Share this post

Jane Austen’s relationship with Tom Lefroy was something we saw on screen during the 2007 film Becoming Jane. But was it real, or just a fictional story? Let’s find out.

About Becoming Jane

If you’re a regular listener to this podcast, then you might remember back in April of this year we learned the story of the worst sea disaster in the history of the United States Navy. Or, maybe you’ve listened to it since then. I’m referring to the episode talking about the true story behind the movie USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.

Or maybe you haven’t heard it yet. Even if you haven’t, it’s not a spoiler to learn that the day of that tragic event—the sinking of USS Indianapolis in the North Philippine Sea that marked the end for almost 900 souls—that day was July 30th, 1945.

Meanwhile, on that same day and completely oblivious to the tragedy going on thousands of miles away, a much more joyous event was taking place in the small town of Camilla, Georgia.

That’s in southern Georgia about 55 miles, or 87 kilometers, to the north of Tallahassee, Florida and about 175 miles or 280 kilometers to the south of Atlanta.

The joyous event was the birth of a baby boy named Jon Spence.

Jon would go on to get his BA in English literature from the University of Georgia and an MA from Tulane University in New Orleans. After being drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War—he was stationed in Germany, though, so he never saw battle—Jon found his military service could be used to get grants for King’s College in the heart of London. That’s where Jon worked on a PhD, completing his thesis on the works of the 18th century writer Jane Austen.

For decades, he continued to study Jane’s life and works, often studying and trying to figure out what he was convinced were hidden messages in her letters.

By the time 2003 rolled around, Jon Spence published his first book on Jane Austen’s early life, a book that the world took notice of especially because he was already considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the life and works of Jane Austen.

Four years later, that book was adapted into the movie that we’re going to be learning about today.

Becoming Jane was released in 2007 and despite only having a budget of about $16 million—not a ton of money as far as Hollywood is concerned—boasts an all-star cast including Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen along with James McAvoy, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters and James Cromwell, just to name a few.

So let’s dive into the life of Jane Austen as we compare history with the movie Becoming Jane.

The true story behind Becoming Jane

The movie opens on Anne Hathaway’s version of Jane Austen as she’s deep in thought. The camera cuts between a few things, showing us that the morning’s dew is still on the deep, green grass outside. Then we see a clock. It’s 6:15.

Dipping her pen in ink, Jane starts writing on the piece of paper in front of her on the desk. Then the camera cuts as she takes a break from writing to play a few notes on the piano. Slowly, the camera pans outside the window and up to the next floor and that’s when we see Jane isn’t the only one in the house. But everyone else is sleeping.

After a moment, the music stops and Jane looks at the paper. Then she goes back to writing, clearly finding some inspiration from the brief stint on the piano.

Not for long.

This time, she goes back to playing the piano and manages to wake up everyone in the house—most of whom aren’t too happy at being woken up at 6:15 on what we find out is Sunday morning.

Oh, and yes, Jane’s father, George, was indeed a reverend like the movie shows. In the movie he’s played by James Cromwell while her mother is played by Julie Walters. Although the movie doesn’t really mention her mother’s first name, probably because it’s the same name as Jane’s sister—Cassandra.

Her sister, Cassandra, is played by Anna Maxwell Martin in the movie.

There’s no mention of a date in the movie, so this opening sequence isn’t really something we can verify. But still, it’s one certainly could have happened because the real Jane Austen was obviously a talented writer, but she also loved music and playing the piano.

In fact, just recently the Internet Archive released a digitized collection of some 600 pieces of music from the Austen family—many of whom were copied by Jane personally. She used to copy a lot of music by hand so she could learn to play it on the piano. That was her personal music collection—sort of like how we each have our own library of music on our phones. Except I’m glad I don’t have to copy down each song I want on my phone note by note…I have a feeling if Jane could have access to a smart phone now, she’d say something along the lines of, “You kids don’t know how good you have it these days.”

OK, maybe not. But it was certainly a different time.

Speaking of which, since the movie doesn’t ever mention a year, we don’t really know what time it was that Jane Austen lived. It’s clearly a while ago, but that’s something we can fix with history.

Now there’s a bit of a reason why this episode is being released today—December 11th.

You see, in five days, it’ll be Jane’s birthday.

She was born on December 16th, 1775. That’ll make this Saturday her 242nd birthday!

Happy birthday, Jane!

But knowing Jane’s birthday doesn’t really help us knowing when the movie’s timeline begins.

