sabato 28 gennaio 2023

"Godmersham Park" by Gill Hornby, a delightful jump back in time to Jane Austen's world

A Fireside Read by William Mulready (1786-1863)

The story I'm telling you today takes place in the year 1804: we're in England, and the story is Anne Sharp's. She was a young well-do-to woman who coming from London who became governess to Frances-Fanny Austen, Jane's niece as the daughter of her elder brother Edward. Anne was a minor figure in Jane’s life who has otherwise been ignored by biographers and scholars, but here she'e the main carachter.
As you surely rember, in a post of My Little Old World published some years ago about the art of Silhouettes, far famous in the Regency period, I considered a picture intitled The first visit of Edward Austen to the Knights: it sounds so uncommon for us today, but during the Regency it was far usual for families with numerous children to raise, to give at least one of them up for adoption to wealthy relatives; so it happened for Edward Austen, the older brother of Jane, who was eventually adopted by the Knight family becoming Edward Austen Knight.
Thomas and Catherine Knight had no other children, that's why when he remained orphan of 'mother' and 'father', he inherited, together with other estates in Steventon, Chawton and Wittersham, Godmersham Estate, where Anne went to work and live.

Godmersham Park in Kent, home of Jane Austen’s elder brother, Edward
Photograph Universal Art Archive Alamy

Her father was Edward's close friend, and, as soon as Anne lost her mother, he decided that she had to move herself to his estate and became his daughter's governess. At once Anne felt so sad at the very idea of leaving her home, her father and Agnes, the maid she was so affectionate to, to the point that she had became her closest friend and confident. But her father was adamant and that was his decision. Even though she couldn't understand it...
At once it wasn't far easy to her to get suited to such a new life: to share her attic bedroom with the little Fanny, to eat a little, given the new cook, who was recently hired, wasn't far able to do her work, and to share her spare time with Fanny's uncle, Henry Austen, who was very frequently present at Godmersham and seemed interested in becoming Anne's friend, and maybe, something more than merely a friend. But Anne has never wanted a men by her side, and also when she has had the chance, she refused the very idea. She was appalled at the image of herself wife and mother since she was 16, such was her age when the first boy asked for her hand. As for her, in fact, we are reminded early that 
behind every well-bred governess there was an absence of man”. 
By the time she encounters the dashing Henry Austen, readers will find the saga as entrancing as any of Austen’s own novels. 
At once Anne feels annoyance in Henry's presence, she feels uncomfortable, but the more she find herself spending time in his company, the more she realizes that he is a really nice man. 

Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), Jane's fourth brother, who would become a militia officer, a  banker and an a clergyman

An almost permanent guest at Godmersham was also Mr Edward Austen's sister-in-law, the sister of his wife Elizabeth, whose name was Harriot: she knew that Henry was then already married, but she also knew that his consort did not like to go to the imposing house of her brother-in-law in Kent, so Henry always traveled alone.
This gave Harriot the opportunity not to hide her feelings for him, but Henry was overwhelmed by Anne's fascination. She, on the other hand, considered him a married man, pleasant, but married (he was then married to his cousin Eliza).
Henry ed Harriot spent huge days together playing cards, having strolls in the woods and parks around, going fishing and drawing. Henry was a brilliant man who was already noted as a teenager for his intelligence and acumen, so much so that he became his father's favorite son and was adored by both the sisters of his Cassandra and Jane, especially from the youngest, Jane.
As soon as Henry learned from Fanny that Anne complained of painful migraines and eye discomfort, he begged his sister-in-law Elizabeth to take charge of accompanying the young goveness to London to a qualified ophthalmologist to treat her ailment. And so it happened, indeed, and everything was done as he wanted and at his expenses. Honestly Anne could not justify such attention to her... perhaps Henry really cared more about her than he let on...
To everything that happens in Godmersham it makes as a background a mystery, that  of the disappearance of Anne's father who, once widowed by his wife, gets rid of his daughter, creating for her, as we have seen, a new life, and making lose any track of his in the London fog. Of this she'll never talk with anyone.
Anne recalls that her father's life had always been rather unusual, that he was often absent from home and for long periods: she assumed he was traveling for work reasons, but she never asked any questions also because when he returned her family reunited in harmony and with love and everything was forgotten.
In the Spring of 1805 Harriot was in Godmersham to take painting lessons from Henry. All this is perfectly consistent with reality and we find confirmation in Fanny's diaries where she wrote:

