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“A beautifully written, highly seductive debut….The chemistry between Branwell and Lydia positively crackles on the page….Masterful storytelling which is sure to delight fans of the Brontës and of historical fiction.” –Hazel Gaynor, New York Times bestselling author of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

This dazzling debut novel for fans of Mrs. Poe and Longbourn explores the scandalous historical love affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, giving voice to the woman who allegedly corrupted her son’s innocent tutor and brought down the entire Brontë family.

Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson—mistress of Thorp Green Hall—has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.

All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with—including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family—but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia. Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction.

But Lydia’s new taste of passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship spout from her servants’ lips, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Lydia to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.

Meticulously researched and deliciously told, Brontë’s Mistress is a captivating reimagining of the scandalous affair that has divided Brontë enthusiasts for generations and an illuminating portrait of a courageous, sharp-witted woman who fights to emerge with her dignity intact.

Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
January 1843

ALREADY A WIDOW IN all but name. Fitting that I must, yet again, wear black.

Nobody had greeted me on my return, but Marshall at least had thought of me. She’d lit a feeble fire in my dressing room and laid out fresh mourning in the bedroom, spectral against the white sheets. I smoothed out a pleat, fingered a hole in the veil. Just a year since I’d last set these clothes aside, and now Death had returned—like an expected, if unwanted, visitor this time, not a violent thief in the night.

What a homecoming. No husband at the door, no children running down the drive.

I’d sat alone in the carriage, huddled under blankets, through hours of abject silence, with only the bleak Yorkshire countryside for company, but I didn’t have the patience to ring for Marshall now. I tugged, laced, and hooked myself, racing against the cold. I had to contort to close the last fixture. My toe caught in the hem.

The landing outside my rooms was empty. The carpet’s pattern assaulted my eyes, as if I’d been gone for weeks, not days. Home was always strange after an absence, like returning to the setting of a dream.

But it wasn’t just that.

Thorp Green Hall was unusually still. Silence seeped through the house, except for the ticking of the grandfather clock that carried from the hall. Each home has its music, and ours? It was my eldest daughter banging doors; the younger girls bickering; Ned, my son, charging down the stairs; and the servants dropping pails and pans and plates with clatter upon clatter. But not today. Where was everyone?

I halted before the closed study door and gave a light rap, but my husband did not respond, much less emerge to greet me. Edmund would be in there, though. He was always hiding in there. I could picture him—taking off his glasses and squinting toward the window at the crunch of the carriage wheels on the gravel, shaking his head and returning to his account book when he realized it was only me.

I shouldn’t have expected anything else. After all, I hadn’t bid him good-bye on my departure, just turned on my heel and exited the room when he’d told me he wouldn’t come with me to Yoxall.

“Your mother’s death was hardly unexpected,” he’d said with a shrug, and something about how she’d lived a good life.

He was right, of course. Or, at least, the world’s opinion was closer to Edmund’s than to mine. Mother had been old and ill. Her life had been happy and her children were many. Few thought it fit to weep, as I did, at her funeral.

But something had come over me after the service when the splintered crowd stood around her open grave, although I wasn’t sure it was grief for Mother at all. The wind howled. The sleet smacked against us. My brothers flanked our fading father, their faces uniform as soldiers’. My sister was solemn, with her eyes downcast, as her husband thanked the vicar. But I had been angry, with an anger that leaked out in pathetic, rain-mingled tears and made me angrier still.

I didn’t knock again but went instead to the schoolroom—to the children. I needed them, anyone, to embrace me, touch me, so I could feel alive.

I could not suppress my disappointment when I reached the threshold. “Oh, Miss Brontë,” I said, my voice flat. “I didn’t know you’d returned.”

Our governess was alone. She’d been retrieving a book from below the Pembroke table but at my entrance, she stood to attention. “I arrived back yesterday, Mrs. Robinson,” she said. “I hope you’ll accept my condolences.”

Was it the ill-fitting mourning dress, or was she even thinner than when I had seen her last? Her gown gaped at the cuffs and hung loose around her waist.

“And you mine,” I said, avoiding her eye.

I’d taken to bed with a headache that day a few months ago when a letter had summoned Miss Brontë home to her dying aunt. I had meant to write to her, but somehow there had never been time, what with the house and Christmas. Or perhaps the empty words would not flow from my pen now that I’d been forced to endure so many.

“Where are my daughters?” I asked, anxious to end our tête-à-tête.

Miss Brontë gestured toward the clock on the mantel, half-obscured behind a volume of Rapin’s History of England. It was five minutes past four. “We have just concluded today’s lessons with an hour of arithmetic,” she said, failing to answer my question.

I sighed and sat, slumping onto the low and book-strewn couch and staring into the last of the spluttering fire.

It had never appeared to bother Miss Brontë, the lack of common ground between us, but it stung me as yet another rejection. She had been little more than a child when she’d joined us nearly three years ago. Pale, mousy-haired, unable to meet my eye. I had thought she might look up to me. I could have acted as her patroness, bestowed on her my attention and all I could have taught her of the world. But time and again, she’d snubbed me, preferring the solitude of her books and sketching.

