Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Gill Hornby's Godmersham Park takes a witty, observant look at Jane Austen's family

Within the umbrella of historical fiction, one finds the category of biographical novels, works re-imagining the stories of real-life people from the past. Gill Hornby’s Godmersham Park, centering on a woman who worked for Jane Austen's family, ranks among the best of them.

Hornby’s protagonist is Anne Sharp, who arrives at the comfortable estate of Godmersham Park in rural Kent in 1804 to become governess to Fanny Austen, eldest daughter of Jane’s brother Edward. Anne is brand new to this role; she was raised as the beloved only daughter of a respectable man who mysteriously cast her off after her mother’s death, leaving her only a small annual income of £35. (We learn why as the novel progresses. Although little is known of the historical Anne Sharp’s background, Hornby makes a logical guess at the reason.)

Perplexed by her unexpected circumstances, Anne, aged 31, needs to walk a fine line with her exacting new mistress, Elizabeth Austen. “Miss Sharp” must be intelligent but not too clever; she must be proper and respectable without attracting male attention. Most of all, she should avoid all excesses, including – ironically – any enthusiasm for female education: “You are not here to turn my daughter into a bluestocking,” Mrs. Austen tells her. “Oh, but of course—” she replies, though we learn that “Anne could think of little else finer.”

Although Anne must tamp down her passionate nature with the large Austen brood – as Fanny informs her, new babies arrive with regularity – Hornby brings Anne’s complex persona alive for readers, who can delight in the keen observations and wry remarks she isn’t allowed to speak aloud. Anne’s status as not-quite-family, not-quite-servant makes her an outsider in nearly all respects, which gives her a uniquely perceptive viewpoint on household goings-on. As a boy, Edward Austen had the advantage of being adopted by wealthy distant relatives, and his fortune, when compared to his siblings, creates an unbridgeable divide that Hornby describes with crisp, elegant detail: “The Austens, she now saw, were of the same family and yet two distinct classes. She was witnessing here both sides of the fairy tale.”

author Gill Hornby
author Gill Hornby
As governess, “Miss Sharp” faces other challenges. She is plagued by severe headaches, and the below-stairs servants hate her, but she can’t risk losing her position by complaining about either. On his visits, Henry Austen, Edward’s brother, poses difficulty as well. He recognizes Anne’s intelligence, and she’s alternately vexed and intrigued by his combination of clueless male privilege and thoughtful kindness. Through Fanny’s correspondence with her Aunt Jane, Anne comes to feel an affinity for this Austen relation, which develops into firm friendship when the women meet in person. And while Jane plays a major role later in the story, she doesn’t steal the spotlight. Anne is such a vibrant character that she more than holds her own.

Brimming with the perennial Austen themes of social class and the precariousness of women’s financial situations, Godmersham Park presents a richly evoked Georgian atmosphere, nuanced family dynamics, and numerous quotable lines of witty dialogue. The novel is a treasure for all lovers of character-centered historical fiction, both Austen devotees and not.

Godmersham Park is published in the U.S. by Pegasus Books today, and this review is part of the author's blog tour with Austenprose PR.

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Gill Hornby is the author of the novels Miss Austen, The Hive, and All Together Now, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England, with her husband and their four children.


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