Art In Fiction

Loving the Brontës feat. Finola Austin, author of Brontë's Mistress

April 27, 2023 Carol Cram Season 3 Episode 1
Art In Fiction
Loving the Brontës feat. Finola Austin, author of Brontë's Mistress
Show Notes Transcript

Join me as I chat with Finola Austin, author of the award-winning debut novel Brontë's Mistress.


  • Origins of Brontë's Mistress
  • Investigating Lydia Robinson, rumored to have had an affair with Branwell Brontë, the n'er-do-well brother of the famous Brontë sisters
  • Inspiration from Mrs. Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë
  • Contrast between Lydia Robinson and the typical Brontë heroine
  • Using Reddit for inspiration
  • Shades of gray in Lydia Robinson, the main character of Brontë's Mistress
  • Bad sex scenes--why we need more of them
  • Reading from Brontë's Mistress
  • Turning real characters into fictional ones--challenges & issues
  • Lydia Robinson & Charlotte Brontë - not a good mix
  • One thing learning from writing Brontë's Mistress
  • Advice for new authors

Press Play now & be sure to check out  Brontë's Mistress on Art In Fiction.

Finola Austin's Website

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Music Credit

Paganology, performed by The Paul Plimley Trio; composed by Gregg Simpson

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Thank you!

Hello and welcome. I’m Carol Cram, host of the Art in Fiction Podcast. This episode features Finola Austin, author of Brontë’s Mistress, listed in the Literature category on Art In Fiction.

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 nineteenth century. By day, she works in digital advertising. Brontë’s Mistress is her debut novel.

Carol Cram

Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Finola.

Finola Austin

Thanks for having me.

Carol Cram

I just thrilled to have you here because I want to start off by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed Brontë's Mistress. I listened to the audiobook edition. It was extremely well done. I was really seeing the world from Lydia Robinson's point of view. I also really liked that she was not always that likable, and yet I really couldn't help rooting for her, which I'm sure was your intention.

So to start off, could you give us a summary of Brontë’s Mistress for listeners who may not have read it yet? 

Finola Austin 

Absolutely. So, Brontë’s Mistress is my debut novel. It came out in 2020. It's a work of historical fiction, but based on a true story and real people, some of whom you might have heard of. So, Brontë’s Mistress is all about a woman called Lydia Robinson, who was rumored to have had an affair with Branwell Brontë, brother to the famous Brontë sisters. So you might remember reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in school. Some of you who are Brontë fans might know of the dissolute brother Branwell. And one of the bad things he was meant to have done was to have this scandalous affair with his employer's wife. 

She was described by Charlotte Brontë's first biographer, Mrs. Gaskell, as a profligate woman who tempted Branwell into the deep disgrace of a deadly crime. But in my novel, I really start to give her a voice and tell her side of this scandalous story.

Carol Cram

Yes. And I think that's what is so wonderful about it because she's had a bad rap for years. So when you started writing the novel, or when you got the idea for the novel, it was Lydia's story that fascinated you the most, it sounds like.

So what was the sort of theme you were trying to get through with using Lydia as the central character?

Finola Austin

So I grew up reading 19th-century fiction. I love the Brontës as well as a host of other novelists from that period. And I went to university and studied literature. I did classics in English at Oxford for my undergraduate, followed by a Master's in 19th- century literature. And so this was a period I was very familiar with. I knew I wanted to write historical fiction, and I'd been kind of working on some ideas in that space for a while. 

But it was when I read Mrs. Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë, A Life of Charlotte Brontë, for the first time, and stumbled on those patches of text about Lydia Robinson that I was hit by this idea. And I think why it really struck me was, one, there was the kind of internalized misogyny of a lot of what Elizabeth Gaskell was writing about this woman, really blaming her for the affair in a way that's familiar to many of us where we see kind of women being blamed for men's wrongs.

But what really struck me, first and foremost, was how different Lydia Robinson was as a character compared to the protagonist of some of the Brontë sisters’ novels, and in particular Charlotte's novels. 

