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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…

Ashe Rectory ©Austenonly

Ashe Rectory ©Austenonly

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 .

James Gillray's print: The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!—vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society, published June 12, 1802 by H. Humphrey, St. James's Street. via Wikipedia Commons

James Gillray’s print: The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!—vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society, published June 12, 1802 by H. Humphrey, St. James’s Street. via Wikipedia Commons

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.

In our last post in this series,we looked at the exterior and the churchyard of the Parish Church of Holy Trinity and St Andrew in the tiny village of Ashe in Hampshire. This was the place of worship for Jane Austen’s great friend, Anne Lefroy. Her husband was the Rector of Ashe and they lived in an elegant Rectory , a few minutes walk away from the church.

As we discovered last time, the church was rebuilt in the late 19th century  due to its extremely bad state of repair, but a church appears to have been consecrated on this site since the mid 12th century. The interior does not therefore have the same appearance as it did during the time of the Lefroys, but I include a view of the Nave for you, all the same:

The Nave, looking East towards the Chancel and Altar, Ashe Parish Church ©Austenonly

The Nave, looking East towards the Chancel and Altar, Ashe Parish Church ©Austenonly

The Lefroy memorials, as I understand it, were originally installed in the Chancel. But since the restoration and re-build of the church, they have been moved, and are now on the North wall, near to the junction with the East wall. Indeed, you can see them immediately as you enter the church:

The Lefroy Memorials ©Austenonly

The Lefroy Memorials ©Austenonly

As ever, these memorials make for sad reading, particularly when you realise just how very quickly the members of this family, with whom Jane Austen was on very friendly terms, died in relation to each other.

This, below,  is the memorial to William Thomas Lefroy, Anne Lefroy’s third born son, who was nearly four years old when he died:

Below is the memorial to another of their sons, Anthony who was only 14 years old when he died, together with another son, Christopher Edward who was 71 years old at his death:

This memorial has a representation of the Lefroy arms underneath it. Here is a close-up photograph of them:

The magnificent memorial which dominates this section of the wall is dedicated to Anne Lefory and to her husband:

The Memorial to Anne Lefroy and her husband, and the Reverend Isaac Peter George Lefroy ©Austenonly

The Memorial to Anne Lefroy and her husband, and the Reverend Isaac Peter George Lefroy ©Austenonly

The wording on the memorial is rather difficult to decipher, but I hope I have transcribed it correctly for you: it is important because it tells another sad story:

The Rev’d Issac peter George Lefroy

late Rector of this Parish and of Compton

in Surry (sic) and formerly Fellow of All Souls

College,Oxford, Son of Anthony Lefroy,

esq: by Elizabeth his wife, was born Nov 1745

and died at the Parsonage House of this Parish

of a paralytic stroke on Monday Janr 13th  1806

Anne, wife of Rev’d George Lefroy 

and daughter of Edward Brydges Esq;

by Jemina his wife, was born March 1749

and died at the Parsonage House of this 

Parish in consequence of a fall from her

horse the preceding day on Sunday December

16th 1804.

Reader: The characters here recorded need no laboured panegyric; prompted by the elevate dictates

of Christianity, of whose glorious truths they are most firm believers, they were alike exemplary

in the performance of every duty, and amicable in every relationship of life; to their fervent piety

Their strict integrity, their active and comprehensive charity, and in short to the lovely and useful

tenor of their whole lives and conversations

Those amongst us who they lived, and especially the inhabitants of this parish, will bear ample and

Ready testimony, after a union of 26 years, having been separated by death scarcely more than 12

months, their earthy remains are together deposited in peace near this marble. Together to be raised. 

We humbly trust in glory when the grave shall give up her dead, and death itself be swallowed up in Victory 

Rev. 14 v. 13

Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord, even so saith the spirit for they rest from their labours.

