“[Tom Lefroy] 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 very great admirer of Tom Jones, and therefore wears the same colored clothes, I imagine which he did when he was wounded.”
This observation, noted in a letter written by 20-year-old Jane Austen to her sister, suggests that Austen, as well as Lefroy, were familiar with Henry Fielding’s novel. It is she, after all, who infers that Lefroy’s morning coat is an homage to the garment worn by a wounded Tom Jones, who had been wounded in a dispute over a lady’s reputation.
There are a few references to Lefroy in Austen’s letters that were written in the early part of 1796. From Steventon, she writes of their “profligate and shocking” flirting, and that she found him to be “gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant”. Several days later, she looks forward “with great impatience to a ball at which “I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him however, unless he promises to give away his white coat.” It is interesting that she writes with the same blithe self-confidence of Lady Susan Vernon, the focus of her recent novella, announcing that she “bequeaths” all of her beaux to a friend, “as I mean to confine my future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care a sixpence” – yet, she cares enough that “my tears flow as I write” at the thought of his imminent departure.
There is a gap in 1797, before her correspondence resumes the following year; this is the period in which she converted her epistolary Elinor and Marianne to Sense and Sensibility, which provokes some interesting speculation about what may have influenced the character of Willoughby. There are certainly points where Lefroy’s hero and Austen’s most complex scoundrel intersect.
Tom Jones and John Willoughby both have expectations that are kept at bay, to a different degree, by the course of their own conduct. In the end, both are rewarded – again, to a different degree. Jones gets the lady and his claim to fortune; Willoughby gets a lady, who comes with a fortune. Tom Lefroy, who lived in the real world, could not hope for the serendipitous good luck of fiction. It is unlikely that the great-uncle who funded Lefroy’s education would have behaved as Jones’ benefactor who “…threatened [Tom Jones] with the entire loss of his favor”, or that Lefroy would have forfeited his uncle’s good will by the sort of conduct that had Willoughby, “…formally dismissed from [his relative’s] favor”; still, Austen’s poverty would have been viewed as an impediment, by Lefroy’s relations, to their marriage.
Jones and Willoughby have similar encounters with the charming heroine. Marianne Dashwood injures herself in a fall, and winds up in the arms of Willoughby. Sophia Western is tossed from her unruly horse into the arms of Tom Jones. When the ladies receive their farewell letters, Sophia laments that, “I have thrown away my heart on a man who hath forsaken me…He hath taken his leave of me forever in that letter”, while Marianne wails, “Willoughby, where was your heart, when you wrote those words?” In both works there is a somewhat satirical contrast between the natural and the conventional, expressed, to varying degrees, in the manner in which illegitimacy affects the course of romance.
Still, in literature and life, Austen must accept the “mortifying conviction that handsome young men must have something to live on, as well as the plain”, and her novels’ marriages do not take place until that “something to live on” is certain. Yet, in Sense and Sensibility, chronologically closest to the brief Austen/Lefroy relationship, Austen is able to propose an ideal resolution through her fiction: Willougby – as dissolute as Tom Jones and as good-looking and pleasant as Tom Lefroy – is reinstated by the rich cousin upon whom he is dependent, not by marrying the woman he had wronged, or by marrying a wealthy woman, but by marrying a woman of good character – a rapprochement that, ironically, he might have effected by marrying Marianne. Did Austen secretly hope that Lefroy might count on the same benevolence?
Certainly, there was no engagement between Austen and Lefroy, and she cannot claim to have been jilted, but he was not forgotten. (Perhaps this was what enabled her to write so feelingly, in her next effort, of the effect of Bingley’s absence on Jane Bennet). Two years after Lefroy’s departure, Austen writes of a visit from his aunt, that, “…of her nephew she said nothing at all…She did not once mention the name of [Lefroy] to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries.” Only weeks later, in early 1799, Jane writes of a cold and its effect on her eyes, and describes a ball with little enthusiasm. “I do not think I was very much in request. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it. One’s consequence you know, varies so much at times without any particular reason.” Yet, she retained enough consequence to be solicited – and to decline – “Lord Bolton’s eldest son” for a partner. Perhaps her “indifferent” vision is the result of tears, shed upon learning of the engagement of Tom Lefroy, who was married in March of 1799. When she does go on to write “Whenever I fall into misfortune, how many jokes it ought to furnish my acquaintance in general…” she echoes Marianne Dashwood’s lament upon Willoughby’s desertion: “I must feel – I must be wretched – and they are welcome to enjoy the consciousness of it that can.”