So, Charlotte's heroines are by and large, young, poor, plain and virginal. And here was Lydia Robinson, who, well, not old. She starts the novel at 43. That's substantially older than any other Brontë heroine. She is older, she's richer, and she's also sexually experienced. She's had five babies, four of whom have survived by the time that my novel starts. 

And so I was fascinated at this idea that even if you had all these advantages compared to what Charlotte and her sisters had to deal with, even if you were considered to be accomplished and beautiful, as Lydia Robinson was by her contemporaries, at the end of the day, she's still a woman in a society that puts a lot of restrictions on her. 

I think today, when you read contemporary novels that deal with adultery, a lot of readers are allergic to that. They say, oh, well, why couldn't this character have just got a divorce? But when you're dealing with a character in the 1840s, that's not a viable option that's open to them. Lydia Robinson can't divorce her husband. She doesn't own her own money. She can't even vote. And so I wanted to explore what choices she could make and the consequences of those choices.

Carol Cram

Yes, because she had extremely limited choices. Actually, having an affair with Branwell was a choice she could make. And you really brought out how empty her life was and how unloved she felt, which I think anybody can relate to in any era.

Finola Austin

Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think what's really interesting is when you're writing a period piece, there are obviously those trappings that give it a historical period, right? There's a lot about the costuming that someone like Lydia would've worn - the corsets, the restrictive clothing that she can't even get on and off easily alone. The entire novel starts with her deciding to change without the help of her lady’s maid. And she's getting her foot stuck in the hem and really struggling to do this most basic of tasks for herself. 

However, as you say, there are lots of themes that are universal and are not linked to one specific period. 

So one amazing resource that I used for a couple of different things in the novel is looking at Reddit. I love looking at Reddit and looking at the experiences that people have, especially when they're very different from my own.

So, two subreddits I looked at. I looked at the Dead Bedroom subreddit, where you see men and women both, talking about being stuck in relationships that are sexless, marriages where they're unhappy with their sex lives, which is true for Lydia Robinson and also the Just No M.I.L. subreddit, which is the Just No Mother-in-Law subreddit where you see the experiences of women with terrible mother-in-laws. So, I'm not married and anyone I've ever dated, I've actually quite liked their mothers. So, this is not an experience I've had firsthand, but I have heard from people who have self-proclaimed monsters-in-law that my depiction of Lydia's relationship with Edmund's mother was pretty spot on. And I have Reddit to thank for that.

Carol Cram 

That's amazing. I've never thought about using Reddit for that. Thank you. That's inspiring to me. I can have a look there. Dead Bedrooms of Reddit. That's hilarious. And yes, I really like the mother-in-law. I actually could relate to her, not personally, fortunately. I adored my mother-in-law, but I certainly knew people like that. And yes, you definitely got it right. There are people like that. Very much so. Yes. 

And Lydia herself, I liked her so much because she was quite flawed. I mean, she was vain. She had all sorts of things that were not particularly likable about her, and yet we rooted for her. What were you thinking about when you were developing that character?

Finola Austin

Thanks for saying that. I think it's very interesting for me as the author to see the range of reactions that people have to Lydia. I certainly have a lot of sympathy for her, and it's great to hear that you have too. But there's been a range of responses. Some readers have had no sympathy for her and her situation at all, and really do blame her for the pretty immature ways in which she acts. And I don't think my job as a novelist is to pass judgment. I'm not writing didactic fiction. I'm writing fiction for adults, and I want them to come to their own conclusions. 

But I think some of the things I was thinking about is, one, I wanted this to be a realistic character, and I think a lot of us have these shades of gray and nuance. I certainly didn't want to redeem her and write her as the kind of innocent angel that's been badly painted in the Brontë story. So that was very true. 

