“Bronte’s Mistress,” by Finola Austin, caught my eye on the New Books Shelf at the public library. I read everything I can get my hands on about the Bronte family. Some books have been great (“The Brontes,” by Juliet Barker) and some have been disappointing (“Dark Quartet,” by Lynne Reid Banks). “Bronte's Mistress” is not one of the disappointments.
Readers know Charlotte Bronte, whose most popular book is “Jane Eyre.” Also popular is Emily Bronte's “Wuthering Heights.” Less well known is the fact that Charlotte Bronte’s youngest sister, Ann, also wrote two books that are still in publication today.
The hope and focus of the family was the only son, Branwell. But Branwell couldn't establish himself in any job (because of an addictive personality? bipolar disorder?) and died young of alcohol and drug abuse. He did work for a few years as tutor to the son of a family where his sister Ann was governess to the daughters. While there, he had a sexual relationship with the children's mother.
Lydia Robinson, mother to Charlotte, Ann and Branwell, tells her story in a first person narrative. She is passionate and dissatisfied with her circumscribed life. Her complaints about her corset give a physical handle to the emotional strictures that are suffocating her.
Lydia, however, is not perfect. She is selfish and shallow. I felt sympathy for her children who were ignored by a cold father and pushed away by a self-absorbed mother. Branwell, an inexperienced, much younger man, gave Lydia the adoration and physical attention she no longer received from her husband.
I finished “Bronte’s Mistress” in two days. The Author's Note at the end explains that all of the characters in the book are real and details corroborating evidence for events in the story.
No one can know for sure what happened at Thorp Green Hall, but Austin has made the residents very real and given us a window into what life was like in mid-19th century England through the details of a historical tragedy.