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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jane Austen, Tom Lefroy, and Judge Fletcher's Wife in Letter 95

The above is a link to a great article just published in the WSJ by Linda Robinson Walker (who has had several articles published in Persuasions and Persuasions Online), Linda’s very personal take on Pride & Prejudice in which she gives particular focus to the well-established allusion in the novel  to JA’s mysterious real life romantic interlude with Tom Lefroy, a relationship which was dramatized a few years ago in the film Becoming Jane.

Linda concluded her article with the following:

"Did she ever speak of Tom Lefroy or write about him? She may have heard from the Lefroys that Tom called his wife, “Mabs.” In “Sense and Sensibility,” the name of Willoughby’s horse was…”Queen Mab.” "

By coincidence, in our group read of JA’s letters, just this past week we came across the scent of Tom Lefroy in Letter 95, written by JA to her sister 17 years after her flirtation with Tom Lefroy, which shows that JA may well have kept  close  tabs on Tom's life long after their last in person meeting.

It came to light when Diana Birchall wrote: “Then, in a noticeably excited  tone she exclaims, "Oh! I have more of such sweet flattery from Miss Sharp!-She is an excellent kind friend. I am read & admired in  Ireland too. - There is a Mrs. Fletcher, the wife of a Judge, an old Lady & very good & very clever, who is all curiosity to know about me - what I am like & so forth. - I am not known to her by name, however." "

When I first read the above passage last week, it did not leap out at me as significant, but this time, as I read Diana’s quotation of and comments on same, something did pop out at me. For all that Ann Sharp was never more than a paid companion/servant (I forget what post she held in late 1813), she must have been a very proactive and shrewd participant in a fairly sophisticated female communication network, for her to know the literary opinions of the very clever wife of a Judge about JA's growing literary reputation.

At first the main insight I took away from the above, was a reconfirmation of my long  held opinion that JA was not living a life of isolation at Chawton, she was "connected" in the way that was most meaningful to her, she was an important "node" in a female network through which important intellectual content was transmitted quietly, entirely off the radar of the official male-dominated print media. She had her contacts here and there, keeping her in the loop.

But  then it occurred to me that I should check Le Faye's Bio Index to see if she had identified Mrs. Fletcher.  And once we realize that Mrs. Fletcher was only a few degrees of separation removed from JA, that tells us exactly WHY JA's identity was concealed from Mrs. Fletcher. Here is what Le Faye says about her:

"Wife of William Fletcher, of Trinity College, Dublin, and Judge of Common Pleas, Ireland"

Those who read  Linda’s article will immediately be reminded that Tom Lefroy studied at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1790 to 1793, and then rose up through the legal ranks in Ireland to eventually become Chief Justice of Ireland sometime after JA's death.

Which strongly suggested to me that Judge Fletcher and his wife would have been acquainted with Tom Lefroy and his wife, perhaps very well acquainted!

And so, isn't it interesting that Ann Sharp, JA's close friend and faithful correspondent, was somehow personally connected to a Judge's wife who might also have been an informant as to the lives of Tom Lefroy and his wife. And that perhaps is why JA's identity needed to be concealed from the Judge's wife?

I did some more digging, and found this excellent blog post at the Becoming Jane website:

If I have understood things right, Tom Lefroy succeeded to Judge Fletcher's position after Fletcher died in 1823. And perhaps there are more nuggets among the material dug up in that post.

VERRRRRRRY intereshting, as they used to say on Laugh-In, and showing that Linda’s article could not be more timely to remind us of the many layers of meaning concealed in JA’s novels and letters.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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