Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Writing Retreat Review: Unworkshops at the Highlights Foundation

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently, as a published novelist with a demanding day job, is how I have time to write. I very much admire those authors who can and do write every day, but I’ve never had a lifestyle that can support that sort of schedule. Instead, I’ve written before about the importance to me of making time to write i.e. setting aside intense periods of productivity, devoid of competing demands and distractions.

My cabin!

Over the last few years I’ve adopted a pattern of going on spring and fall retreat weekends with one of my writers’ groups. We (a group of 10-15 people) typically rent an Airbnb somewhere within three hours’ drive of New York City (e.g. in the Hamptons or in upstate New York). We spend our days writing in companionable silence, and our evenings drinking while making far too much noise. It’s cheap, fun, and effective. However, in 2020, retreats like this (often with crowded sleeping quarters) have obviously been impossible. 

This was why I was delighted when my friend and fellow historical novelist Kris Waldherr introduced me to the Highlights Foundation, a retreat centre in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. The Highlights Foundation normally runs workshops for writers of children’s books, with time dedicated to learning together as well as writing alone. However, during this pandemic period, the facility has pivoted, becoming a destination for “Unworkshops”—unguided, socially distanced retreats for writers. I attended an Unworkshop there in mid-November and wanted to share my thoughts on the experience.

Cosy in my cabin

Is it safe?

The Highlights Foundation has gone out of its way to make their Unworkshops the least risky retreat possible in our current circumstances, and, while I was there, all attendees were scrupulous about following Covid-19 protocols. 

Accommodations are mostly private cabins—each with twin beds, a writing desk, a fully equipped bathroom, and a snacks and beverages station. There’s no need to go anywhere else.

Meals are served at the central barn. You can order your food to go, eat outside (there are heat lamps, as well as crackling fireplace), or dine in the barn, spread out and behind Perspex dividers. I ate almost all meals outside so I could safely socialise between writing sprints. Yes, it was a little chilly, but as someone who’s been alone for most of the pandemic, it was worth it.

Walking in the woods

Is it inspiring?

The Highlights Foundation facility is in a beautiful location, so if you’re inspired by walking through the woods before returning to a cosy cabin, this could be the retreat for you. The books and artwork in the cabins were all focused on kids and children’s literature, so I imagine children’s book writers would feel even more at home.

The view from my writing desk

Is the food good?

Hard yes. The staff was also really accommodating to those with particular dietary needs. Wine and beer was served with dinner (though perhaps not in the quantities of my usual writing retreats!). I brought extra (and harder) liquor for late night nightcaps by the heat lamps.

Is it worth the money?

Everyone has a different tolerance for what they’re willing to spend on a weekend away. This retreat was certainly pricier than the DIY retreats I’ve done with my writers’ groups in the past but, in this case, a) I had much more personal space, b) food and wine was included, and c) there was no need for arguments over who was doing the dishes! 

For me, it was pretty priceless to enjoy a retreat experience safely during the pandemic. I’d even consider going back to the centre in a (hopefully) post-Covid reality, especially if they expanded their workshop purview to include writers of fiction for adults.

The Highlights Foundation

If you want to keep up to date with news on my writing (including on the book I was editing at the Highlights Foundation…), sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. My first novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available for order in hardcover, audiobook and e-book now. And don’t forget, you can always connect with me on social media—find me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

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Saturday, 21 November 2020

October Articles About Bronte’s Mistress

After a crazy couple of months in August and September, October was a quieter month in terms of press for my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which tells the true story of Lydia Robinson, the woman rumoured to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ brother. Still, I wanted to share some of the publications that were good enough to feature the book last month!

In costume for Halloween Gothic panel!

I’m a double alumna of the University of Oxford, with a BA from Merton College and an MSt from Corpus Christi College, so I was delighted that the university’s North American office featured me as the Alumni Author of the month for October. Looking back at their other 2020 picks, I loved seeing the range of topics fellow Oxfordians have written about—from DNA to environmental policy in Vietnam to resilience—but was surprised to be the only fiction writer featured this year.

