I enjoyed Gill Hornby’s previous novel, Miss Austen, about the life of Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra. Her new one, Godmersham Park, is also inspired by the Austens, telling the story of Anne Sharp, who became one of Jane’s closest friends after taking up the position of governess to her niece, Fanny.
We first meet Anne in 1804 on the day of her arrival at Godmersham Park, the estate in Kent that is home to Edward Austen Knight, his wife Elizabeth and their many children. (If you’re in the UK and have a current £10 note to hand, Godmersham Park is the house depicted on the back beside the portrait of Jane Austen). At thirty-one years old, Anne has no experience of teaching or caring for children, but following the death of her mother she has found herself in need of employment and somewhere to live. This change of circumstances comes as a shock to Anne and it takes her a while to settle into her new job and way of life.
When Anne’s eleven-year-old charge, Fanny, shows her the letters she has been receiving from her Aunt Jane (yes, that Jane), Anne finds them charming and immediately decides that Jane is her ‘favourite Austen’. Anne will have to wait a long time for her chance to meet this mysterious letter-writer, but first she makes the acquaintance of another Austen – Jane and Edward’s brother Henry, who comes to stay at Godmersham Park and quickly befriends the new governess.
This is a lovely novel and, like Miss Austen, although it doesn’t self-consciously try to recreate the style of Jane Austen’s work, the language still transports you back to the early years of the 19th century. There are no glaring anachronisms that I noticed and it even feels like the sort of story Austen herself could have written. The pace is slow and apart from a subplot involving a mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Anne’s father, nothing very dramatic happens, yet I was drawn in by the characters and the setting and found it quite absorbing. It was particularly interesting to read about Anne’s experience of working as a governess and how she struggled to find her place within the household, not being fully accepted either as one of the family or one of the servants.
The novel is inspired by the diaries kept by Fanny Austen Knight, letters exchanged between Anne Sharp and Jane and Cassandra Austen, and a first edition of Emma that Jane signed for Anne. All of these things add to our knowledge of Anne’s life and personality and provide evidence of her close friendship with Jane Austen. However, almost nothing is known of Anne’s background before she arrived at Godmersham Park and Gill Hornby explains in her author’s note that she had to use her imagination to create a backstory for Anne. The overall result is a convincing blend of fact and fiction, which I really enjoyed.
Thanks to Century for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 6/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.
This is book 31/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.