The movie’s timeline starts somewhere between 1793 to 1795, making Anne Hathaway’s version of Jane Austin just shy of 20 years old.

Why then?

Well, even though the movie doesn’t mention the timeline in the movie itself, there’s plenty of movie reviews that say it’s 1795. Haha!

But I don’t know if I really agree with it being 1795. I mean, I understand the reason why I’ve seen some of those reviews of the movie saying 1795. It’s because we know from history that it was 1795 when we know the real Jane Austen met the real Tom Lefroy, who’s played by James McAvoy in the movie.

So, yes, Tom Lefroy was a real person. But the movie’s timeline is a bit interesting here because it doesn’t really show how much time is passing between these opening scenes and when we’re introduced to Tom.

According to the movie, Tom is a lawyer who doesn’t really take his job seriously. At least, that’s the sense we get when we see him partying one night. We don’t see the party itself, but we see him with a few girls and one of his friends, Jane’s brother Henry Austen, and then Tom kisses one of the girls just before rushing into the court room way too late.

There’s a lot of implications there that the movie doesn’t actually show.

His uncle, who’s presiding in the court room, isn’t too happy with Tom’s behavior.

Played by Ian Richardson, Tom’s uncle in the movie is really only known as Judge Langlois so we don’t learn his first name. We know from history his first name was Benjamin. The surname of Langlois is correct as well.

After excelling at Trinity College in Dublin for three years, in 1793, Benjamin Langlois paid for Tom’s education at the beautiful London campus of The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn. That’s where Tom studied law.

So it’s possible some of the early scenes where see Benjamin Langlois—who was actually Tom’s great-uncle—before Tom goes to the country could’ve been before 1795.

That’s why I said the movie probably begins sometime between 1793 to 1795. Tom and Jane first met in 1795, but there’s a few set-up scenes before their meeting. And since the movie doesn’t really show how much time is passing between those scenes, it’s quite likely that there were a few years in there.

However, after Tom’s misbehaving one day in court, according to the movie, his great-uncle decides to send Tom to the country to live with some of his other relatives—also with the last name Lefroy.

Like James McAvoy’s version of Tom says in the movie, the real Tom Lefroy was born in Limerick, Ireland. His birthday was January 8th, 1776, so he was exactly 23 days younger than Jane.

Although the movie’s storyline says that it Tom’s bad behavior that was the reason for his being sent to the country, we don’t really seem to have any hard proof of this. Instead, many historians believe it was more likely that Tom was simply between terms at university.

One of the common sources for information about the real Tom Lefroy comes from the 1979 publication of Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of London, more specifically an article in there by one of Tom’s descendants, J.A.P. Lefroy, called Jane Austen’s Irish Friend: Rt. Hon. Thomas Langlois, 1776-1869.

You’ll notice that the title of the article refers to him as Thomas Langlois. Some others refer to him as Thomas Langlois Lefroy.

Still, according to J.A.P. Lefroy’s article, the Michaelmas term ended on November 25th, 1795. The Michaelmas term, by the way, is the name for the fall term at Inns of Court like where Tom was studying law at Lincoln Inn. Oh, and today that term lasts through Christmas, but that wasn’t the case in the 18th century.

J.A.P. Lefroy’s claim was that after the term came to an end, after the long hours that come from studying law and straining over books in low light situations, Tom wanted to have a change of scenery to help his eyesight before the next term, which began on January 11th, 1796. So that’s one theory as to why Tom Lefroy ended up in the country.

But there’s other reports that combat that claim. For example, in Memoir of Chief Justice Lefroy, Tom’s son, also named Thomas, his father only had issues with his eyesight while at Trinity between 1791 and 1793.

So while there might be some debate about the specific reasons why Tom came to the country, the point here is that the story we saw in the movie doesn’t seem to hold up to history. There’s nothing to suggest it was a behavioral issue that caused his grand-uncle, or uncle as the movie says, to send him to the country. In reality, it’s more likely Tom just wanted to visit his family.

Going back to the movie, there’s a moment where James McAvoy’s version of Tom Lefroy suggests to Anne Hathaway’s version of Jane Austen that she read a book that’s, well, not quite appropriate. There’s nothing really too scandalous by today’s standards, but with drawings of topless women and as the movie says, Tom has a “reputation”, and he’s clearly trying to impress that reputation on Jane.

