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.

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.

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.


Godmersham Park returns the reader to the world of the Austen family, however this time the focus is on Anne Sharp who became one of Jane Austen’s closest friends. Most of the story recreates the events as told in the diaries of Fanny, the eldest daughter of George Austen, who becomes Anne’s charge. The problem is not much is known about Anne’s background prior to her arrival at Godmersham so the author takes some liberties to fabricate her past based on plausible scenarios from that time.

When Anne arrives at Godmersham she is anxious to please her new employers so recreates the facade of a respectable governess and behaves in the way she believes a governess should. Anne is desperate for this arrangement to work as she has been without security since the death of her mother and the small pittance she receives from her father is inadequate. Anne became estranged from her father when she refused to marry but is bewildered by his continued refusal to acknowledge her. It is a mystery she is determined to solve but sometimes the truth is better left buried and Anne is shocked when she discovers her mother was her father’s mistress.

Godmersham Park offers Anne a fresh start and she is delighted with Fanny even if the girl shows no real interest in formal education. Anne encourages Fanny to correspond with a member of the extended Austen family and she chooses Aunt Jane. Anne finds herself curious about this aunt and begins to look forward to Jane’s letters just as much as Fanny does as the letters are delightfully witty. Anne declares Jane her favourite Austen and longs for the day she will pay them a visit.

Sadly, for the large part of this book nothing much happens as Anne struggles to deal with her new life in the house. While the Austen family are pleasant enough they make no effort to include Anne and she is left feeling alone as the servants do not believe she is one of them either. Things change with the arrival of Henry Austen who is charm personified and the mood in the house lightens, however Anne is confused by the feelings he invokes and tries to stay out of his way, Henry has other ideas and is keen to get to know her but Anne knows any inappropriate behaviour could lead to her dismissal.

The novel suddenly sparks into life with the arrival of Jane and Cassandra Austen but it takes a long time to happen. Anne and Jane enjoy being in each other’s company and they bond over their love for writing even though Anne has no idea her new friend is writing novels. When they come up with the idea of writing a play for the children to perform, Anne immediately takes control and her personality seems to change as she acts a little more superior. Is this the true Anne? It’s hard to tell as she always seems to be putting on a front and I was never sure when she was being herslef. The play is a triumph even if Anne ends up disliking it and it triggers a change of fortune for her as the entire household treats her with more respect.

Anne dreads the day Jane has to leave as they have developed a bond but is delighted when she is invited to stay for a few weeks at the seaside with Austen sisters and their mother in an effort to resolve the crippling headaches that plague her. Anne blossoms in the care of the Austens and is shocked Jane comes up with the idea of her becoming a permanent part of their little caravan of homeless females. Anne is intrigued but declines as she knows Cassandra doesn’t feel the same way and is threatened by her friendship with Jane. There are implications that the friendship has grown into something more with Anne realising she has fallen in love with Jane as she has many of the same attributes as Henry, however it is all subtly done and open to speculation.

Although things seem unchanged at Godmersham, Anne’s headaches return and she is aware the Austens are starting to lose their patience with her so Anne decides to rewrite her play and have the children perform it again. Everything seems to go well but an admiring gaze from Henry in Anne’s direction leads to her dismissal. The novel ends with Anne leaving Godmersham after two years and with no idea what the future holds for her.

I really wanted to like this novel as much as Miss Austen but it just never hits the mark for me. The language is as remarkable and Anne often reminded me of some of Austen’s own heroines but I never felt like we got to know the real Anne. The background she was given was interesting but it was spoiled somewhat by the fact Anne refused to confront her father with the truth and it all just fizzled out. There seemed no point to it all.

The Author’s Note at the end of the novel goes on to reveal what happened to Anne after her dismissal and it sounds far more interesting than what we actually got. I get the premise of this book was to focus on her immediate connection to the Austen family but she did keep up a correspondence with Jane until the latter’s death so it would have been there. Anne not only survived as a single woman but became a success after setting up her own boarding school. One can only imagine how much she would have enjoyed watching Jane’s novels come into their own.