Jane Austen's last letter from Chawton in May 1817, before she left for Winchester to die, was to Anne Sharp, calling her "my dearest Anne" and herself "your attached friend". However, there is no mention of a friendship between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp in her nephew James Austen-Leigh's memoir of 1870.
Details of the friendship, as well as Anne Sharp herself, remain obscure, which is what the Austen family wanted.
Anne Sharp was of the servant class, a governess to Jane Austen's niece Fanny at Godmersham Park, the country home of Jane Austen's wealthy brother Edward and his wife Elizabeth.
Such a friendship flouted the social conventions of the time and, by not including it in their official version of Austen's life, the Austen family created one of literature's secrets.
Anne Sharp only emerged from obscurity in 1926, when the London Times published, in full, two previously unseen letters addressed to Anne, Jane Austen's from Chawton and one from Jane's sister Cassandra after Jane's death.
The Times article, subtitled "Devoted Friends" called Anne "a shadowy figure", for whom Jane Austen held "no ordinary affection". Cassandra's letter, however, has a different tone. She accuses Anne of "ardent feelings", while asserting her own claim to Jane's affections.
Clues do remain to the depth of the friendship, especially in Anne Sharp's autographed first edition of Emma. Jane Austen was allocated 12 presentation copies by her publisher; Anne's is the only copy given to a personal friend.
Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Austen, describes Anne as a "truly compatible spirit" to Jane. Although delicate in health, she was "clever, keen on acting and quick enough with her pen to write a play for the children [at Godmersham] to perform called 'Pride Punished' or 'Innocence Rewarded'".
The surviving letters prove the friendship was sustained until Austen's death, but the family didn't encourage it and the letters between them, except for Austen's farewell letter, were destroyed, probably by Cassandra.
Little is known of Anne Sharp before her arrival at Godmersham Park, aged 31, in January 1804. She did arrive in mourning, which suggests the recent death of a relative and her own financial difficulties. However, during Anne's two years working for the Austen family, young Fanny Austen kept pocket diaries in which she meticulously recorded daily events. They have survived as a rich source of information not only about Anne Sharp but also Austen.
Gill Hornby, in Godmersham Park, uses Fanny's diaries as well as her imagination to reconstruct Anne's years at the Park and her interactions with the Austen Family.
Hornby creates a believable backstory of a well-educated woman with a love of Shakespeare and poetry, especially William Cowper, who has rejected many offers of marriage. Her mother has recently died and her father has disappeared. With no home and little money, her only option is to become a governess.
Anne is tall, attractive and a woman of intense feelings: "where she loved, there she loved absolutely . . . she fully accepted that, one day, it might bring on her undoing. Yet she could not change it, could not see why one would even live in this world without ecstasy, or misery and genuine feeling".
Anne knows she will have to suppress her appearance and her intensity, as governesses were expected, especially by the mistress of the house, to be plain in dress and manner.
She also quickly learns that the role of the governess is unique in the household. She's not considered one of the servants, nor one of the family. She has to eat alone in her attic room and to endure the contempt of the other servants.
However, some members of the extended family do seek out Anne when they come to stay. Harriot Bridges, Elizabeth's sister, enjoys her company, as does Henry Austen, Edward's handsome brother.
But it's another Austen whose company she seeks and treasures. The arrival of Jane Austen, with her mother and her sister Cassandra, bring laughter, intelligent conversation and writing back into Anne's life.
Jane may not have her brother's "confident dazzle" but she can "bewitch with the nib of her pen". Happiness grows with the friendship, as Anne reveals the cleverness she has long hidden.
There's more to Godmersham Park than an effort to bring to life Jane Austen and her family. Hornby explores the perilous situation many Regency women of a certain class faced when left without family support. There was nothing romantic about the life of a governess.
Hornby is a skilled story-teller and her Jane Austen is someone many of us would love to meet.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.