Jane Austen is widely considered the original queen of romance novels, and the success and reverence of Pride and Prejudice is evidence of this. That being said, what inspired her to write such a celebrated novel? Turns out, she had her own romance that was very similar to the events of Pride and Prejudice with Thomas Langlois Lefroy. Indeed, she even used herself and Lefroy as the basis for the protagonist couple. So, let’s dive into who he was and what happened between them.
Thomas Langlois Lefroy, or Tom to his friends, was born January 1776 in Limerick, Ireland, just a month after Austen’s December 1775 birth date. There’s little known about his early life, but some sources state that, like Austen, he was born into a family with little wealth. However, after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin, his great-uncle sponsored him to study law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. Later in life, he served as a member of parliament for the constituency of Dublin University (1830-1841) and as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland from 1852-1866. He passed just a few years later at 93.
Austen and Lefroy’s Dalliance
Okay, now that we know who he is–how did he and Austen meet, and what happened? Well, in between semesters of his studies at Lincoln Inn during December 1795, it was decided that he needed a break from school. Accordingly, he went to stay with his Aunt in Ashe, who was a beloved mentor and friend to Austen. From then until mid-January 1796, they had a brief dalliance where they attended various balls together. This was around the same time that Austen began to write First Impressions, which would later be renamed Pride and Prejudice.
Austen wrote letters to her sister, Cassandra, mentioning Lefroy by name. Specifically, in a letter dated January 9, 1796, she wrote, in describing how they behaved with each other,
“Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.”
Additionally, she described him as “gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant,” and noted his gregarious spirit. Eventually, he would have to return to his studies, for which Austen wrote, again to her sister, dated January 14, 1796,
“At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy […] My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.”
Jon Spence, Austen Historian
Much of the scarce information we have on Jane Austen’s life and relationship with Lefroy is thanks to Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane Austen and his speculations. Spence claims, and many other historians agree, that nothing escalated between Austen and Lefroy due to her lack of wealth and his family’s need for financial security. Despite this, Lefroy was asked by his nephew about his romance with Austen, to which he confirmed his love for her, but stated it was a “boyish love.” Spence claims that Austen and Lefroy are the basis for the protagonists of her novel. According to him, Elizabeth is based upon Lefroy’s high spirits, whereas Mr. Darcy is modeled after Austen’s more reserved demeanor.
If you’re interested in reading more about Austen’s life, consider reading Jon Spence’s book! It’s backed heavily by the Jane Austen Society of North America, which states,
“[his] research is so substantial, wide-ranging, and detailed that any conjecture Spence builds on it has the feel of bedrock itself.”— Jane Austen Society of North America
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