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In our last post in this small series, we learnt how Anne Lefroy, Jane Austen’s most beloved friend died after a fall from her horse, Her memorial- a beautiful and elegant example of the early 19th century memorial mason’s art- still stands in Ashe Parish Church, and is fulsome in its praise of her. If we look at an image of Mrs Lefroy- go here to see a beautiful miniature of Mrs Lefroy by Richard Crosse from the collection of Philip Mould and co, which shows a woman who would seem the epitome of late 18th century elegance- then it is easy to gain the impression that she was elegant,beautiful and rather grand: a patrician woman who would never deign to get her hands dirty, but would most likely to be found sitting all day quietly in her elegantly built rectory, reading and concentrating on her “work’ . How incorrect that impression would be…
To gather more information about her we can turn to the obituaries published in the press after her death. The first, which appeared in the Reading Mercury on Monday 24th December 1804 throws some detailed light onto her character and accomplishments, some of which are decidedly unexpected :
On Sunday morning died, at Ashe, in Hampshire, in consequence of a fall from her horse, which she survived only twelve hours, Mrs Lefroy, wife of the Rev. George Lefroy, rector of that parish, and eldest daughter of the late Edward Brydges, esq; of Wootton, in Kent, by Gemima (sic), daughter and co-heir of William Egerton, L.L.D. grandson of John, 2nd Earl of Bridgwater. Of this lovely, accomplished, and most extraordinary woman, it is impossible to speak truly, without seeming to use terms of exaggeration. The splendour of her talent, her vivacity, her powerful and energetic language, the beaming and eager benevolence of her countenance and manners, her fondness for society, and her delight in making every one around her happy, were felt wherever she appeared.
But with all these worldly attractions, her religion predominated over all her excellencies, and influenced and exalted every expression and action of her life. How amiable and angelic she was in the domestic duties of daughter, wife, mother, and sister, they only can properly conceive who experienced her unequalled virtues in those situations, and who now have to mourn a loss beyond the power of words to describe and of any earthly advantage to repair. But it is not only to near relations and friends that her loss is irreparable; she has left a chasm in society which there is no second to fill; the whole division of the county in which she lived will feel her death most poignantly, and appreciate it with deep and unaffected concern. Above all, the poor will receive this affecting dispensation of providence with the keenest sorrow and lamentation: she fed, she clothed, she instructed them, with daily and never ceasing attention; in grief she soothed them by her conversation and kind looks; and in sickness she comforted them by medicines and advice.
She instituted a daily school of poor children in her own house, whom, in the midst of a thousand avocations, she never failed to instruct herself: She taught them not only to read and write, but, by her ingenuity, introduced among them a little manufactory of straw, by which they were enabled, at a very early age, to contribute to their own livelihood. When the vaccine innoculation was discovered, she soon convinced herself of its beneficial effects, and having learned the process, actually innoculated upwards of 800 poor with her own hand. Thus she seemed like a good angel, going about to dispense unmingled good in the world, when it pleased Providence, for its own inscrutable purposes, so suddenly to take her away; and her agonized and unfortunate friends must submit to the severe and unexpected blow with the best resignation they can command.
The Gentleman’s Magazine of December 1804 also published an obituary of Mrs Lefroy, and, while it repeated much of what was written in the Reading Mercury, it added the following sentiments:
To do justice to the character of Mrs L would require a command of glowing and pathetic expression far beyond the powers of the writer of this article. She was alike the delight of old and the young, of the lively and the severe, the rich and the poor. She received from Nature an intellectual capacity of the highest order; her perceptions were rapid, her memory was tenacious; her comprehension was extensive; her fancy was splendid; her sentiments were full of tenderness; and her language was easy, copious, and energetic. It may be truly said of her that ‘She lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came’…It was by the tenor of her amiable and virtuous life, by her lively and enchanting manners, by the overflowing benevolence of her disposition, by cloathing the naked, by feeding the hungry, by instructing the ignorant, by healing the sick, and by comforting the mourner, that she has won a more noble wreath of fame, and drawn over her grave the lasting tears of her agonized friends and numerous aquaintance, and the heart-broken and earnest prayers of the poor. It would be almost impossible to find an individual, in a private station, whose death will be more generally and deeply felt.
It is clear from reading these obituary notices that Mrs Lefroy would seem to have been someone who, in her daily life, carried out her responsibilities as a Christian and as a Rector’s wife with care, sensitivity, imagination and some verve. And she was certainly someone who led by example and was not, it appears, afraid of undertaking hard or distressing work to accomplish her aims.
Founding a school where she taught the poor children of the locality is a practical response to poverty and ignorance. I’m sure this aspect of her character must have been very attractive to Jane Austen for Austen had a certain appreciation for a good solid, practical education for girls as opposed to an education system for the rich that churned out fine ladies who possessed little practical skill, which was of little practical benefit to them or to society. This is apparent when you read her descriptions of Bingley sisters in Pride and Prejudice and of Charlotte Palmer in Sense and Sensibility .These young ladies were the products of an expensive town education, and as exemplars are not really good role models, being empty-headed or snobs. The good, wholesome and practical education given by the likes of Mrs Goddard in Emma was much more preferable to Jane Austen,and indeed she seems to have benefited from such an education herself. She must surely have admired Mrs Lefroy’s personal effort in setting up and teaching at this school.
