Gothic novels have thrilled readers for centuries. Questions of the unknown and what lies in wait in the darkness has been the subject of countless stories across the generations.
The new novel, Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, was released back in June. Noemí Taboada is a young debutante in early 1950’s Mexico. Though she is very used to the material comforts of life, she is also stubborn, intelligent, and unafraid. When Noemí receives a disturbing letter from her newlywed cousin, Catalina, she jumps on the first train she can get on.
Catalina’s new husband is the heir of wealthy family with English origins. Once upon a time, their wealth came from local mines. But those mines have long since gone dark. Noemí discovers that the cousin she knew is that not the woman in front of her. There are also disturbing questions about the family Catalina has married into.
Can Noemí discover their secrets? Will she and Catalina get out of there safely or will they be held prisoner for the rest of their days?
Previous reviews have compared this book to Rebecca andJane Eyre. The comparisons are fair. The Gothic elements are skillfully woven into the narrative. That being said, this book was a little disappointing. The big reveal is not as earth-shattering as I expected it to be. The ending is also a little bit of a letdown for my taste.
Do I recommend it? Maybe with a slight lean toward no.
Among Bronte fans, Lydia Robinson is seen as a controversial figure. Employing both Anne and Branwell as a governess and a tutor respectively, Lydia appeared to dutifully follow the rules of both gender and class that ruled women of the Victorian era. She was also having an alleged affair with Branwell. Bronte’s Mistress, the debut novel by Finola Austin, gives Lydia the voice that fans of the Bronte’s have yet to hear.
I’m looking forward to the novel and I am thrilled that Finola will be answering a few questions.
AB: What drew you to the Brontes and more specifically, Lydia’s story?
FA: I have always loved Victorian literature. I grew up reading the novels of writers such as Charles Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy, and studied Classics & English as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. I then stayed on at Oxford to complete a Masters in English Literature, 1800-1914. My dissertation was on the works of Victorian sensation novelists Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, but I also wrote an essay on student/teacher attraction in the novels of Charlotte Bronte as part of my graduate studies.
I was drawn to Lydia’s story in 2016 when I finally read Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte (the first Bronte biography). It was a book I’d been meaning to read for a very long time. Gaskell describes Lydia as a “profligate woman,” who “tempted” Branwell into sin. I was enthralled by the scandal and controversy (Lydia threatened to sue Gaskell for libel), as well as by the Bronte connection. I just knew this was a story I had to tell.
AB: When did you read your first Bronte novel and what was your impression of that first book?
FA: My first Bronte novel was Jane Eyre and it was read to me by my mother, when I was pretty young—I’d guess I was seven or eight at the time? I loved the book, especially the early sections set during Jane’s horrific schooldays. But, even as a child, I had questions. I didn’t think I’d have been as good as Jane, refusing to live in sin with Rochester, and I thought Jane was very judgmental, especially of Blanche Ingram. Wasn’t she just trying to make her own way as Jane was?
AB: Do you have a favorite Bronte novel?
FA: Jane Eyre is probably still my favorite, though I also love Charlotte’s Villette.
AB: You spent a year researching the novel. Can you describe your experience with the research and how that changed your impression of the characters along the way?
FA: My full research process is detailed in my Author’s Note at the end of my novel, so no spoilers here, but I will say it was extensive. A huge focus was understanding the lives of Lydia’s servants better, and this was an area where my research went beyond a lot of what has been done by Bronte scholars through the years. The most fun part of my research was visiting Yorkshire. I found it quite emotional to see the graves of many of the Robinson family and their neighbors, and to visit the Monk’s House, the building where Branwell once slept.
My research gave me a much fuller understanding of my characters. For the servants, it told me what roles they played in Thorp Green Hall, who their loved ones were, and what happened to them after the disbandment of the Robinson household. When it comes to Lydia, in my work in the archives of the Bronte Parsonage Museum, I held 1) an inventory of her furniture, allowing me to picture the objects that surrounded her; 2) eighteen letters in her hand, giving me her distinctive sign-off, “yours very truly,” which I use throughout the book; and 3) her husband’s accounts book, which is important to the plot of my novel.
AB: The hardest thing for a historical novel to do is to balance the history with the fictional narrative. How did you stay true to the history of your subjects while making the story palatable for modern readers?
FA: Bronte’s Mistress, unlike many historical novels, has a very quiet backdrop—this is rural Yorkshire, not Dickensian London. Wars and politics are distant concerns to the Robinsons and their peers. This makes the balancing act of history and narrative a little easier than if I was writing characters on a grand historical stage.
Bronte’s Mistress is also written in first person, so I hope Lydia’s voice is what readers find compelling. Through it, we can cut through the formalities of Victorian middle-class existence and get to what’s human, timeless and universal—the voice inside us.
