Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

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.

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

The final book I read in 2021 was one that I very much enjoyed: Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen. The title character is not, as you might expect, the famous novelist Jane Austen, but her elder sister Cassandra. Cassandra, who outlived Jane by nearly thirty years, is known to have burned many of her sister’s letters, although we don’t know exactly why she did this. In this fictional version of Cassandra Austen’s story, Hornby explores a possible reason for the destruction of the letters, while also giving us a glimpse into the lives of Cassandra, Jane and the rest of the Austen family.

The novel opens in 1840 with Cassandra, now an elderly woman, arriving at Kintbury, home of the Fowles, the family of her long-dead fiancé. Following the death of the Reverend Fowle, his daughter Isabella has been left to pack up her parents’ belongings so that a new reverend can move in. Cassandra believes that the letters she and Jane wrote to their friend Eliza Fowle (Isabella’s mother) must still be in the house somewhere and she is determined to find them and remove them before they can be made public.

The story unfolds through the letters Cassandra discovers at Kintbury (not the real letters, of course, as they were destroyed) and through Cassandra’s memories of her younger days. The narrative moves back and forth in time as she remembers the loss of Tom Fowle, the man she should have married, her relationship with Jane and the lives they both led as single women. In the 1840s storyline, we also get to know Isabella, another spinster, and this provides some further insights into what it means to be an unmarried woman in the early 19th century: the lack of security; the pressures created by failing to conform to society’s expectations; and the feeling of being a burden to other family members.

This is a quiet, domestic novel, but I was never bored. There is an authentic period feel and although Hornby doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s writing exactly, the language used generally feels suitable for the time. I enjoyed the occasional references to Jane’s novels, some of which we see her working on and others which the characters read to each other for entertainment. There’s an interesting suggestion that Jane based Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice on her sister-in-law, Mary Austen. Most of all, I enjoyed learning a little bit about Cassandra and the world in which she lived.

I had never come across Gill Hornby before, but it seems that not only is she the sister of the writer Nick Hornby, she is also married to one of my favourite authors, Robert Harris! Her earlier novels sound very different and don’t really appeal to me, but I’ve discovered that she has a new book out later this year – Godmersham Park, about a governess in the Austen household. I will be looking out for that one.

Emma by Jane Austen (re-read)

Having read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I decided that for the Austen in August event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader, I would re-read the only one I didn’t really like the first time – Emma. I didn’t hate it on my first reading, but I definitely enjoyed it less than the others, and the problem I had with the book, unfortunately, was the character of Emma Woodhouse herself. I was curious to see whether, on returning to this book after a gap of a few years, my opinion of her would have changed.

Emma is the youngest daughter of Mr Woodhouse of Hartfield and is “handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition”. The story begins just after the marriage of Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, to a widowed neighbour, Mr Weston. Although Emma is sorry Miss Taylor is leaving Hartfield, she is pleased that they have married because she was responsible for introducing them to each other. She decides to continue matchmaking by finding a husband for her new friend, Harriet Smith, but it seems that the man she chooses, Mr Elton, has other ideas. As Emma continues to meddle in other people’s lives, she slowly becomes aware of who she herself is in love with.

Jane Austen herself once said that in Emma she had created a heroine nobody apart from herself would like. This is obviously not true, as I’ve seen so many people name Emma as their favourite Austen novel and talk about how much they love Emma despite her flaws. But the first time I read this book I found it difficult to see past her treatment of Harriet Smith near the beginning of the story and I remember having such a negative reaction to Emma’s character that it spoiled the rest of the book for me.

As several years have now passed since that first read I wanted to give Emma another chance. And guess what? This time I found myself really liking Emma! Her snobbish attitude and superiority still irritated me but I was able to be more tolerant of her faults and to admire the way she learned from her mistakes and grew as a person as the story progressed. Yes, she can be insensitive at times and yes, she causes a lot of trouble by interfering in her friends’ lives, but she does eventually accept that she was wrong.

