Who was the real Thomas Lefroy?

As 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 he’s 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 ever since.

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