That specific incident isn’t anything we can prove or disprove, but if you pause the movie to read the title of the book Anne Hathaway’s version of Jane is holding, you’ll see it’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding. That’s a real book, first published on February 28th, 1749. It’s also a book that was incredibly popular throughout 18th century England and has been compared by some to Jane Austen’s own work, Pride and Prejudice.

We also know that Tom Lefroy was a fan of Tom Jones, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Jane didn’t hear about Tom Jones from someone else first. So even though there’s no hard proof I could find that Tom Lefroy was the one who introduced Jane to The History of Tom Jones, it’s an interesting theory proposed by the movie.

That brings us to Tom Lefroy’s “reputation”, as the movie puts it. From the parties in London that got him sent to the country to the idea that he introduced Jane Austen to Tom Jones, a book that did receive some backlash for its originality in the use of prostitution and sexual promiscuity, it’s clear what sort of “reputation” the movie is implying here.

While there are some reports of this sort of playboy reputation for Tom Lefroy, Jane’s impression of Tom would seem to be something different.

To learn more about that, here’s an excerpt from a letter that Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra:

In the first place, I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr. Tom Lefroy’s birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age. After this preamble I shall proceed to tell you that we had an exceedingly good ball last night, Mr. H. began with Elizabeth, and afterwards danced with her again; but they do not know how to be particular. I flatter myself, however, that they will profit by the three successive lessons I have given them.

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 these last three 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.

After I had written the above, we received a visit from Mr. Tom Lefroy and his cousin George. The latter is well behaved now; and as for the other, he has but one fault, which time will, I trust, entirely remove—it is that his morning coat is a great deal too light. He is a great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same colored clothes, I imagine, which he did when he was wounded.

So…maybe Tom was a playboy? It’s hard to nail down for sure…maybe Tom was just putting on a front for Jane. That’s certainly plausible. There’s other records that indicate Tom’s own family considered him a bit of a playboy, but again it’s really hard to know for certain.

Think of it this way…how many times in your own communications through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or wherever you communicate with your family and friends have there been things said about you that might imply something that’s stretching the truth? That’s the sort of stuff we have to try to wade through when trying to determine the truth of history from personal letters.

OK, so that letter was dated January 9th, 1796.

Or was it the 10th? In my research, I came across a lot of Jane Austen fans and historians who dated this letter as being January 10th. The mere fact that there’s some who mention the letter was the 10th is interesting to me as other historians say with certainty that Tom was born on January 8th, and the letter starts off by saying Tom’s birthday was yesterday.

If nothing else, that shows you how conflicted people are over the letters and the events that are depicted in their words.

In either case, technically it wasn’t right after Tom arrived. I guess you might be able to argue the case that Tom had a reputation when he made his way to his relatives place in the village of Ashe in November of 1795 but then was “gentlemanlike” a couple months later.

But probably not.

Unfortunately, a lot of what that means is up for speculation. And there’s plenty of theories out there as to how deep Tom and Jane’s relationship was. Or how shallow it was, depending on how you look at it. Or even if it would warrant the term “relationship” at all.

This is just my own speculation thrown in there, but when Jane says she could only, “expose myself…once more” because Tom was leaving the country, that certainly seems to imply something was going on. I don’t mean to say that sexually by any means, but even in that little excerpt it seems to imply some flirtation going on with Jane opening herself up to Tom’s affections.

So while it’s really hard to verify a lot of the specifics we see in the movie, the overall gist of something romantic between Tom and Jane certainly is…well, plausible.

While it’s true there was something there, like the excerpt we just heard from Jane’s letter to her sister Cassandra, it’s really hard to nail down exactly how much was there.

Many historians and Janeites—as fans of Jane Austen are called—believe that Tom Lefroy was indeed Jane’s first love. Or was it just a crush? Still others believe that it was just a crush.

It probably doesn’t help that after she grew older, as Andrea mentioned at the beginning of this episode, Cassandra decided to burn or intentionally damage a lot of the letters she’d received from Jane over the years. That might sound odd to us now—especially for those of us wanting to find more clues about Jane’s relationship with Tom—but when we put it in the context of history, it’s not so strange.

After all, think of those letters like your private communication. They were the Facebook Messenger, the WhatsApp or the Snapchat of their day. Although Snapchat automatically deletes messages just a few seconds after they’re displayed, and at least Cassandra kept them for years. She just had to delete them manually. As disappointing as it is to have lost the letters, especially since I can only assume she started by destroying letters with some of the more juicy bits of information in them, I can understand the reasons why she wouldn’t want her sister’s private life kept around for all the world to know.