Monday 27th May 1805: Father went to Canterbury to fetch Aunt Harriet [Harriot] to take drawing lessons from Uncle Henry Austen.

Fanny portrayed as a teenager in a watercolor by Cassandra Austen

These papers, now held at the Center for Kentish Study in Maidstone, are obviously also a first-hand source for the overall story of Jane Austen's life, even if they have never been published in full so far. Fanny's son, Lord Brabourne, editor of the first edition of Jane Austen's letters, certainly used them for the biographical information included in the book, but then they remained unexplored, until, in the 80s of the last century, Deirdre Le Faye had the opportunity to use them in his researches concerning the Austenian biographical events. The diaries were also the primary source used by Margaret Wilson for her book on Fanny (Margaret Wilson, Almost Another Sister. The Story of Fanny Knight, Jane Austen's Favorite Niece, Kent Arts & Libraries, 1990).
As for what is told in the novel, I don't want to let you know anything else!

In the light of his historical background, Godmersham Park thus configures as an enthralling novel which drive and immerse you in Jane Austen's world, where just a little is left, from the authoress Gill Hornby, to her fantasy: as I wrote above, most of the facts that are told are drawn from Fanny's journals and from her Aunt Jane's letters she treasured greatly and read for hours and hours. Her 'Aunt Writer' was her idol, something like a god she wanted to grow similar to. And Fanny was Jane's favorite nice, as she herself will write in a letter to her sister Cassandra:

"What you say about Fanny pleases me exceedingly; this summer I found her just like you describe, almost another Sister, and I never imagined that a niece could mean so much to me"

It didn't matter that she was the daughter of her 'rich' brother: the main thing was the similarity of character that existed between them and the age difference which over the years would seem to become less and less - Fanny was born on 23 January 1793 when Aunt Jane had turned seventeen a little over a month ago.
This novel gives us the chance to learn that the relationship between Fanny and Aunt Jane was very close, and the meetings between the two became even more frequent when the Austens, in 1809, went to live in Chawton, in the cottage that Edward had made available to their mother and sisters. In Chawton there was in fact another large manor house, called the "Great House", to which visits by the Godmersham family were not infrequent.

Godmersham Park, which we can fully define as an historical novel, will make you feel, page after page, part of Jane Austen's life.
I wholeheartedly recommend you to read it, for me it was truly a joy to find myself next to some people who really lived in a world that I have always admired.

Gill Hornby, Penguin Editions, 2022

See you soon 
Dear Readers and Friends, 
I hope you'll welcome my warmest embrace with gladness 

"Godmersham Park" di Gill Hornby, un delizioso salto indietro nel tempo nel mondo di Jane Austen

IMMAGINE 1 - A Fireside Read by William Mulready (1786-1863)

La storia che vi racconterò oggi è ambientata nel 1804: siamo in Inghilterra e la storia è quella di Anne Sharp. Costei era una giovane donna benestante, proveniente da Londra, che divenne istitutrice di Frances-Fanny Austen, nipote di Jane in quanto figlia di suo fratello maggiore Edward. Anne è stata una figura minore nella vita di Jane Austen, spesso ignorata da biografi e studiosi, ma qui è lei ad essere la vera protagonista.
Come sicuramente ricorderete, in un post di My Little Old World pubblicato alcuni anni fa sull'arte delle Silhouettes, molto famosa nel periodo Regency, presi in considerazione un'immagine intitolata La prima visita di Edward Austen ai Knights: suona così insolito per noi oggi, ma in epoca Regency era assai usuale per le famiglie con prole numerosa da allevare, darne almeno uno in adozione a parenti facoltosi; così accadde per Edward Austen, fratello maggiore di Jane, che alla fine è stato adottato dalla famiglia Knight diventando Edward Austen Knight.
Thomas e Catherine Knight non avevano altri figli, per questo, quando rimase orfano di 'madre' e 'padre', egli ereditò, insieme con altre proprietà a Steventon, Chawton e  Wittersham, la tenuta di Godmersham Estate, dove Anne andò a lavorare e vivere.

