jane austen life

Jane Austen gave us some of the greatest romances of all time, yet she never fell madly in love. A new film, however, shows her inspiration was a secret, doomed affair with a young Irishman.

One evening in the Christmas season of 1795, when she was 20, Jane Austen went to a ball. She loved dancing; her usually rather reserved manner would dissolve under the spell of the music and the courtly sociability the dances of those times allowed.

This ball was held at Ashe, the country home of the Lefroy family, set deep in the Hampshire countryside. The Lefroys were neighbours and good friends of the Austen family, who lived nearby at Steventon.

There she met a young Irishman, Tom Lefroy, also 20. The young man was staying with his aunt and uncle en route from Dublin to London, where he was to study law.

The attraction between them was immediate and there for all to see. They flirted outrageously and Austen was smitten. "Imagine to yourself every thing most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together," Austen wrote perkily to her sister Cassandra of their behaviour then and in the weeks that followed. For there were to be another three balls at which they met, flirted and thoroughly enjoyed each other's company; and then a final soiree was held at Ashe as a farewell to Lefroy on the eve of his departure to London, which Austen attended.

It is at this juncture that this received account of Jane Austen's life story now must split into two, like a ribbon suddenly spliced into two strands half way down its length. On one strand is imprinted the continuation of that received account, which has it that the farewell ball for Lefroy was the last Austen ever saw of him - and a matter of little consequence to her. Hadn't she also written with studied nonchalance to Cassandra that he was someone "for whom I do not care sixpence"?

Lefroy continued on to London, studied law and eventually returned to Ireland, where he married and went on to become the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. It is known that he did journey from London to Ashe on one other occasion, in 1798, to visit his aunt and uncle, but he did not visit or contact Austen. No one knows what she thought of this, what conclusions she came to. He is never mentioned again in her letters, the main source biographers draw upon to piece together the details of her life and thoughts.

She continued on as before, fulfilling her domestic duties as an unmarried daughter, sister, aunt, female, in a society of busy households, alert to the comings and goings of family and friends - all the while, on the side, writing four of the greatest novels in the English language. Her biographers and hordes of Austen scholars and Jane-lovers around the world acknowledge that she might have had minor flirtations and experienced the odd flutter and blush, as she clearly did with Lefroy - she even had the occasion to accept and reject a proposal of marriage or two from other men - but it is believed she had had no deep affair of the heart of any lasting consequence.

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