Going back to the movie, Tom Lefroy isn’t the only gentleman caller interested in Jane. We find out that another man named Mr. Wisley is being set up by his aunt, Maggie Smith’s character, Lady Gresham.

Mr. Wisley, by the way, is played by Laurence Fox.

Both Lady Gresham and Mr. Wisley are fictional characters made up for the film, but their purpose in the storyline is one that’s based in history. In truth, Jane Austen had quite a few men who tried to woo her.

For example, there was a student of Jane’s father named John Warren, who is played by Leo Bill in the movie. A lot of historians believed that John had a romantic interest in Jane while others suggested perhaps they were just good friends.

Or there was a man named Samuel Blackall, who was described as an awkward clergyman and had a thing for Jane. Probably the closest to the fictional Mr. Wisley, though, would’ve been someone named Harris Bigg-Wither. He was a nice and well-off young man who lived near the Austen family. At one point he even went so far as to propose to Jane.

In the movie, Jane turns down Mr. Wisley’s proposal.

But the truth is that Jane accepted Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal!

But then, after a night to sleep on it, Jane decided to rescind her acceptance so the two were never married.

So the result was the same, but quite different paths to get there.

While we’re talking about fictional characters in the film, let’s talk about Jane’s brother, George. According to the movie, George is deaf and Jane communicates with him through sign language.

Oh wait, did I say fictional? George was a real person.

Sadly, though, there’s just not much we know about him. We do know that he was about ten years Jane’s elder and in one of Jane’s letters from 1808, she mentioned talking “with my fingers”, but we don’t really know if that was because he was deaf like the movie implies. While that’s certainly plausible, some historians suggest perhaps he had some other type of mental or physical handicap. Still others say that George never learned to speak, and that he didn’t live with the Austen family but rather lived out much of his life at a boarding home along with someone who’s not in the movie, Thomas Leigh, Mrs. Austen’s brother who also had mental health issues.

Since a lot of what we know in history comes through letters written by the Austen family and George wasn’t mentioned in those letters, there’s a lot left to speculation about George.

Going back to the movie’s storyline, Tom and Jane’s romance ends after Jane finds a letter. According to the letter, Tom’s been sending money back to his family. Jane, on the other hand, is afraid that if they continue their romance and get married that Tom wouldn’t be able to provide for his family. Of course, Tom insists that won’t be an issue and for a brief moment they think about eloping. But then eloping would mean leaving everything else behind, and Jane fears the guilt caused by Tom’s inability to provide for his family if they eloped would, in time, overcome their love.

So she breaks it off with Tom.

Unfortunately, we just don’t know how much of this is true. As we learned so far, there’s a lot we don’t know about what really happened. So as far as hard proof is concerned, we’re left with the assumption that this storyline is made up for the film.

Or perhaps a more accurate summarization would be that this is one theory of what could’ve happened based on the few pieces of information we have.

What little we do know of their relationship comes from just a couple of surviving letters between Jane and Cassandra, as well as some information other historians have been able to dig up. From that, we know that neither Tom or Jane had much money. Tom was indeed reliant on the wealth of his great-uncle who had financed his education, so a marriage wouldn’t have been practical monetarily-speaking.

So while the path the movie takes to show those plot points could’ve happened, we just don’t know if things happened exactly as the movie shows.

We already learned a bit with one of Jane’s letters to Cassandra from January 9th, 1796. We get another peek at the end of their relationship just a few days later. This is an excerpt from Jane Austen’s letter to Cassandra dated January 16th, 1796:

At length the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea. Wm. Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being so civil. There is a report that Tom is going to be married to a Lichfield lass. John Lyford and his sister bring Edward home today, dine with us, and we shall all go together to Ashe. I understand that we are to draw for partners. I shall be extremely impatient to hear from you again, that I may know how Eliza is, and when you are to return.

By the way, if you want to hear the entirety of these letters we’ve heard pieces from, those will be bonus episodes for Based on a True Story Producers.

So, it would seem, that the movie was correct in showing that Tom Lefroy married someone else.

According to the movie, though, we get the implication that Tom Lefroy was the inspiration behind Mr. Darcy in Jane’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice, which we see her writing at the end of the film. Years after their romance, we even see an older Tom come to hear a reading of Jane’s book and he introduces her to his daughter, who he has named Jane.

