Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Edward Taylor of Bifrons: Jane Austen’s First Love

by Syrie James

Who was the first young man to steal Jane Austen’s heart? People often assume that it was the Irishman Tom Lefroy, with whom Austen enjoyed a brief flirtation at age twenty—but in fact, Jane was infatuated years earlier with another, truly extraordinary young man named Edward Taylor.

How do we know this? Because in a letter to her sister Cassandra in September 1796, while Jane was in Kent visiting their brother Edward Austen, Jane wrote, “We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.” This single sentence is full of information, and an excellent clue to a relationship that, until now, was not very well-known to Austen biographers and enthusiasts.

When Jane wrote that letter in 1796, her flirtation with Lefroy had ended some seven months prior. She was reminiscing with wistful longing about a young man she’d met many years earlier. Scholars have long since identified the “Him” as Edward Taylor, and the “abode,” Bifrons Park, as the estate in Kent which he would one day inherit. Little else, however, was known about him. Biographer Deirdre Le Faye, in Jane Austen: A Family Record (1989) simply states, “Jane met and briefly cherished a girlish passion for young Mr. Edward Taylor of Bifrons.” John Halperin, in The Life of Jane Austen (1984), refers to Edward Taylor as “her old beau” and “the most shadowy of her possible early ‘suitors.’”

I was intrigued by this young man upon whom Jane Austen had “once fondly doated.” Her choice of words, by definition, infer a great deal about her feelings. To “doat”—an old-fashioned spelling of “dote”—means “to express and demonstrate great love and fondness for somebody” or “to love to an excessive or foolish degree.” We know so little about Austen’s romantic life, yet here was a reference, in her own words, to a young man with whom she was once clearly smitten, and was still thinking about years later. Indeed, Jane continued to think about Edward Taylor in the years that followed, mentioning him again in letters in 1800 and 1802 with similar fondness.


Determined to learn as much as I could about Edward Taylor, I devoted myself to researching him. Eventually, through a variety of sources, I uncovered a great deal of information about Edward Taylor himself, his family, his ancestors, and his ancestral estate, Bifrons. The most exciting and revealing source was a rather obscure find: The Taylor Papers (1913), the memoirs and letters of Edward Taylor’s brother, Lieutenant General Sir Herbert Taylor, published many years after his death. This work reveals Edward Taylor to be a member of an extraordinary, well-traveled, and highly accomplished family.

Edward Taylor, I discovered, was a year and a half older than Jane Austen. Born on 24 June, 1774, he was the eldest son of the Reverend Edward Taylor and Margaret Payler of county Kent, both of whom came from distinguished families. Nathaniel Taylour, Esq., represented the county Bedford in Parliament and was the recorder of Colchester during the usurpation of Oliver Cromwell; the Paylers were descended from an officer of King Henry VIII’s household. The Rev. Edward Taylor was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge and succeeded to the livings of Patricksbourne and Bridges in Kent. In November 1767, at age 33, he inherited the family estate, Bifrons Park, after his elder brother died.

Jan van der Vaardt, 1647–1721
Bifrons Park, Kent, 1695-1705
Oil on Canvas
Yale Center for British Art

A large, impressive, Elizabethan red-brick manor home with magnificent grounds, Bifrons was named for its “two front wings.” The house was built in 1634 by John Bargrave, a writer, collector, and canon for the Canterbury cathedral, who spent much of his life travelling across the European continent. One of John Bargrave’s expeditions included the dangerous errand of ransoming English captives at Algiers after the Restoration, a mission which succeeded and netted him and his accomplice Archdeacon Selleck a ten thousand pound reward from the bishops and the clergy upon their return. Bargrave died at Canterbury in 1680. Fourteen years later, Bifrons was purchased by John Taylor, Esq., and handed down thereafter through the generations of the Taylor family.

Rev. Edward Taylor & Mrs. Margaret Taylor of Bifrons Park

When the Rev. Edward Taylor inherited Bifrons, he seems to have been influenced by both the illustrious building career and sense of wanderlust of the gentleman who originally constructed the property. Upon taking possession, the Rev. Edward Taylor rebuilt Bifrons as an elegant Georgian mansion, an undertaking so massive that the “modern” renovated dwelling bore little if any resemblance to its Elizabethan predecessor. The Rev. Edward Taylor married two years later, and seven children followed in quick succession. Concerned about the cost of educating his family, the Rev. Edward Taylor moved his entire brood to the Continent, where private Masters could be hired for his children at a cheaper rate than in England. In April 1780, shortly after arriving in Brussels, his wife Margaret sadly died after giving birth to their eighth child, a daughter who was named after her. The Rev. Edward Taylor devoted his life to raising and educating his eight young children, and for the next eleven years they lived and traveled abroad.