IMMAGINE 2 - Godmersham Park in Kent, home of Jane Austen’s elder brother, Edward
Photograph Universal Art Archive Alamy

Suo padre era un caro amico di Edward e, non appena Anne perse la madre, egli decise che ella dovesse trasferirsi nella sua tenuta e diventare l'istitutrice di sua figlia. Subito Anne si sentì così triste all'idea di lasciare la sua casa, suo padre e Agnes, la domestica a cui era tanto affezionata al punto da essere diventata la sua più cara amica e confidente. Ma suo padre era inamovibile e quella era la sua decisione. Anche se lei non riusciva a comprenderla...
Non fu molto facile per Anne adattarsi a una vita nuova: dividere la sua stanza da letto nella mansarda con la piccola Fanny, mangiare poco, visto che la nuova cuoca, assunta di recente, non sapeva fare il suo lavoro, e condividere il suo tempo libero con lo zio di Fanny, Henry Austen, che era molto spesso presente a Godmersham e sembrava interessato a suo amico. E forse qualcosa di più di un semplice amico. Ma Anne non aveva mai voluto un uomo al suo fianco, e anche quando le accadde di averne l'opportunità, rifiutò sempre le proposte che le venivano fatte. Era sconvolta dall'immagine di se stessa moglie e madre da quando aveva 16 anni, tale era la sua età quando il primo ragazzo le chiese la mano. 
Quanto a lei, infatti, ci viene ricordato presto che
dietro ogni istitutrice ben preparata c'era l'assenza di una figura maschile".
Dal momento in cui incontrerà l'affascinante Henry, i lettori troveranno la saga affascinante come uno dei numerosi romanzi della Austen.
Subito Anne proverà quasi fastidio alla sua presenza, si sentiva a disagio, ma più si troverà a trascorrere del tempo in sua compagnia, più si renderà conto che era davvero un uomo simpatico.

IMMAGINE 3 - Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), quarto fratello di Jane, che divenne ufficiale, banchiere e uomo di culto

Ospite quasi permanente di Godmersham era anche la cognata di Mr Edward Austen, la sorella di sua moglie Elizabeth, il cui nome era Harriot: ella sapeva che allora Henry era già sposato, ma sapeva anche che alla sua consorte non piaceva recarsi in visita presso l'imponente dimora di suo cognato nel Kent, quindi Henry viaggiava sempre da solo.
Questo concedeva ad Harriot l'opportunità di non nascondere i suoi sentimenti per lui, ma Henry era sopraffatto dal fascino di Anne. Quest'ultima, però, lo considerava un uomo già impegnato, simpatico, ma coniugato (era a quel tempo sposato con la cugina Eliza). Henry ed Harriot trascorrevano intere giornate insieme giocando a carte, passeggiando nei boschi e nei parchi intorno, andando a pescare e disegnando.
Henry era un uomo brillante che già da adolescente si faceva notare per la sua intelligenza e per il suo acume, tanto da diventare il figlio prediletto di suo padre ed essere adorato da entrambe le sorelle Cassandra e Jane, soprattutto dalla minore, Jane.
Non appena Henry venne a sapere da Fanny che Anne lamentava dolorose emicranie e fastidio agli occhi, pregò sua cognata Elizabeth di farsi carico di accompagnare la giovane istitutrice a Londra da un oftalmologo qualificato per curare la sua malattia. E così accadde, e si fece come voleva lui e a sue spese. Onestamente Anne non riusciva giustificare tanta attenzione nei suoi confronti... forse a Henry importava davvero di lei più di quanto lasciasse intendere...
A tutto ciò che accade a Godmersham fa da sfondo un mistero, quello della scomparsa del padre di Anne che, una volta rimasto vedovo dalla moglie, si sbarazza della figlia, creando per lei, come abbiamo visto, una nuova vita, e facendo perdere ogni la sua traccia nella nebbia londinese. Di questo ella non parlerà mai con nessuno.
Anne ricorda che la vita del padre era sempre stata piuttosto insolita, che era spesso assente da casa e per lunghi periodi: lei presumeva fosse in viaggio per motivi di lavoro, ma non fece mai domande anche perché al suo ritorno la sua famiglia si riuniva sempre in armonia e con amore e tutto veniva dimenticato. 
Nella primavera del 1805 Harriot si trovava a Godmersham per prendere lezioni di pittura da Henry. Tutto ciò è perfettamente aderente alla realtà e ne troviamo conferma nei diari di Fanny dove ella scrisse: 

