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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

One hundred candles

Back in 2011, when the research for my book Among the Janeites took me on the Jane Austen Society of North America’s annual tour of England, our Winchester stop featured a conversation with a group of British Janeites that included Austen expert and sort-of-Austen-relative-by-marriage Helen Lefroy.

The conversation was friendly, although I seem to recall that Lefroy was startled by one tidbit: the news that some American Janeites think Austen’s elderly mother showed an unmaternal coldness in failing to visit her daughter during the two months Jane lay dying in Winchester, sixteen miles from Chawton.

Given my memories of that brief meeting, I found it bittersweet to happen across a recent Daily Mail report about Lefroy’s 100th birthday. Because her nieces and nephews do not live in England, COVID quarantine rules prevented them from celebrating with her. So Lefroy’s nursing home carer used social media to solicit birthday cards from strangers, and 788 responded, from as far away as Australia, Canada, and Abu Dhabi.

Although Lefroy suffers from dementia, she apparently enjoyed the avalanche of good wishes. “She just kept saying, 'They can't all be for me,' and she was just shocked at the amount she was getting,” says carer Laura Sheldrake.

Lefroy is descended from Jane Austen’s friend and mentor “Madame” Anne Lefroy, whose son Benjamin married one of Austen's nieces. Helen Lefroy spent much of her life tending to the Austen flame as a researcher, a speaker, and an active member of the UK’s Jane Austen Society. “She reached out to Lefroys everywhere,” one niece told the newspaper.

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