The alleged affair between Branwell Brontë – mercurial, addicted, and soon tubercular – and Lydia Robinson, the married mother of his tutee – has been gilt with legend. Lydia, in fact, inspired that classic adulterer and seducer of young men, Mrs. Robinson of The Graduate fame, turning her name into shorthand for bored, middle-aged seductresses everywhere.
As goes the story, Branwell was recommended to his Mrs. Robinson by his sister, Anne, who was governess to Lydia’s daughters. The facts tell us Anne resigned her post, and then Bran was fired. Tying together the sparse evidence at hand, Bran humiliated himself by embarking upon an affair with Lydia, vowing to marry the woman when her husband died – only to be rejected by her when Edmund Robinson passed on.
This sent him on an embarrassing downward spiral into addiction and over the top behavior, until tuberculosis – an illness which would soon claim his sisters Emily and Anne – and opium and alcohol addiction combined to take his life, a husk of wasted artistic potential. To take the point of view of Lydia, and give us a novel from it, adds something different to the story. She’s been so long painted a jezebel taking advantage of a young man that to read her thoughts is something of a fresh prospect.
And so here comes Finola Austin with Brontë’s Mistress, which indulges in some bathetic Brontë-style soap-opera frippery that would make the sisters themselves jealous. Though it’s an entertaining mess, the sheer over-the-topness of the novel may put off some readers.
Lydia is in a crisis of her own, living in something of a viper’s nest when Branwell enters her life. Her beloved youngest daughter and wise mother passed away within the same year, her marriage is an icebox of coldness and propriety that contradicts with her high- spirited, fanciful temperament – her husband refuses to touch her or bed her unless she wants a child – her mother-in-law criticizes how Lydia runs the family’s oversized manse and raises her children and has Edmund at her beck and call, and her three, quite marriageable teenaged daughters have become unruly in the wake of the never-ending family drama. Lydia thinks to add discipline to the girls’ lives, but with fanciful, poetic Branwell’s tutorship to her son, gets something entirely different.
In Bran, Lydia finds a high-spirited soulmate, but she is also twice his age and he is prone to fits of wild temper. To maintain her position in society, Lydia has an almost sociopathic level of self-denial and control in place, which makes her both sympathetic and irritating as a character. If you’ve ever dreamed of living that regency lifestyle, this book will do a good job of smashing your fantasies – Lydia’s desperate desire to control her daughters’ virtue and marital prospects make up much of the story at hand. Lydia’s motivation is simple – if she doesn’t have social standing, if she doesn’t have happily and well-married daughters, then she has failed in her entire objective as a human being.
The affair with Bran is something Lydia clings to because of the sexual power she has over him and because she is a hothouse Maggie the Cat, yearning for someone to rub up against her. Soon Bran becomes an embarrassment when Lydia refuses to take the sexual affair they’d embarked on to the next level. Soon she must sacrifice all to maintain what she has worked so hard to earn. But soon, too, does she realize that the love between them was even-handed, and that letting him go was a huge mistake.
The book alternates between deep philosophical delving and ridiculously soapy nonsense – some of it fictionalized, some of it lifted from real life. We get deadly illnesses and deathbed scenes (three times), a first-time rogering on the ground, a runaway Gretna Green marriage (which actually happened with one of the daughters), an attempted elopement, a night at the theater in which people fall in love at first sight, romantic poetry readings, gossipy servants, two spouses being shit in the sack, and not one but two dead children. That is a lot of soap to swallow, and while the author’s over-the-top tone is perfectly Brontëish it also makes the characters seem like cartoon characters. Lydia and her desperate daughters are compelling, even when they’re behaving repulsively.
And some of Austin’s inventions don’t even add to the drama. Example: for some reason, Lydia is obsessed with Charlotte Brontë and directly describes the author as her mirror, envying her talent as an author, wanting those skills for herself. This feels more like an authorial projection than anything Lydia might have felt about Charlotte.
Also while the downstairs life at Lydia’s estate plays its part, none of the servants are fully described or portrayed except for Lydia’s faithful lady assistant, Marshall, who stands out among them if only for her loyalty to Lydia.
But Brontë’s Mistress ultimately does what it needs to do by being a whole lot of gossipy fun. It’s lighthearted and melodramatic, and will scratch for readers a certain id that will leave them smirking along.