It easy to understand why when Jane Austen met the teenaged Edward Taylor upon his return to England she fell head over heels for him. He had spent his youth travelling extensively throughout Europe. He’d been educated in all the classic subjects by private masters, and was extremely well-read and accomplished. He was fond of reading, and, like his siblings, he was fluent in German, French, Italian, and Spanish, could read and write in Latin and Greek, and was a proficient on a musical instrument. No doubt Edward was very much like his brother Herbert, who describes himself in his memoirs as an avid conversationalist with strong opinions— qualities which would have appealed to Austen. The Taylors were friends with people in the highest echelons of society, from princes and princesses to military, religious, and government leaders.

Interestingly, in spite of his position as eldest son and heir to Bifrons Park which guaranteed him a life of leisure and ease, Edward Taylor—like his brothers—aspired to a career in the military. He served in the army from 1795 - 1798, as Captain in The New Romney (or Duke of York’s own) Fencible Light Dragoons in Ireland but was obliged to quit at age 24 when his father suffered a stroke and died and Edward succeeded to the estate. While master of Bifrons, Edward Taylor continued his association with the military, serving in the Kent yeomanry for many years. He married, raised a family, and served as the Member of Parliament for Canterbury from 1807 to 1812.

Unfortunately, due to financial difficulties, Edward Taylor was obliged to sell Bifrons in 1830. Although the property had been in his family for many generations, Edward Taylor seems to have been relieved. Perhaps being master of a large estate and lands was a burden to him, rather than a privilege. Or perhaps Edward Taylor preferred to live on the continent after spending most of his youth there. Whatever the reason, he seems to have lived abroad quite happily for many years, counting foreign kings and queens among his closest friends.

Bifrons Park circa 1900
Sadly, Bifrons was demolished in 1948. It is one of England’s great lost country houses.

Looking back to the young Edward Taylor who Jane Austen met in Kent—an extraordinarily accomplished young man who had already led a fascinating life—it is easy to see why she was fond of him. He must have been exciting and very different from any other young man she had ever met. Although Austen never married, her famous novels of love and courtship convey such a deep understanding of human nature and the complexities of the heart, one can only surmise that she experienced the emotion herself—and it seems certain that she had deep romantic feelings for Edward Taylor.


My novel Jane Austen’s First Love brings that relationship to life. In a story inspired by actual events, the young, vivacious Jane Austen and the extraordinary Edward Taylor meet and fall in love over the event-filled, magical summer of 1791. It is a relationship from which Jane Austen learned a great deal, and which may have influenced the novels that made her famous.

Many thanks to the English Historical Fiction Authors for hosting me here today. I hope your readers enjoyed my research discoveries of one of Jane Austen’s beaus, Edward Taylor, his family and their estate in Kent. What were you most surprised to discover? Do you think that the remarkable Edward Taylor is similar to any of Jane Austen’s heroes? And, how much of her own life experiences might have influenced her novel writing?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.

Please join the 
Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Blog Tour Nov 15 – Dec 14, 2014. The complete blog tour list and giveaway contest details can be found at Syrie’s website. Good luck!




13 comments:

  1. If I have read all Jane Austen's novels I have yet to read her letters which I would really preferer to read in english rather than in french (my native language). I have been delaying they reading because I always wonder if my understanding of the english language would be enough. It is true that I have read several novels in english (among them novels from and about Jane Austen) but I don't know why I always thought her letters will be more difficult for me to read. Anyway I will to know until I try right ?! Her letters are definitely on my reading list which is really long and diversified. Thank you for this post =)

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    1. I really enjoy reading (and re-reading) Jane Austen's letters. They offer a glimpse of the real woman behind the novels. They are filled with some truly witty comments! If only her sister Cassandra had not burned the majority of them--but we are lucky to have those that remain.

      It was exciting, I admit, to see those references in Austen's letters to Edward Taylor. Wondering about him sent me on such a fabulous journey of discovery. I hope you love the novel that resulted!

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  2. Always read about Thomas Lefroy in biographies of Jane Austen, it was fascinating to know in detail about Edward!

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  3. I loved the background of Edward Taylor. He sounds like a fascinating man. I think I would've fallen for him too. I am so sorry Bifrons was destroyed. It would've been interesting to see and possibly tour.

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    1. Sorry, forgot to leave my email address.... skamper25 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  4. That is a telling sentence in her letter. Good catch! And yes, Edward does seem like a young man/man to interest Jane Austen.

    Thanks for sharing his background.

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    1. I found myself thoroughly fascinated by Edward Taylor while reading about his life and family. It was a delight bringing him to life in Jane Austen's First Love. I hope you enjoy the novel!

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  5. I SO want to visit England, and your book can magically take me there

    dlsmilad at yahoo dot com

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    1. Books are like magic, aren't they? They can transport us to wonderful places!

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  6. This book looks great and I would love to win.
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  7. I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with a favorite author. rickjess@sbcglobal.net

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  8. So interesting to learn about Edward Taylor. Sounds like he was a very memorable person!

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    1. He must have been remarkable, since Jane Austen fell in love with him!

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