AB: Did you have any expectations about Lydia when you started the research or were you open to whatever information you were able to locate?
FA: I held myself to a very high standard, when it came to the accuracy of my story. By that I mean that everything that happens in Bronte’s Mistress is something I think could have happened, based on all the facts currently at our disposal. Where the fiction piece comes in is in exploring what characters thought, felt and said. What I was looking for when researching the novel was dramatic possibility. I searched for the places that the historical record was silent and looked to create something beautiful in that void.
AB: How do you think Bronte fans will react to your novel?
FA: I hope fellow Bronte fans will discover the more subtle references to the works of all three Bronte sisters in my novel! These were fun to include and are little Easter eggs for you. I also think they’ll be excited to see Branwell and Anne, the overlooked siblings, foregrounded in this novel. Their time at Thorp Green Hall was very important to both of them—to Branwell’s deteriorating mental state and to Anne’s development as a talented novelist.
AB: If you were casting the movie version of the book, which actors would you ideally cast?
FA: This is a question I can never answer. My characters are like real people to me in my mind, so they don’t resemble actors (though of course I’d be thrilled to see them portrayed on screen!). One thing I do know is I that I would want an actor of the right age to be cast as Lydia. Lydia is forty-three at the start of my novel, and forty-eight by the end. She’s not the typical historical fiction heroine, who seems to be rarely older than twenty-one! There’s such a problem with women actors disappearing from the film industry when they’re deemed “too old” to be the romantic lead, but “too young” to be the matriarch. I think this would be a fantastic role for an actress in this, all too often, invisible decade.
AB: In your novel, Lydia Robinson could be interpreted is a more empathetic or even feminist character than Bronte lore implies. Was this your intention or did her character change as you were writing and researching?
FA: Lydia is no saint. She’s flawed—by turns, self-centered, petty, and oblivious to the emotions of those around her. And, even if in some ways she’s a feminist, straining against the strictures of nineteenth-century womanhood, she’s definitely a “bad feminist.” She is classist; she pretends to be against slavery for attention at a dinner party; and she is horrified when another character tells her they are attracted to people of the same sex. But, despite all of this, I hope that readers can have empathy for Lydia and her impossible situation. She’s been raised to do one thing—marry and produce children. She’s done that and she’s facing the question “now what?” Her husband is cold and uncaring. She has no recourse to divorce. She’s doomed to a life without sex, freedom, or excitement. I see Bronte’s Mistress as an exploration of the extreme claustrophobia of upper middle-class women’s lives in the period, and of the ways many women perpetrated misogyny, while also suffering from the consequences of it themselves.
AB: This is your first published novel. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
FA: Read constantly and critically. Join a writing group for feedback. Write an outline. Don’t use filter words. Finish the books you start.
To say that I am a bookworm is an understatement. As you might expect, I’ve read quite a few books this year.
Without further adieu, my list of the best books of 2019 is below.
The Women of the 116th Congress: Portraits of Power: This book is #1 because it represents how far American women have come and how far we need to go before we are truly equal. In celebrating the success of these female politicians, the authors are paving the way for the next generation of women to represent their country.
It is said that opposites attract. It can also be said that one can learn a lot about a person by knowing who and where they come from.
At first glance, the marriage between Maria Branwell, a gentlewoman from Penzance and Patrick Bronte, a fiery and poor clergyman from Ireland seemed like a mismatch. But if one were to look closer, one would see a marriage seemed almost ideal.
Sharon Wright’s new book, The Mother of the Brontes: When Maria Met Patrick, is the story of the marriage of Maria Branwell and Patrick Bronte. Maria was born in Penzance in 1783 to a prosperous family. Patrick was born in 1777 to a large and poor family in Ireland. Their courtship and marriage in 1812 to some might seem a bit impetuous. By the time she died in 1821, Maria brought six children into the world. Three daughters and a son, Branwell lived to adulthood. Her daughters, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily are revered today as some of the greatest writers of all time.
I loved this book. I loved it because it gave Maria the spotlight she rightly deserves. When we talk about the Brontes, their mother is often a footnote or a line or two. She is rarely given her due as a mother ought to receive. In bringing Maria’s story to life, the reader gains a greater perspective on her daughters and the literary worlds they created.
My only warning is that this book is not for the casual Bronte fan or the average reader looking for another book to read. It is for a reader who is well versed in the Brontes and their books.
Among the great writers of the 19th century, the Bronte sisters stand tall. Lionized as proto-feminists and adored in the literary community for their contribution to the world of literature, fans sometimes have to ask themselves where fact ends and fiction begins.