I’d persisted with my overtures until, one day, I’d come across a half-completed letter of hers, addressed to a sister, Charlotte. I shouldn’t have opened it—wouldn’t have if Miss Brontë hadn’t evaded me until now. But I couldn’t help myself when I saw the discarded page in the schoolroom, the impossibly regular handwriting broken off mid-word. In it she described me as “condescending” and “self-complacent,” anxious only to render my daughters as “superficially attractive and showily accomplished” as I was. It was a vicious caricature but one I could not scold her for, since I should never have seen it. That’s how I’d learned that our innocent Miss Brontë wasn’t so innocent at all.

“So where are they?” I asked her again, more sharply.

“I believe the girls went to join Ned in the stables.”

Those children had run riot for months during Miss Brontë’s absence. The least she could do was teach them now that she was here.

“And why is my son and heir spending his days in the stables?” I asked, although young Ned, bless him, had always been too slight and simple a boy to deserve the title bestowed on him. He wouldn’t be dressed properly. He’d catch a chill. The children might be fond of Miss Brontë, but she didn’t watch them with a mother’s care.

“I believe, madam—that is, I know—Mr. Brontë found him more attentive there,” she answered, without flinching.

Mr. Brontë. Of course. I’d forgotten that her brother would be returning with her. He was to be Ned’s new tutor, and so Edmund had managed everything.

As if on cue, a quick pitter-patter struck against the window and despite everything—my tiredness, my loneliness, my desire to join my mother in her grave—it pulled me to my feet. Miss Brontë and I stood as far apart as we could, looking through the checkered panes at the party gathered below.

There was Ned, without a coat. He was laughing, his waistcoat unbuttoned and his face grubby.

Beside him was Lydia, my eldest and namesake. She’d been running, which was unlike her. She’d bundled her dress and cape in her hands, revealing her boots and stockings, and her perfect ringlets had come unpinned, creating a bright halo around her face.

A few steps behind the others, my younger daughters, Bessy and Mary, giggled to each other.

And in the center of them all, his arm drawn back to fling another handful of gravel, was a man who couldn’t have been more than five and twenty, with a smile that reached to the corners of his face and hair that rich almost-red Edmund’s had been once.

He beamed back at Lydia before calling something unintelligible toward the schoolroom. His eyes were a deeper blue than Miss Brontë’s, his whole being drawn in more vibrant ink.

But when his eyes slid to meet mine, when they moved on from his sister and from Lydia—that reflection of what I had once been—his smile melted away. His arm fell. The stones ran through his fingers like dust. It was as if I could hear them scatter, although the schoolroom was deathly silent.

Mr. Brontë mouthed an apology, his gaze subordinate. Lydia dropped her skirts and smoothed her hair. Even Ned buttoned one fastening of his waistcoat, although the sides were uneven and the result comical.

“I apologize on Branwell’s—”

“You apologize for what, Miss Brontë?” I said, dragging her back from the window by her spindly arm. “You think I don’t appreciate high spirits? Or care for my son’s happiness?”

“I—”

“I fear to imagine what you say of me to others—strangers—when you think me such a dragon.” I did not wait to hear her response, but left, slamming the door behind me.

As I passed the study, I paused, panting hard.

I could go in, throw myself into Edmund’s arms, and cry, as I had to Mother when I was a girl. But when you are forty-three, you must not complain that the world is unfair, that your beauty is going to seed, and that those you love, or, worse, your love itself, is dead.

I did not go to Edmund, and alone in my rooms that night, I did not weep.

With my dark hair loose and my shoulders bare, I struggled not to shiver. I sat at my dressing table for a long time, staring into the glass and imagining the young tutor’s eyes gleaming back at me through the gloom. Branwell, Miss Brontë had called him. What sort of a name was that?

THERE’D BEEN A TIME when we’d all gather in the library or the anteroom after dinner. I would play the pianoforte. The girls would turn the pages. Sometimes they’d sing. And Edmund would quiz Ned, pointing to far-off climes on the spinning globe and asking him to name each port, kingdom, colony.

But we hadn’t done that in a long time. Not since before.

Instead Edmund would retreat to his study while I played from memory to an empty room. And our daughters would stitch and sketch in the schoolroom, supervised by Miss Brontë, long after their brother had been sent to bed. The four of them probably spent their evenings complaining about me, but I couldn’t know for sure.

Yet they were silent tonight when I ventured there for the first time in the three evenings since my return.

Miss Brontë was bending over a letter scribed in a minuscule hand.

Lydia lounged with her legs askew in a floral-covered chair by the fire.

“Good evening, Mama,” Bessy and Mary chorused with the vestiges of childish affection from the window seat, where they’d been poring over a novel.

Lydia flicked her hand at me but continued to gaze toward the hearth.

“Could you excuse us, Miss Brontë?” I asked.

She nodded and plowed past me, face still buried in the letter. It was probably from “Charlotte.” And Miss Brontë would reply to her, chronicling my family’s private moments and making a mockery of our woes.

I surveyed my girls—seventeen, sixteen, fourteen. Hard to conceive of it when their younger sister would forever be two.

Time should have halted in the year since she’d been taken from us, but instead it had marched on regardless, with the regular pattern of meals, seasons, holidays. In the course of eleven short months, my three girls had blossomed before my eyes without me even noticing. But then I had survived too. I was the same, inch for inch, pound for pound, for all I felt I should have wasted away.

“How have you been?” I asked them stiffly. The words sounded ridiculous.

Lydia and Bessy exchanged a glance across the room at the strangeness of my question.

“I am well, Mama. We missed you when you were gone,” said Mary, blinking at me through her pale lashes. Timid as she was, she’d always been the most affectionate, saying what she thought would be best received rather than speaking the truth.