Clarissa Harwood published a great blog post in support of debut novelists who’ve had to contend with a 2020 release date. I loved seeing Bronte’s Mistress as one of her historical fiction picks. I read and enjoyed A.H. Kim’s A Good Family, one of her choices for women’s fiction, and Tonya Mitchell’s A Feigned Madness and Rita Woods’s Remembrance are definitely on my TBR list! 

Fall in Brooklyn

Writer C.P. Lesley also included my novel on her Fall Bookshelf roundup. I recently recorded an episode for her New Books in Historical Fiction podcast, which I look forward to sharing with you in the next week or so. And speaking of podcasts, check out my appearance on the History Through Fiction podcast, which also aired last month.

Finally, the Attic Girl blog had the distinction of being the first holiday gift guide to feature Bronte’s Mistress! If you’re buying holiday gifts for a literature lover I of course highly recommended getting them a copy of my book! Other novels recommended on the list are Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, which I wrote about here, and Rachel McMillan’s The London Restoration.

Zoom on...

Thank you for another month of support, nice messages, and reviews. If you’d like to keep up with all news about Bronte’s Mistress and my writing, follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and sign up to receive my monthly email newsletter below.

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Friday, 13 November 2020

Review: Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

After months of blog posts dedicated to Neo-Victorian fiction and the publication of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’m back with a review of an actual nineteenth-century novel, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1864 Cousin Phillis.

This short and sweet work of Victorian realism ends abruptly (it was published in four parts, and Gaskell had apparently planned for parts five and six), but is otherwise a shining example of nineteenth-century domestic storytelling. The novel would make a great addition to student essays on Gaskell’s better-known works.

The plot is simple and undramatic. Engineer Edward Holdsworth meets Phillis Holman, the much-loved only daughter of a clergyman/farmer and his wife. But, while the young man is taken with her beauty, goodness and intelligence, he’s careless with her heart. 

More interesting is the perspective Gaskell chooses to tell the story from. Paul Manning, Phillis’s cousin and Holdsworth’s subordinate at the railway company, is our primary narrator. 

Paul’s own emotional life is never centred. He’s briefly attracted to Phillis, but soon sees her as a sister, since she is a couple of inches taller than him and better at reading Latin (!). When he meets the woman who will be his wife, he only dedicates one sentence to this momentous event. 

Paul struck me as something of a nineteenth-century Nick Carraway. And Gaskell’s skill is apparent in how she develops his character to make this short work into a bildungsroman through the lightest of touches. Paul’s error in repeating Holdsworth’s idle talk to Phillis is believable, naïve, and achingly human. The book may be quiet compared to the high drama of, say, Mary Barton (1848), but that doesn’t that its characters feel any less.

I’d love to watch the TV adaptation from 1982, but so far haven’t found anywhere to stream this particular costume drama online. 

Overall, if you love mid-nineteenth-century prose, Cousin Phillis is a worthwhile investment, even if, unlike for the century’s more famous unfinished novels, modern writers aren’t flocking to anticipate what Mrs Gaskell’s ending might have been.

Do you have a suggestion for which Victorian novel I should read, review or write about next? Let know here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you want updates on my writing and my own novel Bronte’s Mistress, sign up to my email newsletter below. 

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Friday, 30 October 2020

September Articles About Bronte’s Mistress

It’s nearly the end of October and I’m still playing catch up in summarising the press coverage of my debut historical novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which was released in August. Bronte’s Mistress imagines the story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumoured to have had an affair with the Bronte sisters’ brother, Branwell Bronte. 

Around two weeks ago, I published a post on articles written by me and published in September. This time around, I’m sharing articles about my book that came out last month. Let’s get into it.

First up, I was delighted to receive a wonderful review from the Lancashire Post, which was also printed in various other local English newspapers. Their reviewer, Pam Norfolk, describes the book as “emotionally powerful and written with immense sensitivity.”