And second, I was very interested in the idea of the women who didn't write novels during the 19th century. The dedication to my book is to the women who didn't write their novels. The Brontë sisters were amazing because they were exceptional. They put down thoughts on the page that maybe other 19th-century women had but certainly didn't share. 

And so I was interested in the experience of somebody who maybe didn't question the status quo, or didn't think that their thoughts were worth recording on the page. And so, near the end of the novel, Lydia thinks about writing her story and kind of asks this question of what would it achieve? I also thought of her as someone who's kind of stuck in a cycle. So she's almost always nearly getting it and then slipping up at the last second. So, for instance, she really does feel the restrictions of being a woman in her period. She feels the unfairness, she's longing for more, and yet when she thinks about having a job, she thinks that's the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman. 

She feels like she's had really the short straw in life in a lot of ways. And yet she actually perpetrates those same difficulties onto her daughters as well. And for me, that's just so much more realistic, that a lot of people's response to oppression isn't actually to fight against it but to oppress others in turn.

Carol Cram

Absolutely. That shows a tremendous understanding of human nature, which is why Lydia is such a great character that you've done. She's very complex. Because, you know, most of us aren't always nice. We do things that are immature, that are silly, that are not laudable. And she does that quite often all the way through. 

But one of my favorite scenes in your novel is when she first makes love to Branwell or when they first have sex, basically. And, just her thought patterns as she goes through that. I thought it was quite hilarious. I don't know if that's what you were going for, but it's a very good scene because I think it's extremely realistic. What is your take on that?

Finola Austin

Thank you. Yes, I would love to see more bad sex scenes in novels, but I don't mean badly written sex scenes, and I certainly don't mean non-consensual sex scenes. I mean, scenes where the sex is consensual and yet isn't always great, especially for our protagonist or the character whose head we're in in that scene. 

This is true of so many women's experiences with sex, and I'm sure many men's as well. And I would love to see more of that on the page. With time, as the affair kind of progresses, Lydia does find more physical and emotional pleasure in her encounters with Branwell. But it was utterly realistic to me that that first time she might not, especially as she's 43 years old and knows what she's doing, and Branwell is 25 and has been drinking. 

They're also in a dovecote on the grounds of her home at Thorpe Green Hall, which is not the most comfortable kind of setting for a tryst. I did have some fun and some humor with that as well, kind of looking at the pathos of these highfalutin kind of romantic notions that Branwell’s professing against the dirty reality of being in a dovecote that's covered in pigeon poop.

Carol Cram

Exactly. Because you've sort of built it up that finally they're going get together and oh my goodness, she's finally going get what she wants. And then, that is not exactly really what happens, although as you say, things do get better. Anyway, I just thought that was extremely well done. It was very realistic, as I said.

And one thing I also wanted to mention, that I think is wonderful about your novel is just how well written it is. You are a beautiful writer. How did you learn to write so beautifully? This is your debut novel.

Finola Austin

Thank you. I mean, I think it is really true what people say that reading makes you a better writer. I have read so much. I grew up reading a lot, and then thankfully the education I had at Oxford really gave me the time and the space to read even more. So I think that's part of it. I also think that I love writing, and I think some, especially beginner writers, they love storytelling, but they maybe don't love the craft in itself. 

I'm a member of several writers’ groups. I've spent a lot of time looking at other aspiring writers’ manuscripts. And one thing I can always tell is, if someone is writing a novel when they would really prefer their story to be a movie. It's very different. It comes across in the point of view a lot, where you see that they're kind of writing with an eye to where the camera would be.

They might be starting with a description of the world, that kind of wide angle lens on everything that's going on before zooming in on one character. And that's something that a movie can do incredibly well. But a novel is not like that; in novels today, we tend to prefer a first-person narrative like I have in Brontë's Mistress, or a really close third that also keeps us tight into that head of one character at a time, even if it moves between characters, between chapters. And so understanding what that can do for you, what techniques we can now use in novels that you can't get in a TV show or a film as easily without having that kind of Voice of God narration that comes over the top. All of those are really big tells.

