Postal Reading group
August 2023
Notes on the book Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby

Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect from Gill Hornby’s Godmersham Park, but ultimately I was pleasantly surprised by a book which exceeded my expectations. Based on a true story, Godmersham Park will especially appeal to those interested in Jane Austen and her novels.

The basic story is that the 31 year old Anne Sharp is forced to take a position as governess at Godmersham Park (the country home which is said to be the inspiration for Mansfield Park), to educate Fanny, the daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Austen, and the niece of Jane Austen the famous author. Having had a comfortable upbringing, Anne has little experience as a governess, but is nevertheless determined to do a good job and to serve the family well. Although she does to enjoy a close friendship with Jane, her position is rendered more precarious by the arrival of Henry Austen, and the recurrence of her migraines.

Although based on a true story, very little is known about the life of Anne, beyond her friendship with Jane, and many of the events in the book are drawn from Fanny’s diaries which provide a fascinating insight into the life of the family. Inevitably, however, where historical details are scarce, a certain amount has been left to the author’s imagination. The result is a well written and engaging novel which offers an insight into the life of the Austen family. Beyond this, however, it presents an account of the difficult position enjoyed by the governess, in contrast to many similar books which concentrate on the lives of the servants ‘below stairs’.

The central character, Anne, seems to be well suited to the role of governess, despite having no previous experience of the role. The author has given her a plausible background with enough of an enigmatic hint to make an interesting character, although comparatively little was made of Agnes’ quest to find Anne’s father: a different story which might make a passable mystery in its own right. Given her circumstances and poor health, Anne is a character to which the reader is immediately sympathetic. However, I still found her a slightly remote character, possibly because of her manner (which was arguably accurate), and because her position at that time demanded a certain detachment.

Despite this, there is still much to admire in Anne. In particular, I was encouraged by her devotion to and belief in education. Her ideas on the curriculum must have seemed truly radical then, as well as slightly dangerous. I was also heartened that these ideas were largely shared by Jane Austen, and will certainly look afresh at her work armed with this insight. Some of those concerns around the limited vision for schools and education are remain relevant today where political interference in the curriculum has eroded the freedom enjoyed by qualified teachers, and schools are too narrowly focussed on the skills currently demanded by employers.

One of my few criticisms of the book centre of the relatively slow moving plot, which seems to be emphasised by the style of the language. While this is arguably entirely accurate for the period, to a modern reader it still appears strangely formal and makes the book read like a “manual for young gentlefolk”; again, perhaps this was intentional? The final ending seemed a little too predictable, but without the scandal of an inappropriate relationship with Henry which I was half expecting. Hornby did, however, leave a tantalising suggestion in the final chapter: “However ardent her feelings, Anne could never have licence to love Henry, or Jane” (p. 412). Are we to understand that Anne realised she was bisexual? Anne’s final dismissal seems especially unfair given that she was given little choice in the medical ‘treatment’. If she had been permitted to resign earlier, at least she would have left with her head intact!

In contrast to the orthodox medical treatments of the day, it is easy to see why sea bathing became so popular, an idea which is enjoying a resurgence of popularity in today’s wild swimming. Although good scientific studies are relatively scarce, there is good anecdotal evidence for its benefits for a range of mental health and autoimmune problems. In any case, I find the idea of Jane Austen as an early wild swimmer to be delightful, even if it is unlikely that ladies of that period would have been able to swim. Incidentally, while Jane Austen was indeed enthusiastic about sea bathing, she also satirised some of the claims made for it, particularly in her unfinished novel, Sandition.

In conclusion, this was an enjoyable book, based on true events and real people. Despite some concerns around the slow plot development, and the predictable ending, this offers a fascinating insight into the life of Jane Austen and the position of the governess. While many of these insights still seem strangely relevant today, I will certainly look at Jane Austen’s novels with renewed interest in the future. The image of Jane as an early wild swimmer is a delightful bonus.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler