Though Jane Austen never admitted it herself, scholars have long speculated that Irish politician and judge Thomas Langlois Lefroy was the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy. What we do know is that Austen and Lefroy spent some time together and had a short-lived flirtation. In fact, a year after Lefroy’s death in 1869, one of his nephews wrote to Austen’s nephew to say: "My late venerable uncle ... said in so many words that he was in love with [Jane], although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love."
So who was this mystery man?
1. Thomas Lefroy was a noted politician.
Thomas Lefroy was born in Limerick, Ireland, on January 8, 1776 (one year after Austen) and died on May 4, 1869, at the very-old-for-his-time age of 93. (In comparison, Austen passed away in 1817 at the age of 41.) During his long life, Lefroy served as chief justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench in Ireland and as a member of Parliament (MP) for Dublin University for 11 years.
2. Lefroy met Jane Austen during a break from studying law.
After graduating from Dublin's Trinity College in 1795, Lefroy moved to London to study law at Lincoln’s Inn. According to the Jane Austen Centre's website: "At some point, however, it was decided that [Lefroy] should take a break. Family history maintains that long nights poring over books had weakened his constitution and his eyesight. It was clear that he needed a rest. With a new term beginning in January, 1796, Tom took several weeks off in December of 1795 to visit his Uncle and Aunt, Rev. George and Anne Lefroy in Ashe, nearly 60 miles away."
It was during this stay with his aunt and uncle that Lefroy met Austen. The two spent time together at several holiday balls that season and Austen mentioned Lefroy in letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra at the time—though she wasn't quite proclaiming her undying love. "I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy," Jane wrote, "for whom I do not care sixpence."
The Jane Austen Centre has pointed out that while "the tone of these letters does not sound like a woman deeply in love ... It is important to consider that Jane, but 20 years old at the time, no doubt expected them to be read to or at least shared with the Fowle family, with whom Cassandra was staying." In order to avoid any future embarrassment, it's believed that Jane intentionally downplayed her feelings for Lefroy.
3. Lefroy had a good heart and was "gentlemanlike" (though he did have one flaw).
Tom’s great–uncle Benjamin Langlois funded Tom’s education at Trinity College in Dublin. Benjamin said this about his great-nephew: “A good heart, a good mind, good sense, and as little to correcting him as ever I saw in one of his age.”
In a letter dated January 9, 1796, Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra about Tom: "He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you ... [H]e has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove—it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light."
4. James McAvoy played Lefroy in Becoming Jane.
In Becoming Jane (2007), Julian Jarrold's big-screen adaptation of Jon Hunter Spence 2003's semi-biography Becoming Jane Austen, James McAvoy portrayed Lefroy opposite Anne Hathaway as Austen. The movie deviated from the book in having Lefroy and Austen fall in love and attempt—but fail—to run away and get married.
In an interview with McAvoy, The Telegraph wrote that the actor "firmly believes Austen did have a meaningful and ultimately life-changing relationship with Lefroy." He also believes that Lefroy would not have had an Irish accent, which is why McAvoy spoke with an English accent in the movie. (McAvoy is Scottish.)
"It’s completely disrespectful to an Irishman to suggest the English overlords all had Irish accents, just because you want a bit of the Irish blarney for the American audiences," McAvoy said.
5. Jane Austen never married, but Lefroy did.
If Austen and Lefroy were so well suited to each other, why didn't they end up together? The general consensus is that Austen's lack of wealth played a part. But in 1799, Lefroy married Mary Paul, who did come from money. The couple had eight children; they named their second child, and first daughter, Jane.
While Austenites would love to believe that Lefroy's daughter was named for the writer he had once (maybe) loved (and that is what is implied in Becoming Jane), it's more likely that she was named after Lady Jane Paul, Lefroy's maternal grandmother.
6. Lefroy had an interest in astronomy.
On March 30, 1846, Lefroy visited Williams Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, to fiddle around with the Earl’s telescope. In a letter written to his wife the next day, Lefroy said of the experience:
“Yesterday was indeed a most interesting day. Lord Rosse and his wife were as kind to me as possible. The wonders of his telescope are not to be told. He says—with as much ease as another man would say, ‘Come and I'll show you a beautiful prospect'—'Come and I’ll show you a universe, one of a countless multitude of universes, each larger than the whole universe hitherto known to astronomers.”
Lefroy spotted Jupiter, and seemed to be in awe of the instrument. “But the genius displayed in all the contrivances for wielding this mighty monster even surpasses the design and execution of it,” he wrote. “The telescope weighs 16 tons, and yet Lord Rosse raised it single-handed off its resting place, and two men with ease raised it to any height.”
7. You can visit Lefroy's grave.
If you're planning a trip to Ireland and want to pay your respects to Lefroy and the role he played in the creation of Pride and Prejudice, you can visit his grave; it’s located in Dublin, at Mount Jerome Cemetery and Crematorium.
Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.