I always enjoy reading historical fiction about real-life figures, and especially about the people adjacent to someone more famous, so I was excited to read Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby. It follows the years that Anne Sharp worked as a governess for the Austen family at their home in Kent. While there, she met her pupil Fanny’s aunt, Jane, who would go on to write the timeless novels we all know and love to this day. It’s an interesting slice of life filled with friendship, empowerment, and even a bit of mystery.
Special thanks to Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose PR, Pegasus Books, and Gill Hornby for the review copy of this book!
Anne Sharp grew up comfortably, but after her mother dies, she’s surprised by how small an allowance her absent father has left her. She can’t understand what he’s thinking, and in the meantime, she will have to earn her own income. Anne’s first governess job is for the Austen family at Godmersham Park, where she will teach Fanny Austen. While Anne tries to settle into her new role and gain both acceptance and long-term stability, she can’t shake the feeling of unease. She could lose her job at even the smallest slip, from her frequent headaches to the undue interest Fanny’s uncle, Henry Austen, may have in her. But Anne also finds friendship in Fanny’s aunt, Jane Austen, and begins to think things could work out after all. How will Anne ultimately navigate her time with the Austens at Godmersham Park?
Godmersham Park opens with the unfortunate news that Anne Sharp has less money than she’d realized and must work for a living. There is some mystery as to why her father has allotted her so little per year, but Anne is practical and looks ahead to what she must do. Already, I liked Anne, and I appreciated that she doesn’t wallow in self-pity over her changed situation. She’s ready to begin work as a governess, and she’s determined to do the best she can at her new job. Anne’s first position is in Kent with the Austen family, where she will teach 13-year-old Fanny.
Anne is quickly pulled into the Austen family, often joining them for dinner and interacting with their immense extended family. But just as often, Anne is left alone, where cold, hunger, and loneliness set in. She doesn’t quite fit in with the Austens – indeed,, she is their employee – but neither does she feet in with the downstairs staff. Worse, the downstairs staff don’t seem to like Anne much, hence her chilly room and horrendous meals when alone.
Anne is acutely aware of how precarious her situation is. Any undue attention could get her fired, and Henry Austen (Fanny’s uncle, who visits frequently) is certainly too friendly for comfort. There are also Anne’s regular and crippling headaches which may cost her her job. And is Anne too clever for her own good? I enjoyed how vigilant Anne is and how, despite the odds against her, she tries to be a model governess. It is part self-preservation, of course, but she also enjoys her job and wants to really teach Fanny not only what she should know, but moreover how to think for herself. I liked seeing the teacher side of her develop.
Halfway through, the narrative focus switches from Anne’s work as a governess to her unfolding friendship with the latest visitors: Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, and their mother. Anne and Jane hit it off, in part due to their shared wit and love of literature. Though quite different from the first half of the novel, it was also fun to see these two women connect and become genuine friends. Them writing together is a special treat.
Beyond Anne’s time with the Austens, my favorite part of Godmersham Park is actually the mystery surrounding her father and the measly annual allowance he has left her. There’s a great sense of confusion and wonderment around this, and as the clues come together, it’s a fascinating and greatly affecting reveal. This whole side story is excellent, and I love that it primarily came from the author’s imagination as opposed to historical records. (While Anne Sharp’s life is well documented from her time teaching Fanny Smith, little is known of her life prior to that; Gill Hornby developed an intriguing backstory for Anne here.) I only wish more were done with this Sharp family mystery, or that there was more time with it. Indeed, this side story could have had an entire novel of its own!
Godmersham Park is well written, and I appreciate that Gill Hornby wrote it in a style that closely matches the writing of the early 1800s. It could have been written by Jane Austen herself! It’s an immersive story of a strong woman who aims to empower herself, despite everything working against her, in a sort of riches-to-rags tale.
The story does fizzle a bit by the end, with some unfortunate events and little detail to offer closure on some points. There are things I wish had gone differently, but alas, the history has already been written, and Gill Hornby stuck close to the facts. My only other issue with the book may be more nit-picky: the frequent use of italics, particularly when certain characters are speaking. A bit distracting, even if it does make clear their voice. On the plus side, I could very well hear the characters talking with all this emphasis and drama, further bringing the story to life.
Godmersham Park is an interesting and sensitive account of the close friend of literature’s most beloved author. Anne Sharp is a strong protagonist, and I enjoyed getting to know her throughout this novel. If you love Jane Austen and the people surrounding her in real life, this is a must-read. Or, if you simply enjoy immersive historical fiction set in the early 19th century, books about governesses, or novels about women making their own way, you’ll get all of that and more here.
Get the Book
You can buy Godmersham Park here – it’s available today as a hardcover, ebook, and audiobook.
|Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby|
|Genre||Historical Fiction; Biographical Historical Fiction|
|Number of Pages||422|
|Format I Read||Hardcover (ARC)|
|Original Publication Date||November 1, 2022|
A richly imagined novel inspired by the true story of Anne Sharp, a governess who became very close with Jane Austen and her family by the #1 International bestselling-author of Miss Austen.
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.