Poor Anne Lefory died as a result of a fall from a horse , on what was her friend, Jane Austen’s birthday, the 16th December 1804. An account of her death is given in the published Reminiscences of Caroline Austen, Jane Austen’s niece. Caroline was the daughter of James Austen, Jane’s eldest brother, who had succeeded his father as Rector of Steventon:

December 16th 1804: Died Mrs Lefroy of Ashe. On the 21st my father buried her. She was greatly lamented and her end was a sad one. She was riding a very quiet horse, attended by a servant, as usual. My father saw her in Overton, and she observed the animal she rode was so stupid and lazy she could scarcely make him canter. My father rode homeward, she staying to do some errands in Overton; next morning the news of her death reached Steventon. After getting to the top of Overton hill, the horse seemed to be running away-it was not known whether anything had frightened him-the servant, unwisely, rode up to catch the bridle rein-missed his hold and the animal darted off faster.He could not give any clear account, but it was supposed that Mrs Lefroy in her terror, threw herself off and fell heavily on the hard ground. She never spoke afterwards, and she died in a few hours.

Her husband died on January 13th  in 1806, poor man. Another untimely Lefroy death.  Indeed, this period 1804-1806 was a sad year for the Austens and the Lefroys together, for George Austen , Jane Austen’s father died on the 21st January  1805, and then on April 16th, in the same year, Mrs Lloyd the mother of Mary, James Austen’s wife, also died.

The final memorial I want to write about is dedicated to Benjamin Lefory and to his wife, Anna, who was Jane Austen’s niece and Caroline Austen’s half-sister:

As we learnt in our last post, Benjamin Lefroy succeeded his brother, John Henry George Lefroy, as Rector of Ashe  in 1823.  John Henry had been appointed Rector of Ashe after his father’s death in 1806. Sadly, John died aged only 41 in 1823. Benjamin was then appointed as Rector of Ashe and he and Anna came to live at the Rectory and remained there until Ben’s very untimely death in 1829.

Reading these memorials made me feel very sad: so many lives cut short. But they still do not give us much of a picture of what Mrs Lefroy was really  like, apart from paying tribute to her piety .We still do not know much of   her character or habits, one that was apparently so bewitching to Jane Austen and many others. For that we need to look at other sources: obituary notices, Jane Austen’s letters and, indeed,Mrs Lefroy’s own letters, which luckily for us have been preserved and published. More on this in my next post in this series.

A few days ago we looked at the Georgian Rectory where Madame Lefroy, Jane Austen’s most beloved friend, lived in the small village of Ashe in Hampshire. Today, let’s discover a little about the church where her husband, Isaac Peter George Lefroy was Rector, the parish church of Holy Trinity and St Andrew, Ashe.

The Parish Church of Holy Trinity and Saint Andrew, Ashe ©Austenonly

The Parish Church of Holy Trinity and Saint Andrew, Ashe ©Austenonly

I have to say, from the very outset, that appearance of the church is not quite as it would have been in the late 18th century.  The original church building dated from the mid 12th century, and was then a single cell building. It was described  in The Reverend William Bingley’s History of Hamsphire, Volume 2 ( 1807-13 ) as a

very small but neat building … single aisle and the chancel with a mural monument to Rev. Richard Russell, rector 1729-83, who died 27 Jan 1783 in his 80th year, and an elegant mural monument of marble, commemorates the Rev Isaac Peter George Lefroy, the late rector here and of Compton in Surrey and Ann his wife who died at the Parsonage house on Sunday, Dec 16 1804, in consequence of a fall from her horse the preceding day.

When I visited the interior of the church I was able to take photograph of a drawing of the church as it was prior to its rebuild, in order to give you some idea of how it looked when the Lefroys were resident in the village:

I hope you can discern some of the detail: I do apologise for its quality (or lack thereof)  for I have had to manipulate the photograph a lot to try and make it at all useful. Hopefully you can see , by comparison with the photographs, that the rebuild,while it made the church larger, tried, in my very humble opinion, to keep to the style and character of the original, simply-designed church

The rebuild of the church was effected in the late 19th century, because, frankly, it was falling down around the ears of the Rector, Francis Walter and his congregation.  In 1873 Walter discovered, on an inspection of the fabric of the building, that his church was in a very dangerous state of repair. The North and East walls were leaning and were subject to settling, or subsidence, and, despite having been repaired in 1866, the West wall had further subsided and was considered  to be in a very dangerous state; also, the roof was considered to be beyond any practical repair.

Accordingly, it was decided that a  new church had to be commissioned, to be built on virtually the same site, only slightly enlarged.  The great Victorian architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (who, you may care to know, was commission to design a parish church by my family in 1854) was employed to create it, and it was consecrated for use as the parish church by the Bishop of Winchester in 1878.

