Deborah Yaffe

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Ruins

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 27 2020 01:00PM

Tom Lefroy’s house is crumbling away.


To Janeites, this may seem poetic justice for the young Irishman who danced and flirted with the twenty-year-old Jane Austen in the winter of 1795-6. If, as some believe, he broke her heart by bowing to family pressure to cut short his budding love affair with a not-rich girl, then presumably we must hate him: How dare anyone hurt Our Jane?


So perhaps it’s karma that Carrigglas, the nineteenth-century mansion in County Longford where Lefroy and, later, his descendants lived from early in the 1800s until 2005, is now one of the ten most at-risk historic buildings in Ireland. Carrigglas made the annual list issued recently by An Taisce, the non-profit organization that oversees Ireland’s historic preservation efforts, just as the National Trust does in most of the United Kingdom.


Carrigglas’ architecture is classed as Tudor revival, with an older stableyard and entrance gates designed by well-known English architect James Gandon. Judging from the pictures, the house’s turreted gray façade is striking, if a bit forbidding, in a Mr.-Rochester’s-wife-in-the-attic kind of way.


The last Lefroys to own the estate sold to developers, who had planned to convert the property to luxury housing. Instead, the end of Ireland’s economic boom ushered in fifteen years (and counting) of vacancy and neglect; the depressing results are chronicled in this short film and this blog post. The whole saga is a reminder of what might have happened to Chawton House, the Hampshire mansion once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, had Sandy Lerner and her Silicon Valley fortune not come to the rescue.


In retrospect, of course, the Lefroy family may have bet on the wrong horse: If they had owned a crystal ball, Jane Austen might have looked like a better marital prospect, what with the book sales and the movie rights, the licensing deals on fridge magnets and tote bags, the tourism possibilities and the pop-culture ubiquity. Surely a clever lawyer such as Tom Lefroy would have found a way to get around the pesky expiration of copyright?


But perhaps we Janeites should consider Tom Lefroy’s decision in a different, more charitable light. If he had married Jane Austen and taken her off to Ireland, she might have ended up the exhausted and preoccupied mother of many children – Lefroy and the woman he actually married raised seven sons and daughters – rather than the author of six great novels. Personally, I’d rather have the incomparable Emma Woodhouse than a passel of obscure little Emma Lefroys.



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