Finola Austin, author of Bronte’s Mistress

The New York Browning Society, Inc. Newsletter
Founded in 1907

Date: Wednesday, January 13, 2020
Time 1:00– 2:00PM
Pick up a Copy of Her New Book Bronte’s Mistress

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by Laura Clarke

We are excited that the historical novelist Finola Austin will be
talking to the New York Browning Society about her debut novel,
Bronte’s Mistress, which was published by Atria Books (Simon &
Schuster) in 2020. Austin, who has a Master’s degree in nineteenth
century literature from the University of Oxford, will talk about her
research into the real-life scandal that rocked the Bronte
family, which is the basis of her novel, and feminism in Victorian
novels, including Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning’s Aurora Leigh. Find her online at

Before I discuss how Bronte’s Mistress continues the feminist
legacy of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh, I would like to first look at two
contemporary reviews of Jane Eyre and Aurora Leigh that show
how Bronte and Barrett Browning were maligned for the overtly
feminist content of their respective novels. When Jane Eyre was
published in 1847 under the masculine pseudonym Currer Bell, it
was criticized for challenging conventional Victorian notions of how
women should act and behave as well as for its raw and honest
portrayal of the inner life of a governess. An anonymous reviewer
for The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction expressed
alarm at how Jane Eyre challenged the Victorian ideal of submissive
“People were once ashamed to stand forth as the advocates of vice
… but such barriers are unhappily broken through, and not by men
only, but by women, from whom we naturally look for all that is
gentle and loveable. The desire of the present generation is to be
bold and fearless.”
The reviewer observes that “the heroine herself is a specimen of
the bold daring young ladies who delight in overstepping
conventional rules.” Making a correlation between  the character of
Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte herself, the reviewer laments how
“it is the boast of its writer that she knows how to overstep
conventional usages – how, in fact, to trample upon customs
respected by our forefathers, and long destined to shed glory upon
our domestic circles.”

In Florence, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was disappointed that she
had to wait longer to get her hands on a copy of Bronte’s famous
novel. Her curiosity about Charlotte—a curiosity that is shared by
Austin’s protagonist Lydia Robinson—reveals that she saw
something of herself in the famous author. Indeed, she too was a
woman who, albeit for different reasons, had been condemned to
live an invisible life and had escaped her veritable prison through
the powers of genius and imagination. It is clear from a letter that
Barrett Browning wrote to Mary Russell Mitford that she believed in
the myth surrounding Charlotte Bronte. She informs Mitford that
Jane Eyre was not written by a man, as many people assumed, but
by “a Miss Bronté, a clergyman’s daughter, diminutive almost to
dwarfishness—a woman of thirty, who had hardly ever left her
father’s parish in Yorkshire. There is great success in mystery.”


As Austin will show in her talk, Aurora Leigh is clearly influenced
Bronte’s Jane Eyre. While George Eliot identified the explicit
similarities between both novels, most reviews praise or criticize
Barrett Browning for the outspoken views on women that were
implicitly inspired by her reading of Jane Eyre. A reviewer for the
Athenaeum noted that Aurora Leigh is Barrett Browning’s
“contribution to the chorus of protest and mutual exhortation,
which Woman is now raising, in hope of gaining the due place and
sympathy which, it is held, have been denied to her since the days
when Man was created, the first of the pair in Eden.” Although the
reviewer appears to sympathize with Barrett Browning’s aims, his
review deliberately misreads the ending of the poem to reassert a
traditional view of femininity: “The poetess confesses her life has
been a failure, and lays her love in the arms of him who has been
hungering and thirsting for it many a weary day.” In focusing on the
Aurora’s marriage, the reviewer conspicuously omits the fact that
Barrett Browning conceptualizes a new conception of womanhood
through her transcendental poetics. Bronte’s Mistress pays homage
to and expands upon the feminist ideas central to Jane Eyre and
Aurora Leigh. While Bronte and Barrett Browning focus on the
struggles of young women, Austin explores the plight of the
invisible older woman. Although Lydia Robinson is in fact only forty
five, she feels irrelevant in Victorian society now that she is past her
birthing years and the height of her beauty. Lydia’s husband is no
longer interested in her, and she yearns for companionship, love,
and sexual fulfillment. Reflecting on her marriage, Lydia poignantly
observes, “How funny it is that men and women struggle as they
die, but few of us kick or scream as we are lowered alive into our
tombs.” Lydia’s affair with Branwell Bronte, the brother of her
children’s governess, Ann Bronte, makes her feel seen again, and
we are witness to the awakening of her physical and intellectual
life. But when this affair is exposed and her husband dies, Lydia is
forced to occupy yet another precarious social and economic
position: the older widow.

Austin’s novel gives voice not only to Lydia Robinson but to the
many Victorian women whose lives were constrained by
conventional ideas about the role of women in society.

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