So sometimes I hear of a writer's kind of complaining about the editing process. For me, I love, once I have something to work with. The blank page is not the inspiring thing for me. It's once I have the bare bones of the scene down on the page, I know what has to happen, and then I can refine and refine the prose. When I think back on the Brontë sisters and others writing in that time period, I'm amazed at how they could do so much without a delete button. I'm hitting backspace, moving things around, copy pasting, doing that search function to find out if I've used a word previously and then choosing a better place for it. So my process is very much one of constant refinement when writing.

Carol Cram

I can totally relate to you. That is exactly how I write as well. I love editing. I'd much rather have a chunk written, and then I can go back and craft and work on it. And I love what you say about how novels, they're a different animal and they're like tapestries, right? They're finely textured. That's something that came across in your novel. The word texture kept coming up to me as I was reading it. There's a lot of density in your prose, but it still moves along at a good pace. 

But yes, I can see there's a lot of craft involved. And that's good advice for authors, and we'll talk about that again in a minute. But right now, I was wondering if you  would like to do a short reading from Brontë's Mistress?

Finola Austin

Absolutely. Happy to. Let me go ahead and pull it up. All right. So I was going read a short section. This is from Chapter Two, so pretty early in the novel. And this is actually an interaction between Lydia Robinson, our main character, and two of her daughters, Mary and Bessie, who are going visiting the local poor. So she's decided that this is a great way to make a good impression on Branwell Brontë, but her daughters and the weather are really not helping her out as much as she hoped they would.

“My feet are wet,” said Mary. She stood on one leg to show me the hole in the toe of her left boot. 

“Honestly, Mary, you're growing as big as your sister,” I said gesturing at Bessie, who was stomping ahead of us through the puddles. “God knows what Miss Sewell is having Cook feed you.”

When I was Lydia's age, they'd laced me so tight that my waist was 18 inches. Mother had been proud of that, and so was I. I’d told Lydia once, and she hadn't eaten for days just so she could say the same. She'd succeeded, but given up an hour after Marshall had encaged her in one of my corsets. She'd been defeated, pale and short of breath, screaming at us to get this cursed thing off her. 

But Bessie, for all her hair was dark like mine, might have been a different species from us. She was broader, taller, more athletic. It was hard to imagine the giant of a man who might consider her dainty. 

“Whatever is the matter with Lydia today. Mary? Do you know?” I asked, transferring my basket to the other arm and lowering my voice so that her sister could not hear us. 

Bessie and Lydia were so unlike each other. Yet what I said to one was always made known to the other, to the exclusion of Mary, who, at fourteen, they thought of as a baby. 

“She's upset that no one has sent her a valentine,” said Mary, without a second’s hesitation looking up at me, unabashed little traitor that she was.

A valentine? In the first years of our marriage, Edmund had left posies on my pillow, but today I hadn't even noted the date. I nearly smiled at the girl's naivety, but then I remembered Mr. Brontë, the curve of his lip, the smile in his eyes, and how he'd called Lydia “charming.”

“From whom was she expecting a valentine, Mary?” I asked, walking a little faster now that Bessie had disappeared around a bend in the hedgerow-lined lane. 

“No one in particular, Mama. Although if she had her pick, she says she'd take Harry Thompson,” said Mary, hopping along to keep her foot dry. 

My shoulders relaxed. My pace slackened. The heir to Kirby Hall was double Lydia's age, and it was doubtful he even knew her name. Besides, Edmund had told me a profitable marriage was brewing between Harry Thompson and the daughter of some merchant's son turned baronet in Kent. 