The Entrance Porch and Bell Tower  ©Austenonly

The Entrance Porch and Bell Tower ©Austenonly

Not only was the building different in the Lefroy’s time but the name of the church was different then too. During the Reverend Lefroy’s era the church was  known only as the Church of Holy Trinity. The appellation St Andrew was added in 1899.  It had always been assumed that the church had always been  dedicated in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, but Mortimer George Thoyts, who was the father of the then rector, Francis walter, whom we have met above, and who was also the owner of the advowson, thought that the dedication to the Holy Trinity was something that had only been applied to the church after the reforms of the Reformation, when the old Catholic reverence to  individual saints was discouraged by the newly formed Protestant Anglican church. And he was proved to be correct : he discovered that in 1503 the church had received a bequest,

Ecclesiae Sancti Andrea de Asshe    

and as you can see, it seems clear from the wording of the bequest that the church was then, prior to the Reformation, dedicated to Saint Andrew. So the additional dedication was duly approved and made.

The church, as you can see below,  is set on a sloping site, the ground running downhill from the road that runs at right angles to the Andover Road, now the B3400.

A View of Ashe Parish Church from the Lytch Gate ©Austenonly

A View of Ashe Parish Church from the Lytch Gate ©Austenonly

The wooden Lytch Gate stands at the junction of this road and the lane that leads to the church. This is but a few minutes walk from the Lefroy’s elegant rectory.

View of the Lytch Gate from the entrance to Ashe Churchyard ©Austenonly

View of the Lytch Gate from the entrance to Ashe Churchyard ©Austenonly

The Lytch Gate has, as I understand it,been moved from its original position near to the entrance to the church to its present position on higher ground.

The Lychgate at the far entrance to the Parish Church of Holy Trinity and St Andrew Chruchyard, Ashe ©Austenonly

The Lychgate at the far entrance to theChurchyard of the Parish Church of Holy Trinity and St Andrew, Ashe ©Austenonly

The churchyard, (which in the winter seems to be covered with snow, which is, in reality, large drifts of pure white snowdrops) has some very old gravestones. I did find the directions to the Lefroy graves a little confusing, but I think this photograph shows them ( if anyone knows otherwise, please do let me know):

In addition to the connection with Jane Austen’s beloved friend,  Madame Lefroy, this church eventually became associated with Jane’s niece, Anna. She is buried there and there is a memorial dedicated to her memory inside the church( more on this in my next post).  Anna Austen, the daughter of Jane’s eldest brother, James and his first wife, Anne Matthews, married Anne and George Lefroy’s son, Benjamin in 1814.  Eventually he became rector of Ashe, like his father. He was ordained in 1817. His brother, John Henry George Lefroy, was appointed as Rector of Ashe after their father’s death in 1806. Sadly, John died aged only 41 in 1823. Benjamin was then appointed as Rector of Ashe and he and Anna came to live at the Rectory and remained there until Ben’s untimely death in 1829. After Benjamin’s death, Anna moved from the Rectory with her seven children and lived in various houses, first at a home owned by her brother-in-law, Edward Lefroy at West Ham, near Basingstoke. Subsequently, she lived at Oakley,Winchester and Monk Sherbourne before spending the last ten years of her life at Southern Hill near  Reading. Reading was, of course, where Anna’s aunts,  Jane  and Cassandra Austen, had attended the Reading Ladies Boarding School, situated in the former Abbey Gateway, from 1785-1786.

And that ends the first part of our visit to Ashe parish church. Next in this series we shall  look at its interior and, in detail, at the Lefroy memorials.

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.

Ashe Rectory, now known as Ashe House ©Austenonly

Ashe Rectory, now known as Ashe House ©Austenonly

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):

Section from John Cary's Map of Hampshire 1793 showing the area where Jane Austen was born

Section from my copy of John Cary’s Map of Hampshire 1793 showing the area where Jane Austen was born,and where she lived until 1801 when she moved to Bath.

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.

Ashe House ©Austenonly

Ashe House ©Austenonly

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,

The Entrance to Ashe House with its elegant Fanlight ©Austenonly

The Entrance to Ashe House with its elegant Fanlight ©Austenonly

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”…

(Page 126)

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.

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