Although it has been a while since I read this book, I was surprised to find how many little details of the plot I remembered: Harriet’s book of riddles, for example, and the mystery of Jane Fairfax’s piano. Yet this is a very character-driven story, even more so than Jane Austen’s other novels. Nothing very dramatic or exciting happens, but the story is never boring and this is due to the wonderful collection of characters. Mr Knightley is one of my favourite Austen heroes, and who could forget Emma’s hypochondriac father and his obsession with his own health and everyone else’s, the obnoxious Mrs Elton and Miss Bates, who never stops talking. The last three characters I mentioned make this one of Austen’s funniest novels, at least in my opinion! As well as the humour, Emma is filled with clever, sparkling dialogue and insightful observations. I posted some of my favourite quotes last week for the Classics Challenge I’m participating in so won’t repeat them here.

Finally, I liked the way Austen took the time to tie up all the loose ends in this novel. I was happy with the way Emma’s story ended and with Harriet’s – I think everyone probably ended up with the right partner!

Have you read Emma? What is your opinion of Emma Woodhouse?

Classics Challenge August Prompt: Quotes from Jane Austen’s Emma

This year I am taking part in a Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The goal is to read at least seven classics in 2012 and every month Katherine is posting a prompt to help us discuss the books we are reading. This month we are asked to share some quotes from our current read.

The classic I just finished reading yesterday was Emma by Jane Austen. This was a re-read for me and I’ll be posting my thoughts on the book next week. For now, here are some quotes from Emma. Katherine’s prompt recommended choosing some that were not so well-known. I’m not sure it’s possible to find any quotes from a Jane Austen novel that are not well-known, so I’ve just posted a selection of my favourites. Some might be more obscure than others.

“That is the case with us all, papa. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”


“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine.”


“A sanguine temper, though for ever expecting more good than occurs, does not always pay for its hopes by any proportionate depression. It soon flies over the present failure, and begins to hope again.”


“To be sure – our discordancies must always arise from my being in the wrong.”

“Yes,” said he, smiling, “and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.”

“A material difference, then,” she replied; “and no doubt you were much my superior in judgement at that period of our lives; but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understandings a good deal nearer?”

“Yes, a good deal nearer.”

“But still, not near enough to give me a chance of being right, if we think differently.”


Was it new for any thing in this world to be unequal, inconsistent, incongruous — or for chance and circumstance (as second causes) to direct the human fate?


“I cannot make speeches, Emma,” he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing. “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me.”


Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (re-read)

Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price who, at the age of ten, goes to live with her uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. For Fanny, who has spent her early years in Portsmouth as part of a large working-class family, the Bertrams’ estate, Mansfield Park, is like a different world. While Fanny is grateful for the new opportunities she’s been given, she is made to feel inferior and insignificant by her cousins, Maria and Julia, and another aunt, Mrs Norris (surely one of the nastiest characters in any Austen novel). Only her cousin Edmund offers her any real kindness and friendship, and as the years go by Fanny begins to fall in love with him, although she doesn’t admit it and everyone, including Edmund, is unaware of it. And when Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come to stay at the nearby parsonage, Fanny’s peaceful life at Mansfield Park is suddenly thrown into turmoil.

I first attempted to read Mansfield Park when I was fifteen, immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice, which I had loved. Compared to Pride and Prejudice I found this one very dry and boring, and gave up after a couple of chapters. Returning to it ten years later, I managed to read it through to the end but still didn’t like it very much. My recent re-read has been an entirely different experience and this time I found that I really enjoyed it!

Fanny Price is a shy, quiet person and seems to be Jane Austen’s least popular heroine, but I’ve never really had a problem with her personality. Not everyone can be witty and lively after all, and since arriving at Mansfield Park Fanny has constantly been reminded that she will never be equal to her cousins and treated almost like a servant, so it’s not surprising that she doesn’t have the confidence of some of the other Austen heroines. I would agree that she’s maybe not the most interesting of characters to read about, and I suppose I can understand why other readers might prefer Mary Crawford, but I personally don’t mind Fanny. I do think she has an inner strength and complexity which wasn’t really apparent to me the first time I read the book but which I could appreciate more this time – one of the reasons I think re-reads are so worthwhile!

I still didn’t like Edmund though, apart from at the beginning when he seems to be the only person who genuinely cares about Fanny. Without him her early days at Mansfield Park would have been a lot more miserable, but later in the book, particularly after the arrival of the Crawfords, he starts to really annoy me.

