Gill Hornby’s excellent 2020 novel Miss Austen explored the well-worn tale of Jane Austen’s life at one remove, through the eyes of her sister, Cassandra. Her new book returns once again to the Austen milieu and displays a similarly keen sense of wit, rich characterisation and intriguing light revisionism. It succeeds as a page-turning romp on its own terms, but also manages once again to give agency and interest to a minor figure in Austen’s life who has otherwise been ignored by biographers and scholars.
Hornby’s protagonist is Anne Sharpe, a once well-to-do woman who has been forced into straitened circumstances after her mother’s death. She is compelled to take the only “respectable” work available to women of her standing: becoming a governess at Godmersham Park, home of Jane Austen’s elder brother, Edward, and his wife, Elizabeth. Thankfully, their daughter, her charge, Fanny, is an unusually charming and bright girl . As for Anne, we are reminded early, “behind every well-bred governess there was an absence of man”. By the time she encounters the dashing Henry Austen – Jane’s real-life brother, readers will find the saga as entrancing as any of Austen’s own novels.
Hornby has a great deal of fun with the conventions of the genre. There is a comically lecherous lawyer, a grand house, a dashing hero, a mysterious family secret and, of course, an independent and dynamic protagonist. It is said of Anne that “she was simply a creature of the most passionate nature… she felt intensely; where she loved, there she loved absolutely”. It is with the authorial equivalent of a theatrical wink that Hornby suggests “this had already caused her some conflict and drama”, and this meta-literary quality pervades the book. No wonder that Anne’s employer sighs: “I’ve read a great many novels, Miss Sharpe. I know all about the wild adventures of the good-looking governess.” By the end of this generous-spirited and thoroughly enjoyable book, so will the reader and they will relish them.