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Bronte’s Mistress

I received a digital Advance Readers Copy of Bronte’s Mistress by Finola Austin from the publisher (Atria Books). Bronte’s Mistress is scheduled for release on August 8, 2020.

Bronte’s Mistress is a novel inspired by bits of truth. The Bronte in question here is Branwell, the perhaps least well known and only male Bronte. Branwell served as a tutor in the same household as his sister Anne (who was a governess). A young 25, and under the influence of alcohol and drugs, he fell in love with the lady of the house, Lydia Robinson. What he left behind are snippets of poetry and an ocean of rumors.

Austin takes these pieces of history and weaves them together, imagining the story from the perspective of Lydia. What would lead a lady in her forties to have an affair with a much younger man, in a society where women were not allowed to have desires of their own? Austin explores the expectations heaped on Lydia, from her husband, her children, her extended family, and society in general.

The characters throughout are well established. While the cast is relatively large, I never felt lost in a sea of bodies. Even the Bronte sisters (who spend very little time on the page) are clearly represented. Lydia’s own trio of daughters are equally well differentiated, each having individual personalities and drive. Lydia in particular was well written. It was not difficult to understand how her situation would have led her to the choices she made. I was rooting for her to find happiness in the story, wherever that might be.

Like all well-written historical fictions, this novel had me constantly questioning where the line between known history and imagined story was drawn. I am not well versed on the Bronte family, or on this time period, so for me, the line was well hidden. For me, the story line was clear and cohesive. Austin did include a note at the end that discussed what was truth and what she had imagined on Lydia’s behalf. While reading the novel, I wished I had read more of the Bronte’s works (sad confession: I’ve only read Wuthering Heights). The author’s note reinforced that wish. Throughout the novel, I kept feeling nudges of references I wasn’t quite grasping. In her note, Austin discussed weaving the themes of the Bronte’s into Lydia’s story. I would have had a better appreciation for the full tapestry of the novel if I had a bit more Bronte background in my pocket.

Overall, Bronte’s Mistress is a well-written historical fiction exploring the conflict between societal expectations and personal desires. If you are not a Bronte fanatic, it will read as an enjoyable Victorian novel. If you are a Bronte fan, I would expect this novel to feel like a homecoming, with familiar objects and memories at every turn. If you are well-read in the works of the Bronte’s, let me know what your experience of the novel was like! Off to read Jane Eyre….

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