Monday, August 10, 2020

Monday, August 10, 2020 12:30 am by Cristina in , ,    5 comments
We received a review copy of this book.
Brontë’s Mistress: A Novel  
Finola Austin
Atria Books (August 04, 2020)
ISBN: 978-1982137236 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1982137250 (ebook)
ISBN: 9781797106878 (audiobook)
In the Author's Note to her new novel, Finola Austin shares how she came to write this book after reading about the Robinson affair in Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë.
I learned that no one else had written the novel I was aching to write.
And then an echo of Charlotte Brontë:
but my novel would have a heroine that a Brontë novel hadn't seen before: older, richer, and sexually experienced, with children of her own.
And she also says that, when she first Googled it, she saw that
there was scholarly debate about whether the affair had happened at all.
Which is indeed the case. As with Branwell's trip or not to London to take the examination for the Royal Academy of Arts, the Robinson affair is enmeshed in Branwell's rich story-telling and locked at the core of the Brontë family story. Admittedly, it is not a coincidence that two of the most intriguing stories about the Brontës concern Branwell, the only boy among many girls, the be-all-end-all of any Victorian family.

And that ambiguity is perhaps the best spring from which to launch a fictional tale. Finola Austin avails herself of all of the hard facts at her disposal, including names, places and dates, and uses them as the scaffolding on which to create not so much Branwell's story but Lydia's tale: Brontë's mistress.

Up until we read Brontë's Mistress we hadn't strayed from Elizabeth Gaskell's Victorian vision of Mrs Robinson as the one-dimensional evil seductress of a pure and virginal younger boy. But what if she was something else? Here's Finola Austin's radical idea: what if she was a flesh-and-bone woman with many shortcomings and shaped by circumstances like the rest of us? A woman with needs that were frowned upon by Victorian society? The Brontë story has never been favourable to her and all evidence, necessarily one-sided, points to her being a cold, ambitious woman. Finola Austin doesn't deny these facts at all but fleshes her out to be more than just them by pointing out one of the many flaws of the Victorian approach to the education of women from the middle and upper classes. They were educated to play the peacock in order to gain a husband who, subsequently, would lead his own life, leaving them alone most of the time. Many women put that time to good use, of course, but many didn't and were bored most of the time. The tragedy here is not just Branwell's fate, but also the fact that a woman was brought up by her family and her circumstances to be Gaskell's seductress, a view of her which Victorian society took up easily and with gusto and, what's worse, a view of her which we, after all these decades, still accept unquestioningly. And that, to us, is the great achievement of this novel: the new perspective on Lydia. Again, this book and new perspective are far from being a hagiography, which would have been a mistake in the face of the scant facts that we do have--Lydia's flaws are far from swept under the carpet--but Finola Austin tries to imagine what else she could have been or why she may have been like she was or why society may not have taken well to her personality.

The premise of the novel is that a diary by Lydia Robinson (later Lady Scott) is found in Queen Ethelburga's Collegiate (the actual school housed in what used to be Thorp Green), so the narrator is Lydia herself. The novel starts off slowly but reaches a point when it's hard to put down and has the reader suspend disbelief completely, even at some points which, looked at coldly and separately, are hard to swallow, but still work within this narrative. This Branwell Brontë may not be what you had in mind, this Lydia Robinson may not be what you had in mind but, within this story, they are believable and working characters, which is all you should ask a work of fiction.

The only piece of the puzzle that didn't seem to work for us was Lydia's obsession/comparison with Charlotte Brontë. We didn't find that it enabled the narrative in any way and, quite honestly, it always sounded quite out of tune and rather forced. Towards the end, when words from Jane Eyre are put in Lydia's mouth it made us wince too(1).

On the other hand, Lydia's contempt for Anne, even if very painful to read, is understandable and fits the real story and we had a feeling that the author herself had suffered as much writing those exchanges as the reader does reading them. We hope we are not wrong.

One of the things we enjoyed the most was the depiction of Lydia's attitude to her daughters, which doesn't seem to deviate from what we actually know of it and includes real-life episodes from their lives (including a welcome reference to their descendants in the Author's Note). Lydia's mother-in-law, crafted from a tiny reference in an actual letter, is pure gold too. Both Edmunds, father and son, are rather vague. Early in the novel, there's an episode involving young Edmund which would seem to connect it to a dark rumour of Brontë lore but it is never picked up again.

Overall, research and background information do come across as painstakingly thorough and in-depth, with not a stone unturned in the search for details. Finola Austin herself is well-versed in Victorian matters(2). And we were glad and reassured to see Mick Armitage of The Scarborough Connection mentioned as one of the sources of information as well as the more usual acknowledgement of the help provided by the Brontë Parsonage Museum staff. However, a couple of small things seem to have slipped under the radar. Flossy, Anne's dog given to her by the Robinson girls, is referred to in the book as a 'she' and a terrier but it was a 'he' and a spaniel(3). We also have our doubts as to whether Lydia Robinson would have used this turn of phrase in her diary had she kept one in real life:
My sister had been twisting her head this way and that as if following a game of tennis.
Tennis, or lawn-tennis as it was first called, didn't gain popularity until well into the 1870s.

But none of that deprives the reader of enjoying this made-up glimpse into one of the most intriguing episodes in the story of the Brontë family. It is also an interesting lesson and cautionary tale about not taking anything for granted, particularly when it comes to judging a woman based on thankfully-outdated Victorian standards. That, to us, is the greatest achievement of this novel: getting the reader, particularly if he or she is a Brontëite, to question and challenge notions that have been handed down matter-of-factly throughout the years and the biographies. It is an absorbing and entertaining story with the bonus of being well-crafted and respectful of facts and known dates. The Author's Note at the end explains away any possible 'but' that may have cropped up during the narrative and shows a rare commitment to facts. Finola Austin's enthusiasm and savoir-faire shines throughout the novel and will win over many reluctant readers. An interesting addition to Brontë-inspired fiction.


(1) Similarly, Branwell writing a letter which includes words from Wuthering Heights and which would seem to reinforce the unfunded theory that Branwell had a hand in Wuthering Heights.


(3) Many online sites devoted to the Brontës still describe Flossy as a 'she' but it was a 'he' as written by Anne Brontë in her 1845 diary paper and Charlotte Brontë when she reported his death to Ellen Nussey on 7 December 1854. Both The Oxford Companion to the Brontës and A Brontë Encyclopedia say it was a male. A Brontë Encyclopedia thinks that the confusion may have originated in Elizabeth Gaskell mistranscribing the above-mentioned letter. After that, biographers like Winifred Gérin and others took it for granted that it was a female. The confusion may also spring from the fact that Ellen Nussey received one of his puppies.


  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful review! I'm so happy you enjoyed the book. On Flossy, I did come across this error recently when the text was already finalised. I think the first time I read a reference to the dog, Flossy was referred to as "she" and I didn't interrogate this/look into it. I also came across something recently that suggested the dog might have come to Haworth before Anne's resignation? I'd love any further info on that if it's something you've come across. Thank you again! Finola

    1. Thanks for your comment. The logical thing is to think that Flossy, with that name, was a 'she' and there are scholarly books who treat her as a she, so no worries.

      Thank you and best of luck.

  2. It is great to read a tempered review from a Bronte authority. Thank you for participating in the tour Cristina, and for the lovely review in support of Finola and her new novel.

    1. Thank you for asking us to join in the fun. It's been quite a treat! Best of luck to you both.

  3. I really enjoyed your perspective. Thanks for sharing