Lunedì 27 maggio 1805: Papà è andato a Canterbury a prendere zia Harriet [Harriot] per farle prendere lezioni di disegno da zio Henry Austen. 

IMMAGINE 4 - Fanny ritratta da adolescente in un'acquerello di Cassandra Austen

Tali incartamenti, conservati attualmente presso il Centre for Kentish Study a Maidstone, sono ovviamente anche una fonte di prima mano per le vicende complessive della vita di Jane Austen, anche se finora non sono mai stati pubblicati integralmente. Il figlio di Fanny, Lord Brabourne, curatore della prima edizione delle lettere di Jane, se ne servì sicuramente per le notizie biografiche inserite nel libro, ma poi rimasero inesplorati, fino a quando, negli anni ’80 del secolo scorso, Deirdre Le Faye ebbe la possibilità di utilizzarli nelle sue ricerche riguardanti le vicende biografiche austeniane. I diari sono stati anche la fonte principale usata da Margaret Wilson per il suo libro su Fanny (Margaret Wilson, Almost Another Sister. The Story of Fanny Knight, Jane Austen’s Favourite Niece, Kent Arts & Libraries, 1990).
Quanto alle vicende narrate nel romanzo, altro non voglio anticiparvi!

Alla luce del suo retroterra storico, Godmersham Park  si configura come un romanzo avvincente che vi guida e vi immerge nel mondo di Jane Austen, dove poco è lasciato, dall'autrice Gill Hornby, alla sua fantasia: la maggior parte dei fatti che vengono raccontati sono tratti, come detto poco sopra, dai diari di Fanny e dalle lettere ricevute da sua zia Jane, lettere che custodiva molto caramente e che leggeva per ore e ore. La 'zia scrittrice' era il suo idolo, qualcosa come una divinità cui voleva diventare simile. E Fanny era la nipote prediletta di Jane, come ella stessa scriverà in una lettera alla sorella Cassandra:

"Quello che dici di Fanny mi fa estremamente piacere; questa estate l’ho trovata proprio come la descrivi tu, quasi un’altra Sorella, e non avrei mai immaginato che una nipote potesse significare così tanto per me."

Poco importava che fosse la figlia del fratello 'ricco': la cosa principale era l'affinità di carattere che esisteva tra di loro e la differenza di età che con gli anni sembrerà farsi sempre meno - Fanny era nata il 23 gennaio 1793 quando zia Jane aveva compiuto diciassette anni da poco più di un mese. 
Da questo romanzo apprendiamo quindi che il rapporto tra Fanny e la zia Jane fu molto stretto, e gli incontri tra le due si fecero ancora più frequenti quando le Austen, nel 1809, andarono a vivere a Chawton, nel cottage che Edward aveva messo a disposizione della madre e delle sorelle. A Chawton c’era infatti un’altra grande villa padronale, chiamata la «Great House», nella quale non erano infrequenti le visite della famiglia di Godmersham.