Another great review came from fellow Neo-Victorian novelist Essie Fox, writing for Historia, the Historical Writers’ Association magazine. Describing Bronte’s Mistress as “remarkable” she ends the review by saying, “I found myself asking the question: Is Lydia Robinson a victim of her own time—or of herself?”

And I was ecstatic that my book was also reviewed in Bronte Studies, the academic journal of the Bronte Society. The review is behind pay wall, but describes Bronte’s Mistress as “an extremely satisfying read,” with a “stroke of brilliance” in the Author’s Note where I share what is fact vs. fiction in Lydia Robinson’s story.

Meanwhile, Fine Books & Collections included Bronte’s Mistress in incredible company in a piece on recent works of “bibliofiction.” I’m looking forward to reading the other books on their list, especially Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet

I was interviewed by DIY MFA on my self care tips for writers, by Saralyn Bruck on my inspirations and favourite things, and for Authors Answer (which asked the quirkiest interview questions so far!).

Further lovely reviews came from History Through Fiction, whose podcast with me went live in October, from My Interdimensional Chaos, and from Flora’s Musings.

Finally, if you’ve been asking yourself the pressing question “which lipstick shade should I wear to match the cover of Bronte’s Mistress?”, I’ve got you. Check out this delicious pairing courtesy of Read Your Lipstick!

Haven’t ordered your (hardback, audio or electronic) copy of Bronte’s Mistress yet? What are you waiting for?! You can check out a list of suggested retailers for buyers in the US and UK here. You can follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. And for monthly updates on my writing straight to your email inbox, make sure you sign up to my newsletter below.

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Saturday, 17 October 2020

September Articles by Finola Austin, Author of Bronte’s Mistress

For the last few months, thanks to the release of my first novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I’ve been cheating on my Secret Victorianist blog by writing articles for other bigger (though less cool 😉) publications. 

August was wild with nine personal essays going live in Oprah Magazine, LitHub, Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books, Frolic, Historia Mag, Off the Shelf, Bronte Blog, English Historical Fiction Writers and Silver Petticoat Review. By contrast, September was much calmer, but I’m really proud of the four essays I had published and excited to (re-)share them with you today!

First up, I wrote about the real love affair that inspired my novel for both the Irish Times and Town and Country magazine. 

In Town and Country, I talked about my attempt to “capture something of the passion of Charlotte, the social commentary of Anne and the darkness of Emily, in shedding light on this scandalous true story,” and highlighted the things that the Bronte siblings and I do and don’t have in common. 

In the Irish Times, I mentioned the Brontes’ Irish and Cornish roots and shared my excitement at finding, “another chapter of this saga…the history of Lydia Robinson, the older woman blamed for their brother Branwell’s early demise.”

The Brontes were also my subject for a piece for Refinery29, which had a pretty different focus. I talked about the afterlife the Bronte sisters have enjoyed as our archetype for the successful woman writer—poor, plain and virginal—and argued that women need more varied models for dedicating their lives to art. 

Finally, I wrote a more technical piece for Almost An Author, on what fellow writers should consider when writing fiction in the first person. Charlotte Bronte’s line “Reader, I married him” may be one of the most famous in English literature, but what does it mean to adopt the “I” of a fictional character? And what are the traps writers can fall into here?

I hope you enjoy these pieces and my other essays from earlier in the year. If you’ve already read and enjoyed Bronte’s Mistress, please consider leaving a review on Goodreads or Amazon. And, if your book club wants to read my book, I’d absolutely love to join your meeting via Zoom. Download the Bronte’s Mistress reading group guide here and contact me via my website. Alternatively, get in touch via Facebook or Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianist.  

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Monday, 12 October 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins (2019)

You may know me as the author of Bronte’s Mistress, but, when I’m not writing my own books, I’m reading other people’s. For five and a half years now, in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, I’ve been reviewing books set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first. 

So far in 2020, I’ve blogged about Sandra Dallas’s Westering Women (2020), Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars (2019), Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte (2009), Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride (2019), Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon (2016) and Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr Rochester (2017). This time, it’s the turn of Sara Collins’s stellar 2019 debut, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.

