I’m very excited to interview Finola Austin on the blog today.
Finola Austin was born in Gravesend in England to a Northern Irish father and an English/Welsh mother. When she was five, her family moved to the small town of Whitehead in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Finola spent her childhood telling stories to her long-suffering younger sister and reading all the books she could get her hands on. Currently, Finola lives in Brooklyn, with her Siberian cat, Arabella, and too many books. She is working on her next novel.
Q: What inspired you to write Brontë’s Mistress?
A: I was inspired by a book, but not a book by one of the Brontë sisters, though I’ve always loved Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and their less well-known works.
I was reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, the first great Brontë biography when I came across the description of the rumored affair between the Brontë sisters’ troubled brother, Branwell, and his employer’s wife, Lydia Robinson. Mrs. Gaskell called Lydia a “profligate woman, who had tempted [Branwell] into the deep disgrace of deadly crime.” She said that in this case “the man became the victim,” and suggested that Lydia was responsible, not only for Branwell’s demise, but for all the Brontë siblings’ premature deaths.
I was fascinated by this piece of salacious gossip from literary history and convinced that somebody else must have told Lydia’s side of the story, revisiting Gaskell’s interpretation from a modern feminist perspective. But…no one had! I just knew that this was a story I had to tell. I researched and wrote my novel in a fever. The closest comparison I can give you is that I was like somebody possessed or in the throes of an intense romantic infatuation.
Q: Did you have to do any particular research for this book?
Yes. My research was extensive and is detailed in the Author’s Note at the end of my book, so no spoilers here! I have a Masters’s degree in Victorian literature and this background, including the bibliographical skills I gained while studying at the University of Oxford, served me well. Suffice to say that my research included a lot of desk research and a crazy trip to Yorkshire, where I got chased by sheep, spent hours in archives, and discovered some gems of information that I think really brought my novel alive. When writing historical fiction about real people there are always details you have to make up (e.g. what people said and how they felt) but it was important to me that everything that happens in my novel could have happened. I know the date of every scene in my book. In once instance, I had to rewrite a chapter to get rid of moonlight when I realized there was no moon that night!
Q: When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
A: I have a demanding day job. I work in digital advertising in New York City, currently at Facebook as part of the Creative Shop team. I also read a lot and give feedback to other writers (being part of two writers groups takes time!). But one of the best parts of living in New York is that there is so much to do. I go to the theater, to operas, the ballet. I also try to go to art galleries as often as I can. And I eat out and go to bars with friends far too much. I love this city.
Q: What does your writing routine look like?
A: Ha. My routine isn’t much of a routine. I write when I can—early in the morning, at night and on weekends. I often write when traveling, whether for work or to see my family back in the UK. I think I work best on airplanes or in hotel rooms (especially if I’m able to expense room service). When life is really busy I actually schedule ‘dates’ for myself with my characters on my calendar to ensure I still have time to write and don’t say yes to other plans. It sounds a little crazy but it works.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to publication?
Bronte’s Mistress was the second full-length novel I wrote. I’d queried a previous manuscript (also historical fiction but not about real people) back in early 2016 and received a few full requests from literary agents, but rejection after rejection came in. By the time the project was dead in the water, I’d already moved onto working on my next book.
I started researching Lydia Robinson and her affair with Branwell Brontë in late Fall 2016 and did a full year of extensive research before I began writing. I wrote the novel incredibly quickly. I think it took me around six months from Fall 2017 to Spring 2018, whereas my first unpublished book was the result of four to five years of working on it on and off. I workshopped the novel chapter by chapter with my two writing groups while I was writing it and then sent it to ten beta readers before making my final revisions.
I started querying literary agents in August 2018. The first batch of queries I sent out included one to Danielle Egan-Miller (my now agent). I knew from reading about her online that we had a very similar reading taste and I’d received great feedback from her former assistant on my first manuscript, so I had a good impression of the agency. I was upset and a little embarrassed when I received an automatic response saying the agency was currently closed to queries (how had I missed that??). But around an hour later I received a reply from Danielle, saying she just had to make an exception, because “what former English major could possibly resist the story of the woman who corrupted Branwell Brontë?” I was excited but I tried not to get ahead of myself. I finally signed with Danielle in October 2018, so it took around eight weeks from query to offer of representation.
I then did two further rounds of edits with Danielle’s guidance—the first addressing broad-strokes feedback, the second more detailed. We went on submission in late March 2019 and Brontë’s Mistress sold via a preempt within days to Daniella Wexler at Atria Books. Danielle and Daniella—it seemed like fate! I couldn’t have had a better team in bringing my novel into the world.
From the publisher: Atria Books
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.