Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin: Emotionally powerful and written with immense sensitivity - book review -
While the gifted Brontë sisters turned the eyes of the world on their sheltered lives in the windswept hills of West Yorkshire, there was another member of the famous family who was busy courting gossip, scandal and ruin.
The only brother of literary legends Charlotte, Emily and Anne, would-be poet and painter Branwell had grand artistic ambitions and was the child whom the family had firmly believed was destined for greatness.
But Branwell’s latent talent was never fulfilled, and his life ended in despair and ignominy at the age of 31 after empty years of opium and alcohol addiction, and rumours of a scandalous affair with the middle-aged, married mother of a boy he was tutoring.
The story of his illicit liaison is one that has intrigued readers and divided opinion for years, and now Finola Austin, an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist has harnessed her lifelong fascination with the Brontës for a dazzling and seductive debut novel exploring the affair that helped to hasten Branwell’s demise.
But in her enthralling reimagining, Austin rejects the assertion in Victorian author Elizabeth Gaskell’s first ever Brontë biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, that Lydia Robinson, the woman at the centre of the scandal, was a ‘wretched’ and ‘profligate’ woman who had ‘tempted’ Branwell into sin.
In Brontë’s Mistress, it takes two to tango as we meet a restless, unhappy woman, newly bereaved and trapped by social convention and a marriage in which passion has long since been spent, and a handsome, articulate and darkly exciting young man eager for love, life, new experiences, and forbidden sex.
In January of 1843, 43-year-old Lydia Robinson is returning to Thorp Green Hall, her bleak home near York, feeling grief-stricken and unsettled after the death of both her mother and her precious youngest daughter Georgiana within twelve months.
With her teenage daughters rebelling, her cantankerous mother-in-law scrutinising her every move, and her marriage to Edmund grown cold and passionless, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more in her life than needlework and visiting the sick and poor.
All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and their other writer sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with, including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family, but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia.
Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he is only 25 and he lights ‘a fire deep inside’ the sophisticated and clever communicator Lydia. A love of poetry, music, and theatre soon bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colourful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and excitingly imaginative worlds form the backdrop for seduction.
But Lydia’s new taste of long-lost passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behaviour grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship fall from the lips of her servants, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters.
Soon, the worldly wise Lydia must try to save not just her reputation but her way of life, before those clever Brontë girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. But, unfortunately, she might be too late...
Austin’s atmospheric, feminist take on the life and loves of one of the least known members of the remarkable Brontë brood positively crackles with sexual tension as Lydia and Branwell are swept up into a relationship which can only ever end in disillusionment and disgrace.
This is Mrs Robinson placed firmly at centre stage, and creatively and carefully rendered as a complex and compelling quasi-feminist heroine… sometimes shrewish and sometimes selfish, but constantly railing against a life constrained by expectation, family duty, and a husband without either understanding or passion.
Educated and dutiful, the Lydia we first meet is still raw from the loss of both her youngest daughter and her beloved mother. Lonely, miserable and oppressed, she is ripe for the charms of a young man whose ‘otherness’ and mystery offer a panacea to her fears over ageing and a loss of purpose.
But Lydia is also smart and brave, and soon recognises that her young lover is flawed and unstable, and not the romantic, empathetic soulmate she had so desperately desired. And with her fighting spirit ignited, she is determined to emerge with her dignity intact.
Emotionally powerful, written with immense sensitivity, and inspired by a mission to finally give a voice to the mysterious and enigmatic Lydia, this is a captivating new chapter from a shadowy corner of the extraordinary Brontë family.
(Simon & Schuster UK, hardback, £20)