Finola Austin had felt an affinity with the Brontë sisters for many years, but it was only while reading a biography of Charlotte that she became interested in their brother Branwell, who died young, like his sisters – but with his potential unfulfilled. His decline was blamed on a scandal involving Lydia, the older, married woman who was his employer. Fascinated, Finola investigated Branwell’s own Mrs Robinson; and the result, as she tells Historia, is her first novel: Brontë’s Mistress.
I was only meant to move to America for a year – two at most. The goodbye BBQ my parents hosted for me was something of a chaotic, wonderful embarrassment. I hadn’t lived at home in Northern Ireland for five years, and, besides, I wouldn’t be gone from the UK for long.
The biggest casualty of the move was my books. They’d been my constant companions at Oxford, where I’d studied for a BA in Classics and English, and then a Master’s in 19th-century literature, and in London, where my flatmates had indulged me, letting me claim more than my fair share of our living room shelves. But now my books were in boxes, in my family home, on the other side of the Atlantic, patiently awaiting my return.
A year passed. Then two. My love affair with New York City became more than just a fling. It was time for commitment. As soon as I moved into an apartment I didn’t have to share, I shipped my books over. With the boxes’ arrival, I made a promise to myself: I would read the books I owned but had never read. One of these was Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë, the biography that established the ‘Brontë Myth’.
The Brontë sisters had been among my favourite writers for years. This wasn’t just because they’d lived during my favourite century. I responded to so much in their novels – the passion of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, the violence of Emily’s Wuthering Heights, the sharp social commentary of Anne’s Agnes Grey. And I also felt a strange kinship with the family.
Like the Brontës, I was Irish, but not Irish enough. My father is from Belfast, my mother is half English, half Welsh, and I was born in Kent, before moving to Northern Ireland shortly before my sixth birthday. The Brontës were born and bred in Yorkshire, but their voices still retained traces of their father’s Irish brogue.
And, like the Brontës, the most meaningful part of my childhood had been spent playacting and storytelling. My younger sister and I had devised worlds as elaborate as Angria and Gondal. Pretentious as it sounds, as a teenager, when I read about the Brontës’ lives, my first thought was: “they were like me”.
When I read Gaskell’s biography though, I was a struck by a new detail about the Brontë story that I hadn’t come across before. I knew that Charlotte, Emily and Anne had a brother – Branwell. The only son, as in so many families, was considered the genius in the household, the one who would go on to achieve greatness. But Branwell died aged 31, an alcoholic and an opium addict.
Like his sisters, he’d engaged in imaginative play and dreamed of being a writer, but, while his siblings are still celebrated today for their original talent, Branwell found only infamy. Mrs Gaskell blamed one person for his demise – and it wasn’t Branwell himself. She levelled the charge that Branwell’s death, and even those of his sisters, was due to the ‘profligate woman’ who had ‘tempted’ this beloved brother into sin.
Lydia Robinson, the woman Gaskell was writing about, wasn’t named in her book. But still the character assassination, which accused the married Lydia of entering into a sexual affair with Branwell when he was engaged as tutor to her young son, was cutting. Lydia’s lawyers threatened Gaskell with a libel lawsuit, and so the biographer withdrew her allegations.
I was fascinated. Was the story true? And who was Lydia, the woman history has cast as the original Mrs Robinson? Like someone possessed, I set aside all other creative projects and dedicated the next year of life to intensive research into everything that had ever been written about this scandalous Brontë affair.
I started with biographies, from Juliet Barker’s comprehensive 1995 work on the entire family, to Daphne du Maurier’s more romantic The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë from 1961. I pored over journal articles from the last two centuries, as scholars debated whether Branwell had been deluded, seduced, or both.
Some academics had even more outlandish, and frankly homophobic, theories, suggesting that Branwell had invented the affair to cover up sexual abuse of his pupil, and offering as evidence the fact that the boy had never married!
Once I’d discovered all I could from secondary literature, I went deeper by consulting primary sources. George Whitehead, a working class man in the vicinity of the Ouseburns (the two villages near where the Robinson family lived), had kept diaries of births, deaths, marriages and ‘sundries’ in the area for decades during the nineteenth century, which had been published as Victorian Ouseburn in 1990, thanks to the efforts of local historians.
I used digitised census records to discover the names of Lydia’s servants and then cross referenced these with the Whitehead diaries to build up a detailed picture of their roles and their families. As a result, every character in my novel, human or animal (with the exception of one horse!), is real.
My research took me down countless bizarre rabbit holes. I sought out autobiographical poetry written by the local curate. I looked into the records of the York Medical Society. I learned about 19th-century Freemasonry in Yorkshire. I searched for playbills from a long-gone theatre in the Robinsons’ holiday spot, Scarborough, and more.
By the time I started writing the book that would become Brontë’s Mistress, Lydia’s world was very much alive to me – one reason I drafted the novel so quickly. Six months later I had a completed manuscript, and so booked my flights back to the UK to further my research on the ground.
First, I visited Great and Little Ouseburn, staying in an outbuilding of the post office (now a comfortable Airbnb) and tramping by foot across the beautiful countryside.
Lydia’s house is gone, but I saw Monk’s House, the outbuilding where Branwell slept. I visited the villages’ churches and found many of my characters’ graves. I discovered which house had once belonged to the doctor, a key figure in the Branwell/Lydia affair, and was invited to take tea in the parlour.
Then I went to Haworth, home of the Brontës. I’d been dreaming of the Parsonage, fronted by gravestones, with its back to the moor, since my teens, but now I visited as a researcher, not just a fan and a tourist.
I spent hours in the archives looking through the ‘Robinson papers’ – all documents the museum has related to the family that was so central to Branwell’s story. These include 18 letters from Lydia herself, which were particularly thrilling for me to hold, as well as an inventory of furniture in the house (the basis of most of my descriptions of its interior) and many financial and legal documents.
At the end of my book, I include a lengthy author’s note detailing why I characterised the affair the way I did in Brontë’s Mistress – and which side of the academic debate I’m on.
While historians search for truth, I see my role as a historical novelist as conveying emotional truth, and creating stories within the silences that history leaves us. I wrote the Branwell/Lydia affair as it could have happened, and along the way gave voice to a woman, whom history has routinely forgotten or demonised.
Being reunited with my books didn’t just make my apartment feel like my home, they transported me to another time and another world. I hope my novel achieves the same for the historical fiction fans and fellow Brontë lovers who read it.
Finola Austin, also known as the Secret Victorianist, is an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist and lover of the 19th century. Bronte’s Mistress is her first novel. By day, she works in digital advertising.
The Brontë sisters (Anne, Emily, Charlotte) by Branwell (restored): via Wikimedia
Branwell’s drawing of himself awaiting death: via Wikimedia
Portrait of Branwell by Miss E Taylor in Charlotte Brontë at home by Marion Harland: via Internet Archive
The Parsonage, Haworth, by DS Pugh: via Geograph
Monk’s House, Thorp Green: Finola Austin