I looked to the older two in turn. Lydia was blonde and beautiful even when yawning. Bessy was dark like me, but there the resemblance ended. Compared to the rest of us, she was a veritable hoyden—large and ruddy, like a fertile, oversized shepherdess. Beside them, Mary wasn’t fair or dark enough to stand out. She had neither one type of beauty nor another.

“Well, I have been bored,” said Lydia, swinging her legs to the floor. “But now here is something at last.” She was waving a letter of her own, a short note in a large and looping cursive. The writer hadn’t tried to conserve paper.

“Well?” I asked when her theatrical pause became unbearable.

“Can’t you guess?” Lydia said, performing to all of us. Clearly Bessy and Mary weren’t in on her secret either. “It is from Amelia. The Thompsons are to hold a dinner party at Kirby Hall, and we are all invited. Well, not you, Mary—you are too young and of no consequence. I do hope Papa doesn’t have us leave early as he did at the Christmas feast, when we missed the caroling. If he’d wanted to go to bed, he could have sent William Allison back with the carriage. What else is a coachman for? But then I’ve nothing to wear. Black doesn’t suit me, and this dress is an inch too short. And—”

“Lydia.” I spoke sternly enough that she fell silent. “Don’t be unkind to Mary. And give me that.”

Lydia looked at my outstretched hand. For a heartbeat, I wasn’t sure she’d obey, but at last she surrendered the letter. As I read, she skipped away to scrutinize her reflection in the mirror above the fireplace, pouting at her high black collar.

“Are we to go?” asked Bessy, jumping up from the window seat. Unlike Lydia, she hadn’t mastered the art of affected nonchalance.

Mary was staring at the discarded novel in her lap, feeling sorry for herself.

“No,” I said.

Mary’s chin jerked up. Her expression brightened.

“No?” repeated Lydia, spinning back to face me, all pretense of indifference forgotten.

“You may write to Miss Thompson thanking her, or rather her father, for the invitation. But we are in a period of mourning and won’t be making social calls.” I kept my voice level, trying to remember what I had been like at the age when selfishness was natural. My mother had merely been their grandmother. They’d hardly feel her loss the same.

“But—” Bessy started.

“I won’t have discussion or arguments.”

Lydia ignored me. “But, Mama!” she cried. “We haven’t seen any gentlemen for months, except the Milner brothers—”

“Will Milner don’t count!” said Bessy, rounding on her sister and turning even pinker than usual.

“Grammar, please.” I sighed. Why pay a governess at all when Bessy still spoke like a groom?

For some reason, she’d found Lydia’s comment objectionable and was listing everything that made the eldest Milner boy a poor gentleman and horseman—from his manners to his seat.

“And now we still shan’t see any gentlemen at all,” continued Lydia, shouting over her sister. “It isn’t fair.”

I folded the page smaller and smaller until I could no longer crease it down the middle, letting their voices wash over me.

“I suppose we’ll have to content ourselves with Mr. Brontë,” said Lydia, when Bessy paused for breath. “I’ll pay calls to the Monk’s House and have him read Byron to me.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” I snapped, trying to create one more bend in the paper.

So Mr. Brontë liked poetry.

The fold wouldn’t stay. I flicked the page into the fire, where it flared for a second before crumbling.

“My letter!” cried Lydia, as if it had been precious. “How could you?”

“Oh, please!” I’d discarded it without thinking, but that hardly merited an apology. I couldn’t deal with any more of Lydia’s histrionics. “It’s time we were all abed.”

“Couldn’t you stay with us a little longer, Mama?” whispered Mary from the corner.

Her sisters glared at her.

“Not tonight,” I said. Yet I gestured for her to come to me.

She ran over and planted a fleeting, wet kiss on my cheek, as she had countless nights before.

Lydia and Bessy stood still, united in their act of small rebellion.

I UNDRESSED QUICKLY, WITHOUT Marshall’s help, and discarded my petticoats like a second skin on my dressing room floor.

There was a romance in walking the corridors barefoot and dressed only in my nightgown, even though this was my house and I could wander where I wished. I tiptoed down the landing, dancing to avoid the floorboards that creaked, my body lighter without the swathes of fabric that weighed me down in the day.

“Edmund?” I opened his bedroom door just wide enough to peer in and shielded the candle I was carrying in case he was already asleep.

“Lydia?” my husband called out, the confusion that comes with being pulled back from the precipice of slumber evident in the haste and volume of his reply.

In the days since I’d returned from Yoxall Lodge, our communications had only been of the most perfunctory kind. Each morning Edmund had asked me what was for dinner from behind the Times. And each night I had lain in my bed, flat on my back and hands rigid by my sides, waiting for his tread outside my door.

But tonight, prompted perhaps by the warm relief of Mary’s lips pressed against my face, I had softened and come to him.

“Is anything the matter?” he asked.

“The matter? No, not at all.” I hurried in, shutting the door behind me.

Edmund half closed his eyes, shrinking from the light, but then clambered onto his elbows and propped himself up against the bolster behind him.

I set the candle on the mahogany washstand and twitched the hangings of the four-poster bed over a few inches, protecting him from the glare.

“I am very tired, Lydia. It has been a taxing day,” Edmund said, stifling a yawn. But he moved over to accommodate me, lifting the sheets so I could slide under the heavy scarlet blankets, faded from years of use.