Godmersham Park, che possiamo, quindi, definire a pieno titolo un romanzo storico, vi farà sentire, pagina dopo pagina, parte della vita di Jane Austen.
Vi consiglio con tutto il cuore di leggerlo, per me è stata davvero una gioia trovarmi a fianco di persone che realmente sono vissute in un mondo che ho sempre ammirato.

14 commenti:

  1. Oh, goodness, I can finally comment. I was having failures in Chrome and switched to Safari as a browser, and of course google wouldn't allow me to comment there. Everytime my ancient computer upgrades things get messed up. I've enjoyed your posts so much. This looks like a must read, the period is so interesting as women are just barely realizing they were human before woman. Hugs, and hope this gets through! Sandi

    1. Sandi,
      What a joy to have you here today, I've been missing you so much!
      I'm sorry to read that you had issues posting your comments, but I'm far glad that everything belongs to the past, today your words have reached me and made me feel so glad :)
      Sending blessings on your way, sweet lady ❥

  2. This sounds like a must-read for Austen fans, a tale right out of her world.

    1. messymimi,
      Yes, it is something you cannot miss if you love to find yourself in Austenland!
      May your day be filled with gladness ✿⊱╮

  3. Risposte
    1. Lillian,
      I'm far glad to read that you've enjoyed it, thank you!
      ♥♡♥ Sending hugs and more hugs to you ♥♡♥

  4. Oh this is going on my book list, for sure. I love Jane Austen and any book about her or those times. Thank you so much for the recommendation, going to go look for it now. Have a wonderful day ♥

    1. Sandra,
      Dear, I'm very proud to welcome you here, thank you for your beautiful visit and words. Actually I think it to be a book far out of our times... An example, you'd have a look at the cover, with its writings: the title, the name of the authoress, the image of the estate of Godmersham in the centre and some little figures in the corners representing the main characters in miniature. But if you look inside it, at its back side, it looks like the back side of an embroidered canvas!
      To me it's a little jewel!
      As for its plot, I'm sure you won't be disappointed.
      May your day too be wonderful, thank you once again ღ❀ღ

  5. Oh wow I don't recall hearing that people with large families would adopt their children out, I suppose that could change their life forever either in a good way or bad, in his case it worked out ok. Even back then Henry had many jobs, you see that again today how people change jobs. I am going to check and see if my library has that book, thanks :)

    1. Conniecrafter,
      I also feel annoyed reading such things today, with the importance we have discovered in recent times that parents have for the personality of a child. As you say, for Edward Austen it worked out good, he became rich, with a large family of its own and able to help his poorest relatives, such as Cassandra, Jane and his real mother, she who really put him into the world.
      I'm sure you'll find it quite easily, and hope that you'll enjoy this reading as I did.
      Hope you had a lovely week, I'm sending blessings on your weekend ahead,
      Dearie ஜ~Ƹ̴Ӂ̴Ʒ~ஜ

  6. Love it.

    1. Anonimo,
      I'm sincerely happy to read these words from you, I thank you from the deep of my heart!
      May your weekend to come be filled with Joy and Wonder ஜ♥♡♥ஜ

  7. What a wonderful story you've shared here Dani! You have a way of bringing out amazing details through your amazing research. This sounds like a wonderful book to read, thank you for such a lovely review! Like you, I do love Jane Austen, and this would be a book that would further enrich the story of her life! Blessings to you :)

    1. Marilyn,
      Dear, your lovely comments are like bright rays of cheerful sunshine, thank you!
      I'm far sure that if you love Jane Austen and everything belonging to her world and life, you'll enjoy this reading, indeed, you'll read this book little by little, as I did, because I was afraid that it ended too soon!
      May you be blessed greatly in your weekend and the coming new week ಌ•❤•ಌ