“She was upset, as Bessie was sent one by Will Milner,” Mary continued her eyes widening. “It didn't strike Lydia's as fair since she is the oldest and prettiest. But now since Grandmama died, and we all must avoid company, she sees no gentleman at all, so when is she to have her chance? At church? Reverend Lascelles is so dull she says he'd kill her any hope of romance. And she claims she'll be old and haggard before we're out of mourning, especially as our other grandmama will also die sometime, putting us all back to the beginning. Oh, will I be pretty like Lydia when I am seventeen? I know, I shouldn't care so much, but I do. It is wicked, and yet I cannot help it.” Childish confession tumbled out after childish confession. There was mud on Mary's cheek and a look of terrible sincerity in her eyes. 

“There is no harm in praying for beauty, Mary,” I said, reaching out to wipe away the dirt with my handkerchief, “although it should not be the first virtue you desire.”

Maybe there was no need to teach Bessie better manners or limit her dinner portions when young Will Milner was so devoted to her. It was a strange thing for a youthful attachment born out of a shared love of horses to have survived into the boys' adulthood. It should have irked me too had I been Lydia. Her younger sister would have everything a girl could wish for money, a husband only a few years older than her, and a property, a short ride from ours. And Bessie hadn't even done anything to earn it, while Lydia wasted her coquetry on her bedroom looking glass, or perhaps on Mr. Brontë. 

“Why, there are Mama and now,” cried Bessie, as we rounded the corner. She was swinging on a wooden cow-gate beside the next house and conducting a shouted conversation with Eliza Walker. 

Eliza was standing in the cottage doorframe, cowering from the thickening rain. She was daughter-in-law to George Walker, a rustic who'd been on his deathbed since I'd first come to Thorpe Green Hall as mistress nearly twenty years earlier. The townspeople claimed he would soon be one hundreds years old. Each day, Eliza made her thankless pilgrimage from this Little Ouseburn, the smaller of the two villages, to tend to him since the obstinate old man refused to leave this rundown shack where he'd lived with his late wife for decades.

There was a flash of lightning followed by a thunderclap in quick succession. The rain beat down so hard, it rebounded from the ground. The three of us ran toward the house seeking shelter before Eliza had worked up the courage to invite us in. 

It took a few minutes to adjust to the dimness. The only room in the hovel was thick with peat smoke that clouded my eyes and coated the inside of my throat. 

Mary, forgetting all her breeding, had dropped down to one knee to remove and examine her offending boot. Bessie stood at the door watching the storm and delighting in the shocks of lightning and percussive thunder.

I didn't have the energy to chide either of them. At least they'd come. And they hadn't pointed out to me what a terrible failure this had been as Lydia would have, had she been of an age where I could have boxed her ears and dragged her along. What was I doing traipsing around the countryside to impress a mere boy? Had I been so long alone that attention from any man could delight me?

Eliza untied my cloak and hung it over one of the two roughly hewn wooden chairs by the fire. In the other, her father-in-law slept, his breathing labored. 

“We brought you…” I trailed off in embarrassment but passed her the soggy basket.

She curtsied in thanks and scurried off to unpack it.

I walked toward the fire to dry myself, but the heat was so fierce against my cheek that I had to hang back. It was a miracle that old George Walker hadn't been mummified in the years he'd sat there waiting for death. 

There was a stool beside his chair I hadn't made out before. I dragged it back from the fire and sat next to him. I gazed up at his face, took his ancient and withered hand in mine, and tried not to gag at the smell of feces and tooth decay. I should set an example to my daughters, although one of them was entranced by a worn shoe, another by the elements, my oldest would not come with me, and my youngest girl was dead.

“Mr. Walker,” I said, shouting towards his ear. “We've come to visit you.”

His hands stroked mine in response. I could have kissed him. There was someone in the world who thought me young and good, who took joy from my presence. 

“You are in our prayers,” I said, my confidence growing. “You and your family.”

I could not make out her expression in the gloom, but Eliza was watching me. 

George tried to speak, but only a cough came out. 

“Mary, fetch Mr. Walker some water,” I said, but she gestured toward her unshod foot and Eliza had passed me a mug before I could call to Bessie.

“Here.” I raised it to the old man's lips with the reverence of a vicar doling out the Communion wine. 

