Finola Austin’s compelling debut novel explores the allegedly scandalous relationship between the brother of the Brontë sisters, Branwell, and Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer. Released in 2020, it’s long been on my TBR pile. Thankfully it was nudged up the list after being chosen as February’s novel for my Brontë-themed book club.
The novel opens in 1843 at the beginning of Lydia and Branwell’s relationship following his appointment as tutor to her son. Lydia has spent years trapped in a stale marriage with Edmund and spends a lot of her time chiding her daughters whilst trying to prepare them for the world, as well as looking down upon their governess, Branwell’s sister Anne. Before long, Lydia finds herself becoming drawn to this enigmatic and troubled poet. But how much does she long for him, and how much does she simply long for the attention he bestows upon her?
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I’ve wanted to read it since its publication and I’m so glad I finally have. Don’t be misled by the title into thinking that this is a book about the Brontës – this is a book about Lydia Robinson. Although the Brontë’s feature, they do so briefly, and we see them from Lydia’s point of view. History has painted Lydia as Branwell Brontë’s lover and his destroyer but, like any woman, she is much more complex than that. It’s hard not to empathise with Lydia as her struggles spill onto the page. She may be a wealthy woman, but she is just a woman in the eyes of Victorian society and a second class citizen. Whilst she’s not quite in the same league as Becky Sharp, she is a character who must – and does – use every trick and ounce of courage she has to survive in a man’s world.
Austin does a fantastic job of fleshing out a character for her and making us realise that whatever we think of the rumours that have dogged her reputation since her alleged tryst with Branwell, there is much more to her than that. This is not a Lydia whose life is centred around him, but rather Branwell is a part of HER life and just a small one at that. The story doesn’t end when Branwell is dismissed from his employment with the Robinson family, and nor does it follow his character back to Haworth either. This is a narrative rippling with longing, desire, power, control, and womanhood. This is Lydia’s story.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019)
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
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1 thought on “Brontë’s Mistress Review”
Well, this sounds like a must-read, Nicola, and from an author (as I’ve been reading) who knows her chops! I’m glad it focuses on the other party, as it were, so we don’t just think Branwell is the designated centre of attention.
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