My legs were cold beneath my nightgown. He flinched when our limbs made contact, flinched and then tensed as I wrapped myself around him like a limpet and rested my head on his chest.

“You haven’t asked me about Staffordshire,” I said after a minute or two of enjoying the familiar waves of his breath, like an aged sailor who can now only find his legs at sea.

“What is there to ask?” he said. “It was difficult?”

I nodded as much as I could, held fast as I was against him. He didn’t want me to move. He wanted only to sleep, exhausted by a day of— what? Account books and reading the sporting pages? I wanted to run a mile, release the horses from the stables, and gallop beside them, crying, No more! No more needlework and smiling through stunted arpeggios for me.

“Your father must know it’s for the best,” he said. “She had suffered—”

“And what if it were your mother?” I bit my tongue too late, knowing how he hated being interrupted.

“Lydia,” Edmund warned. Eviction would follow if I continued in this strain.

Somehow it was even colder under the covers. The hairs along my legs stood up against the sheet.

“People rarely call me that now,” I said, snuggling close against his hard, ungiving chest. “It is like I lost my name to our daughter.”

Down here, I could pretend Edmund was the boy I had loved, a boy with chubby cheeks and a full head of hair, the boy I had won into wooing me, despite his shyness and that endearing stutter he’d had when conversing with the opposite sex.

How proudly I had sat, watching him give one of his first sermons, thinking, That is my husband, the father of my sons, whether the thought had crossed his mind yet or not. Less than three months later, he was mine.

“We must speak of the children,” I said. My hand burrowed under his crisp nightshirt to play with the wisps of hair that led from his heart to his belly. “Lydia thinks I am a tyrant for refusing a dinner invitation from the Thompsons so soon after her grandmother’s death.”

“Lydia is bored,” Edmund said. “We should send her away. To your sister, Mary, perhaps, or to Lady Scott at Great Barr Hall. The Scotts see more society than us.”

“I doubt it,” I said, stiffening. “My cousin Catherine is an invalid.”

“But she is married to a baronet.”

All these years later and that still stung. It was Valentine’s Day 1815 in Bath, and I was my cousin Catherine’s bridesmaid. I’d held the train of her dress as she married Edward Scott, heir to his father’s baronetcy, a minor member of the nobility, but to me, the hero of a fairy tale.

He would have been mine had I only been older, I’d wept, wishing for a few more years on top of my fifteen. And now? Now I wished I could be Lydia Gisborne once more, uncrease the lines in my forehead, shrug off my worries and turn back the years as easily as I could wind back the clock on the mantelpiece.

“And then there’s Ned,” I said.

“Ned?”

“The new tutor, Mr. Brontë,” I said. “Ned seems to like him.”

My hand circled lower, scuttling spider-like across Edmund’s paunch.

“Lydia, that tickles,” he said, levering me off him as he sat up to blow out the candle. He rearranged the pillows and lay back, pulling my hand higher to rest on his chest.

This was it, then. Our conversation was at an end.

The darkness enveloped me. I imagined the trail of smoke snaking its way to the ceiling but couldn’t even discern the shape of Edmund’s chin. From the pattern of his breathing, I knew he was slipping away from me.

“Has Mr. Sewell said anything about him?” I asked, tapping Edmund like piano keys to bring him back to me.

“Hmm?”

“I wondered if Sewell had any complaints about his new companion.”

Mr. Brontë wasn’t sleeping in the Hall, but in the Monk’s House, where our steward, Tom Sewell, lived. I’d insisted, for the girls’ sake, that the young man’s sleeping quarters be far away rather than in the main house. And that was probably just as well, since his brooding brow and love of poetry marked Mr. Brontë out as a romantic.

It’s a strange little property, the Monk’s House. It dates from the 1600s, Edmund would tell visitors. Not nearly as old as the Hall, of course. It could have housed Henry the Eighth himself. And his chest would swell with pride.

The cottage was too grand for servants, to my mind, if you wanted the staff to know their place. No wonder Tom Sewell’s sister, our housekeeper, gave herself such airs. Miss Sewell was a flighty thing, too young to manage a household, and yet she thought herself mistress of two, whiling away evenings with her brother at the Monk’s House. No doubt she’d be there even more frequently now there was an unmarried gentleman to toy with.

I hadn’t even seen the new addition to the household since Mr. Brontë had hurled stones at the window. The schoolroom was the girls’ domain, and Ned was taking his lessons at the Monk’s House. The weather had proved too inclement for wandering outside or hunkering down in the stables.

“No, no complaints.” Edmund’s voice was just louder than a whisper.

To others, he was the stern father and the generous landowner, above all a man of morals and convictions. But to me, he was as vulnerable as a child, my partner through the years, my companion in the dark. Driven by an unexpected impulse, I kissed his neck, his cheek, his nose, like an explorer in the desert who has finally happened upon water.

He grunted.

“Edmund,” I said, lips skirting across his collarbone, hand reaching through the thicket of hair between his legs.

“Lydia,” he said, very much awake. He grabbed my hand and pushed it aside. “There’ll be none of that.” He turned onto his side, his face away from me, pitching up the sheets so a draft flew across my body.

I’d been a fool to attempt when it had been so long. That was a second cruelty—how our marriage had died along with our daughter. But I should have accepted it by now. Being with Edmund was like being in my own bed but lonelier. Having someone, but someone who did not want you, was worse than having nobody at all.

