Brontë’s Mistress is an exploration of what happens when women are socialized to be decorative and seem to have no other purpose. Our anti-heroine, Lydia Robinson, is the woman who became Branwell Brontë’s mistress during the 1840s. Some readers may find her unlikable, spoiled, whiny, even extremely self-centered. As an anti-heroine, these qualities are not a problem. To help make Lydia sympathetic, Austin lets the reader see how life has disappointed her. In her forties and past child bearing, with an uninterested and uninteresting spouse, she is adrift. Socialized to be a pretty coquette, she doesn’t know how to shift roles. Her one outlet, music, is mostly cut off to her, since her husband complains about her playing too much. All of which makes her vulnerable to a younger, handsome, attentive man who not only relieves her boredom, but seems to adore her, something she needs.
Austin has managed to walk the line of writing a book based on a real historical person and delivering an engaging story. She did exacting research, including visiting places, and reading letters, even though she has a Master’s degree in Nineteenth Century LIterature from Oxford. She also generously included a back section with historical notes, what she made up, and further reading. The version I read included Book Club questions, too. All in all this is a great Book Club pick.
Sometimes as feminists, we like all female characters to have agency, but the truth is that sometimes in history, their agency was limited. What if your choices were as proscribed as Lydia’s? Can you honestly say you would have chosen differently? This is the stuff of a deep conversation.