I came to this novel for the Brontë connection, hoping for a really good historical fiction about real-life people. I got a powerful tour de force about the limited lives of even upper class British women in the mid 19th century.
What it’s about:
From the Goodreads blurb:
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.
I’ve never been all that interested in Branwell Brontë (not like his fascinating sisters), but I was definitely intrigued by the idea of a fictionalized account of his affair with Mrs. Robinson.
This book is so well written. I have more highlighted passages on my Kindle for this one than for any other book I’ve read recently. Gorgeous and lush prose, obviously meticulously researched, fascinating and intoxicating. It was nearly impossible to put down once I got started—first because of the tension between Lydia Robinson and Branwell, later just to see what Lydia would do next.
Neither Lydia nor Branwell are very likable characters. Lydia Robinson is complex: lonely, sad, passionate, desperate, selfish, shallow… she made me so mad at some points in the story, but at other points I realized she’s very much a product of her time and place. She’s a smart, emotional woman who is oppressed and limited, judged and neglected. Branwell is really a secondary character, and that’s just fine—he’s the tortured, struggling soul that does sort of get chewed up and spit out by his Mrs. Robinson, but I love the way he’s written here. The slow building of the romantic tension between these two is palpable and their inevitable relationship is scorchingly hot.
Despite being the titular mistress, Lydia is much more than an older, married woman dallying with a younger, freer artistic type. She’s a wife who very much loved her early relationship with her husband, is mourning the loss of a young child and her own mother, has a complicated relationship with her teenaged daughters, and is dealing with her own aging and loss of relevance. I couldn’t stand her, I was rooting for her, I wanted her to get on with her affair, I wanted her to go to her husband, I wanted her to be a better mother, I wanted her to find what she needed… and I mainly felt horrible for her and the limited options she had. Just listen to her:
‘It was tiring, always calculating how I might appear best, but what other options were available to me? If I had to tie myself to a mast—and I had to—it might as well be to the grandest, proudest ship.’
‘He saved me and destroyed me all at once, taught me I could still feel so I could discover that I needed more than him.’
‘There were women from here to England, crying over curtain fabric, scolding their children, and aching for change and love or, at least, excitement. And most, if not all, of them would be disappointed. Their fate and mine was too common to be the stuff of tragedy.’
I can’t finish this review without also mentioning how starstruck I was when the Brontë sisters were mentioned or appeared. Especially Charlotte, of course.
This book is an astoundingly good debut. I can’t wait to see what Finola Austin does next.