Friday, August 07, 2020

The original Mrs. Robinson's story: Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

Finola Austin’s perceptive debut imagines the first-person viewpoint of Lydia Robinson: the woman notorious in Brontë lore for supposedly having seduced her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, with the end of their affair leading to his dissolution, depression, and early death. But is this a fair assessment?

Among historical fiction subjects, this is about as “high concept” as it gets. It’s surprising no other novelist has previously claimed her as a protagonist, and it’s also fortunate that this character – the original Mrs. Robinson – was taken on by a writer capable of doing justice to this troubling, baggage-laden historical figure. 

The main setting is Thorp Green Hall in Little Ouseburn, a village not far from York, beginning in 1843. Having lost her beloved youngest daughter and her mother in close succession, Lydia is overcome by grief. With her twenty-year marriage to Edmund Robinson having gone cold, her teenage daughters occupied with their own concerns, and the family governess (the overly serious Anne Brontë) spurning any hope of friendship, Lydia feels like nobody sees her for herself. Even her own name, in a sense, has been supplanted, as she shares it with her pretty eldest daughter.  

When Miss Brontë’s flame-haired poet brother, Branwell, appears on the scene to tutor Lydia’s son, Ned, their shared interests in music, theatre, and literature create a spark between Branwell and Lydia, even though he’s twenty-five, while she’s eighteen years older.  Their romantic encounters demonstrate Austin’s skill as a writer; there’s an awkwardness about them that evokes less of a grand, perfect passion than the result of two people’s desperate and individual cries for attention.  Both come alive as real people with many flaws and rough edges, between Branwell’s neediness and alcoholism and Lydia’s selfishness, especially since her daughters are of an age when they need a mother’s loving guidance. 

Rather than developing a story about Lydia’s downfall and redemption, which would feel both simplistic and false, Austin creates in Lydia a multifaceted portrait of an unhappy, neglected wife and mother whose passionate nature is suppressed by everyone around her: her distant husband, her overbearing mother-in-law, and society as a whole.  Once she begins acting on her desires, though, she discovers she wants more from a partner than what Branwell can give. At the same time, alas, the rumors of adultery become impossible to contain. Lydia’s questionable choices make her difficult to admire, while at the same time, one can’t help but hope she’ll find fulfillment. One can also appreciate how Lydia's impressions of all her relationships shift over the course of the story, as she looks back on what each of them brought her.

The language and dialogue have a Victorian feel without seeming archaic, and the characters’ social milieu reflects the period, too.  Lydia Robinson may be best known as “Brontë’s mistress,” but as Austin shows, she's much more than this. In fact, one of the novel’s greatest accomplishments is its moving illustration of how women are diminished when defined by their relationships to men. 

Brontë’s Mistress was published by Atria this week (I reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy).

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