From the desk of Molly Greeley:
The mystique of the Brontë sisters hasn’t lessened in the years since they wrote their extraordinary novels. Their brother Branwell is remembered by history less for his literary talents than for his notorious addictions, and for the alleged affair he had with his pupil’s mother, Lydia Robinson. In Brontë’s Mistress, Finola Austin explores this affair from Lydia’s perspective with both compassion and a good writer’s capacity to empathically—and mercilessly—depict her characters as fully-realized people, at both their best and their worst.
Lydia is the original Mrs. Robinson, and not only in name: a mother of five, trapped in a marriage with a cold and unaffectionate man, unfulfilled by the narrow role deemed socially acceptable for women, and desperate for love and attention, she finds herself drawn to her son’s tutor, the handsome, poetic, and much-younger-than-she-is Branwell Brontë.
Their affair is passionate, sweeping Lydia away from the dullness of her everyday life. She revels, at first, in Branwell’s capacity for love, and in his willingness to speak of things most people in her circles of acquaintance never would, and his unconventionality frees Lydia to express her own.
He “railed against convention, society, religion, talking about us but not about us, redirecting his fire towards the legal and spiritual strictures that kept us apart… I joined him, dancing closer and closer to the precipice and uncovering aspects of my nature I’d never thought8 to expose to the light, delighting in our shared, secret, impotent rage.” (121).
But soon enough, Lydia comes to see Branwell’s many flaws, and as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, his vices more obvious, she becomes fearful of the whispered rumors about them that have already begun circulating. She worries, of course, about the servants’ talk, but also about Branwell’s literary sisters—with whom she has something of an obsession and who, she fears, might put the story of their brother’s affair in their work.
Though Brontë’s Mistress is ostensibly the untold tale of Lydia’s and Branwell’s love affair, it is actually so much more—and so much more interesting—than that. Austin’s meticulous research situates readers easily within the time period of the novel without hitting them over the head with excessive historical detail, but it is her talents for writing complex, nuanced characters and thoughtful social and historical commentary that make this book truly wonderful. Austin made me truly feel the suffocation of Lydia’s life and the devastation of her many losses, including the loss of her youngest child, which Austin writes in spare, painful prose. I felt the simultaneous attraction and repulsion she experienced toward her prescribed roles as woman, wife, and even mother, and the sparks of light and pleasure her time with Branwell offered.
I found myself feeling deeply for Lydia throughout the book, even as I didn’t always like her very much. She is as fully-conceived a character as any I’ve read. I was enormously frustrated by many of her choices, yet I understood them, even felt that, in her situation, my own decisions might be exactly the same; and often those choices were all the more wrenching because they thrust her back, again and again, into the same societal traps against which she railed. Austin is masterful in the way she not only shows the tragedy of Lydia’s inability to escape the confines of her gilded cage, but the tragic and disturbing way she does her best to set her own daughters on the same socially acceptable course that she herself finds so smothering.
Filled with passions at once carefully suppressed and uncontainable, Brontë’s Mistress is a beautiful, tightly coiled story that will likely stay with readers long after they have read the final page.
5 out of 5 Stars
- Brontë’s Mistress: A Novel, by Finola Austin
- Atria Books (August 04, 2020)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobooks (320) pages
- ISBN: 978-1982137236
- Genre: Historical Fiction, Victorian Fiction
GUEST REVIEWER BIO
Molly Greeley is the debut author of The Clergyman’s Wife: A Pride & Prejudice Novel (2019). She earned her bachelor’s degree in English, with a creative writing emphasis, from Michigan State University, where she was the recipient of the Louis B. Sudler Prize in the Arts for Creative Writing. Her short stories and essays have been published in Cicada, Carve, and Literary Mama. She works as on social media for a local business, is married and the mother of three children but her Sunday afternoons are devoted to weaving stories into books. Her next novel, The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh (A Pride and Prejudice Novel) releases on January 5, 2021. Visit Molly at her website.
We received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose in an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of Atria Books © 2020; text Molly Greeley © 2020, austenprose.com.