Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Finola. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about BRONTE’S MISTRESS.
Thank you so much for having me! Bronte’s Mistress is my debut novel. It’s historical fiction based on the true story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumored to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte—the only Bronte brother, who was sibling to famous writerly sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. History has very much painted Lydia as the villain, accusing her of corrupting her son’s innocent tutor and leading to the demise of the entire Bronte family. Now, for the first time, I tell her side of the story.
Branwell is not the most well-known Bronte sibling. What about him appealed to you as a writer?
I have always been interested in the tragedy of Branwell’s life. As the sole boy, a lot was expected of him, but, although he had aspirations to be a novelist, poet, and painter, Branwell never achieved the greatness his family had predicted, while his sisters are still celebrated today. More than Branwell though, it was Lydia herself who fascinated me. Bronte heroines, especially Charlotte’s, are often poor, plain, young and virginal. Lydia Robinson was wealthy, beautiful, older, and sexually experienced (she had given birth to five children). But she was still a woman trapped by the confines of nineteenth-century society. I believed hers was a story worth telling.
At forty-three, Lydia Robinson is older than most historical heroines. Do you feel it important to write stories about older women?
Very much so. Women in their forties are so often invisible in our media today. They’re seen as “too old” to be the romantic lead, but too young to be the matriarchal wise woman. Yet, guess who the biggest readers of historical fiction are? That’s right, women in their forties, fifties, and sixties. I don’t want to only read novels about eighteen-year-old debutantes, and I had a hunch that I wasn’t alone in this. Lydia herself feels this invisibility keenly. She has little recourse to fight the physical signs of aging (it’s not like she can even cover her gray hairs!) and she increasingly believes that she’s only invited to social occasions because of her teenage daughters. The affair she enters into is partly a result of this feeling of her life slipping away from her.
What do you believe Lydia and Branwell saw in one another?
I don’t see Bronte’s Mistress as a love story. Branwell and Lydia fall in love with the idea of each other. He is looking for a grand passion to serve as inspiration for his writing. She is suffering from boredom and the suffocating fear that, at just forty-three, her sex life is over, since her husband refused to have sex with her. Lydia and Branwell are in some ways very different. He’s an idealist, while she is pragmatic to a fault. But they share a reckless streak, which means they find a dangerous match in each other.
Historically, Lydia is often blamed more harshly for the affair than Branwell. Did this bias influence your approach to the material?
Yes. I started writing the novel after reading how Elizabeth Gaskell, another Victorian novelist and the first Charlotte Bronte biographer, characterized/assassinated the character of Lydia Robinson in her The Life of Charlotte Bronte. She calls Lydia “wretched” and “profligate.” She even says that, in this case, “the man became the victim.” Women’s sexualities in the nineteenth century were strictly policed and we still see this gendered double standard today. In what way is Lydia worse than Branwell? What other options does she have? It’s not like she can get divorced.
Do you have a favorite scene in BRONTE’S MISTRESS?
This is such an interesting question. I think it is probably the scene that was the most painful for me to write—the one where Lydia finds herself the only woman at a dinner party held by her cousin’s husband, Sir Edward Scott. She feels at such a disadvantage. She can’t contribute to the discussion, as she knows nothing of politics and current affairs. The men make a great show of behaving chivalrously towards her but when she leaves the room and listens at the door, they speak about her in an incredibly demeaning way. Lydia at times in the novel has the petulance of a teenager, but what else could we expect given that the men around her treat her like a child?
Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing BRONTE’S MISTRESS?
Unusually, I think, for a writer, I write short, not long. So the revising and editing process for me often involves adding material vs. cutting it away. That means there were no scenes or chapters I cut wholesale, although I did play around with several prologue ideas before settling on the newspaper clipping that now begins the novel. However, I did make the early choice not to include some characters. Working on a book about real people is hard, as in real life we know some many individuals! In particular, I had problems with having too many Williams and Ann(e)s, and I wanted to avoid confusing readers. I would have loved to dive more deeply into the maidservant Ann Marshall’s feelings towards Lydia. She was an Ann I did choose to keep in the novel but, while the mistress/lady’s maid relationship may read as romantic or sexual at moments, we have no way of knowing whether this potential attraction was one-sided.
If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of BRONTE’S MISTRESS, who would you cast?
I always struggle with this as they are such real people in my mind! One thing is for sure—I would want the casting to be age-appropriate.
For Lydia, maybe Rachel Weisz or Winona Ryder today, or Kiera Knightley or Emily Blunt in eight to ten years time. I could see Timothée Chalamet or Harry Styles making a believable Branwell if the movie was made in 2020. I’d cast a very dressed down Florence Pugh as Anne Bronte, who was Lydia’s daughters’ governess—her eyes are just so judgmental! Judi Dench, who’s Honorary President of the Bronte Society, would be perfect as Lydia’s awful mother-in-law. Andrew Scott (the hot priest from Fleabag) would be a great Dr. Crosby, and I’d love to work with Phoebe Waller-Bridge to adapt the novel for the screen.
What do you hope readers take from their experience of BRONTE’S MISTRESS?
Even if they don’t agree with all of Lydia’s choices, I hope readers understand the difficulties of Lydia’s position and have empathy for the lives she and so many women were forced to lead.
What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?
I’m working on a new novel! I can’t say too much yet but it is also historical fiction, although set in a different country and time period. My characters are based on real people again and the research has been really fun, although challenging when not all sources are written in English…