It seems likely that most of our listeners have at least heard of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Many also know that Charlotte and Emily had two other talented siblings who grew to adulthood: Anne, author of the novel Agnes Grey, and the only male heir, Branwell—whose early promise evaporated in a haze of alcohol and opiates. Still, it seems likely that Branwell’s affair with his employer—Lydia Robinson, a wealthy, married woman eighteen years older than he—has received far less attention. This affair, the exact parameters of which have not been determined, is the subject of Finola Austin’s lovely debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress (Atria Books, 2020).
Although advantaged in many ways, Lydia has many reasons for complaint when we meet her. Her mother has just died, and her father suffers from senility. At forty-three, she fears the effects of approaching middle age on her beauty and her ability to bear children, the things that have defined and given value to her life. She worries about her daughters’ futures while fending off the encroachments of her mother-in-law. She still mourns the unexpected death of her fifth child, two years before the novel begins. And the loss of that youngest daughter has irreparably damaged Lydia’s long and once-satisfying relationship with her husband, Edmund, who neither offers comfort to nor accepts overtures from her.
So when the Robinsons’ governess, Anne Brontë, recommends her brother, Branwell, for the position of tutor to Lydia’s only son, it is perhaps not surprising that Lydia’s initial attempts to keep a proper distance soon evaporate in the face of the attraction she feels for this Byronic young man who pays her compliments, shares his poetry and his art, and listens to her woes. As Finola Austin notes in our interview, Branwell “sees” Lydia, and the consequences of that instinctive emotional connection drive the action of this psychologically sophisticated and always engrossing novel.
C. P. Lesley is the author of 11 novels, including Legends of the Five Directions, a historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible. Her latest book, Song of the Sisters, appeared in January 2021.