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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

A Janeite passes on

Two months ago, I noted a Janeite milestone: the one hundredth birthday of Helen Lefroy, a dedicated Janeite with a familial link to Jane Austen. I had met Lefroy back in 2011, when book research took me on the Jane Austen Society of North America’s tour of Austen’s England.

Sadly, it turns out that the very day my blog post appeared, just four weeks after celebrating her centennial, Lefroy passed away. I learned the news just recently, when the Times of London published its delayed obituary.

The piece is filled with information about a life that turns out to have been both extraordinary and typical for a British woman of her age and class: a childhood reminiscent of an E. Nesbit novel, a young adulthood with shades of John LeCarré, and a maturity straight out of Barbara Pym.

Lefroy’s mother came from “a family that owned a Lancashire cotton mill,” while her father was a Navy veteran of the Gallipoli campaign who inherited a walled manor house too dilapidated to live in. He was a great-great-grandson of “Madame” Anne Lefroy, Jane Austen’s neighbor, friend, and mentor, whose son Benjamin married Austen’s niece Anna.

Helen Lefroy grew up in a large house in Surrey, began her education with a governess, and left school in her late teens, skipping the university training that she surely would have pursued had she been born a decade later. During World War II, she worked for the branch of British intelligence that ran double agents inside Britain, and after the war she participated in the negotiations that eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel on what had been British colonial land.

But after the war, Lefroy took up a quieter profession, working in production for a series of publishing houses. She never married or had children. Upon retirement, she moved to Winchester, became involved in the cathedral -- where Austen is buried -- and in 1997 wrote a short Austen biography of her own.

By the time of her death, Lefroy suffered from dementia and had no family nearby, but the staff of her nursing home solicited hundredth birthday wishes from strangers, nearly eight hundred of whom sent her cards. Here’s hoping that this interesting and admirable woman found her last month a peaceful and happy one.

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