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.Jane Austen letter to Cassandra Austen, January 1796
Thomas Lefroy has long been thought of as the real life inspiration for Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice which Jane first drafted when she was 20 years old. This is the oldest known surviving letter by Jane, written over two days in January 1796.
Jane and Tom met in 1795 when they were both 20 years old at a dance hosted by Jane’s friend Madam Lefroy. After graduating from Dublin’s Trinity College in 1795, Tom moved to London to study law at Lincoln’s Inn. It was during this time that he visited his Uncle and Aunt for a few weeks in December of that same year.
Cassandra was away visiting Edward at Kent, and you can feel Jane’s happiness at falling in love with Tom, and then her disappointment when it is over. It is thought that Jane’s lack of wealth played a part, as Tom had no fortune at that time as he was also the son of a clergyman.
Jane started writing First Impressions in October 1796 a year later, and finished it around August of the following year. It would later become Jane’s most popular and well loved novel, Pride and Prejudice.
In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr. Tom Lefroy’s birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age.
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. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. 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…
We had a visit yesterday morning from Mr. Benjamin Portal, whose eyes are as handsome as ever. Everybody is extremely anxious for your return, but as you cannot come home by the Ashe ball, I am glad that I have not fed them with false hopes. James danced with Alithea, and cut up the turkey last night with great perseverance. You say nothing of the silk stockings; I flatter myself, therefore, that Charles has not purchased any, as I cannot very well afford to pay for them; all my money is spent in buying white gloves and pink persian. 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…
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.
Jane follows her first letter filled with news of Tom with another a week later that talks of her fling being over.
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. Wm. Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being so civil. There is a report that Tom is going to be married to a Lichfield lass. John Lyford and his sister bring Edward home today, dine with us, and we shall all go together to Ashe. I understand that we are to draw for partners. I shall be extremely impatient to hear from you again, that I may know how Eliza is, and when you are to return.
Tom married Mary Paul in 1799 who was the sister of a college friend and wealthy in her own right. The couple moved to Dublin and had eight children.
Tom became a successful lawyer, eventually becoming the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, the most senior judge in the Court of Queen’s Bench. He held this position until he was 90 years old, when by one account, he was still reading his newspaper without spectacles.
Shortly before he died, aged 93, Tom confessed to his nephew that he had once loved Jane Austen, though quickly added that it was ‘a boyish kind of love’.
Jane Austen in Love Exhibition
The letter that Jane wrote to Cassandra about her flirtation with Tom is on display at the Jane Austen House Museum as part of an exhibition called Jane Austen in Love.
Alongside Jane’s letter is a striking portrait of Tom as Jane would have known him. You can gaze at a handsome young man with deep eyes that hold your gaze intently.
See Jane Austen in Love at Jane Austen House Museum until March 2023.