Room 2: Mrs Leigh-Perrot, Madam Lefroy, Anne Sharp

Jane Leigh-Perrot (1746-1836) – The Celebrity Scandal
The Trial of Mrs Leigh-Perrot, published by J. W. Myers, London. Second edition, 1800.

Mrs Leigh-Perrot was Mrs Austen’s sister-in-law, and another obstinate, headstrong aunt for the young Jane Austen to look up to. She was fabulously wealthy, a bit of a snob, and, by some accounts of the day, something of a shoplifter. In 1799 she was accused of stealing a card of white lace from a Bath haberdasher’s shop and placed in custody; she remained in jail for seven months awaiting her trial. The stakes were high; because the value of the lace was over five shillings, a guilty verdict could have resulted in execution by hanging or deportation to Australia.

In March 1800 Mrs Leigh-Perrot was tried at the Taunton Assizes and found not guilty. Because of her status it became something of a celebrity scandal and within two weeks of the trial, three separate pamphlets detailing the events were in circulation in London, Bath and Taunton. Mrs Leigh-Perrot was infamous, and it has been suggested that she may have inspired some of the character traits of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice and Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park.


Madam Lefroy (1749-1804) – The Polymath
Copy of a portrait miniature of Mrs Anne Lefroy

Anne Lefroy, known affectionately by her neighbours as ‘Madam Lefroy’, was a poet, philanthropist and society hostess, and a great friend and formative teacher to Jane Austen. They met when an 11-year-old Jane visited the Lefroys at Ashe Rectory, near to Steventon. Madam Lefroy took Jane under her wing as a fellow writer, opening up her library and giving feedback on Jane’s early writing. Her kindness wasn’t limited to Jane. She opened a free school for poor children, and in 1800 she set up a straw manufactory to enable poor women in the area to make their own money. She was also known for racing around the country lanes in her donkey carriage, handing out charitable gifts to the poor. Perhaps her most remarkable achievement was that she personally vaccinated over 800 of her husband’s parishioners against smallpox.

Four years after Madam Lefroy’s death in a horse-riding accident, Jane wrote a poem called ‘To the Memory of Mrs Lefroy’, which starts: ‘Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away / Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.’ It seems very fitting that Madam Lefroy, herself a published poet, would be commemorated in a poem by her protégé.


Anne Sharp (1773-1853) – The Playwright

When Jane Austen spent the summer of 1805 at Godmersham Park, her brother Edward’s grand estate, she made an unlikely friend: the governess. Born in a London workhouse, Anne Sharp shared Jane’s literary ambitions – she wrote plays. Despite their difference in class, they became close friends and Anne accompanied the family to Worthing for six weeks in the autumn of 1805, where she worked on her play Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded. Jane may have also been working on Lady Susan at this time.

Jane and Anne remained good friends for the rest of Jane’s life, Anne spending the August of 1811 here in Chawton, with the Austen women. The last surviving letter that Jane sent from this house was addressed to ‘my dearest Anne’, from ‘ever yr attached friend, J. Austen’, and on Jane’s death Anne was left a lock of her hair. A few years later, in 1823, Anne opened her own boarding school in Liverpool. None of her plays survive.