In 2001, Lucasta Miller published The Bronte Myth. The book starts with the brief lives of the Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte and follows their posthumous celebrity as their image is shaped to fit the needs of the biographer. In the book, Ms. Miller delves deeply into the facts and the myths of the Brontes and how both have been used to tell the story of the legendary sisters.
When I heard about The Bronte Myth, the concept sounded interesting. I am sorry to report that the concept I had in my head did not meet reality.
The book is not for the casual or virgin Bronte fan. It borders on academic and is probably better suited for a reader who is well versed in the story of the Bronte sisters, their brother Branwell and father Patrick. But my main issue is that Ms. Miller spent most of the book talking about Charlotte. Granted, Charlotte lived the longest of her siblings, but the book is not entitled The Charlotte Bronte Myth. She spends about 60% of the book talking about Charlotte, 20% talking about Emily. The other 20% are given to Anne, Branwell and Patrick. I think I would have liked this book more if all of the Bronte siblings and their father were given equal attention.
When we marry, the expectation is that the person we are marrying is who they say they are.
In the miniseries, Mrs. Wilson, Alison Wilson (Ruth Wilson, playing her grandmother), receives a rude awakening after the death of her much older husband, Alexander (Iain Glen). Her husband was good at keeping secrets. His most potent secret was that she was not his only living wife. Coleman (Fiona Shaw), her husband’s handler from World War II is not too forthcoming with information. There is also the question of Dorothy Wick (Keeley Hawes), who keeps popping up as Alison tries to find out the truth of her husband’s life. As the series flips between the beginnings of Alison and Alexander’s (who was known as Alec) early relationship during the war to the 1960’s, where the widowed Alison is desperate for answers.
I have to admit that I am impressed with this series. I am impressed because this is a very personal story for Wilson. It takes a lot to share a personal story that is part of her family lore with the public. As a viewer, I can understand why Alison was not the last woman to fall for Alec. He was charming, intelligent and appeared to radiate qualities that would qualify him as a good man.
Both Wilson and Glen are familiar faces to Masterpiece viewers. Wilson made her Masterpiece debut in the 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre. In 2011, Glen had a brief role as Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary’s fiance on Downton Abbey. As Alison and Alec, I was rooting for them as a couple. On the same note, my heart was aching for Alison as she grieved not only for her husband, but for the husband she knew.
I recommend it.
The first two episodes of Mrs. Wilson are online. The final episode airs this Sunday at 9PM on PBS.
Between 1850 and 1930, millions immigrated to America, looking for a better life and a brighter future.
Clara Kelley was one of them. She is the heroine in Marie Benedict’s 2018 book, Carnegie’s Maid. In her native Ireland, Clara knows nothing but poverty and hunger via the great potato famine. The daughter of farming family, she has nothing to lose when she emigrates to America. But she has everything to lose when she takes the identity of another woman with the same name who died on the voyage to America. The job she has taken is that of lady’s maid to the imperious mother of steel magnate and future philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Mrs. Carnegie knows what she wants in a lady’s maid and makes no bones about firing girls who do not meet her exacting standards.
Intelligent and very capable, Clara becomes friends with her mistress’s son. As they become closer and their friendship becomes something more, the harder it becomes for Clara’s secret to stay a secret. Will her true identity ever be revealed and will the consequences of that revelation be?
I loved this book. Ms. Benedict has a way of immediately drawing her readers in and telling the stories of women whose stories would normally not be told. Though the narrative has a Jane Eyre-ish undercurrent, it does not end the way I would have expected the narrative to end.
We all know that sex sells. The question is, when enveloped in a story, especially a classic novel, does the sex help or hurt the narrative?
In 2012, Jane Eyre Laid Bare: The Classic Novel with an Erotic Twist was released. Written by Eve Sinclair with original text by Charlotte Bronte, this book more or less follows the narrative and characters from the original novel. Jane Eyre is an orphaned young woman who takes a job as a governess for the mysterious Mr. Rochester. Jane is plain, poor and outspoken, hardly the ideal women for the Victorian era. As Jane begins to fall her for employer, the mystery intensifies until everything is revealed in a twist that no one saw coming,
I was intrigued by this book because I love Jane Eyre and it’s always interesting to see how modern writers bring out the sexual tension that is just below the surface. However, Ms. Sinclair made several narrative choices that I disagree with. Without giving too much away, I will say that I am really disappointed in this book. It makes promises that ultimately fall through, leaving me as a reader angry and frustrated.
This is a poor imitation of Jane Eyre, not even the sex scenes between Jane and Mr. Rochester can make up for that. When it comes to my favorite classic novels, I am not one of those fans who believe that it is the novel in its purest form or nothing at all. I appreciate a well written reboot or fanfiction. However, this book is neither.