Edmund was asleep by the time I had conquered myself enough to excuse him. I wrapped my arm around him and he did not stir, brought my mouth close enough to his back to drink in his smell without risking a kiss.

All through the night, I stayed there on the brink of sleep, terrified to wake him, the cold playing across the goose bumps on my arm.
This reading group guide for Brontë’s Mistress provides an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Finola Austin. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson, mistress of Thorp Green Hall, has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her hateful mother-in-law breathing down her neck, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.

Change comes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Anne Brontë, and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Handsome and romantic, a painter and a poet, Branwell is twenty-five to Lydia’s forty-three. Colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate playacting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction, and soon Branwell’s intensity and Lydia’s loneliness find a dangerous match in each other.

Grave consequences for Lydia’s transgression loom. Her prying servants blackmail her for their silence, her husband becomes suspicious, and Branwell’s behavior grows increasingly erratic while whispers of the affair reach his bookish sisters.

With this swirling vortex of passion and peril threatening to consume everything she has built, the canny Mrs. Robinson must find the means to save her way of life, and quickly, before clever Charlotte, Emily, and Anne reveal all of her secrets in their deceptively domestic novels.

That is, unless she dares to write her own story first.

Deliciously rendered and captivatingly told, Brontë’s Mistress reimagines the scandalous affair that has divided Brontë enthusiasts for generations and gives voice to the woman vilified by history as the “wicked elder seductress” who allegedly brought down the entire Brontë family.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. On page 51, Lydia Robinson remarks, “How funny it is that men and women struggle as they die, but few of us kick or scream as we are lowered alive into our tombs.” How would you describe Lydia’s state of mind at the start of Brontë’s Mistress?

2. What is Lydia’s relationship with her daughters like? Why do you think that she is often critical of them? On page 80, she pens, “Motherhood was about offering truth, not comfort. For all it still tugged at my heartstrings to hear her cry so, Lydia needed to leave behind her childish notions. And I must be the one to disabuse her.” Why does the elder Lydia feel that it’s her duty to do so? Do you agree with her (taking into account the historical context)?

3. Lydia feels strongly about her daughters’ marriage prospects and remarks on page 90, “I would take action and defend them from a woman’s worst fate—to be extraneous and unneeded.” Given that this is Lydia’s greatest fear, how does this worry drive her actions and affect her decisions throughout the novel? Does she ever become “extraneous”? Do the Brontës?

4. Women throughout history are often cast as the temptress when they engage in sexual relationships outside of wedlock. What famous examples of this can you think of? How is this portrayed in Brontë’s Mistress? Is more of the burden for the affair put on Lydia than it is on Branwell? Do you believe that Edmund’s emotional distance from Lydia played a role in her affair, and if so, does any of the burden fall on him?

5. A great deal of Lydia’s focus revolves around what is economically safe and savvy for herself and her family. Why do you think she engages in this affair with Branwell, given all the risks to her financial well-being and societal status?

6. On page 136, Lydia says to Anne Brontë, “You never had your chance. . . . And, now, look at the life you are forced to lead—you and your sisters. You must choose between being a drudge or a burden.” Do you think Lydia is being harsh or truthful here? Are we meant to sympathize with her? Did writing novels offer a third alternative path to the Brontë sisters? Do female main characters have to act a certain way for readers to sympathize with them?

7. Why do you think Lydia is so fascinated with Charlotte?

8. How would you characterize Lydia’s relationship with Marshall? Compare Marshall to Lydia's own mother (as we're told) or to Lydia and her daughters' relationship. Do you think there is anything romantic and/or sexual in their connection?

9. Before Lydia travels to Allestree Hall, she says on page 245, “Sir Edward might be saving me, but I would not abdicate my power. I could not allow myself to make the same mistakes again.” In what way did Lydia abdicate her power in past relationships? How does she work to change that dynamic when she’s with Sir Edward? Do you think she’s successful in keeping her power?

10. Women have more options today than in Victorian times. But do you think there is still undue pressure on women in romantic, sexual, or economic relationships? Do some aspects of Lydia’s experience apply to women today?

11. Consider Lydia’s relationship with Dr. Crosby. Why do you think he shares with her the fact that he’s attracted to men? How does their relationship grow over the course of the novel, and how is it unique from any of the other relationships in Lydia’s life?

12. Lydia’s affair with Branwell has been historically characterized as bringing down the entire Brontë family. Having read this novel, do you believe that to be true? Why do you think this blame has been laid at Lydia’s feet?

13. Did Lydia’s encounter with Charlotte go the way you expected it would? Lydia writes, “The tears I was choking on now seemed less for Branwell than for his sisters, for the fact that they would always hate me” (page 287). Why do you think Charlotte’s rejection of Lydia affected her so much? Do you think she feels closer to the Brontë sisters than to Branwell by this point? Why?

14. What do you think of the ending and Lydia’s “almost overwhelming desire to write a novel of my own. A story about me?” (page 297)? In what ways was her own story told for her in the past? How did her tangential relationship with the Brontë sisters inspire this? What stories of real women from the past may be lost to us?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read some of the Brontë sisters’ famous works, such as Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey, and Wuthering Heights. Did you notice any references to parts of these novels in Brontë’s Mistress? What were they? Was your opinion of the characters in Brontë’s Mistress affected by your reading of these famous works? Conversely, if you’ve already read works by the Brontës, was your perspective on their family changed by reading Brontë’s Mistress?

