Helen Maxwell Lefroy

Vice-President of the Society

Tribute by Maggie Lane, May 2021

The Society regrets to announce the death of Helen Lefroy, one of the Society’s Vice-Presidents, on 17 May 2021, a month after celebrating her 100th birthday on 18 April 2021.

With her Austen / Lefroy family connections and a background in publishing, Helen was invited to join the Jane Austen Society committee in 1983, becoming a hardworking and knowledgeable member of the team.When the Society, under the chairmanship of Brian Southam, broadened its remit to include more activities and reach out to a wider membership base, she made notable contributions to its development. She had long played a part in its book publishing venture, and in producing its Annual Report, in conjunction with Sarsen Press; but now in addition she took on the editorship of the new biannual News Letter in 1993. It was thanks to her that the News Letter was so named – she liked the sweep of the capital letter L, therefore insisting that the name appeared as two words. And so it remains to this day, bringing members up to date with Society, Branch and Group activity and the wider Austen world. Helen was the Editor for the first 4 years and was instrumental in creating the form of the News Letter, until passing the reins to David Selwyn in 1997.

After her retirement from the Committee in 2005, she accepted the position of Vice-President of the Society in recognition of her outstanding contribution to its work. In 2007 the Society published The Letters of Mrs Lefroy, Jane Austen’s friend and mentor, edited jointly by Helen and Gavin Turner. She remained a familiar figure at the AGMs at Chawton House each July and will be greatly missed by everyone in the Society.

Helen Lefroy celebrating her 100th birthday on 18 April 2021 (Credit: St Catherines View Care Home)

Deirdre le Faye

Vice-President of the Society and eminent Austen scholar

Tribute by the Chairman of the Society, Professor Richard Jenkins, August 2020

Deirdre le Faye, the doyenne of Jane Austen scholars, died on 16 August at the age of 86. The word ‘unique’ is used too much, but it applies to her. No one has had such a comprehensive knowledge of everything Austen: the novels, their context, the family, and the discipleship. Few authors, if any, have had such a completely devoted student of their work and its fortunes.

This would have been a remarkable achievement for any scholar, but Deirdre managed it while working full-time at the British Museum. Her editing of Jane Austen’s letters, and her expansion of the Austen ‘family record’ will be permanent monuments to her learning. She was active to the end: when already ill, she published a persuasive re-dating of the ‘events’ in Pride and Prejudice. She was an enthusiastic trustee of the Jane Austen Society for many years, and on retiring from this office was elected an honorary vice-president.

Her personality was unforgettable. She was emphatic, untiring, humorous, warm-hearted and brave, and she faced her final, difficult illness with exemplary calm and fortitude. She was not dogmatic (she accepted correction, with the modest observation, ‘That is what scholarship is all about’), but she was memorably forthright. ‘I am squealing with rage’, she characteristically began one of the last e-mails that she sent. The rage was because she had circulated her friends to tell them that she was dying and to thank them, but the e-mail had been returned with the message ‘Too Many Recipients’. There were indeed countless recipients of her knowledge and the generosity with which she shared it. Indeed, everyone who takes an interest in Jane Austen has benefited from her work, directly or indirectly.

She did not ask for praise: Jane Austen herself was what mattered. However, the University of Southampton recognised her by the award of an honorary doctorate, and the tribute spoken to her then can be found on the Chawton House website. The Jane Austen Society will offer more memories of her in the Newsletter, and there will be a full obituary in the Annual Report. Meanwhile, her many friends and admirers remember her with affection and gratitude. ‘Irreplaceable’ is another overused word, but it is unlikely that there will be again anyone able to answer any Austen question that anyone could think of asking.