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Brontë’s Mistress

Review

Brontë’s Mistress

Written in the vein of beloved favorites like Jennifer Chiaverini’s MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER and recent releases like Gill Hornby’s MISS AUSTEN, BRONTË’S MISTRESS is a seductive and alluring novel of passion and literature from newcomer Finola Austin.

The year is 1843, and Lydia Robinson --- wife, mother and mistress of Thorp Green Hall --- is feeling her life slipping through her fingers. She has lost her mother and beloved youngest daughter, her husband no longer visits her bedchambers, and she has discovered that her children’s governess, Anne Brontë (yes, that Brontë), finds her cold and condescending. Feeling stifled under the watchful gaze of her hateful mother-in-law and scorned by her rebellious daughters’ tempestuous moods, Lydia retreats further into herself at a time when she longs for so much more. For years she has dreamed of resuming a glorious married life after finally producing a male heir and becoming somewhat of a role model to the young women she employs, but grief, loneliness and pain have taken everything from her. Although she is still beautiful and adept at entertaining and hostessing, her life has lost its luster, and she has grown restless as a result.

"BRONTË’S MISTRESS is beautifully written, seductive in its tone even when the more amorous scenes are pages behind you.... The result is a truly intoxicating combination of literary mystery and passionate love affair..."

One day, Lydia catches sight of her children playing in the yard with a young man, her son’s new tutor, Branwell Brontë. At 25, he is 18 years her junior, but she cannot ignore the allure of his youthful head of reddish curls and his dreamy, impassioned way of approaching life and its conundrums. But even more intoxicating is the way he returns her attention. He does not see a grieving, fanciful widow, a disappointing daughter-in-law, or a cold and hawkish employer. Instead, he sees a gorgeous woman coming into her prime sexually --- and, inviting her into the world of poetry and music, he encourages her to see the same.

At the same time, Branwell is battling his own insecurities. His sisters are seemingly far more talented than he will ever be, and his darkest demons always seem to find him at the bottom of a bottle. Drawn in even further by the mystery of the Brontës, especially gifted Charlotte and wild Emily, Lydia soon finds herself giving in to Branwell’s heady mix of youth, passion and freedom from social inhibitions. But with Lydia’s husband ignoring the truth, the two lovers grow far too comfortable in their dalliances, resulting in an explosive and far-reaching end to a flaming, passionate love too quickly burned out.

The Brontës have delighted readers for years with their classic works and even more fascinating family life. While much is known about Charlotte and Emily, Branwell has largely avoided the same historical notoriety. When he is mentioned as a side note, he is often presented as a bit of a rogue, a hapless young man with a penchant for the drink. Although Austin stays true to history, the Branwell of BRONTË’S MISTRESS is layered and complicated, and as misunderstood as he is reckless. Fueled by his endless search for love and acceptance, he enters into a doomed relationship set against the backdrop of an austere society heavily guided by strict morals.

But even more interesting is Lydia, who, as written by Austin, is bursting with potential --- for love, family and sexual passion --- but has been delegated by life to follow her husband’s lead, ensure good matches for her children, and deny herself her own happiness for the good of the family. Still, she maintains a steadfast hold on her own dignity, resulting in a powerhouse of a woman who makes for a stellar protagonist, especially when combined with a famous family.

An unconventional coupling is always dishy and scandalous, but for me, the highlight of Lydia and Branwell’s poorly planned affair is the uncoupling. As Branwell grows more enamored and erratic in his passion, Lydia --- who was so swiftly and easily swept off her feet by the young man --- begins to lose her ability to see him through rose-colored glasses. Where she once saw passion, she now sees impetuousness; where once there was endless conversation, there is now the gaping silence of a young man unable to truly listen or empathize. It is easy to imagine a love affair between two lonely, desperate people, but Austin proves that she can do so much more when she effectively breaks off their relationship, tracking the repercussions through the rest of their lives and the lives of their families.

BRONTË’S MISTRESS is beautifully written, seductive in its tone even when the more amorous scenes are pages behind you. Austin weighs out the chemistry between Branwell and Lydia just as deftly as she weaves in historical tidbits about his more famous sisters. The result is a truly intoxicating combination of literary mystery and passionate love affair that will appeal not only to Brontë fans and scholars, but to historical fiction and romance lovers alike. Whether or not you were already familiar with Lydia Robinson prior to reading this novel, you are sure to be swept away by Austin’s dazzling prose and creative imagining of the truth behind Branwell’s spectacular downfall --- and his mistress’s role in it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 14, 2020

Brontë’s Mistress
by Finola Austin

  • Publication Date: August 4, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982137231
  • ISBN-13: 9781982137236