The Letters of Mrs Lefroy, reviewed by St Clair Oldfield

The letters of Mrs Lefroy: Jane Austen's beloved friend, edited by Helen Lefroy and Gavin Turner.
Winchester, Great Britain: The Jane Austen Society, 2007.

In the A2 section of The Age, 28/8/07, reviewer Roy Cassin reports his interview with author Peter Cochrane in which they discuss Cochrane's prize-winning book, Colonial Australia The Age Book of the Year and co-winner of the inaugural Prime Minister's Prize for Australian History. Cochrane quotes American literary critic Leon Edel saying, "The world's curiosity asks ever more insistently for the humanity of the lived life."

Then the book group to which I belong had decided that this year's classic read would be Jane Austen with me to lead the discussion and decide which title - I chose Emma. I was prepared to talk about characters and plot and discuss Austen's insights so simply presented and yet so brilliantly evoking the complexities of the lived life even in an apparently limited locale. Well we did do that, of course, but what was intriguing was the interest the group showed in knowing more about Austen's own life and the lives of her family - who they were, where they lived, what they did, what happened to them. Fortunately for me (with grateful acknowledgements to Le Faye, Cecil, Honan, Nokes, Tomalin, et al) I was reasonably able to satisfy this interest. So when I read the above quote it seemed "exactly so" a propos the group's interest in "the humanity of the lived life".

And that brings us to the Lefroy letters; their appeal is similarly in this concern with the human life. When I took up the book I first read quickly through it, noting how frequently people and places were already familiar from Jane Austen's letters. So I went to my shelves for my copy of them and also for the Austen family record. Then looking along the shelf, I also took up Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice. If you have a copy (there is one in our library) I recommend a re-read of Letter 2 "A terrible time to be alive"; an excellent perspective on the period worth having in mind while reading the Lefroy letters.

The editors have provided a brief review of Anne Lefroy's life and her family, a useful synopsis before reading her letters. It must be remembered that this is the private correspondence of an affectionate and concerned mother whose 15 year old son has left home to train as an attorney under the care and guidance of Mr Richard Clarke of Newport, Isle of Wight. The previous year (1800) had begun grievously with the death of an older son, Anthony, also then aged 15, a grief that shadows Anne's life and reflects in her letters to Edward. Also away from home are eldest son, George, at Oxford, and the family baby, Ben, at school in Winchester. Anne reports news of his brothers to Edward - she plants seeds in Ben's garden "which will be fit to gather by (his) holydays," and that Ben has a young squirrel given him which their cat suckles and seems "as fond of it as if it were a litter of her own". Thus we learn more of Ben as a child for this is the Ben we meet later in Jane Austen's letters when he marries her niece, Anna, November 8, 1814.

There is also news of Edward's sister Lucy, and of her marriage to Rev Henry Rice, and with time Anne's letters are to reveal a typical, doting grandmother. Of course, there is frequent reference to husband Rev George Lefroy. Friends and neighbours regularly feature as she keeps Edward up to date with what is happening at home. Members of the Austen family are often mentioned, for instance Letter 2, May 29, 1801: "...we dined at Steventon..." This is likely the first visit there since Jane and her family left to live in Bath, as Jane's letters from May 5-6, 1801, are written from Paragon (No.1 Paragon Buildings, which the Leigh-Perrots had rented from March 1799). Letter 9, October 3-14 1801: "...we borrowed Mr Austen's Gig and George drove me to Bullington..." and "...we dined at James Austens to take our leave of Mrs and Miss Austens who are to return to Bath on Monday next..." Letter 20, March 3-16, 1802: "...Charles Austen told me Bob Simmons had behaved very well since his whipping which was uncommonly severe he had the honor to suffer in the presence of Prince Augustus..." Letter 91, October 20, 1803: "Miss Austens have been with me these two or three days & I believe stay till Monday next..."

The people and neighbourhood are already familiar, and without this interest the letters might not so engage us, yet they are a record of society at that time and place. Anne Lefroy writes of the period in which she lives; she may not have Jane Austen's lively style, nor the somewhat caustic wit that enlivens her letters to Cassandra, but Lefroy shows more interest in events beyond family and friends. This is the time of Napoleon and she is concerned for sons George and Edward and their possible involvement in any conflict. Increasingly, after the collapse of the Peace of Amiens (May 1803) hers is a world at war evocative of a future Britain awaiting invasion during 1940-41.

Never could Lefroy have imagined her personal jottings, often unconnected and poorly punctuated, would 200 years on attract the interest of readers such as we, even that they would physically last so long. She in fact tells Edward to burn some letters, meaning only he should read them, "...& pray burn this as soon as you have read it..." While Lefroy's writing style may not be as engaging as Jane Austen's, at least her spelling is a little less idiosyncratic, and though without the humour of Austen she can unintentionally make us smile - Letter 135, November 2, 1804: "...your father has got the gout in both feet but his head is perfectly clear..."

Throughout her letters we read of Lefroy's interest in Dr Jenner's work with cowpox vaccine and of herself inoculating "upwards of 800 poor with her own hand". In her letters with one exception (Letter 52, Feb 19 1803) she spells this procedure "innoculation", and while this may be understandable for her, it is not to find the editors perpetuating the inaccuracy, even in the index entry! Of interest to Australians is that in May 1804 Assistant Surgeon John Savage carried out the first successful inoculation against smallpox in NSW - at about the same time Anne Lefroy is awaiting the birth of her daughter's second child.

The last letters are poignant. Lefroy writes anxious and concerned advice to Edward not to give up his present situation, and certainly not to enter the army. There follows her relief at his "dutiful compliance with my entreaties." Her last letter concludes, "God bless you and reward you for your duty and affection..."

The letters conclude with one from Surgeon Charles Lyford, met throughout the Lefroy and Austen letters; writing to Richard Clark he asks him to tell Edward of "the melancholy Event", the riding accident and death of his mother.

Something I have wondered about was how Anna Austen Lefroy fared after the early death (1829) of her husband, Ben, at that time rector at Ashe. There were seven children and the family would have had to leave the rectory. The editors tell us that it was Edward who purchased a property near Basingstoke and took over the role of father to these children.

Wife, mother, grandmother, friend - Anne Lefroy is a woman we can relate to and recognise; she illustrates unconsciously "the humanity of the lived life". Two hundred years are as nothing.

Bibliography

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters, collected and edited by Deirdre LeFaye, 3rd ed.
Oxford: University Press, 1995

LeFaye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: A family record. 2nd ed.
Cambridge: University Press, 2004

Weldon, Fay. Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen.
London: Hodder & Stoughton (Coronet), 1985.

St Clair Oldfield

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