The Jane Austen literary industry continues apace, but this is a marvelous addition to the genre—waspish and well-written, with all the incisive wit of Austen. We are in Kent in 1804; Anne Sharp, who had hitherto lived a most comfortable and plentiful life with her mother in London, finds herself propelled into the world of work and precarity following the death of her mother from tuberculosis. Anne is aged 31, and hence dangerously near the stage of chronic spinsterdom. She is ebullient and attractive, yet had so far positively resisted entering the treacherous marriage market. But when her semi-estranged father cuts her off with a puzzlingly measly annual allowance of £35, she has to seek work, and finds employment as a governess in the Godmersham Park house of Edward Austen, brother to the writer Jane, with young Fanny Austen (aged 12) under Anne’s charge. When she visits Godmersham, Jane starts up a firm friendship with Anne.
Anne Sharp is a delightfully spiky governess, as she observes the privileged life of the occupants of the house and the politics of house-servant relationships. She is a feminist, observing a world made by men to mainly benefit the male sex. She is determined to remain unwed, but then the charismatic brother Henry Austen visits Godmersham and draws Anne into his seemingly irresistible orbit. The truth about Anne’s obscure background is slowly revealed, though the astute reader could very well work out just what is happening before Anne finds out the unpleasant shock.
This is a well-written and delightfully observant novel. Gill Hornby uses Fanny Austen’s diaries, which detail her days with the governess Anne Sharp, but employs some literary imagination to elaborate on Anne’s intriguing backstory. The novel seems to conclude a little promptly and arbitrarily, but this doesn’t detract from an excellent read.