A youthful romance: Tom Lefroy MP and Jane Austen

Cover of Pride and PrejudiceLast month marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which makes the subject of our Valentine’s Day blog all the more appropriate. One of the more memorable romantic tales involving MPs who sat in the Victorian Commons is provided by Thomas Langlois Lefroy (1776-1869). Thanks to the 2007 film Becoming Jane, Lefroy is best known today as Jane Austen’s putative boyfriend, the silvery-tongued young Irishman who had a fleeting romance with her in 1796, from which she apparently never recovered. He is reckoned to have been the model for Jane Austen’s characters Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey and Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion.

Quite how far the relationship had actually progressed before Tom was hurried away by his aunt to London is uncertain. A week before his departure, evidently engineered by his family to prevent an improvident marriage, Jane had written to her sister about their last ball:

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.

The legal career of the man who might have become Austen’s husband, if Jane’s love-struck letters to her sister are anything to go by, is well documented. He practised at the Irish bar and eventually became a top Irish judge. Between 1830 and 1841, however, he also served as MP for Dublin University. A Tory ‘of the old school’ and a staunch supporter of the Protestant Church, Lefroy played a role in a number of key political episodes during his time in the Commons.

Most conspicuously, he was an active opponent of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, particularly the proposed changes in Ireland, which he feared would allow Catholics to swamp Irish borough constituencies and elect a huge number of Catholic MPs. Believing that this would put the Union between Ireland and Britain at risk, he was part of a successful protest campaign to save the voting entitlements of resident Irish freemen, who were overwhelmingly Protestant.

For similar reasons, Lefroy also campaigned against the Melbourne ministry’s introduction of elected town councils in Ireland (1840), fearing that they would be dominated by Catholics from the start. Throughout his political career, he steadily opposed attempts to reform the Irish Anglican Church, such as the government’s commutation of tithes (taxes on produce paid to the Anglican clergy) and proposals to ‘appropriate’ the church’s surplus revenues. Unlike many Tories, however, he backed the introduction of the controversial workhouse system into Ireland (1838), believing that it would reduce the cost of caring for the poor and tackle idleness.

Lefroy left politics on being made a judge by the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel in 1841. He lived until 93, serving as Ireland’s oldest lord chief justice. In later years he often alluded to his ‘holiday flirtation’ with Jane, admitting that he had loved her, but explaining that it had been a ‘boyish love’.

Lefroy’s biography in the History of Parliament’s 1820-32 volumes can be found here. His entry for the 1832-68 volumes is still being prepared.

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