Book #46

Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

On 21 January 1804, Anne Sharpe arrives at Godmersham Park in Kent to take up the position of governess. At 31 years old, she has no previous experience of either teaching or fine country houses. Her mother has died, and she has nowhere else to go. Anne is left with no choice. For her new charge - twelve-year-old Fanny Austen - Anne's arrival is all novelty and excitement.

The governess role is a uniquely awkward one. Anne is neither one of the servants, nor one of the family, and to balance a position between the 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' members of the household is a diplomatic chess game. One wrong move may result in instant dismissal. Anne knows that she must never let down her guard.

When Mr Edward Austen's family comes to stay, Anne forms an immediate attachment to Jane. They write plays together, and enjoy long discussions. However, in the process, Anne reveals herself as not merely pretty, charming and competent; she is clever too. Even her sleepy, complacent mistress can hardly fail to notice.

Meanwhile Jane's brother, Henry, begins to take an unusually strong interest in the lovely young governess. And from now on, Anne's days at Godmersham Park are numbered.

Jane Austen is my girl. She has been my girl for more years than I’m able to count, and I can’t think of a day where she will not be, in fact, my girl. I was desperate to read this book for its dip into Jane’s life through the eyes of Anne Sharp, the governess of her family’s children.

There’s something about the lives of real historical figures being imagined and put into a story which is just delectable to me. Hornby has taken correspondence written by the family at the time, and used it to create this account of Anne’s time as governess. It’s almost voyeuristic, but deliciously so.

I can’t deny I enjoyed myself, but there was something missing for me. Although there was a real behind the scenes feel, this was really all it was. We see the family living their life, Anne doing her job whilst rubbing shoulders with the Austens. Although there are a good few hints of scandal, nothing is followed up, nothing is realised, and the biggest shock to Anne’s life was dealt with softly and poorly. Whilst I appreciate any inventions wouldn’t be tasteful, this gloved approach felt quite lacking.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the social commentary, and the descriptions of Godmersham itself. That romance wasn’t the driving force behind the plot was also a welcome factor - here we see friendship, belonging, and adaptation to change. As an Austen admirer, I’m glad to have read this.