The final text on screen says that Tom named his eldest daughter Jane.

That is true. Well, not the meeting between Tom and Jane and Tom’s daughter, also named Jane. There’s nothing to suggest that reading took place. But it’s true that Tom had a daughter named Jane.

On March 16th, 1799, Tom Lefroy married a woman named Mary Paul.

While we don’t know if she was named after Jane Austen like the movie suggests, Tom’s oldest daughter was named Jane Christmas Lefroy and was born on June 24th, 1802.

Although I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Tom’s mother-in-law was named Jane Paul, so it’s also possible that Jane was named after his wife’s mother. That theory seems to hold up since Tom and Mary’s first child was a boy they named Anthony Lefroy, who was born on March 21st, 1800.

However, Tom’s father’s name was Anthony. So it’s also very likely they named their first boy after Tom’s father and their first girl after Mary’s mother—a common thing to do. But that still hasn’t stopped people from considering that perhaps Tom’s daughter was named after Jane Austen.

Tom and Mary would end up having eight children in total, the others being Anne Lefroy who was born on April 25th, 1804, Thomas Paul Lefroy, born on December 31st, 1806, Jeffrey Lefroy, born on March 25th, 1809, George Lefroy, born on May 26th, 1811, Benjamin Lefroy, born on March 25th, 1815 and last, but certainly not least, Mary Lefroy, born on December 19th, 1817.

Sadly, Benjamin never lived past his infancy, though, so many records list Tom and Mary as having seven children.

Something else the movie’s final text mentions is that in her short life, Jane Austen wrote six of the greatest novels in the English language. It then goes on to say that neither Jane or Cassandra ever married.

That is all true…well, sort of.

If you’ve listened this far, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’re a Jane Austen fan—or at least you’ve heard of her works. But there’s some who might take issue with the number of Jane’s novels being six.

You see, Jane Austen published four novels while she was alive. Despite this, though, most of the true fans of Jane’s work agree that there were six novels completed by Jane during her lifetime. It’s just that two of them were published posthumously.

But there’s no doubt that Jane Austen is one of the most well-known authors in history. The four novels she published during her lifetime were Sense & Sensibility, published in 1811, Pride & Prejudice, published in 1813, Mansfield Park, published in 1814, Emma, published in 1815.

As 1816 rolled around, Jane began feeling a bit under the weather. She ignored this, though, and rewrote the last couple of chapters to a book she referred to as The Elliots. It would later be published posthumously under the title Persuasion.

In January of 1817, she began a new novel she called The Brothers. Her illness progressed, and on January 27th, she stopped writing. We know this date specifically because she wrote the date at the end of the manuscript.

Then, at some point, she picked up the manuscript again and kept writing. About eleven chapters later, Jane wrote another date in the manuscript. March 18th, 1817.

That would be the last time Jane Austen would add to a work that’d ultimately be left unfinished.

By the time April arrived, Jane rarely left her bed. She had difficulty walking and was constantly without energy.

Her brother, Henry, and her best friend, her sister Cassandra, helped care for her during her final days.

Sadly, we don’t know much about how Jane Austen died. We know from some of her letters that she was running a fever, bouts of nausea and vomiting or, as she referred to them, bilious attacks, and aching. Some of our best estimates are that it was probably either Hodgkin’s lymphoma or maybe Addison’s disease.

On July 18th, 1817, Jane Austen became the first of her siblings to pass away. She was only 41 years old.

As for the book she was writing at the time of her death, The Brothers, we now know it as Sanditon and it remains unfinished.

It wasn’t until after her death that Jane Austen became a household name. After her death, Cassandra and Henry worked to publish both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, the two books she had completed but hadn’t published before her death. Thanks in part to this publication, Jane’s works as an author started to gain some recognition.

But it wasn’t until 1833, about 16 years after Jane’s death, when a publisher named Richard Bentley included Jane’s works in his series called Standard Novels. Her works weren’t the only ones included in this series, but it was the first time Jane’s novels were available at a cheap price—something that really helped catapult Jane Austen’s reputation.

Tom Lefroy lived a much longer life. He passed away on May 4th, 1869 at the age of 93. After he passed away, one of his nephews wrote a letter that helped solve a bit of the mystery about his true feelings for Jane Austen.

My late venerable uncle…said in so many words that he was in love with her, although he qualified his confession by saying it was a boyish love. As this occurred in a friendly and private conversation, I feel some doubt whether I ought to make it public.

KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES