Finola Austin Dove Into Brontë Family Lore for Her Debut Novel
An interview with the author of Brontë's Mistress
|Aug 4, 2020|
Finola Austin wrote a book that, if not for this newsletter, I may not have read.
Austin’s first novel, Brontë’s Mistress, is out today. It’s an imagined account of a likely real affair that occurred between an aristocratic woman, Lydia Robinson, and Branwell Brontë, brother of the famous Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne.
Historical romance isn’t a type of fiction I usually read. But the premise for Brontë’s Mistress intrigued me. I wanted to interview Finola Austin, and my policy is now that I must read an author’s or poet’s book before interviewing them for this newsletter.
Brontë’s Mistress delighted and intrigued me. The novel’s historical elements scratched my historical itch, while its reflections on a woman’s societal role, and how we perceive women, remain relevant still today. In the end, Brontë’s Mistress is a well-told story from debut novelist Finola Austin.
Austin talks in the interview below about researching and writing Brontë’s Mistress.
Interview with Finola Austin
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am half Northern Irish, a quarter English, and a quarter Welsh. I was born in Kent in England and moved to the small town of Whitehead in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, when I was five.
I did my undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Oxford and then moved to London to start a career in advertising. It was my day job that led to me making the move to New York City in 2014. It was meant to be just for a year, but I fell in love with the city and have been in Brooklyn ever since.
I live here with my Siberian cat Arabella (named for the character in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). My parents and sister are still Northern Ireland, so I try to visit regularly (or at least I did pre-pandemic!). I read a lot, maintain a blog on nineteenth-century culture and literature (the Secret Victorianist), do barre classes, and, in normal times, spend evenings eating out or at the theatre/ballet/opera/museum, making the most of what the greatest city on Earth has to offer.
What made you want to study 19th century English literature while at Oxford?
I grew up reading every book I could get my hands on and quickly developed a love for nineteenth-century novels. I was reading Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens before I was ten, and, in my teenage years, read the works of the other Brontë sisters, as well as a lot of Hardy. For my Master’s, I specialized in Victorian sensation fiction—in particular the works of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins.
The nineteenth century was the period in which the novel really came into its own as an art form. It was also a period of increased literacy when books became a primary form of popular entertainment. I’m interested in the line between high brow literature and more mass appeal. Novels were often dismissed as frivolous, especially when written by women, but fiction is an incredibly versatile medium, which provides a lot of scope to explore the serious.
Novels allow us to enter and explore the human psyche in a way that, say, films don’t. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is still I think the closest we have to a perfect novel in English.
What were you most surprised to learn while researching for Brontë’s Mistress?
The biggest surprise was the first surprise—that no one had written this novel already! When I first came across Lydia Robinson in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, I couldn’t believe that her story hadn’t been told. Gaskell’s description of Lydia, as a “wretched” and “profligate” woman who “tempted” the Brontë brother Branwell into sin, when he was employed as her son’s tutor, felt so rooted in the Victorian gendered double standard. I wanted to offer a contemporary perspective on this centuries-old scandal.
Throughout my research there were smaller surprises too—revealing details about Branwell and his sister Anne, who was governess to the Robinson daughters; tantalizing facts about Lydia’s servants and her daughters (her oldest daughter, also named Lydia, may even remind us of Jane Austen’s fictional Lydia Bennet!).
You mention in the book’s author’s note that you kept a “murder detective’s bulletin board” while writing Brontë’s Mistress. Is that true?
This may have been a little hyperbolic, as those bulletin boards can get pricy (I have looked them up). But I did have family trees, maps, and images pinned to my apartment walls at some points throughout my research and writing.
The heart of my planning process, though, was a much less exciting spreadsheet. I used this to log every known date in Lydia and the Brontës’ lives, tracking my sources and the ages of all parties involved. Once I’d decided when the beginning and end of my novel should be, I looked at the events that fell between these dates to identify what had to be a major scene, before creating entirely fictional incidents in the gaps—those wonderful silences history leaves us.
In earlier drafts of the novel, all my scenes were date stamped. Later, I pivoted to more conventional chapters, but I still know the date on which every plot point occurs!
What, if any, characters or plot points shifted or changed as you wrote the novel?
Because I was writing a novel based on real people and events, much remained the same. However, I did add a meeting between Lydia and Charlotte Brontë (a scene that hadn’t been part of my original conception). I made this choice as Charlotte Brontë is such an important presence in Lydia’s thoughts from the earliest pages of the book.
Lydia is threatened and fascinated by Branwell’s description of his older sister’s cleverness. At times, Lydia even seems more interested in Charlotte than in him! Orchestrating a meeting between them felt like the right emotional choice for the book and for Lydia’s character arc.
The heroine, Lydia Robinson, tries to find happiness and purpose in a regimented society that overpowers women. Yet she doesn’t seem willing to extend any leeway or enfranchisement to her daughters. Why do you think that is?
It’s a personal pet peeve of mine that so many heroines in historical fiction are suffragettes, arguing for women’s empowerment, often decades or even centuries before the suffragette movement was born. Most people are not radical revolutionaries imagining that society could be another way. Lydia, like many women, chooses to play by the rules and make the best of her lot. And so, she tries to instill in her daughters the same pragmatism.
At one point in the novel, Lydia says to her second daughter Bessy, “You will learn, in time, that your mother cannot fix everything. What would you have me do? Change the world and your place in it?” Readers may be screaming at the page at this point, “Yes, that IS what I would have you do!” but for Lydia this is unimaginable. Misogyny isn’t just perpetrated by men. Lydia is complicit in the society that makes her so very unhappy.
Her daughters of course have other ideas about their futures. Each of them believes that she is the protagonist of this story, and all three take different paths, making them really fun to write.
If Lydia Robinson were alive today, what kind of life do you think she would be living?
Lydia would have more of a chance today—a chance, for example, to access education equal to that of men, or to choose a different life for herself, beyond being a wife, a drudge or a burden. But would she?
How many women still measure their worth by their marital status, their wealth, and their looks? How many mothers pass on their own insecurities and self-loathing to their daughters? And how many men, like Lydia’s husband Edmund, hide their feelings and shut themselves off from the world, because of the nature of the masculinity they aspire to?
Who are some of your favorite writers, past or present?
I’ve already mentioned some of my nineteenth-century favorites above. But my all-time favorite book was written in the twentieth century. It’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart.
My favorite poet is Charlotte Mew. Charlotte Brontë is on balance my favorite Brontë sister, though I love them all. Living writers whom I very much admire include Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro.
What are some of the best books you’ve read lately?
Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Edward Carey’s Little.
If you’re working on your next book, can we expect another historical novel from you?
I am working on my next book! All I can say for now is that it’s also historical fiction and based on real people. However, this next book takes place in a different time period and a different country.
Anything else you'd like Bidwell Hollow followers to know about you or your work?
I’d love to hear from you! You can find me on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or at www.finolaaustin.com. I’m especially open to video conferencing into book club meetings if you’re discussing Brontë’s Mistress. I know so many people are bonding virtually over books right now and I’d love to answer any questions you have for me.
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