When Jane Austen was growing up in Steventon, Hampshire, she enjoyed the kind of social gatherings that we are familiar with in her novels. Local families like the Lloyds, the Lefroys and the Bigg-Withers were friends, and at some time all became romantically connected to the Austen family. These families enjoyed a similar position in local society and met at one another's houses and were also invited into the upper circles where they might attend a ball. The aristocratic families included Lord Portsmouth at Hurstbourne, Lord Bolton of Hackwood and Lord Dorchester of Greywell. Squires included the Portals at Freefolk, Bramstons at Oakley Hall, Jervoises at Herriard, Harwoods at Deane, Terrys at Dummer and the Holders at Ashe Park - all names which can be found amongst Jane Austen's letters.
The Rev. George Lefroy and his wife Anne who lived at Ashe had a considerable influence upon the Austen sisters. Jane's relationship with Anne was particularly close even though there was an age gap of over 25 years. The feelings Jane had for her friend are shown in a poem which was written four years after Anne's death. Tragically, Mrs Lefroy was thrown from a horse and died on Jane's 29th birthday.
Angelic Woman! past my power to praise
In Language meet, thy Talents, Temper, mind.
Thy solid Worth, they captivating Grace!-
Thou friend and ornament of Humankind!-
But it was Anne's nephew Thomas who has interested Jane's admirers ever since. Jane's letters reveal how much she enjoyed Tom's company and it is clear that she spent some time flirting and dancing with him at balls and local assemblies whenever the opportunity arose for the few weeks he stayed with his aunt in the Christmas holidays.
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.
Unfortunately, there are only a few teasing references to tell us about this 'courtship' and by the 16th January 1796 Jane was writing to her sister to say that Tom Lefroy would shortly be leaving to go home to Ireland. She may not have known at this point that he had probably already decided that he was to marry the sister of his friend, Mary Paul.
It's hard to know if Jane's tears really flowed but I think it was most likely with her tongue pressed firmly into her cheek that she wrote the following:
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.
Still, we shall never really know the truth of the matter unless some of those lost letters written between 1796-8 ever surface. In later life, Tom Lefroy did admit he had been in love with Jane Austen, but that it had been a 'boys love'. Jane may have lost her heart temporarily - perhaps it was Tom Lefroy she was thinking of when she started writing First Impressions soon after, which, in turn later became Pride and Prejudice. It would be rather lovely to think that there had been a romance, but Jane would have known that her prospects for 'securing' him would have been slim. He was still training to be a lawyer and she had no money herself, and in those days, well brought up people did not disoblige their families by marrying for love alone, though this was a dictum that Jane seems to have railed against, if only in her books.
I recently read The Letters of Mrs Lefroy: Jane Austen's Beloved Friend, edited by Helen Lefroy and Gavin Turner. They show a fascinating picture of life in Hampshire from 1800 -1804