2. Read and reflect on other works where female figures from history or literature are cast as the main character—for example, The Paris Wife, Mrs. Poe, Loving Frank, and Z. Consider how the retelling of their stories gives voice to women whose history and perspectives are often glossed over in a telling of history and a literary canon written almost entirely by men.

3. You can find the fully designed book club kit at finolaaustin.com/book-clubs. In it, you can read Finola Austin’s travelogue of her visit to the grounds of Thorp Green Hall and see a map of the buildings mentioned in the novel.

A Conversation with Finola Austin

Q: How did you first become interested in the Brontës? What made you decide to tell Lydia Robinson’s story?

A: I’ve always loved nineteenth-century literature. Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens were probably the first two Victorian novelists I read as a child, and in my teens, I raced through the works of all three Brontë sisters. After doing an undergraduate degree in Classics and English, I stayed on at the University of Oxford to complete a master’s in Victorian literature. While my dissertation focused on sensation novelists Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, I also wrote a paper on Charlotte Brontë (particularly on romantic relationships between students and teachers in her novels).

It wasn’t until 2016, though, when I was reading the first biography of Charlotte Brontë (by fellow nineteenth-century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell), that I came across Lydia Robinson’s story. I was immediately fascinated—by Gaskell’s assassination of Lydia’s character and by what a contrast this Mrs. Robinson would be to many of Charlotte’s protagonists. Brontë heroines are often poor, plain, young, and virginal. But here was a woman who was wealthy, beautiful, in her forties, and sexually experienced. I realized hers was a very different story, and one that I wanted to tell.

Q: You’ve done a great deal of research in order to write this novel. Where has your research taken you, and what was the most surprising thing you discovered?

A: I spent a full year researching Brontë’s Mistress before I began writing, and I went on a research trip to Yorkshire (“Brontë country”) after completing my first draft. I detail a lot of my research in the Author’s Note at the end the novel, but some of the highlights for me were taking tea in Dr. Crosby’s front parlor, holding Lydia’s letters and Edmund’s accounts book, seeing the wonderful statuette of a monk above the front door of Monk’s Lodge, and, of course, visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum.

A particular focus of the research for me was doing justice to the Thorp Green servants. I wanted to understand their roles in the house, but also who they were as people. These details really helped me to picture them as individuals with stories of their own and families at home, even when I wasn’t able to include all of them.

Q: It seems that you were drawn to a woman who was wronged by history’s telling of her life. Are there any other such women in history or literature who spark your interest?

A: Lots! While Lydia was cast as the villain of the Brontës’ story, many women have been wronged by history because their stories haven’t been told at all. Women have often been confined to the domestic sphere rather than acting center stage in politics or standing on the front line of battlefields, but for me, this doesn’t make their histories less important.

Q: On page 83, Branwell says to Lydia, “Charlotte talks from time to time of the novel as the ‘literary pinnacle of our age,’” and Lydia thinks to herself, “I’d always assumed my taste for them was confirmation of my feminine frivolity.” How were novels regarded in the mid-nineteenth century? Did the Brontës’ works cause novels to be held in higher esteem at the time, or did their fame come later?

A: In the nineteenth century, women were major consumers of novels, just as they are today. They read them in three volumes, borrowed from circulating libraries, or serialized chapter by chapter in their favorite publications. Perhaps because of this association with femininity, novels were often regarded as inferior to highbrow literature such as poetry.

Victorian novelist George Eliot (another woman writing under a male pseudonym, like the Brontë sisters) wrote an essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” in 1856, criticizing the formulaic genre fiction so many women wrote about and enjoyed. Her title clearly linked femininity to frivolity.

While the Brontës’ works (especially Charlotte’s) have always been regarded as a step above the writing of many of their contemporaries, I think even today we see a repetition of this pattern. When I’ve told people I’m writing about the Brontës, many respond to me by dismissing Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as “just romances” and “for women.” While for me, Brontë’s Mistress doesn’t seem romantic, I don’t see writing romance as lesser than other genres or writing for women as a weakness.

Q: Why did you decide to make the dynamic between Lydia and her daughters a more distant one? Was that common for relationships between women in families at the time? What historical texts and examples did you refer to when shaping this relationship?

A: Attitudes toward parenting have shifted dramatically since the nineteenth century (in fact, the word parenting started to emerge only in the late twentieth century as theorists started to understand the formative nature of our early experiences). The Victorians engaged in many practices we typically turn away from today, including employing wet nurses to feed their infants and regularly using corporal punishment to discipline children. Lydia then might not have seemed like a “bad mother” to her contemporaries as much as today we might question her choices in the novel. With sons much more valuable to families at that time, due to women’s limited options, it also made sense to me that Lydia might have a strained relationship with her daughters, believing that “tough love” was the right way to prepare them for the realities of their position as women.

I had two main literary models in mind here. First, Mrs. Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Mrs. Bennet and Lydia are very different in terms of temperament, but their outlook is similar: their daughters should seek to marry well, but be practical and unromantic about their prospects. The second model was a character named Mrs. Winstanley from a lesser-read Victorian novel—Vixen, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Mrs. Winstanley is a mother obsessed with her daughter Violet’s size (similar to how Lydia worries about Bessy’s figure in Brontë’s Mistress). Braddon eventually reveals that Violet is five feet six inches with a 22-inch waist (she could probably fit into a US size 0 today). Braddon is clearly playing this for laughs. She’s pointing out the maternal character’s ridiculousness, but she strikes at a truth: when women are valued solely or largely for their physical appearance, mothers can and do become hypercritical of their daughters’ looks. Even today, I know many women who can trace a direct line between their insecurities about their appearance and their mothers’ own warped body image.

