Dear friends and readers,
Many who today may remember or read about Jane Austen’s birthday on December 16th, may not know that she too remembered it. Austen’s close friend, Anne Lefroy, died on her birthday in 1804; that is to say, on December 16th, at the age of 55 Anne Lefroy died from a fall from a horse. So four years later, presumably to the day (as that’s what the poem say), Jane Austen wrote this elegy:
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 search 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 Energy 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 disappears.
‘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.–
In the poem Jane says she has “mix’d emotions” on her “natal day” in 1808. On that day 4 years ago she knew she would never lay her eyes on Anne Lefroy again; her friend had been “snatch’d away.” An unexpected accident is a great blow. So now a day which gave her “Life & Light & Hope” is an occasion for feeling penetratingly a “bitter pang of torturing Memory.”
She then remembers her friend’s powers, what she valued her friend for: “Talents, Temper, mind . . . solid Worth . . . captivating Grace.” A friend to all, an ornament to the human race. This is going very high, but Austen likens Anne Lefroy to Samuel Johnson, and says that like him, when Anne Lefraoy died, there was no substitute, “No second best . . . “None can remind us even of the Man.” (I read this phrase in Boswell’s Life of Johnson and that may be where Jane read it too.)
Vainly she searches. Not there, nowhere around her, only a “vacant space.” And so she says, she will conjure up a vision of her. “Fancy” is much kinder to us, an “indulgent power” — Austen’s idea of hope here is unlike Pope’s ironic witty utterance: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast/Man never is, but always to be blest.” Cool distance has become melancholy shivering: “Hope is desponding, chill, severe to thee!” Thee here can be Austen herself, probably is. So she turns to Fancy.
What does she remember. Not literal looks (see the inadequate miniature below). Rather the woman’s psychological nature, their friendship, an asserted love for Jane herself, a voice harmonious I’m tempted to remember Emma Woodhouse who valued modulated voices unlike Mr Martin’s, but Austen knows better than to stay here: it’s what Anne would say, “sense . . . Genius, Taste & Tenderness of Soul . . . genuine warmth of heart without pretence,” and we cannot ignore the turn away from sensuality, sexuality, in that “purity of Mind.”
We are given a panegyric like Austen’s brother gave her: neithe rof them ever “misapplied” their Tongues, spoke and reasoned “on Virtue’s Side. In spoken words, Anne Lefroy sought “to comfort, heal, enlighten, chear,/Confer a pleasure, or prevent a pain — ” This is Popian poetic art: antitheses used for emotional instead of ironic reinforcement.
Can anything go beyond this? Yes. That she liked Jane, was “partial to her” from her “earliest years.” No small thing. Jane asks Fancy to allow her to see Anne Lefroy smiling with love at her. But no, “the Vision disappears:” “Tis past & gone — We meet no more more.” This “Cheat of Fancy” over a Tomb is short.
The poem ends with Austen hoping to be united to her friend once more after death, the dream many have had of death. There is a medieval picture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in a glass case) where we see pairs of friends clutching each other against a flowery flat green background; rows of these from top to bottom. Perhaps she says this terrible pain of having had her friend die, which creates a union of memory in her mind augurs a “connection” to be. She asks Fancy to “indulge this harmless weakness,” for that’s how she regards this idea.
“Reason, spare.” Reason, a deeply felt of reality from knowledge of experience tells her otherwise. Jane was not a religious woman.
It might be cheering now to record many acts of friendship, letters between these two, comments that Mrs Lefroy wrote about Jane. But alas if you read (as I have) Anne Lefroy’s letters, you find Jane Austen is not remembered as an individual at all. Nowhere in the extant letters. Further, these are not the letters of a remarkable mind, but a conventional well-educated woman who writes in a controlled way which does not give away amoral emotions or anything socially unacceptable about anyone she knows. To tell the truth, they are more than a little dull, if livelier and much better spelt than many women of her era, and she does read and cites books. See The Letters of Anne Lefroy, Jane Austen’s Beloved Friend, edited by Helen Lefroy and Gavin Turner (Jane Austen Society, 2007).
On Jane’s side, what we have is a painful incident where Mrs Lefroy tried to set Austen up with the Rev Samuel Blackall when Jane was 23 and Blackall 28. He was having none of it. See letter 11, Sat-Sun, 17-18 November 1798. Perhaps mrs Lefroy was trying to make up for what is by many supposed her role in ruthlessly separating Jane Austen at age 21 from a growing love for a 22 year old Tom Lefroy, the Lefroy nephew his family meant to make a great man, a lawyer, and marry off suitably to a woman with money and effective connections. Mrs Lefroy had several days before remorselessly avoided mentioning any news of Tom and Jane’s father, knowing how she still felt had to ask Mrs Lefroy for news:
Mrs Lefroy did. come last Wednesday, and the Harwoods came likewise, but very considerately paid their visit before Mrs. Lefroy’s arrival, with whom, in spite of interruptions both from my father and James, I was enough! alone to hear all that was interesting, which you will easily credit when I tell you that of her nephew she said nothing at all, and of her friend very little. She did not once mention the name of the former to me, and I was too proud to make any enquiries; but on my father’s afterward asking where he was, I learnt that he was gone back to London in his way to Ireland, where he is called to the Bar and means to practise.
But this was an age when women couldn’t travel alone (certainly Austen was not allowed to) and if they could, could not travel far; could not get outside their natural and chance connections to meet other people who were congenial to them, like them easily, and like other women of the era I’ve come across, Jane Austen would value a woman who lived near to her, was intelligent, did appreciate her, with whom Jane could have a little conversation. We see this in the friendship Anna Barbauld had with an older woman, Joseph Priestley’s wife, as they lived close together, and how Anna mourned sincerely when Mrs Priestley moved away. In Cecilia, Fanny Burney imagines a parallel situation to Jane’s with Mrs Lefroy: the hero’s mother. Mrs Delvile, does all she can to separate our heroine, Cecilia from her son, Cecilia’s intensely beloved, and yet the women must be, are friends.
But I have traveled away from December 16th, 1808 when Jane Austen was still nominally living with her mother, sister, Cassandra, and an apparently beloved friend, Martha Lloyd (see Letter 26, 12-13, Wed-Thurs, Nov 1800 and lesbian spinsterhood), in Castle Square, with her brother, Frank and his wife — though the arrangement is becoming strained (Mary not comfortable) and the Austens looking to set up something affordable near Henry, another brother, and with the brothers’ help — and of course approval (letter 56, Sat-Sun, 2 October 1808). These are the circumstances of Austen’s life in the year 1808 when she remembered her birthday.
Meanwhile an archeaological team digs up Jane’s natal home: remains of Steventon unearthed.