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You know too well how I love a mini series of posts….and so this week I am going to concentrate on Madam Lefroy, Jane Austen’s great friend. She was, of course, aunt to Tom Lefroy with whom in 1796, Jane Austen seems to have had a flirtation or a serious romance, depending on how you interpret some brittle phrases in some of the earliest letters of Austen’s to have survived. Tradition has it that Mrs. Lefroy and her husband were disturbed by their flirtation knowing full well that Tom was dependant upon the patronage of his rich uncle, Benjamin Langlois and consequently was not in a secure enough financial position to court anyone, let alone another impoverished member of their social circle. More on this later, as today I am going to consider the place where some of this flirtation took place…Ashe Rectory.
Anne Brydges (1748-1804) of Wootton Court in Kent had married Isaac Peter George Lefroy, ( known always in the family as “George”) on the 28th December 1778. George Lefroy was three years older than her. After their marriage they moved to live in Basingstoke, and in May 1783 when Mr Lefroy became the Rector of Ashe, on the death of the Reverend Dr. Richard Russell, they began their life at Ashe rectory, which is now known as Ashe House.
Let’s discover where this very elegant building stands. Here is a section from my map of Hampshire by John Cary, which shows the relative positions of Steventon, (marked number 1) and Ashe (marked number 2):
Ashe is approximately 2 miles from Steventon, where Jane Austen and her family lived, separated by winding lanes and the road that leads from Basingstoke to Andover. The house is not now open to the general public but Constance Hill in her book, Jane Austen: Her Homes and Her Friends (1923) managed to visit it, and gives us her impressions:
Here, in the older part ( of the house-jfw), is the morning-room, which has two casement windows opening on to gay flowerbeds and a green lawn, flanked on the side of the lane by a great yew hedge that is nearly as tall as the house itself. In this room here are folding doors which open into a large dining-room, which was formerly the drawing-room. “Those doors,” remarks the Rector, “were thrown open when the Rev. Isaac Peter George Lefroy gave dances here a hundred years ago.” So we are actually standing on the very spot where the ball took place, and can picture to ourselves the whole scene! There the country dance must have been formed, and there down the centre must Jane and her partner have crossed hands to the couple at the lower end! The pleasant echoes of their merry talk seem hardly to have died away, though the authors of it have so long since vanished.
The ball at Ashe is mentioned in the first of Jane Austen’s letters to have survived:
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.
(Letter to Cassandra Austen, 9th January, 1796)
The Rectory, viewed from the road that leads to Ashe parish church, is an elegant building,
and apparently George Lefroy mortgaged the living of Ashe so that the beautiful facade could be added to it. Irene Collins in her excellent book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, speculates about the atmosphere of this home:
At Mrs Lefroy’s parties, young and old could meet to dine and chat and enjoy themselves; strangers could be made to feel at home; the lordly Chutes, the influential Bigg Withers and the down-to-earth could meet on easy terms. Unlike Mrs Elton who offended the society of Highbury when she arrived from Bristol with her talk of rout parties and iced drinks, Mrs Lefroy knew how to enliven the neighbourhood without suggesting that she despised its unfashionable ways. It was probably Mrs Lefroy Jane Austen had in mind when she caused Mary Crawford to meditate on the social possibilities of marriage with Edmund Bertram, imaging herself “commanding the first society in the neighbourhood; looked up to, perhaps as leading it even more so than those of larger fortune”…
When you consider this house, which by all accounts had very elegant interiors, and the bewitching powers of its hostess to make days and evenings spent there very pleasant experience, you do have to wonder at Jane Austen’s reaction to it and its elegant hostess, bearing in mind the more boisterous atmosphere and homely attractions of Steventon Rectory. Though she no doubt adored her Steventon home the elegant way of life at Ashe must have made an impression on her.
There is no surprise, to my mind at least, that Jane Austen become enamoured both it and of the friendly, charming, well-read and educated woman, 25 years her senior, who was its mistress. Next, more on Mrs Lefroy and her friendship with Jane.