Mrs Lefroy also seems to have kept up to date with scientific developments,and appears to have been ready to adopt what may, at first, have appeared to be alarming medical innovations. She inoculated 800 souls following the advice of the Gloucestershire surgeon, Edward Jenner, regarding smallpox inoculations. Jenner discovered that inoculating with cow-pox would protect the recipient from the possibility of contracting small pox, a deadly disease, which if the patient recovered from (which was rare) often resulted in terrible facial scarring. His book An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae; a Disease Discovered in some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of The Cow Pox’ was published in 1798. From that date there was a huge demand for the vaccine in England and Europe and a year and a half later, the number of deaths caused by smallpox had dropped by two-thirds. By 1800, it is estimated that 10,000 people around the world had been vaccinated using his method. There was however some resistance to his ideas, and this was even satirised by the cartoonist Gillray, published on behalf of the “Anti-Vaccination Society” and which purported to show a vaccination session where the recipients of the vaccine sprout cows heads from the vaccination site .
This resistance does not seem to have been shared by Mrs Lefroy, who with her practical turn of mind seems to have wanted to protect as many of her husband’s parishioners as possible from the ravages of such a deadly disease. Indeed it is thought that the experience of living through an outbreak of smallpox while she and her husband were living in Basingstoke in 1781 prompted Mrs Lefroy to such prompt and wide-ranging action. She knew of the hardships caused by this disease because of her husband’s attendance at Vestry meetings. When a cure came her way, twenty years later, it is interesting to see that Mrs Lefroy seems to have acted upon it without hesitation.
This part of her obituary is especially fascinating to me:
She taught them not only to read and write, but, by her ingenuity, introduced among them a little manufactory of straw, by which they were enabled, at a very early age, to contribute to their own livelihood..
Here we have the ever-practical and kind Mrs Lefroy doing something that has resonances of Nurse Rooke and Mrs Smith in Persuasion: Nurse Rooke teaches Mrs Smith to knit so that she can sell her work to Nurse Rooke’s richer patients. Not wealthy herself, Mrs Smith nevertheless passes the profits from these transactions as charitable donations onto the poor of her neighbourhood in Bath:
“And she,” said Mrs. Smith, “besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She has a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandise. She always takes the right time for applying. Everybody’s heart is open, you know, when they have recently escaped from severe pain, or are recovering the blessing of health, and Nurse Rooke thoroughly understands when to speak. She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation, which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who, having only received “the best education in the world,” know nothing worth attending to. Call it gossip, if you will, but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable: something that makes one know one’s species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation, I assure you, is a treat.”
Persuasion Chapter 17.
It is one thing thinking kind and benevolent thoughts. Jane Austen recognised that putting them into practice on a personal level was a very different matter. Anne Lefroy seems to have been an intelligent, kind woman who used her talents and her position to benefit her husband’s parishioners lives to the full. She did indeed enjoy entertaining at the Rectory, giving elegant balls and dinners, but her interest in people and their lives went much deeper than merely having a bright and interesting social life with the neighbouring gentry. Jane Austen certainly knew what a rector’s wife should be, and it would seem that Mrs Lefroy was a shining example. Austen’s depiction of the other side of the coin is shown in her portrayal of Mrs Elton, the vicar of Higbury’s wife in Emma. She is a very different type of person: obsessed with establishing her music society and with emulating the pretentious ‘elegance’ of the life style of her sister and brother-in-law in their villa at Maple Grove and indulging in encouraging a petty rivalry with her servants and those at Donwell Abbey, rather than doing anything practical and good for the poor.(Unlike Emma).
These insights into Mrs Lefroy’s character paint a very different picture than the one we may have gleaned from merely looking at this very elegant woman who lived in a very elegant home. Although she was undoubtedly well read and intellectual, she was also possessed of a down-to-earth, practical nature which allowed her to give much-needed help to those who were disadvantaged both socially and financially. No wonder Jane Austen lamented her passing, and wrote this poem in her memory:
To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday.
The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.–
The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory!–
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!–
At Johnson’s death by Hamilton t’was said,
‘Seek we a substitute–Ah! vain the plan,
No second best remains to Johnson dead–
None can remind us even of the Man.’
So we of thee–unequall’d in thy race
Unequall’d thou, as he the first of Men.
Vainly we wearch around the vacant place,
We ne’er may look upon thy like again.
Come then fond Fancy, thou indulgant Power,–
–Hope is desponding, chill, severe to thee!–
Bless thou, this little portion of an hour,
Let me behold her as she used to be.
I see her here, with all her smiles benign,
Her looks of eager Love, her accents sweet.
That voice and Countenance almost divine!–
Expression, Harmony, alike complete.–
I listen–’tis not sound alone–’tis sense,
‘Tis Genius, Taste and Tenderness of Soul.
‘Tis genuine warmth of heart without pretence
And purity of Mind that crowns the whole.
She speaks; ’tis Eloquence–that grace of Tongue
So rare, so lovely!–Never misapplied
By her to palliate Vice, or deck a Wrong,
She speaks and reasons but on Virtue’s side.
Her’s is the Engergy of Soul sincere.
Her Christian Spirit ignorant to feign,
Seeks but to comfort, heal, enlighten, chear,
Confer a pleasure, or prevent a pain.–
Can ought enhance such Goodness?–Yes, to me,
Her partial favour from my earliest years
Consummates all.–Ah! Give me yet to see
Her smile of Love.–the Vision diappears.
‘Tis past and gone–We meet no more below.
Short is the Cheat of Fancy o’er the Tomb.
Oh! might I hope to equal Bliss to go!
To meet thee Angel! in thy future home!–
Fain would I feel an union in thy fate,
Fain would I seek to draw an Omen fair
From this connection in our Earthly date.
Indulge the harmless weakness–Reason, spare.–
Next, Mrs Lefroy in her own words.