Saturday, 14 July 2007

Tom Lefroy’s letter to Mary Paul, 1810

I was waiting for the bus as I flipped through the Memoir of Chief Justice Lefroy when the quoted paragraph below jumped out of the book. I feel weird about it; hence I want to share it with you guys. The letter was dated 1810 (no date or month), addressed to his wife (Mary) from Mountrath in County Laois, Ireland (Mountrath is a town in the middle of the road from Limerick to Dublin). In the letter (page 29), Tom explained several benefits of reading the Scriptures.

‘... There is another great good which results from applying even the shreds and patches of time in this way [i.e. reading the Scriptures]. It serves to allay somewhat the high relish and excitement which this world and all its pursuits and objects are hourly forcing on the imagination and the heart; it keeps in our view a glimpse, at least, of the true in opposition to the glare of the false treasure which we are for ever pursuing, and between the legitimate and excessive pursuit of which the bounds are so treacherous. I include under the head of false treasure every object of earthly attachment however innocent or even praiseworthy, on which a value is set beyond what any earthly object is entitled to, and yet this is a point upon which we are all most sadly and practically going astray every hour of our lives, and on which nothing can set us right but keeping before us, as if in a magnifying glass, the great and paramount claims to a Christian's regard. I do not say that we are to extinguish the affections which belong to the different relations of life; on the contrary, by the pure and sincere exercise of them, selfishness is in some degree extinguished, but the gratification arising from the most delightful of these affections should not form the stay, and hope, and prop of life. No; therein consists the excess, and the abuse; but I'll say no more on this head, lest you should tell me that nothing but my vanity could suggest the necessity of sermonizing with you in this manner. I own, however, it is grounded on a conviction that the sensibility and devotedness of my darling wife's attachment to a certain degree impair her own enjoyment. But, remember, I am not willing to part with the least atom of it to any earthly object; whatever of it ought to be pruned away, let it be transplanted to that region where we may hope and trust to enjoy it in bliss unfading. [bolded sentences by Icha]


Now, this is what I think: after 11 years of marriage (Tom & Mary got married in 1799), Tom still could not forget Jane entirely, and his Calvanistic view made him think that his feelings for Jane were sinful. See this: ‘however innocent or even praiseworthy... Tom knew that his love for Jane was pure, but he still thought of it as improper. And this: ‘on which a value is set beyond what any earthly object is entitled to’; he knew he still loved her, but he's married already. Thus, his love for Jane was improper (at least, to his opinion, not mine). However, Tom also felt that if he could transfer his love for Jane into another kind of love, that would be more acceptable ('I do not say that we are to extinguish the affections which belong to the different relations of life'). Well, I think he would then see Jane as a kindred spirit of his... but he might never entirely let go of his amour for Jane Austen.

Upon our discussion, Rachel somewhat agrees with my interpretations. She also thinks that if the sentence ‘I include…any earthly object is entitled to referred to Jane (which was likely to be true), thus Tom believed that Jane was truly out of reach, and that he felt guilty for still harbouring feelings for her. Tom referred to false treasure as something that is forever pursued, perhaps his lifelong dedication to Jane and the understanding that somehow he had not given up their love. Rachel also thinks that the word legitimate is interesting because it refers to values that are/were allowed or accepted. Tom felt that he should not have such feelings, for a woman other than his wife.

On this one: the sensibility and devotedness of my darling wife's attachment to a certain degree impair her own enjoyment’, Rachel thinks that Tom knew that Mary loved him so much, cared for him so much, but he also did not want Mary’s loyalty to him prevent her from having a sense of purpose to her own life. I agree, and I’d like to add that Tom might somehow say that actually Mary deserved a better love than his?

Tom’s last few lines seem to confirm his love for Mary and to reassure her (and also himself) that Jane was no longer in his heart. Yet, although I believe that Tom did love Mary, there was this room inside his heart that only belonged to Jane, and Jane alone. That room, that attachment, that feeling was the thing he tried to prune away… to no avail IMO. After a decade of marriage, Tom Lefroy still loved Jane Austen, and he felt guilty for it. Hence, his increased attention to God and the Scriptures.

It is also interesting to go back to the very beginning of the letter, written on a Friday night (p. 28):

‘I put a few lines into the Maryboro’s post about 4 o’clock, but lest by any accident you should not get them I send this letter to Mr. Bourne, the coach proprietor, with a request that he may forward it to you, as no post goes into town on Sunday, when it will arrive.’

It seems to me that if Tom only wanted to say ‘I love you’ to Mary, he did not have to send another letter just a few hours after the first letter of that day dispatched in the afternoon. He could also explicitly said that he loved Mary then later in his night letter and spared her from those preaches about false treasure &c. The fact that he sent two letters at the same day increased my suspicion that he needed to divert his feelings to Mary, lest he would stray away to the past… when he was spending his days with the young Jane Austen.

