Brontë's Mistress: A Deft Recounting of the Life of Branwell's Possible Lover

Earlier this month [May 2022], my wife returned from the library with an intended treat for me: the book Brontë's Mistress. Knowing of my fondness for the Brontës, she figured I'd like any book about them, though she didn't know what the title referred to.

I will admit to performing a brief mental eye-roll at that moment. I was aware of a rumored affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, the mother of a student he tutored, in a home where Anne was employed as a governess. (The Robinsons are understood to be the basis for a family Anne derided in Agnes Grey.) But as I'm not a Branwell buff, this book wasn't initially appealing. And it seemed likely to be a tawdry, salacious read — not what I generally prefer.

Besides, the cover indicated that it was Finola Austin's debut novel, and I've read some mediocre Brontë-related fiction by inexperienced authors. So the signs were not auspicious.

Let me begin my review of Brontë's Mistress by apologizing to the author for my doubts. This complex story is told with the skilled, flavorful prose of a veteran. And while there are inevitably a few racy bits, the relationship with Branwell is just one of many factors informing the thoughts and choices of Lydia, in whose voice the tale is told.

Brontë fans who read this book will recognize a familiar theme: a woman chafing against her place in the society of that time. Lydia is constrained by her gender and her family's non-wealthy status. She is answerable to her uncaring husband and responsible for (and criticized for) the raising of her children, particularly her daughters, who are expected to be groomed to appeal to men of loftier economic status. Despite her circumstances, Lydia pushes back against others' expectations and strives to preserve her autonomy while also trying to fulfill her emotional and physical needs.

Lydia's intellectual strivings held my attention. Her only puzzling aspect (which may well be historically accurate) is her yearning for Branwell. He is depicted as having grandiose plans, damaging addictions, and a rather unkempt physicality. At a point when Lydia rhapsodizes about his strong arms while paying little heed to his awkwardness, self-pity, and liquored breath, I winced at how desperate she must have been to trust and desire such a man. Honestly, I found her mushy musings about him so over-the-top that I nearly stopped reading the book.

I'm glad I didn't. After Branwell leaves the Robinsons' home, Lydia's story continues to unfold in interesting ways, many of which don't involve him. Her knotty relations with friends, adult relatives, and even her own children ring true in terms of my understanding of that era's mores.

Numerous connections are made to other Brontë family members and their works. Lydia has interactions with both Anne and Charlotte. And some passages contain clear nods to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

A real strength of Brontë's Mistress is an extensive afterword describing which of the events it depicts really happened, which ones might have happened, and what was invented for the story. Most details about the people, places, and relationships are real. Austin's main dramatic license concerns the historically unproven Branwell–Lydia dalliance. The surmises she makes are justifiable, supplying motives for and descriptions of actions that may well have occurred.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed Brontë's Mistress more than I expected to. Deftly written, diligently researched, and believable, it is worth a look by anyone interested in the Brontë family and their era. (Turns out my wife does know best!)