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Article: Godmersham Park // Book Review

Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby
Anne Sharp

Godmersham Park // Book Review

Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby
The world of Jane Austen has been well mined by writers over the years. From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Bridget Jones' Diary to Fire Island, authors have had to get creative with the material to hand. In Godmersham Park, Gill Hornby has gone fishing slightly further afield, delving into the world of a mysterious friend of Jane's - Anne Sharp.

We don't know a huge amount about Anne Sharp - we know that she was governess to Jane Austen's niece, Fanny Knight,  and that Jane had considered her enough of a friend that she gifted Anne a first edition of Emma. Fertile ground, then, for imagining their relationship.

I always approach these kinds of novels with trepidations - I have been burned before by imaginings of Jane's life - but Godmersham Park had the stamp of approval of a major publisher, so I thought I would give it a go. At the beginning of Godmersham Park, we are introduced to Anne Sharp, who finds herself hard up after her father abandons her in the wake of her mother's death. Anne, who is in her early thirties, and whose comfortable lifestyle had never necessitated work nor marriage, if forced to take a position working as a governess to the restless young Fanny Knight.

Anne, however, is not all that she seems. A secret progressive, Anne is a strong believer in the education of women, not to improve herself for marriage, but for the sake of empowerment. She hits a bit of a wall with Fanny, finding that she's not particularly interested in her own education, and neither, particularly, is her mother. It isn't until Anne suggests striking up a correspondence with Fanny's aunt Jane, that she makes any progress with Fanny. Thus, the connection is made. 

As you might imagine from this introduction, it does take a little while for the Austen connection to be made. Readers going in expecting a detailed portrait of Jane Austen will be disappointed. However, it is still a compelling character study, and a vivid imagining of female friendship. Readers who prefer a quiet, reflective read with Regency trappings will enjoy this one.

However, it failed to stick the landing with this reviewer. Personally, I really dislike any characterisation of Jane as misanthrope, nor can I really picture her sneering at other women in the way she does in this book, with the constant, irritating approval of Anne. In Jane's writing, I find that even 'silly' women are shown to be the products of their circumstance - that is where the true feminism of Jane's writing lies. I found Anne to be relentlessly dull, prudish and patronising, and just kept waiting for her to lighten up a bit. For me, this one was guilty of replicating a kind of smug tweeness that Jane Austen inspired novels are often guilty of, and failed to set itself apart from other Austen stories. 

That is, of course, only my opinion though, and I would love to hear your opinions on this one, if you have read it. Did you enjoy Godmersham Park?

 Ellen White is editor of the Jane Austen Centre blog. By day, she also works in a school library, and has two literature degrees from the University of St Andrews. She would love to hear from you! Check out our Submission Guidelines and get in touch. 

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