He gulped down what he could, although at least half of the water ran down his bearded chin, the droplets hanging like dew from the scraggly gray hairs.

“You do me such good my child, thank you,” he said, shutting his eyes from the effort of speaking.

My heart seemed to swell bigger. 

“Your visits always do me so much good,” he croaked. “Yours and the curate’s. You are truly an angel, Miss Brontë.

I jerked away from him and dropped the cup to the floor. 

Eliza turned to scrub the already clean table, unable to look at me. 

“Mary put that boot on now,” I said, grabbing my still-dripping cloak and hauling her up. “We are leaving.”

Carol Cram

Oh, that's great. That's a great scene. And I just love it when he calls her Miss Brontë.

Finola Austin

Yes, for her it's kind of a once-in-the-blue moon thing, remembering to visit the poor. But Miss Brontë, in this case, this is Anne Brontë, who is a governess in her home. 

Carol Cram

I know. So yes, finally, she's doing a good deed. Finally, somebody is recognizing her as being kind and nice, even though she really isn't. And then, Ms. Brontë, yes, that's well done. And you really evoke the scene there. We can really see you, see Lydia, in that hovel that they live in. Thank you very much. That was a great snapshot of your novel. 

I wanted to ask another few questions about Brontë's Mistress. Something that really intrigues me as a novelist myself is how you turn your real characters into fictional ones. I mean, what were some of the concerns or the issues that face the historical novelist who does that?

Finola Austin

Yes. So I think there's a few things. There are certainly many issues, but the first thing I'll say is that in some ways, when you were working with real people and with real events, you never quite have to face the blank page that we were talking about so dreading earlier. For me, it almost felt like having a co-writer for Brontë's Mistress, the fact that the history was there for me. 

So I did a full year of research before I started writing. And what that looked like was an Excel spreadsheet where I started mapping out everything we knew about Lydia Robinson's life, her interactions with the Brontës and beyond. So I had a kind of spreadsheet that said the age she was, the date that’s happened on what happened, what category, so was it related to the Brontës, was it related to her husbands? Was it related to her children? And then the source so that I could go back and check where I'd got the information from if needed. 

So I did that first, and then this kind of research document basically evolved into a working outline for me. So I decided where the novel needed to begin and end. For instance, I could have begun with Lydia's childhood or with her first marriage, or with Anne Brontë arriving at the house. But I made the decision that the novel should start when Branwell Brontë arrived in the house in January of 1843, so that made that decision for me. And I made a similar decision at the end point. I'm not going to give that spoiler here. But I knew that the novel would go on beyond Branwell leaving the house. And I found the perfect moment in my mind to end it.

And then I sort of made up the in-between. So if by this date we knew that Branwell had mentioned to a friend that he had a lock of Lydia's hair, I then knew I had to have a scene where he received a lock of her hair. I knew that I wanted this to be a consummated love affair. So then I had to decide when did they first kiss? When did they first have sex? And I knew the date that Branwell was dismissed by Lydia's husband. So what series of events would lead up to that? 

So really I went from a list of facts to a list of facts and fictions that made sense to me. I think some of the things you have to watch out for though is that when you're dealing with anyone who's famous or adjacent to famous people from history, readers are coming in with their preconceptions about them.

So I had to be very aware throughout that I would have readers who knew a lot about the Brontës, and I would also have readers who knew absolutely nothing about the Brontës. And so you have to kind of walk this line of giving enough information that those who pick up the book because they want to learn about the famous Brontë sisters and their brother learn something while you are still not speaking down to those who do know a lot about these historical figures already and are picking up the book for that reason. 

I think one interesting thing for me that, looking at the reviews, my book is written entirely in Lydia Robinson's perspective, though there are a few letters that allow me to get other characters voices in. Sometimes I see in reviews, people assume that Lydia's views on each of the Brontë siblings map to mine.