While Mansfield Park is never going to be my favourite Jane Austen novel, I’m glad I’ve given it another chance. If you’re new to Austen, though, I don’t think I would recommend starting with this one.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility was the only one of Jane Austen’s major novels I hadn’t read and when I saw that Yvann of Reading Fuelled by Tea was hosting a readalong for Advent with Austen it seemed like a good opportunity to read it. Unfortunately I struggled to keep up with the weekly readalong schedule due to lack of time earlier in the month, but I managed to catch up this week and finish the book. Now that I’ve read it, Sense and Sensibility is not my favourite Austen novel (that would definitely be Persuasion) but not my least favourite either.

For those of you who haven’t read it yet, this is the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood (there is a third sister, Margaret, but she doesn’t have a significant part in the plot). Elinor and Marianne have entirely different personalities and temperaments, representing the ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’ of the title. While Elinor is the more calm and practical of the two, Marianne is passionate and emotional. After their father’s death, their half-brother John inherits the family estate and the girls and their mother go to live in a small country cottage in Devonshire belonging to their relations, the Middletons.

Marianne soon falls in love with Mr Willoughby, a man she meets soon after moving to their new home. When Willoughby suddenly leaves for London, Marianne is left devastated. She’s certain that he still loves her, but does he? The man Elinor loves is Edward Ferrars, her sister-in-law’s brother, but there are several obstacles preventing them from marrying, including the disapproval of Edward’s mother and also a previous relationship of Edward’s. There’s also a third man, Colonel Brandon, who becomes a friend of the Dashwoods – but which sister is he interested in and will she ever be able to love him in return?

During the story both sisters experience disappointment and heartbreak, and it’s interesting to see how differently they cope with their feelings. Elinor is more reserved and tries to keep her emotions to herself, while Marianne makes no effort to hide how she is feeling. And that is really the major theme of the novel: a comparison between two extreme reactions to a similar situation. Is it better to wear your heart on your sleeve or to suffer in silence? Is one type of behaviour right and the other wrong? The answer, I think, is to find a balance between the two.

I liked both of the Dashwood sisters, though I found Elinor easier to identify with because I’m definitely more of an Elinor myself than a Marianne. Marianne annoyed me a lot during the first few chapters of the book, but my feelings about her changed as the book went on. I did like the fact that she had such strong opinions about things and that she was prepared to speak her mind when she believed it was necessary. I loved Elinor and admired her quiet self-control, though she did frustrate me at times too, because I don’t think it’s necessarily always a good thing to be so reserved that nobody can tell how you feel.

Other than the Dashwoods, there were a good variety of secondary characters. There were some that I liked (Mrs Jennings, who irritated me at first but I warmed to her later as she was one of the few women Marianne and Elinor met who seemed to genuinely like and care about them) and some that I disliked (I thought Lucy Steele and her sister were vile!) and some who gave Austen a chance to have some fun, e.g. Charlotte and Mr Palmer. The story also has lots of examples of Austen’s famous irony and satire. I’ll admit that when I read some of her other books in the past I didn’t always appreciate all the subtleties of her wit, but with this book I did and some of the dialogue and observations were very clever and amusing.

As this was the first time I’ve read Sense and Sensibility, I liked the way Austen kept me wondering what was going to happen. I suspected there would be a happy ending for Marianne and Elinor, but I couldn’t see exactly how things were going to work out for them or which men they would end up with. Austen does put a few twists into the last few chapters of the novel and I liked the way Elinor’s story was resolved, but I’m not sure I was very happy with how Marianne’s ended.

Now that I’ve read all six of her major novels I’m looking forward to exploring Austen’s other work and also reading the novels again so I can pick up on some of the details I probably missed the first time!

Have you read Sense and Sensibility? Are you a Marianne or an Elinor?

Classics Circuit Tour: Jane Austen (Persuasion) vs Charles Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood)

Today, as part of a Classics Circuit Tour, I’m hosting a duel between two very different authors: Jane Austen and Charles Dickens!

Tour participants were invited to choose a novel by either Austen or Dickens – or both. As there were still a couple of Austen novels I hadn’t read, as well as a whole pile of unread Dickens books, I decided this would be a good opportunity to read one of each. But which one would I like the best?

The first book I want to discuss is Jane Austen’s Persuasion, a moving story of mistakes, misunderstandings and second chances.

Austen begins by introducing us to the Elliot family: the vain and conceited Sir Walter of Kellynch Hall and his three daughters, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary. Mary is married with children of her own, but Elizabeth and Anne still live at home. Elizabeth is very like her father but Anne is gentle, kind-hearted and intelligent. We also meet Lady Russell, a family friend who took on the role of advisor to the girls following the death of their mother.

