Finola Austin joins the blog this week to talk about her debut historical novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Welcome, Finola!
Author Name: Finola Austin
Book Title: Bronte’s Mistress
Book Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: Out Now
Publisher: Atria Books
Please tell us about your book.
The true story of the original Mrs. Robinson—the older woman rumored to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte, leading to the downfall of the entire Bronte family.
What sparked the idea for Bronte’s Mistress?
I was reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte (the first Bronte biography) when I came across her description of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumored to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte. Gaskell described Lydia as “wretched” and “profligate,” and accused her of tempting Branwell into the “deep disgrace of a deadly crime.” In this case, she told readers, “the man became the victim.”
I was fascinated by this salacious piece of gossip from literary history and shocked at the gender double standard in Gaskell’s judgment of Lydia. Somebody, I thought, must have told Lydia’s side of the story, through a twenty-first century feminist lens. I Googled. Nobody had.
That was it. I knew this was a book I just had to write. And I worked on the project obsessively, convinced that if I didn’t tell Lydia’s story, somebody else would.
How long did it take for you to write the book? Did you do have to do any research?
The Brontes are incredibly famous and we know a lot about their lives. So I did a full year of research before starting to write the novel that would become Bronte’s Mistress.
Following on from this, I drafted the novel in under six months, including revising as I worked.
I then went on a research trip to Yorkshire to augment my desk research, including spending time in the Bronte Parsonage Museum archives.
I made edits for two months based on my research trip findings before sending my novel to ten beta readers (I’d already had chapter-by-chapter feedback from two writing groups too). My beta readers had four weeks to read. I then interviewed them and worked for a month making changes based on their insights.
I started querying literary agents the next month, and after two months in the query trenches, signed with my wonderful agent, Danielle Egan-Miller. Danielle and I worked through two rounds of edits, which took around five months.
We were on submission for five days with publishers before I accepted a preempt offer from Daniella Wexler at Atria Books. And of course, after the sale, I went through rounds of edits with my publisher too!
All in, it was just under four years from my “aha” moment, when I got the idea for Bronte’s Mistress, til the day I saw it on store bookshelves.
What drew you to historical fiction?
I grew up reading Victorian novels, especially the works of Charles Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot. I went on to study for a BA in Classics & English at the University of Oxford, followed by a Master’s there in English Literature, 1800-1914. My dissertation focused on the writings of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins.
After leaving the academic world, in 2013, I started keeping a blog dedicated to nineteenth-century literature and culture—the Secret Victorianist. It was in writing blog posts that I started reading more and more novels written in the twenty-first century, but set in the nineteenth.
I enjoyed the new perspectives these novels offered into the periods in which they were set. Writers of historical fiction can include themes, characters, and ideas that couldn’t have been foregrounded in the past and make us think differently about society, then and now. It was this that led to me wanting to write a historical novel of my own.
For you, what’s the hardest thing about writing?
Writing is an act of extreme vulnerability, especially when the time comes to share your writing with others. Turning yourself inside out and then asking the world to judge you? That’s tough, especially when the response for so many writers is total silence.
Bronte’s Mistress is my first published novel, but it’s not the first novel I wrote. I queried a previous manuscript and have had many rejections through the years.
What’s more, even when you’re published, that doesn’t stop the rejections coming. A reviewer who hated your book. A friend who told you they were reading and then…nothing.
I’ve heard parents talk about having a child as being like your heart walking around the world outside of you. I wonder if seeing your book in others’ hands is in some ways analogous to this feeling.
What do you love most about it?
I love words. I love grammar and etymology. I love revising a sentence again and again, finding the perfect word for what I want to convey, and then moving it to the perfect place. For me, editing is the joy of writing, not spewing out a story onto an empty page. I want my prose to sing.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
I have a demanding day job in digital advertising (I currently work in Facebook’s Creative Shop team). I enjoy barre classes, good food, and spending time with my very fluffy Siberian cat, Arabella.
Are you working on a new project?
I am! I can’t say too much about it yet but it’s also a historical novel based on the lives of real people. But, it’s set in a different time period and country!
Where can readers find you (website, blog, social media, etc.)? Feel free to include any upcoming, live/online events, too!
Find me online at www.finolaaustin.com, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And join me on September 16 for an event with Books on the Subway, where I’ll be in conversation with seven other 2020 debut authors!
Thank you, Finola! Bronte’s Mistress is out NOW.
This dazzling debut novel for fans of Mrs. Poe and Longbourn explores the scandalous historical love affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, giving voice to the woman who allegedly corrupted her son’s innocent tutor and brought down the entire Brontë family.
Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson—mistress of Thorp Green Hall—has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.
All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with—including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family—but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia. Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction.
But Lydia’s new taste of passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship spout from her servants’ lips, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Lydia to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.
Meticulously researched and deliciously told, Brontë’s Mistress is a captivating reimagining of the scandalous affair that has divided Brontë enthusiasts for generations and an illuminating portrait of a courageous, sharp-witted woman who fights to emerge with her dignity intact.
Finola Austin, also known as the Secret Victorianist on her award-winning blog, is an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist and lover of the 19th century. Bronte’s Mistress is her first novel. By day, she works in digital advertising.