For instance, Lydia's pretty scathing about Anne Brontë. She thinks that she's kind of meek and useless and they don't have any rapport despite living for many years in the same house. As it is, I actually love Anne Brontë. I love her novels. My intention with that character was to kind of give her hidden depths that readers might pick up on but Lydia herself is unaware of. 

And so that was an interesting thing for me to kind of see how when you write a novel entirely in one character's perspective, especially when the first person voice is so strong, there may be some of that that comes through. People assuming that authorial intent is the same as character intent.

Carol Cram

No, not at all. And that actually is a good segue into her fascination with Charlotte Brontë, who she doesn't actually meet until, well, no spoilers. But, why Charlotte? Why was it, of the three sisters, it was Charlotte that she fixated on?

Finola Austin

I think for me, that comes right back to the inspiration from the novel. As I said, it was in that Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte. It was that comparison between Charlotte’s heroines and Lydia that really jumped out to me. 

Charlotte can be quite scathing in her novels about women who are attractive. You see that with the depiction of a lot of the school girls in Villette. You also see it in the character of Blanche in Jane Eyre. You know, from when I was very young reading about that character, I could not hate her. She doesn't know that the governess is in love with Rochester. She certainly doesn't know that his first wife is in the attic. She's just trying to make a good marriage, as someone of her class and background has to do, as a woman in the period.

And yet Jane Eyre’s character really does hate her. And it's not a very sympathetic portrayal. So that was why I wanted to depict them as two sides of the same coin. I think sometimes women do ourselves a disservice by hating on other types of women. So this fiction that if you take care of your appearance then you are unintelligent or that there are frivolous interests and serious interests. So that was something that I really wanted to set up, that perhaps if characters like my Lydia and my Charlotte could have more sympathy with each other, it could help the whole gender move forward.

Carol Cram

Yes, exactly. One of my intentions with the Art In Fiction podcast is for authors to share some of their advice about writing with other writers. So, one of the questions I'd like to ask you is, what's one thing you learned from writing Brontë’s Mistress that you didn't know before?

Finola Austin

So, I think the metaphor you shared earlier about tapestry and what you talked about texture is a really good one. One thing that I learned through the process of writing Brontë’s Mistress, which has been true of my writing since, is that I actually underwrite. So there's a lot of advice about editing that you'll read online that talks about, oh, when you edit your first draft, you should cut 10 or 20%. And I think that's true for a lot of writers, but for me, that's absolutely not the case. 

I tend to write the minimum viable product at the scene, to use some tech language, and then I have to add to it. So I saw it as adding layers and the rounds of edits I did with my agent were best for this. So, we did edits, for instance, where one, she said, there's not enough weather. So I went through the whole novel and added weather or seasonal markers or more gothic atmosphere or more references to the Brontë novels. 

So each time I was looking at the novel through a different lens and layering in more and more. When I did my on-the-ground research trip, I also found out things that I added in a similar way. So for instance, I went to the Brontë Parsonage Museum and was lucky enough to get access to the archives there and looked through the Robinson papers, which are all the documents they have related to Lydia Robinson in her home. And one thing I came across in there was the inventory of all the furniture in the house. So I then just went back through the novel and added references to real pieces of furniture. I updated the names of the rooms so that they matched the names of the real rooms in the real house.

If you see references, the anteroom for instance, that's what they called one of the rooms. So I even got a note back from my editor at one point saying, I'd used the word mahogany too much, so there's too much mahogany furniture. And I was able to say, well, that's the furniture they really had. This isn't me fixating on this word. They really did have mahogany in every room. 

And so this idea of layering and layering and layering for me is one of the most helpful ways to think about my writing process. I know that won't be true of everyone. There are people who will put way too much on the page and then will kind of need to do the opposite. I think of them as sculptors who need to be kind of chiseling back so that we can see the shape of the statue underneath. But for me it is kind of adding those layers on, to build something that starts to feel much more complete.

