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Book: “Godmersham Park: A Novel of the Austen Family” by Gill Hornby
Publishing Info: Pegasus Books, November 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: from the publicist!
Book Description: On January 21, 1804, Anne Sharpe arrives at Godmersham Park in Kent to take up the position of governess. At thirty-one 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.
Review: Thank you so much to Laurel for reaching out to me about participating in this tour! As anyone who is familiar with this blog knows, I’m a huge Jane Austen fan. I even did an entire series devoted to re-reading her books and reviewing many of the major adaptions. So it was a no brainer to join this tour that features a book focusing on a woman who knew Jane Austen for only a brief period of time but who clearly made an impression (Austen sent her one of a very few editions of “Emma” that she had been given when the book was first published). Let’s dive in!
The world doesn’t know what to do with a husband-less and family-less woman. Where does she belong? What room can there be for her to create a future for herself? One of the few options remaining is that of a governess, and so this is the path that young Anne Sharpe finds herself on when she joins a newly-landed family. But even here, to be a governess to not have a place, being not a servant of a member of the family. Anne is careful and observant, however, and slowly makes her way through various pitfalls. And, soon enough, she meets the sister of her employer, Jane Austen, and a life-long friendship is born.
There was a lot to love about this story. For one thing, it was a comfortable balance of taking real-life people and histories and playing out their stories in a way that not only felt true to what we know of their lives, but also believable where things had to be embellished. Much of the strength of the story and writing comes in the descriptions of every day life (a very Austen-like quality indeed!). Like many other popular period pieces (think “Downton Abbey”), there is a lot of focus on the goings on in the running of an estate, both the behind-the-scenes lives of the staff as well as the intricate rules that govern the family and any visitors.
In her role as governess, Anne’s existence is perhaps the most uncomfortable of them all. Many governesses were themselves ladies of station before some life event required them to take up this path. As such, they do not fit naturally with the staff of an estate. But governesses are also not a member of the family, often relegated to the back of the room and all but forgotten. I really enjoyed reading about how Anne needed to navigate these various roles and the limits placed on what she could or could not do.
The romance, such that it is, plays into this neatly. This is not a “romance” book, and the dangers of this flirtation are made evident, giving the entire situation a sort of increased danger and worry (not typically what you’re looking for from a love story.) But unlike many novelizations of governesses who fall in love and are suddenly raised to prominence, this story deals with the very real challenges to this sort of situation.
I also very much appreciate the way Jane Austen was handled. Obviously, the entire premise of this story is built around the fact that Anne Sharpe was a close enough friend to Austen to warrant not only particular attention from the author while she was alive, but follow up attention from Austen’s sister after the author passed away. That being the case, however, it would be all too easy for a character like this to dominate the page and distract from Anne’s own story.
I will say, the book did have a melancholy feel to it. Anne has seen struggle and continues to face unique challenges in this book. But if you go into it focused more on the insights it provides into the life and times of the story and less on any real action, you’re likely to enjoy it more. The plotting is slow and steady, without any major conflicts or real excitement. But I think that works for what it is offering, and fans of Jane Austen especially will appreciate a look into a lesser known character in her life.
Rating 8: A lovely blending of fact and fiction, this historical fiction novel shines the light on a lesser known woman whose small touch on Jane Austen’s life left a lasting impression.
“Godmersham Park” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Jane Austen Books, Sequels, Bios and more.