When we are young, we may dream of marriage and the life that follows. But like many dreams, reality does not match the fantasy.
In the 2014 film, Effie Gray, the title character whose full name is Euphemia Chalmers Gray (Dakota Fanning) is 19 when she marries the much older writer John Ruskin (Greg Wise). What starts out to be a good match goes south fast. John refuses to consummate their marriage. Needing the physical and emotional attention she should be getting from her husband, Effie turns to pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Effie also has a friend in Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (Emma Thompson). After five years of marriage Effie has to make a choice. She could stay in her empty and loveless marriage. Or, she could defy the strict standards of the Victorian era and find the happiness she deserves.
I truly enjoyed this movie. Written by Thompson, it has the usual beats of BPD (British Period Drama), but it is more than what the viewer expects. It is a story of female empowerment in an era in which women had no power. Based on Gray’s life, it is powerful, emotional, and a reminder that us females not only have a voice, we have the right to use it.
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.
I’m sorry to hear that your personal life is now front page news and your husband’s career may now be over.
However, I believe that this becoming front page news is a good thing.
You are not the last woman, nor are you the very first woman to be abused by a spouse or romantic partner.
You should read Anne Bronte’s novel, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. It’s about a woman in Victorian era England who makes the difficult choice to leave her abusive husband and start a new life with her son under a new identity.
Unlike Victorian England, women who are experiencing abuse from their partners have rights. There are laws to protect you. You can walk away from this man and move on with your life. Helen Huntington did not have that option.
I can’t tell you what to do. Only you can make that choice. I can only say that there are millions of women in this country who are in your shoes and who may look to you for answers.
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