Q: There are many letters throughout the book between the characters. Are these letters based on actual letters from the time? Are any of them the letters that the historical figures wrote?

A: None of the letters in the novel are real, though the poem Branwell includes in his letter dated August 1, 1845, is. Eighteen letters written by Lydia are extant and part of the Robinson Papers collection at the Brontë Museum Parsonage. I was lucky enough to be able to read these. They are business letters written to the agent Lydia mentions employing in my chapter 16. From these I took her distinctive sign-off, “yours very truly,” and details about the honeymoon and the yacht meeting Lydia and Sir Edward in Marseilles, which shaped chapter 20 and Lydia’s final letter to Bessy.

Q: We can see from your novel that Charlotte Brontë originally published Jane Eyre under the pen name Currer Bell. Was it common for female authors at the time to publish under a male name? When was Charlotte revealed to be the author?

A: There are certainly many examples of women novelists from the nineteenth century hiding their identities by choosing to remain female but anonymous (Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was described as “by a lady” on its publication in 1811) or by adopting a male persona (the option taken by the Brontës, George Eliot, and Louisa May Alcott, who often wrote as A. M. Barnard).

What’s unique about the Brontës was the huge level of public interest in discovering who the “Bells” were. Were there really three? Were they brothers? Sisters? A married couple writing together? Reviews were rife with argument and speculation about the writers’ (or writer’s?) gender(s).

Charlotte and Anne revealed their true identities by visiting their publisher in July 1848 (when Lydia is tending to a dying Lady Scott in my novel), but it wasn’t until the publication of Charlotte’s 1850 preface to a new edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey that most readers knew who the Brontës were. By then, both Emily and Anne had already died. Charlotte’s characterization of her sisters formed the foundation of the so-called Brontë myth and has had a lasting impact on the family’s depiction in popular culture.

Q: The role of women and the expectations placed on them, whether by men or by society, is prevalent in your novel. Why is this a subject you wanted to explore in such depth?

A: I am a woman, and so, unfortunately, these roles and expectations are something that I (and more than half the population) have to face all day, every day. I feel it would be impossible to write a novel with a woman main character, whether set today or in the past, that didn’t touch on any of these issues.

Q: If it was indeed not Lydia who “brought down” the Brontë family, do you think any particular factor or factors led to their undoing?

A: The Brontë family’s story is fascinating and tragic. The early loss of Mrs. Brontë and the two eldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, had a lasting impact on the Reverend Brontë and the four children who made it to adulthood—something I reference a few times through the course of my novel. There was extremely poor sanitation in Haworth, leading to many probably preventable deaths (just take a walk around the graveyard there to see the shocking gravestones with multiple names per family).

When it comes to Branwell, it is clear that he was troubled long before meeting Lydia. He’d failed in his dream of becoming a painter and had been dismissed from his job with the railway due to his excessive alcohol consumption. Blaming Lydia for what happened to Branwell (and the rest of his family) seems to me to be an archaic way of thinking. There’s a clear gendered double standard in vilifying her for any sexual affair, and our understanding of the ravages of addiction is much more nuanced today.

Q: This story is told as a first-person narrative from Lydia’s point of view. What made you choose this perspective rather than, say, a third-person narrative? What do you think we gain with this access into Lydia’s mind, and why is that important for the story you tell?

A: I always knew I was going to write Brontë’s Mistress in first person. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is written in the first person, and my novel is in some ways an answer to hers. Jane is poor, plain, young, and virginal. Lydia is wealthy, beautiful, older, and sexually experienced. But both characters have limited options open to them just because of their gender.

Because Lydia has so often been blamed for Branwell Brontë’s demise, I thought it was important for readers to understand her position (even if they don’t always agree with her actions). Lydia can be incredibly selfish. For instance when any of her servants are ill, she thinks first of the inconvenience to her. And she can be blind to just how good her life is (e.g., she compares herself to a slave going to the galleys when forced to endure an awkward Easter luncheon!).

But many people, whether they admit it or not, spend their lives obsessing over the petty and failing to see the bigger picture. In the last chapter, Lydia says, “There were women from here to England, crying over curtain fabric.” Curtain fabric isn’t just curtain fabric: it’s being trapped in a system where women have no property, power, or recourse to divorce and limited, superficial education. Flawed as Lydia is, I have empathy for her impossible position, and I hope others do too.

Q: Do you have any favorite books or movies that inspired you as you were writing Brontë’s Mistress?

A: I was of course inspired by the works of the Brontë sisters in writing the novel, especially Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, which was based in part on her time working at Thorp Green Hall, and Charlotte Brontë’s iconic Jane Eyre. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina were important models for literary adulteresses. And I was also inspired by nineteenth-century American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and by the 2016 film Lady Macbeth, both of which deal with the psychological impact of women’s limited choices during the Victorian period.

Q: Do you have a next project in mind? If so, can you share anything about it?

A: I am working on a new book! It’s also historical fiction, but set during a different time period and in a different country from Brontë’s Mistress, which has been a fun challenge. In both novels, I was inspired by the true stories of real women, though in this case, my main character was an artist in her own right, unlike Lydia.
Photograph by Nina Subin

Finola Austin, also known as the Secret Victorianist on her award-winning blog, is an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist and lover of the 19th century. By day, she works in digital advertising. Find her online at FinolaAustin.com.