Carol Cram

Actually, I'm with you. I tend to write that way as well because I find I can get a little bogged down in research and sometimes I just want to get the characters, the story, the emotion out, and then I can go back and add in the details, which just sounds similar to what you do.

Yes, I think often beginner writers don't realize just how much goes into writing a novel and that no, you don't get it right first time and that it does require many, many drafts and input from other people. 

Finola Austin

The very act of reading is an act of co-creation. What you see in your head when reading or listening to Brontë Mistress is not the same as what I see when writing it or what another reader sees exactly. 

And one very helpful thing, exercise, for me to work that out was talking to beta readers. I have the same list of questions that I ask all of my beta readers, and sometimes you'll ask someone, like, can you describe this setting or describe this character? And they'll give you a really detailed description that does not resemble what it said in the novel at all. You know, I mentioned that Lydia has dark hair many times through the course of the novel. I mentioned that she's getting gray hairs. I still had at least one beta reader tell me that they pictured her as blonde. And at the end of the day, like, readers are going do what they're going do.

Sometimes people take people that they know in their real lives as the model for characters or famous actors, or one person told me, oh, I pictured my school when I thought about the house that she lived in. Like, we all have different images that we pull upon while building that reality. And yes, this idea of co-building it with readers, well, you need to know what some readers think. You can't just be in a garrett romantically dashing off pages alone.

Carol Cram

Yes. And of course, you'll never know what they all think, as you said, which is why it's so much fun to do this because you write it, you get your baby out in the world, and then you don't really know what people are going to make of it. So that's sort of the exciting part of many exciting parts.

Finola Austin

They're going bring their own perspective, whether it's on relationships or on sex or on whether women should have leg hair. Trust me, I I've heard it all in response to Brontë's Mistress.

Carol Cram

Well, that's good. It's nice to see that people are so engaged. What's one piece of advice that you would give to a beginning writer?

Finola Austin

I think the most important one is that you shouldn't wait around for inspiration. I know that other writers have said this much better than me. You don't need to sit around waiting for your muse to visit you. Like some days it's going to flow and it's going to be really easy and feel almost magical, but those days will not be the majority. 

You just need to force yourself to do it. And I don't know how you personally force yourself to do it. For me, physical comfort is very important. So I need to be sitting somewhere comfortable. I need to be warm. I often sit with hot water bottles and blankets. My cat near me. Right now as we're speaking, I'm on a little solo writing retreat, which is a big bribe to myself, to be working through what I'm doing on my next novel. Other people might reward themselves with food or a glass of wine or a favorite snack when they hit a milestone. So certainly do what works for you to get it done. But do know that the best writers in the world are not visited by their muse every day. They just sit down, they treat it like a job, and they write.

Carol Cram

Exactly. Somebody calls it bum glue. You just have to do it. It is hard work. It would be nice if we always have that wonderful feeling you get when it works really well and you're inspired, but yeah, that's not the norm. 

Finola Austin

Hollywood has given us such a disservice here, because in every biopic about a writer, you see something happening in their life, and then they're struck by inspiration and they run up the stairs and into their office and start scribbling on pages. And even on the rare times I have been inspired by something that's happened to me in my real life, often those are things that you've percolated on for years or fragments of conversation that have been somewhere in the back of your psyche that somehow come up again. It's very rare to kind of get that flash of inspiration and have to dash off a chapter in the moment.

Carol Cram

Oh, I know. And I love those montages of them writing over several weeks, you know, pages flying. Yeah, right. But yeah, Hollywood has done us a disservice. People think it's a lot easier than it is.

Finola Austin

Yeah, I'd love montage mode. If that was something I could just put put on for myself and fast forward a few months and have a completed novel, I'd love that for myself.

Carol Cram

Oh, wouldn't we though? Thank you so much ,Finola, for chatting with me. This has been absolutely delightful. If you haven't read Brontë's Mistress, listeners, go out and get it. It's a wonderful novel. So thank you so much for being here.

Finola Austin

Thanks for the great questions.