This letter was written over two days, from Jane Austen to her older sister Cassandra. Jane was writing from their home at that time in Steventon, to Cassandra at the home of her fiancee’s family in Kintbury, Newbury.
At the start of this letter Jane Austen is making a little joke about Cassandra’s birthday. The text is also full of razor sharp observations and opinions. For example: “Miss Heathcote is pretty, but not near so handsome as I expected.” More of these quips are to be found in Jane Austen’s correspondence, an example of what has become called: “her wicked wit.”
In this letter — most notably there is an immediate tone of sort of owning up to her older sister about a certain young man:
“You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”
The reference Jane Austen makes to her: “Irish friend” is to Tom Lefroy. After becoming a member of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America), and reading many articles from their journals and works of other scholars — there is a pretty standard theory that Tom Lefroy was definitely a love interest of Jane Austen. Some believe he is the basis or inspiration either entirely or at least partly for the character of Mr. Darcy.
The notation on Cassandra’s “scolding,” seems to note Jane had some explaining to do about her attachment to this young man. In reading it I find, she is laying out what happened between them for her older sister — so Cassandra will know what she did, and before she hears any news or gossip from anyone else.
Tom Lefroy — or Thomas-Langlois Lefroy, had his education at Trinity College in Dublin, which was paid for by his great-uncle Benjamin Langlois. Per the *notes on Jane Austen’s letters: 1) Tom had a very successful legal career in Dublin, advancing to become Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852, 2) Tom married a sister of a college friend and had a large family, 3) Tom lived in Dublin but also bought an estate named Carrigglas in county Longford where his descendants can still be found today.
According to Jane Austen’s letter to Cassandra — her time with Tom Lefroy was limited.
“I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which were are to have a dance at Ashe after all.” These underline emphasis were by Jane Austen. There is no way to know if Jane and Tom regretted their parting. Many scholars and Janeites presume that Tom Lefroy returned to Ireland because he own a debt of his education to his great-uncle and, most likely he already had commitments of work and school. The general theory being also that he would have had no living if he remained in England and no connections to help him marry either Jane Austen or anyone else.
These are Jane Austen’s last words on Tom before she shifts into discussing news of their brothers. “He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you. But as to our having ever met, except at the three last balls, I cannot say much; for he is so excessively laughed at about me at Ashe, that he is ashamed of coming to Steventon, and ran away when we called on Mrs. Lefroy a few days ago.”
To clarify, per the notes on Jane Austen’s letters, the Ashe Rectory, about 2 miles from Jane’s home in Steventon, was the home of the Lefroy family. The Lefroy family and the Austens were family friends. Later there was some intermarriage between the families which is recorded in Jane Austen’s later correspondence, but from the tone here in this letter to her sister, it seems that Jane felt the Lefroys teased Tom so much about the time he spent with her or perhaps his feelings for her — all to be speculated because she really doesn’t go into the gory details — except to document that he backed off.
Doesn’t seem that she is really calling the Lefroy family out about this behavior, although she is duly noting it for her sister — and also relaying that Tom actually avoided her when she visited the Lefroy home — although she doesn’t dwell but moves on to news about their brothers Henry and Charles, news about their careers and personal business, purchases and accounts, relaying news of people met and danced with a balls past and upcoming. Jane Austen does include this one note to Cassandra about their brother Charles:
“I wish Charles had been at Manydown, because he would have given you some description of my friend, and I think you must be impatient to hear something about him.” To note, per the notes on the letters of Jane Austen — Manydown was the house or estate of the Bigg-Wither family, also long-time Austen family friends.
Think this is important to note, because Jane Austen seems to be a little wistful that Charles her brother had not met Tom in general, plus she would have liked for Charles to give a description of Tom back to Cassandra. Which leads me to think in this type of large family of that time period, he was a brother worthy of being a confidant.
Her letter shifts back to news about their brother Henry, before this inclusion:
“After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is really very well behaved now, and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust entirely remove — it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same coloured clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.” There is no other mention of Tom Lefroy here of their time together, or of his pending departure to Ireland and out of her life.
Emphasis/underline again by Jane Austen. Austen is reporting back to her sister that she did indeed have another visit with Tom. Noting his only fault was a flashy morning coat she did not approve of, and citing his love of Tom Jones by Fielding. There is a reference here as well to George the younger Lefroy cousin, which the notes on Jane Austen’s letters cites as being not yet 14. Jane Austen it seems in her correspondence, prefers and dotes on children when they are older, especially her nieces.
The Sunday portion of the letter, notes Charles absence and not hearing from him, as he was one of the Austen brothers that was in the naval forces. It delves into scheduling and Cassandra’s return date missing a visit from the Coopers (per the notes on Jane Austen’s letters the Coopers extended family through the Leighs–Jane Austen’s mother side maternal line of the family), and also notes the departure of Cassandra’s fiancee, Reverend Tom Fowle — noting the name of the ship he was sailing on for the West Indies. Sadly, Rev. Tom Fowle became ill and died either en route or in the islands and they never married.
This letter concludes with relaying the sad death of a young girl, daughter of the neighboring Beach family, per the notes, on the Letters of Jane Austen –the Beaches were family that lived in Oakley Hall, in the nearby village of Hants–again per the notes, located on a minor road, but formerly a major coaching route from London: 7 miles West of Basingstoke and 2 miles north of Steventon.
*All citations and notes from the following text: Jane Austen’s Letters, Fourth Edition, collected and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press.