Several years prior to the beginning of our story, Lady Russell persuaded Anne against marrying Frederick Wentworth, who at that time was a poor young naval officer. Anne has tried to move on with her life but has been unable to forget her first love and she is still unmarried eight years later when she hears that he has returned as the wealthy and respectable Captain Wentworth. Unexpectedly thrown back into his company and forced to see him with another woman, Louisa Musgrove, Anne knows she still loves him – but can Wentworth forgive her for breaking off their engagement all those years ago?

In comparison to the other Austen books I’ve read this one feels more serious and subdued. Anne Elliot is twenty-seven years old which makes her the oldest of Austen’s heroines and this could explain the different tone of the book (as well as the fact that Jane Austen herself was older, this being her final novel). We don’t see Anne as a younger girl in the days of her original romance with Wentworth; instead we meet her when she’s older and more mature. Anne is not a lively, spirited young woman like Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse but she has a quiet strength and a warm heart and it’s easy to see what Captain Wentworth loved in her.

It’s slightly disappointing that Anne and Wentworth are kept apart through most of the novel and have little direct interaction with each other, but I appreciated the way Austen kept the reader waiting and wondering, giving the story a sense of restraint and tension. I loved this book and I think it might even have become my favourite Austen novel – although that could still change after I read Sense and Sensibility, which is the only one of her books that I still need to read.

Moving on to Charles Dickens…

There were plenty of Dickens books I could have chosen, as I’ve only read three of them so far (A Christmas Carol, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend) but as I’d also committed to reading a Jane Austen book I thought I’d better pick one of his shorter novels.

Trying to avoid one of his eight hundred page tomes played a large part in my decision to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood for the Duelling Authors tour. In comparison to other Dickens novels it’s relatively short – and for a good reason. It’s the novel Dickens was working on when he died in 1870 and unfortunately he was unable to complete it. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about reading an unfinished book but I can tell you that reaching the final page and realising that the mystery wasn’t going to be solved was every bit as frustrating as you might expect!

A large part of the novel is set in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham, which is thought to have been based on Rochester, where Dickens lived. We are also taken on a journey into the darker side of Victorian London; the opening scenes of the book take place in Princess Puffer’s opium den, to which Cloisterham choirmaster and piano teacher John Jasper is a regular visitor.

We learn that Jasper is in love with Rosa Bud, an orphan who lives at the Nun’s House in Cloisterham. There are only two problems with this: the first is that Rosa finds Jasper terrifying; the second is that she’s already engaged to his nephew, Edwin Drood, who is only a few years younger than Jasper himself. So when Drood disappears and is presumed to have been murdered it should be obvious who’s to blame, shouldn’t it? Well, no. There’s another suspect: Neville Landless, recently arrived in Cloisterham with his twin sister Helena, who is known to have previously had a violent argument with Drood and was with him the night before his disappearance.

Unfortunately we never find out what really happened to Drood and a number of other storylines are also left unresolved. We can guess what might have been going to happen, and I was able to find lots of possible theories online, but maybe Dickens had a few surprise twists planned for us – we’ll probably never know for certain.

Compared to the other Dickens books I’ve read, I found this one more direct and easy to follow, with less sub-plots and superfluous characters. Almost every chapter helps to move the story forward significantly. It was also quite funny in places, which was good as I haven’t really got on with Dickens’ sense of humour in the past. I can’t help thinking I’ve done things backwards though: I read Drood by Dan Simmons last year, which meant that when I started this book I felt I knew part of the story already. Many of the characters’ names were familiar and I could appreciate how cleverly Simmons had incorporated elements of Dickens’ novel into his own: the opium dens, the tours of the cathedral vaults and crypts, Drood’s interest in Egypt, the ‘hideous small boy’ who throws stones at Durdles. I think it would have been more sensible to have read this book first before the Dan Simmons one!

So who has emerged as the victor of this duel? Well, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was a fun, entertaining read but Persuasion I’m sure will be one of my books of the year – so I think Jane Austen is the winner here!

If you’re still not sure which author you prefer, the other Classics Circuit participants’ Austen and Dickens reviews might help you decide – you can find a full list of tour stops on the Classics Circuit blog.