All the sins of empire are being remembered nowadays, heroes judged and found wanting. Yet Jane Austen – whose family had myriad links to the sugar islands, whose brother commanded Britain’s naval forces during the second Anglo-Burmese war, whose cousin was god-daughter to a governor-general of India—has proved curiously immune. A Netflix adaptation of Persuasion is due out later this year and television bosses were convinced by fan pressure to reverse their decision to cancel Sanditon, a series based on a fragment Austen left unfinished at her death. Perhaps Austen’s sheer popularity renders her uncancellable; perhaps the view that she is not just apolitical, but ahistorical, still prevails. Or perhaps the public aren’t interested in Jane’s relatives.
Undaunted, Gill Hornby has completed a second novel about the wider Austen family. Where the best-selling Miss Austen focused on Jane’s elder sister Cassandra, and the family she would have married into had her fiancé not died in the Caribbean, the follow-up, Godmersham Park, takes us to the Kentish estate of Jane’s brother Edward, who was elevated to the land-owning classes after his adoption by rich and childless relations.
Hornby is the author of two contemporary novels, The Hive and All Together Now, but her interest in Jane Austen is far from new. She published a children’s biography of the writer 15 years ago and, knowing the available material well, has selected a less familiar angle. She draws on the real-life diary kept by Edward Austen’s eldest daughter Fanny, peopling the scene with what in other hands might make for a bewildering multiplicity of children, servants and visitors. Several will be strangers to all but the most ardent Janeites.
The novel begins with the arrival at Godmersham of Fanny’s governess, Anne Sharpe, and keeps her centre-stage throughout. Confined for the most part to the attic schoolroom, Anne is, initially at least, a spectator. We know that a close and enduring friendship sprang up between Anne and Jane, but we see it only in its nascent stages and Jane herself is kept very much a secondary character. For the first half of the novel she is present only through letters, fictional ones penned by Hornby.
The survival of Fanny Austen’s diary offers little scope for invention, at least so far as day-to-day events at Godmersham are concerned. Yet Hornby seems to thrive under constraint. She has free rein in creating a dramatic back story for Anne Sharpe, of whose early life we know nothing, but curbs herself. In the narrow confines of the schoolroom, in the ordered gardens, Anne’s vanities and ambition bloom into vivid life and small happenings take on vast significance. A stolen thimble or a careless comment set up repercussions which keep going for months. Seeing the local volunteers march, we are reminded that this was a country at war. In these everyday moments of miniature delicacy the novel takes flight.
Jane is not a dominant presence in the novel. Her writing is, and not just in terms of style. While scenes set at the seaside inevitably invite comparison with Persuasion, Godmersham Park also enters into a sophisticated dialogue with what is for modern readers Austen’s least popular novel, Mansfield Park, published in 1814. Both feature amateur theatricals, a young girl named Fanny, and a flirtatious man named Henry. Both explore adoption. Both heroines skulk in their chilly attic rooms, neither family nor staff; both attempt to regain a home that existed only in their imaginations. Hornby’s characters play the exact card game featured in Mansfield Park.
Where does real life stop and fiction begin? Where do writers find their inspiration? In the lives of those around them, insists Hornby, from the world. It is all very well to think of Jane Austen scribbling away at romances on her writing table, door shut against intruders, but to do so is to ignore not just the fact that she was almost never parted from her family but also her wider environment. She herself did not think her novels had nothing to do with the world. She has characters who have travelled to India, others who own property which must be supported by slave labour; Mansfield Park makes explicit reference to the slave trade. We are none of us untouched by sin.
Helena Kelly is the author of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical (Vintage, 2018)
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