Published August 2020 by Atria Books
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
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.
I'm a huge fan of the writings of the Bronte sisters - Emily, Anne, and Charlotte left their marks on the world. Their only brother, Branwell, did not. He floundered through his life, unable to find his path and a victim of his addictions. What Branwell did leave, though, were letters intimating that he may have had an affair with one of his employer's wives, Lydia Robinson.
Austin took what is known about their relationship and crafted it into a novel that explores Lydia's side of the relationship. In Austin's hands, Lydia is a complicated character and I had mixed feelings about her. It's a fact that Lydia was married to an older man, in a time period where a woman's security depended on men. It's also a fact that she had only recently lost a child when Branwell began working for the family. Austin takes all of those facts and takes things up a notch making Lydia a woman who wasn't necessarily a fan of being a mother, particuarly not of her surviving daughters, viewing them more as burdens to be unloaded onto the best match she could make than as cherished parts of her heart. Edmund Robinson is portrayed as a man who has lost whatever passion he might once have felt for his wife, whose mother matters more to him than his wife, and whose gambling habit will eventually leave Lydia in a position where she must rely on others to survive after Edmund's death.
It was easy to imagine why Lydia might be attracted to a handsome young man who shows her attention and there was certainly a part of me that cheered for Lydia to find some happiness. And then a part of me that grew increasingly frustrated with her recklessness, especially as it became clear that Branwell could not be relied upon to be cautious nor quiet about their affair. Once things really changed for Lydia, though, at a time where I should have felt sorry for her, I found her increasingly irritating and annoyed with the choices she made. It was hard to feel sorry for her. And then it occured to me that Lydia reminded me very much of Becky Sharpe in William Thackeray's Vanity Fair; another woman whose passion undid her and who did whatever it took to survive. It didn't make me like Lydia any more. She was still a woman who Austin portrays as jealous of the relationship between her daughters and their governess but more angry at her daughters for not trying harder to be close to her than she was willing to make that effort. But I could see better what Austin was doing.
Ms. Austin has clearly done her research and does a fine job of painting a picture of what life was like in that time and place. I would have liked to see a little more character development. Only Lydia felt like she was fully developed; Edmund, their daughters, and other family members and friends often felt like caricatures. The book might actually have benefited from more development of Lydia's other relationships as well. Overall, if I were to put a grade on this one, I'd give it a C, an average book that has good moments and I don't regret reading. Other reviewers on Goodreads gave it much higher marks. I'd recommend you look at a few reviews before you make your decision if you're thinking of picking this one up.