In our culture, it is not uncommon or unacceptable to see an older man in a romantic relationship with a partner young enough to be their child. But, if an older woman is in a similar romantic relationship, the response is not the same.
According to Bronte lore, Lydia Robinson was responsible for the downfall and premature death of Branwell Bronte at the age of 31. Hired as a tutor for Lydia’s son, their rumored relationship is still scandalous after more than a century and a half.
Debut author Finola Austin’s novel, Bronte’s Mistress was released earlier this week. The story starts in 1843. Having recently lost her mother and still grieving from the death of her youngest child, Lydia returns home to silence. Her husband and surviving children are nowhere to be found. The only emotional support she receives is from her maid.
Upon meeting Branwell, she is intrigued by the younger man. He is twenty-five to her forty-three. While Branwell’s sister, Anne (also working in the home as the governess) remains emotionally distant, Branwell opens up to Lydia.
When gossip starts to circulate about their so-called affair, the sh*t starts to hit the fan and Lydia must deal with the backlash.
I loved the book. Lydia is a new kind of heroine for the genre. She is middle-aged and a mother made bitter by her circumstances. She has done everything that society tells her to do but feels unfulfilled and unappreciated. Lydia is also complicated. Though she has moments in which the reader empathizes with her, there are also moments in which she is thoroughly cold and cruel.
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.
During Anne Bronte‘s time, the expectations of woman’s life was simple: marry upon reaching adulthood, bring children (boys preferably) into the world, support her husband and live a quiet, appropriately feminine life. But Anne Bronte was not just any woman and she did not come just any family.
With her elder sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne has become one of a handful of 19th century women writers whose influence has lasted long after her brief time on Earth. Her two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, speak to a woman’s condition and what she must endure because she is a woman.
Agnes Grey is about a young woman who works as a governess for wealthy families. Her charges are spoiled and wild, their parents do nothing to curb their bad behavior. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is about spousal abuse, alcoholism and the choices that some women must make to remove themselves and their children from that environment.
The thing that I love about her books is that they are grounded in the real world, as a pose to the fantasy-ish world of her sister’s novels. An example of this is the romanticizing of Heathcliff in Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Upon the first read, Heathcliff is the romantic hero pining for Catherine Earnshaw. But Heathcliff reveals himself to be a brute and have serious anger issues.
In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne reveals the harsh truth of what it is to live with an abusive spouse. In her era, divorce was hard to come by and marriage was for life. Women were told to look the other way when their husbands acted less than honorably.
If there is one takeaway I have from both books, it is that the issues that she wrote about are still front and center today. Which is why Anne Bronte and her books are still being read today.
Wherever she is, I wish her a very happy birthday.
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.
She was the oldest child of the widowed Patrick Bronte, a man of the cloth who some might have considered an odd duck. She lived in a dirty, poverty-stricken middle of nowhere town in Yorkshire, England. Her mother, Mariah and elder sisters, Mariah and Elizabeth died young, elevating Charlotte to the title of oldest Bronte child. Like her most famous heroine, Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte was without the standard bearers of her day that would have made her a catch in the marriage market: beauty, status and/or money.
Today is her birthday.
In our own time, we celebrate her genius and the genius of her sisters, Anne and Emily. Jane Eyre, like her other novels, is a respected classic that is beloved by readers the world over, is part of the syllabus in many a classroom and for better and/or worse has been adapted for the stage and the screen.
We remember her as a proto-feminist, a writer in an era when novel-writing belonged to men only and a woman who refused to quietly give in to the image of what a woman should be.
While she is often not given the respect and name recognition that goes to her elder sisters, Charlotte and Emily, her writing is on par with her sisters. Writing about every day life in Victorian England, her writing stands out because she spoke of the truth of what it was to be a woman in the period. In Agnes Grey, she wrote about a woman whose respectable career choices were severely limited and must work as a governess to support herself and her family. Agnes’s charges are spoiled and their parents are apathetic to their children’s behavior. In Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, a woman arrives in a small rural town, presenting herself as a widow with a young son. The truth about her identity made a small, but important dent in the worldwide women’s movement that is still being felt today.
As a writer and a proto-feminist, Anne Bronte, along with her sisters, helped to pave the way for women and women writers that continues to be felt a century and a half after her untimely passing.
Among the three Bronte sisters, Emily, the second to youngest was the most introspective and private. Her social circle was limited to her family, her close friends and her animals. She rarely traveled outside of her hometown of Haworth, England. She was not concerned with being fashionable or climbing the social ladder. Her sole completed novel, Wuthering Heights is one of the most respected and admired novels in the English language.
Jane Eagland’s 2015 novel, The World Within: A Novel of Emily Brontë, takes place when Emily is a teenager. Her widowed father, Patrick is doing his best to raise his children with the help of his sister-in-law. The Bronte children have created stories over the years about vast and imaginative lands with colorful characters. But life is beginning to change, as it must.
Patrick gets sick and there is a concern about what will happen if he does not survive. The sisters realize that they must learn to fend for themselves. But the question is, how will they learn to fend themselves with no dowry, no connections, no income and limited professional opportunities that does not include marriage?
Among the Bronte sisters, Emily is the most fascinating. She was passionate, opinionated and fiery. And yet under the mask of the quiet Parson’s daughter, few knew who she really was. As a reader, a writer and a fan of the Brontes, it’s always interesting to learn what events and experiences shaped them into the women we know them to be today. The question is then, can a modern writer truly find their way into Emily’s life and psyche to write a novel about Emily Bronte before she became the giant of literature that we know her to be today?
On a scale of 1-10, 10 meaning the book was superb and 1 being that the book is horrible, I would give the book a rating of 5. It was ok, but it was a bit slow in the beginning and I struggled to stay focused on the story during parts of the narrative.
The key elements of a successful biopic, especially one where the subjects are legendary in their own right, are as follows: a compelling narrative and adherence to the facts of the subject’s life to engage both the novice viewer and the viewer who is well versed on the subject’s life.
On Sunday night, PBS aired To Walk Invisible, a biopic of the Brontes. The Reverend Patrick Bronte (Jonathan Pryce) is a widower living with his surviving children, who are all grown and seem to be flailing emotionally. The eldest daughter, Charlotte (Finn Atkins) is passionate and ambitious. Branwell, the only boy (Adam Nagaitis) is the ne’er-do-well dreamer with the growing alcohol addiction. Emily (Chloe Pirrie) is as fiery as she is private. The baby of the family, Anne (Charlie Murphy) is the peace maker.
As the sisters work towards their dream of becoming published authors, Branwell descends rapidly into a haze of grief and addiction that will overtake the entire family.
Anyone who knows me (or has read this blog), knows that I worship the literary ground that the Brontes walk on. Their books are nothing short of genius. Unfortunately, I cannot say that same about this television movie. Granted, it is one shot, 2 hour television movie, so for timing reasons, cannot contain every moment of their lives. That’s not my issue.
My issue is that it went a little too fast and the ending felt very abrupt. Certain facts (which I will not mention here due to the fact that they are a little spoiler-y for novice Bronte fans) were not mentioned. Not only that, but the narrative spent too much time on Branwell and not enough time on his sisters, who are the main characters.
Do I recommend it? As much as I would love to say an enthusiastic yes, I can’t. I have to give a mere maybe.