In January I read Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, but despite enjoying it I didn’t write about it then. And in September I read Godmersham Park. Both are based on Jane Austen and her relationships with family and friends.
Miss Austen is the untold story of the most important person in Jane’s life – her sister Cassandra. After Jane’s death, Cassandra lived alone and unwed, spending her days visiting friends and relations and quietly, purposefully working to preserve her sister’s reputation. Set in 1840, Cassandra in her ’60s, visits Isabella Fowle following the death of her father, the Reverend Fowle when Isabella is packing up her parents’ belongings so that a new reverend can move in. Cassandra is convinced that her own and Jane’s letters to Eliza Fowle, the mother of Cassandra’s long-dead fiancé, are still somewhere in the vicarage. Eventually she finds the letters and confronts the secrets they hold, secrets not only about Jane but about Cassandra herself. Will Cassandra reveal the most private details of Jane’s life to the world, or commit her sister’s legacy to the flames?
I was surprised by how much i enjoyed this book as I don’t usually like spin-offs, sequels or prequels of my favourite books, but I really enjoyed this book as Cassandra relives her life with Jane, revealing what life was like for spinsters living in the early 1800s. It is different from Jane Austen’s own novels but still manages to recreate that flavour of her novels that I have loved ever since I first read Pride and Prejudice. It’s very well researched, a novel that held my attention from the beginning right to the end. A definite 4.5 star book.
I didn’t enjoy Godmersham Park quite as much as Miss Austen. It is the fictionalised life of Anne Sharp, employed as the governess to Fanny, Jane Austen’s niece. Fanny’s father was Edward Austen, who was adopted by the wealthy Knight family (Thomas Knight was a cousin), taking their name in 1812. Anne became one of Jane’s closest friends.
Little is actually known about Anne as Gill Hornby acknowledges in her Author’s Note. So the story of her early life before her arrival in 1804 at Godmersham Park is a ‘fiction, fashioned out of the biographies of other, contemporary genteel ladies who found themselves working as governesses.’ But the two years she spent working for the Austen family were recorded by Fanny in her diaries and so Gill Hornby has closely followed her account. Henry Austen, Jane’s favourite brother was a regular visitor at Godmersham and Jane, Cassandra and their mother visited too during those two years.
Anne had no experience of teaching, but was left with no alternative as her mother had died and she had to find employment. She found it difficult – treated neither as a servant nor as one of the family, she risked dismissal if she overstepped the mark. Similarly she found that Henry Austen’s attention put her in the most awkward situations. But when Jane visited she was able to relax in her company and the two struck up a friendship.
I can’t quite put my finger on why I find this novel not as good as Miss Austen. But it moves at a slower pace and apart from the mystery that surrounds Anne’s father, I didn’t find it as absorbing – there’s that anticipation in Miss Austen of will Cassandra find the letters and what will they reveal. In parts Godmersham Park came over to me as just a tiny bit flat and I never grew as fond of Anne as I did of Cassandra. Having said that, I did enjoy this book enough to give it 3.5 stars.