A month ago, I wrote about the push/pull of duty and desire as expressed in Michelle Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gate. That novel, like much historical fiction, explores the constraints and opportunities available to a woman at the beginning of her adult life. But the situation facing older women in the past was also often limited, if in slightly different ways.
We take so much for granted now. Girls receive an education and even athletic training, if they are so inclined, equal to that given to boys. Young women attend college—these days often in numbers higher than their male counterparts. Pregnancy can be prevented, weddings delayed. And terminating a marriage that doesn’t work out carries little social stigma, although the emotional and financial costs can be high.
Not all has changed, of course. As I wrote in that earlier post, expectations of male and female roles within the family have changed more slowly than the new opportunities can sustain. In many parts of the world, too, the circumstances I describe in the previous paragraph do not apply. But few modern women in that cultural abstraction known as “the West” face a situation like the one that confronts Lydia Robinson in Brontë’s Mistress, the subject of my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Finola Austin.
Although wealthy and propertied, Lydia has no way to offset the natural progression of time, no real defense against illness, no right to divorce the husband who has shut her out since the last of their five children died unexpectedly two years before. Perhaps most important, Lydia has no conception of alternatives, little understanding of her own unhealed grief, and few emotional barriers against the sudden arrival of temptation in the form of a handsome young man.
Lydia doesn’t always make the right choices. She takes a harsh line with her daughters and her servants, fights her mother-in-law, and betrays her husband—who is also grief-stricken and has health problems to boot. We don’t always like her, but we can sympathize with her pain. She didn’t ask, after all, to be laced into a cultural corset. And that ability to evoke empathy is the mark of a good novelist.
As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
It seems likely that most of our listeners have at least heard of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Many also know that Charlotte and Emily had two other talented siblings who grew to adulthood: Anne, author of the novel Agnes Grey, and the only male heir, Branwell—whose early promise evaporated in a haze of alcohol and opiates. Still, it seems likely that Branwell’s affair with his employer—Lydia Robinson, a wealthy, married woman eighteen years older than he—has received far less attention. This affair, the exact parameters of which have not been determined, is the subject of Finola Austin’s lovely debut novel, Brontë’s Mistress (Atria Books, 2020).
Although advantaged in many ways, Lydia has many reasons for complaint when we meet her. Her mother has just died, and her father suffers from senility. At forty-three, she fears the effects of approaching middle age on her beauty and her ability to bear children, the things that have defined and given value to her life. She worries about her daughters’ futures while fending off the encroachments of her mother-in-law. She still mourns the unexpected death of her fifth child two years before the novel begins. And the loss of that youngest daughter has irreparably damaged Lydia’s long and once-satisfying relationship with her husband, Edmund, who neither offers comfort to nor accepts overtures from her.
So when the Robinsons’ governess, Anne Brontë, recommends her brother, Branwell, for the position of tutor to Lydia’s only son, it is perhaps not surprising that Lydia’s initial attempts to keep a proper distance soon evaporate in the face of the attraction she feels for this Byronic young man who pays her compliments, shares his poetry and his art, and listens to her woes. As Finola Austin notes in our interview, Branwell “sees” Lydia, and the consequences of that instinctive emotional connection drive the action of this psychologically sophisticated and always engrossing novel.