Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin
Published by: Atria Books
Publish Date: August 2020
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical, Romance
HB&W Rating: 4
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This dazzling debut novel for fans of Mrs. Poe and Longbourn explores the scandalous historical love affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, giving voice to the woman who allegedly corrupted her son’s innocent tutor and brought down the entire Brontë family.
Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson—mistress of Thorp Green Hall—has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.
All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly 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’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction.
But Lydia’s new taste of passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship spout from her servants’ lips, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Lydia to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.
Meticulously researched and deliciously told, Brontë’s Mistress is a captivating reimagining of the scandalous affair that has divided Brontë enthusiasts for generations and an illuminating portrait of a courageous, sharp-witted woman who fights to emerge with her dignity intact.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
I really liked this book! It was an interesting interpretation of facts written into a plausible explanation of the events surrounding the rumored scandalous affair between Lydia Robinson and her son’s young tutor, Branwell Brontë. Yup, THOSE Brontës, and an affair that has captivated the interest of English majors and Brontë enthusiasts for almost 200 years, from a perspective that has never been heard from before: Mrs. Robinson.
I’m still not certain, in the end, whether I felt Lydia was a completely likable character or not, but she was certainly a compelling one. She is a woman who feels increasingly more and more alone. She feels unneeded, unwanted, superfluous, trapped, and stifled, when she feels like she still has so much left to give. She yearns for the passion and attention she had with her husband at the start of their marriage. She misses the days when she dazzled at parties, when people would beg to hear her play the pianoforte.
Lydia wants what many women want at this juncture in their lives, to feel desirable, seen, heard, important. She wants to be more than just a mother, wife, sister, and that is immensely easy to sympathize with. Sadly, she lives in 1843, and opportunities for women were pretty few in those days: make an advantageous marriage, have babies, preferably boys, run the household. And just when she is feeling these things most, she comes home to meet her son’s new tutor.
With passionate, young, poetic Branwell Brontë, Lydia starts to feel desirable again. She revels in the the power she has over Brontë, doling out her affections or withholding them throughout the flirtation she has started with her young employee. But then it becomes something more, particularly for him. And when servants begin to talk, Lydia begins to find out that actions have consequences.
This novel is put together so well. Honestly, I was just so impressed with how the author took her research into the lives of the very real people, places, and circumstances and wove together a story so rich in nuance that it made quite a plausible example of how this point in history could have played out.
You can’t help but empathize with Lydia’s motivations, even as you want to throttle her for the things she says and does, particularly where her children are concerned. But that’s just part of what makes her such a compelling character.
On a side note, the entire time I was reading this book, I kept thinking of that old Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson,” which was written for the film adaptation of The Graduate. Admittedly, I never read the book or saw the movie, but after doing a little digging, I found it very interesting that the author of The Graduate, Charles Webb, chose to name the married woman chasing the son of her husband’s colleague as “Mrs. Robinson.” I also found it rather interesting that the protagonist of the story is named Benjamin Braddock. The same initials as our Branwell Brontë, hmmmm…. Maybe that’s all just coincidental, but it is cause for speculation. Perhaps we should ask Mr. Webb, but I digress.
If you enjoy historical fiction highlighting untold viewpoints around real-life people and well-known events, I highly recommend this book. I really enjoyed this debut novel and I look forward to reading more from Ms. Austin.
*Thank you to Atria Books and Finola Austin, who provided me with an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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