“Brontë’s Mistress gives us a fascinating new perspective on one of literature’s most famous families. Smart and sexy, this captivating novel is true to the romantic spirit of the Brontës themselves, with a modern feminist twist. A delicious treat for Brontë fans!” —ELIZABETH BLACKWELL, author of Red Mistress and On A Cold Dark Sea

“Lydia Robinson, the married woman with whom Branwell Brontë allegedly had an affair, tells her own side of the story in Finola Austin's beautifully written and meticulously researched novel, Brontë's Mistress. Austin's Lydia—unhappily married, affection-starved, and unfulfilled—is exquisitely nuanced. I felt deeply for her, even as I was frustrated by some of her choices. The affair with Branwell is merely one facet in a finely-cut gem of a larger story. Austin's great strength is that she is able to write so that both Lydia's own strengths and weaknesses seamlessly coexist, creating a thoroughly, beautifully, complicatedly human character. Brontë's Mistress gives voice to a woman who, until now, has been voiceless; and, indeed, to thousands of women whose lives, like Lydia's, were so terribly suffocating.” —MOLLY GREELEY, author of The Clergyman's Wife

“A richly atmospheric, compelling portrait of a woman torn between expectation and the wish for more. Brontë's Mistress stayed with me long after I put it down." —MEGAN CHANCE, author of A Drop of Ink

“Finola Austin's debut novel is a stunner. Anyone who has ever thrilled to a Brontë novel needs to read this glorious historical novel about the Brontë sisters and their brother, Branwell, and his affair with the outrageous, scandalous woman who broke all conventions. Atmospheric and beautifully imagined, this is a must-read for lovers of great historical fiction.”—JEANNE MACKIN, author of The Last Collection: A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel

“Confident, convincing and engrossing, and with a sure historical touch, it illuminates another dark corner in the Brontës' story.” —GILL HORNBY, author of Miss Austen

"Bronte's Mistress is a beautifully written, highly seductive debut in which Finola Austin delves into the life of a relatively unknown member of the Brontë family. The chemistry between Branwell and Lydia positively crackles on the page, and while Lydia emerges as a delicious heroine in her own right, the better-known Brontë sisters are portrayed with wit and care. Masterful storytelling which is sure to delight fans of the Brontës and of historical fiction. Brontë’s Mistress comes highly recommended by this Yorkshire lass." —HAZEL GAYNOR, New York Times bestselling author of The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter

"Finola Austin’s riveting debut novel presents a deftly rendered, complex heroine swept up in the allure of forbidden passion—and the heartrending consequences when the romantic illusion shatters. Beautifully detailed and richly atmospheric, Brontë’s Mistress portrays one of literature’s most famous families from an intriguing new perspective.” —JENNIFER CHIAVERINI, New York Times bestselling author of Resistance Women

"A mysterious manuscript, a passionless marriage, a dazzling but dissolute tutor--Finola Austin’s richly imagined historical novel tells the tale of Lydia Robinson, of Thorp Green Hall, and Branwell, the beloved brother of the brilliant Bronte sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Wonderfully engaging and clever, Bronte’s Mistress captures the tragic claustrophobia of women’s limited lives in nineteenth century England." —ANDREA CHAPIN, author of The Tutor

"Dark and moody, Brontë’s Mistress unearths the secret love affair of Lydia Robinson and Branwell Brontë in all its shocking scandalousness. Anchored by meticulous research, Finola Austin has created a heart-tugging portrait of a passionate woman more akin to Emma Bovary than Jane Eyre, but equally trapped by the constraints of her era. Bittersweet and beautifully written.” —KRIS WALDHERR, author of The Lost History of Dreams and Doomed Queens

"Rich in heart and detail, Finola Austin’s novel Bronte’s Mistress is a beautifully created tour-de-force. This tightly-woven novel could reflect the life any number of middle- and upper-class Victorian women bound by English society’s rules, but it happens to concern the woman whose extra-marital affair with Charlotte Bronte’s brother, Branwell Bronte, rocked not only their own lives but the closely-knit society in which they lived. Using a plethora of research sources, Austin has written a beautifully-created novel whose every character (save for a horse!) is based on the actual historical persons involved in the events." —SARAH SHOEMAKER, author of Mr. Rochester

"At the heart of Finola Austin's Brontë's Mistress isn't that literary family, of whom readers to this day entertain a cult-like fascination, but Mrs. Lydia Robinson, a protagonist as passionate as she is multifaceted and complex. Romance, sex, love in its many variations, enough grief and drama to rival a Greek play—it's all here. The result is a delicious and truly escapist read, which resonates with this lesson from Austin: Women are the true and unsung survivors of history." KATHERINE J. CHEN, author of Mary B

"Finola Austin's Brontë's Mistress is a page-turning read full of passion and fire. The life stories of the famous Bronte siblings, Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne, have been chronicled in depth by countless biographers, and now and then in works of fiction. But an important aspect of Branwell Bronte's life—his life-altering, doomed love affair with the infamous Mrs. Robinson, an older woman whose son he was tutoring—has never been examined in such depth before, and makes a tantalizing read." —SYRIE JAMES, author of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë

"Offer this to fans of Victorian literature, readers who like their historical fiction populated with real people, and those who don't require that their romances have happy endings." —BOOKLIST

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