To conclude our series on Mrs Lefroy, I thought I would review this book, although it is not new. It was published by the Jane Austen Society in 2007, but is still in print and is available to purchase from many outlets, but beware for the prices quoted for it varies greatly. You can purchase it for its Recommended Retail Price from the shop at the Jane Austen House Museum in person or by mail order via this link (and of course the profits from this purchase help maintain the museum!).
Any cache of letters from our period are of interest to me, but this collection is doubly fascinating, for Mrs Lefroy had many associations with Jane Austen and her family. They moved in the same social circles and by reading Mrs Lefroy’s letters to her family we meet many of the same characters who were mentioned in Jane Austen’s early letters and who played vitally important and influential parts in her life: the Biggs-Wither family, the Bramstons, the Portals, the Harwoods and the Heathcotes. However, we see them through a very different pair of eyes, that of a mature, intelligent, humorous and compassionate woman. Reading Mrs Lefroy’s letters adds greatly to our knowledge of the society around Steventon, and for that reason alone I would recommend you buy a copy of this book.
The 140 letters date from 1800 to 1804 (the last later included in the book is a very melancholy one, written by Charles Lyford, the surgeon, announcing the unexpected death of Mrs Lefroy, due to a fall from her horse). The members of the Austen family appear : James Austen, is mentioned most often, and as fellow neighbouring clergyman this is not a surprise. Tantalizingly there are few mentions of Jane, but we do hear of the Miss Austens when they are visiting the area from Bath, where they moved in 1801. In her letter of the 23rd September 1801 we learn that the Austen sisters are visiting Ashe:
The Miss Austens spent the day here- next week they mean to return to Bath& after that I suppose it will be long before they again visit Steventon
On 20th october 1803 in a letter to her son, Edward, Mrs Lefroy wrote:
Miss Austens have been with me these two or three days & I believe stay till Monday next…
We learn a lot about the defensive measure the locality had to take in preparation for any attempted invasion by Napoleon, in particular the formation of The Ashe Volunteers, a group of about 60 men, with which the Lefroy’s elderst son, George, served. That Mrs Lefory took a lively interest in the world outside the confines of the society of Ashe and Steventon is apparent from her remarks in the letters: for example, in Letter 50 we hear of her reading the Anti Jacobin Review and Magazine a short-lived periodical which strongly espoused Tory political views ; she also refers to Buonapartes(sic)
cruelties with regard to the massacre of the Garrison at Jaffa & the poisoning of his prisoners”
in addition to news of her innoculation programme:
I am now again very busy in Cowpox inncoluation as the Smallpox is in many of the Village around us the common people are all now eager to be secured from infection ..
The book is sympathetically and sensibly edited by Gavin Turner and Helen Lefroy. They take pains to explain obscure points in the correspondence and there are five short essays which give ample and clear information regarding the complexities of Mrs Lefroy’s family and the Hampshire of the time. There are a few black and white illustrations, but the primary joy of this book is to further our acquaintance with Mrs Lefory by reading her intimate correspondence. We have already seen from the obituaries of her and by Jane Austen’s reaction to her death, that she was an exceptional person. Reading her letters we find ample evidence of her being a vibrant, sensible, compassionate woman. Someone who loved her family and her parishioners and took her role as a rector’s wife seriously. She was not without humour and seems to have been a terrible “empty -nester”, but never empty headed. The impression gained by reading these later is that she was an exceptional woman, interested in her parish and the outside world. It really is no wonder then that she was Jane Austen’s “beloved friend”.