Author Essie Fox reviews Finola Austin’s “remarkable” debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress.
Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin is a literary novel created in the classic style of Victorian sensation. It also echoes certain themes from the Brontë sisters’ work. But at the centre of this novel is not some younger woman in the throes of her first love; this story centres on the older, married, Lydia Robinson who, as the mistress of Thorpe Green Hall, embarks on an affair with Branwell Brontë, who has been employed as tutor for her son.
Finola Austin has meticulously researched all information available about this scandal, whether from primary accounts or through the rumours that abounded. Taking these facts as her foundations she has constructed a remarkable depiction of a woman who is thwarted by her age, by her sex, and the restrictions of the era she’s been born in.
When we first meet with Lydia, she is nearing her middle age, and also grieving for the loss of a beloved infant daughter. Branwell is also prone to mourning for Maria, the older sister who had died at just eleven, who he’d loved as dearly as a mother. (There is more than a hint of an Oedipal attraction between himself and Lydia.)
Lydia’s husband is neglectful of her need for consolation, as well as her physical desires, leading his discontented wife to look elsewhere to be fulfilled.
And although she would most likely be considered in her prime if living in the present day, in the 19th century – and with daughters who were on the cusp of adulthood themselves – Lydia would have been conscious of the social expectations to transition from the role of fertile mother with an element of power in her home, to that of barren sexless wife.
The tyranny of such conventions, and the oppression of religion threaten to crush the vibrant soul of the woman for whom death and growing old is ever-present. Not that Lydia is cowed. She wants to live, and to the full – which is why she grasps the nettle of a dangerous flirtation that soon becomes a full affair.
The risks of such behaviour cannot be underestimated. Lydia could have been divorced, declared insane, or sent away without a penny to her name. She could have also been denied all rights for any future contact with the children of her marriage. But she persists in the affair with a man younger than herself, whatever shame that choice might bring.
Her happiness is fleeting as reality bites back. The interests she and Branwell may have shared, essentially a love of literature and art, are soon outweighed by his continual and drunken indiscretions. Attentions that were welcomed become too stifling by far, not to mention disappointment when Lydia can clearly see that as a poet and an artist, Branwell Brontë is nowhere as talented as he may think.
When the affair has been exposed and his position terminated, with Branwell leaving Thorpe Green Hall (as does his sister Anne, who’d been employed as governess to Lydia’s daughters), he still continues to embarrass his ex-lover with elaborate protestations of his love printed in the local press, albeit under a false name.
Lydia’s status and reputation could all too easily be lost, but an unexpected tragedy releases her at last, after which she is spurred on to reveal a core of steel in her sheer determination to overcome social constraints and satisfy her own desires and ambitions for the future.
Will she succeed? I’ll only say that when the novel reached its end, I found myself asking the question: Is Lydia Robinson a victim of her own time – or of herself?
Essie Fox is the author of three novels set in the Victorian era.
Her latest, The Last Days of Leda Grey, moves forward in time to tell the story of an enigmatic silent film actress whose obsessive love affair leaves her abandoned and alone for more than half a century.
Monk’s House, Thorp Green, where Branwell lived: by Finola Austin
Branwell Brontë’s drawing of himself with his sisters, the ‘Gun Portrait‘, from Haworth – Past and Present: a History of Haworth, Stanbury & Oxenhope by J Horsfall Turner: via the Hathi Trust