Brontë’s Mistress: New novel reimagines scandalous affair involving the black sheep of literary family

Finola Austin’s debut novel Brontë’s Mistress fictionalises Branwell’s scandalous affair with an older married woman. Yvette Huddleston reports.

Finola Austin has published her first novel.
Finola Austin has published her first novel.

Poor Branwell Brontë didn’t have much luck. Categorised as the black sheep of the famous literary family, troubled and struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol – he also seems to have made a series of bad choices.

One of these mistakes – which had far-reaching consequences – was his affair with Lydia Robinson, mistress of Thorp Green Hall near York, a much older married woman (he was 25, she was 43) who had employed him as tutor, alongside his younger sister Anne, to her children.

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He was dismissed when the affair came to light and Branwell’s despair at the failure of this relationship is said to have led to his final demise.

Branwell and Lydia’s passionate encounter is the premise of Finola Austin’s debut novel Brontë’s Mistress published this week.

Born in England, raised in Northern Ireland and now based in New York, Austin is steeped in 19th century literature, having studied the subject at Oxford University.

She also writes the award-winning blog The Secret Victorianist, quite a contrast to her day job in digital advertising. Her interest in Lydia Robinson was piqued when read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë a few years ago.

“I came across this passage in which Gaskell writes this character assassination of Lydia Robinson – she calls her this ‘wretched woman’ who tempted Branwell into this ‘deep disgrace of a deadly crime’. She doesn’t name Lydia but it would have been clear to people reading who this woman was. In fact Gaskell was forced to retract when Robinson threatened to sue, but it really set the tone for how Brontë fans and academics have viewed Lydia Robinson since then and I began to wonder whether anyone had written the story of the affair with Branwell from her point of view.

“I also liked the idea of putting another woman in opposition with the Brontë sisters.

“As much as I love Charlotte’s writing her heroines are often of a similar type – poor and plain, young and virginal – and here is this older, beautiful, wealthy woman who has had five children, but she is still a woman and she is still trapped.

“You can see this hostility in Charlotte’s writing towards women who are more conventionally attractive and that’s something I wanted to explore. So while the book is a commentary on 19th century society, it is also bringing in some of the concerns of 21st century feminism as well.”

Brontë scholars have long been divided on the details of the affair, so Austin is prepared for the fact that her book might ruffle a few feathers.

“I’m sure there are going to be people who will disagree with me and I’d love to engage in that debate,” she says. “But while I think what I wrote could have happened, and I’ve tried hard to stay true to the historical record, it is a novel and I made choices to make it as interesting a novel as possible.”

She includes an author’s note detailing what is true and what is not, but as she says. “I’m a novelist and we like telling great stories.” And it is a great story, extremely adeptly told by Austin. She’s already working on her next novel – and she’s definitely one to watch.

Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin, £20, published by Simon & Schuster, is out now.

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