Sometimes I wonder if Mary Paul actually knew about her husband’s feelings towards Jane Austen (in 1810, Jane was not even famous yet), and that Tom still harboured the feelings after so many years of marriage. What did Mary do about that knowledge?

My hunch is that she accepted it, for she knew that Tom would not leave her, and Jane was not a woman that would steal her husband. Mary was actually rather a tortured woman here... and Tom always strived to assure her that he loved her and only her, and not Jane. But deep inside, Mary and Tom knew that it was not the story.

I guess, in the end, Mary's acceptance towards Tom's 'residual' love to Jane was one of the major driving forces that made Tom truly turned to her after Jane's death. When the news of Jane Austen’s death reached Ireland in 1817, could Tom be dealing with Jane's death alone? Or did Mary also help him? If the later, it makes more sense that in the later years of their marriage, Tom truly saw Mary as 'the centre round which his every joy was circled'. That was in 1858, or 41 years after JA's death. One way or another, Tom thus felt reluctant to admit his feelings towards Jane, even after Mary’s death and he was an old man. The only person he trusted enough to share the story was Thomas Edward Preston Lefroy, his nephew, and later to be Jemima Austen Lefroy’s husband.

In the end, Tom Lefroy was a good man, after all.


Lefroy, T. 1871, Memoir of Chief Justice Lefroy, Hodges, Foster & Co., Dublin.

Pic 1: Modern look of Mountrath in County Laois, Ireland, from Wikipedia

Pic 4: An old man writing, from The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective

Pic 2, 3 and 5:

PS 17 July 2007:

I just noticed that there is no surviving letters of Jane Austen after 26 July 1809 (letter 68) until 11 April 1811 (letter 69). I don't suggest that JA and Tom Lefroy still wrote to each other (referring to TL's letter on 1810). There are many possibilities of the two years absence of letter other than Tom-related, but I thought the absence of JA's letters in 1810 should be noted here.


Icha said...

I just want to thank Linda for correcting my spelling mistakes. The keyboard went weird last night and it jumped up and down as I tried to place the pictures. Hence, some letters or words were unintentionally omitted. I hope this version is read better now. Thanks!

Arnie Perlstein said...

I think you've been very ingenious in your argument, Icha, but I think it is more likely, working only within the 4 corners of that 1810 letter, that Tom Lefroy was talking about all manner of earthly attachments, and the dangers they pose to spiritual elevation, as he perceived it, and I cannot find that extra "something" in the letter to tell me he had Jane Austen in mind as he wrote that.

I remain unshaken in being convinced that JA's feelings about Tom were lifelong, but I remain unconvinced that his feelings for her were reciprocally long lived. But I am open to the possibility that you are correct as to the survival of Tom's feelings for Jane. You are a persistent and stubborn sleuth, and if you are correct, I am convinced that sooner or later some facts will emerge which will support your ideas more powerfully.

Icha said...

But of course!

I understand 'where you're from' Arnie dear. I mean, your POV. And perhaps you're right... I am such a persistent and stubborn sleuth (Hahaha!), and I'm rather proud of that, my dear friend!

It's not hard to prove that JA often thought of TL, even in her 40s. And I do think that it's harder to prove that TL thought of JA in the same way. But to me, he did leave breadcrumbs. Subtle, but not unnoticed...

Glad to have you back! Busy life, eh?

Arnie Perlstein said...

I always look forward to seeing what you've come up with in this site, Icha and Rachel. ;)

Anonymous said...

I am as well convinced that JA felt this strongly for Tom and that he felt strongly for her a fact confirmed in his conversation with his nephew when he said he'd been in love with her, but it had been a boyish love. I also noticed in Persuasion the comment made by Anne Elliot and then Captain Wentworth, she to his friend about forgetting his true love so quickly, and that this must be the difference between a man's love and a woman's and Captain Wentworth's anguished reply to her, that this was not and would never be so if it was the sincerest and truest love. Yes, of course she could have created this because her heart wished it so much, but I am a firm believer in Jane Austen's using life as her creative and artistic springboard.

I find it very hard to believe that she would become "duped" by Tom when she VERY WELL understood the complications that would arise from such a relationship. Both of them having limited resources, and both aware of what this would mean. I find it hard to believe that Jane would allow herself to fall so stongly for someone that did not have reciprocal emotions and someone who had never shared said emotions. Someone who had not felt this kind of emotion for her.

Of course this is an emotional argument, but based on personal situations of me and many others. I am sure that someday we will find more research, the kind we need and are looking for, but until then I am the forever romantic, that in a world where it wasn't possible, bother lovers made the best of an impossibly heartbreaking situation.