benjamin Langlois
who kept a snug bachelor establishment presided over by
his highly illegitimate niece Mary. Two years later, when
Tom's name cropped up in conversation. Jane was "too
proud" to enquire after him although she was glad enough
to get news of him gleaned by her father.
In 1797 Tom returned to Ireland to be called to the Irish
Bar and to request permission to ask for the hand of Mary
Paul. This was duly granted and they became engaged. Tom
then returned to London to complete his legal studies.
With the outbreak of the Insurrection of 1798 the position
of the Paul family at Silverspring in Wexford in the heart
of the "disaffected" area became perilous. Jeffry
Paul packed his family off to Wales, while he himself joined
the Yeomanry and fought at New Ross and Wexford. Silverspring
was occupied by the insurgents and sacked.
"The house, I am told, is standing," wrote Jeffry
to his wife, "but every article of furniture, beds,
wine, etc., taken away or destroyed - mostly by the women
of the neighbourhood." So, having no home to, the Pauls
stayed on temporarily in South Wales and at Abergavenny
in 1799 Tom and Mary were married. They went to live in
Dublin where Tom began to practice at the Irish Bar. Within
a year or so of their marriage, Tom's dear friend and Mary's
Brother, Thomas Paul, A vigorous young man in apparently
robust health who would succeed to the family properties
and would, it was confidently expected, marry and have children
to carry on the line, suddenly died. Mary now became the
heiress of the Paul estates.
This untoward and totally unexpected happening has given
a lie to a faction which some biographies of Jane Austen
have propagated - that in 1796 Tom Lefroy trifled with Jane's
affections and then threw her over in order to marry an
heiress. Such a story is nonsense. Tom may have had an acquaintance
with the sister of his College friend before he ever met
Jane. As Jane was very much his aunts protegee he could
not have been other than cordial with her, but he avoided
becoming embroiled in Steventon. When he married, although
following eighteenth century custom, great-uncle Benjamin
doubtless saw to it that she had an adequate jointure, his
wife Mary was not an heiress and was not regarded as ever
likely to become one.
In fact the Lefroy and Austen families have twice been connected
in marriage. In 1814 Tom's youngest cousin Rev. Benjamin
Lefroy married Jane's niece Elizabeth, and in 1889 their
grand-daughter Florence married Rev. Augustus Austen Leigh
who was provost of King's College, Cambridge.
Tom rapidly became prominent at the Irish Bar. About 1810
he acquired the estate of Carriglas from its bankrupt Newcomen
owners. The Newcomens had intended to build a great house
and had employed Gandon to build the impressive stable yards
and the Dublin Gate. But money ran out before the house
was built and by the time Tom Acquired it there were only
a few rambling buildings on the demense. In 1824 Tom's eldest
son Anthony had married the daughter of Viscount Lorton
of Rockingham who was a son of the Earl of Kingston. He
and his father owned large properties in Longford and Leitrim.
His son-in-law Anthony Lefroy had political ambitions and
become member of Parliament for County Longford. This really
necessitated a family residence and in property in the county.
So in 1837 Tom decided that Lefroy would do what Newcomen
had failed to do. He would pull down the rambling old house
in the Carriglas demense and would replace it by a noble
structure in the latest style. There were problems. Tenants
had to be evicted to clear the ground for a lay out on a
suitable scale. But Tom was generous and the process of
eviction went relatively smoothly. An architect, Daniel
Robertson was entrusted with the design of the new house.
The project was placed in the hands of the Almighty -
'We lay the strong Foundation Stone
But build O Lord! Build Thou thereon
We drop Plummet, stretch the Line
But Thine the Work, the Blessing Thine.'
- wrote Tom at the end of the architect's drawings. The
result was the graceful, if somewhat austere, gothic pile
which exists today. It took three years to build and such
were the political convulsions in the county that, at times,
Tom doubted whether he or his children would ever find it
safe to live there. He persevered with the building however,
on the theory that, if political unrest ever compelled him
to sell the estate, it would fetch a better price with a
house on it.
His need as a politician, and later as a, Judge, to be within
easy reach of Dublin; and his great sorrow at the tragic
destruction by 'the Big Wind' of 1839 of a magnificent avenue
of cedar trees which were a feature of the demense prevented
him from making it his permanent home. But his son Anthony
resided there and it has been occupied by his descendants
What if he had married Jane Austen? It is an intriguing
speculation. If Jane had come to Dublin as the wife of an
ambitious Tory barrister we probably should of lost a romantic
novelist. We might perhaps have found another and more graceful
Trollope (whose Irish stories had tended to be underestimated).
We must also remember that a near neighbour of Carriglas
would have been Maria Edgeworth and the relationship between
Carriglas and Edgeworthstown could have resembled that between
Ashe and Steventon rectories thirty years before. What effect
might this of had on literature? Might not the Anglo-Irish
literary explosion, which took place at the end of the century,
have occurred earlier in the county which had known Goldsmith?This
article was printed by kind permission of the Longford Historical
Society. It first appeared in the in the Historical Society
Journal of 1983 which was edited by Jude Flynn.
Courtesy of the Longford Leader