It’s 1826 and Frannie Langton is in the Old Bailey prison in London when Collins’s novel opens. She’s accused of murdering her employer Mr Benham and his wife, a crime she tells us she can’t have committed because she was in love with her mistress. Frannie was born into slavery in Jamaica, and the British press has dubbed her “the Mulatto Murderess.” She doubts the court will recognise her humanity in her upcoming trial, so she chooses to make her confession to us, the readers, instead.

But what exactly is Frannie confessing? Did she kill either or both of the Benhams? Was she a complicit in the dissections and vivisections of slaves back on the plantation? Should we see her as a victim of sexual abuse, a willing party to incest, or both? Or is her confession a cri de coeur about her romantic feelings for a woman, a union this society condemns as equally unnatural?

While the plot unfolds slowly (after all, we know from the beginning that murder will be our destination), Frannie’s voice is distinctive and interesting. This feels in keeping with the unusual circumstances of her life, and, while I’ve read a few reviews from readers who found the frequency of similes excessive, I enjoyed how Frannie’s images were always rooted in her frame of reference.

Emotionally, there are few moments of joy. This is a novel about righteous and unrelenting anger, and the reading experience can be exhausting. There’s no respite for Frannie, but she never acts the part of docile and pitiable victim. A line of advice the character is given early in the book really stood out to me: “[There are] only two types of white people in this world, chile, the ones doing shit to you and the ones wanting you to tell them ’bout the shit them other ones did.” Collins asks (especially White) readers to confront their own ideas of what a narrative about a former slave should be.

While Frannie is an utterly original creation, at times she reminded me of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Like Jane, she’s overlooked and unfairly written off by those around her, and frequently thrust into the role of observer, although her perceptions are sharp and her words can be fierce. At the same time, she is also, of course, akin to Jane’s predecessor Bertha Mason, another famous Jamaican. As in postcolonial interpretations of Bertha, Frannie can be seen as an avenging angel, a personification of the White British man’s fears of his abuses abroad, the source of his wealth, coming back to haunt him.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Confessions of Frannie Langton and urge fellow Victorianists to add it to their reading lists. Do you have a tip for me about a great book for my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

If you're interested in receiving book recommendations from me straight to your inbox, sign up for my monthly newsletter below. And don’t forget that my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available for purchase now—in hardcover, audiobook, or e-book.

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Wednesday, 30 September 2020

August Articles About Bronte’s Mistress

It’s the last day of September and the last few months have been so busy that I’m still recapping August!

In previous August-related posts, I shared the articles by me that were published last month to highlight the release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, and the written Q&As and interviews I participated in. Today though, I’m sharing the best of the best of the articles written about the book by others. Let’s get into it.

Yorkshire Post

Christian Science Monitor was a great champion of Bronte’s Mistress, telling readers that the novel “speculates delightfully” about what might have occurred between Branwell Bronte and Lydia Robinson.  The publication also included in the book at #4 in their list of the best books published in August

Larne Times

Bookreporter named my book a Bets On pick and published a wonderful review, calling the novel “seductive in its tone even when the more amorous scenes are pages behind you.” 

Shelf Awareness gave Bronte’s Mistress a starred review, writing that “this intriguing early Victorian drama unveils the enigmatic temptress who allegedly seduced the infamous Branwell Bronte and caused much grievance to his exceedingly protective sisters.” 

Woman & Home

I was delighted that my novel received coverage in Yorkshire, home of the Brontes, with this piece in the Yorkshire Post. Bronte’s Mistress, they write, is a “great story, extremely adeptly told.”

The Historical Novel Society Review

And I was also very happy to see Bronte’s Mistress show up in a few lists last month, including in Surrey Life and Silver Petticoat Review

Finally, in addition to the major review sites (see Goodreads, Amazon US and Amazon UK), here are ten of my favourite reviews of Bronte’s Mistress from Bronte/book bloggers. Thank you all for making August a great launch month!


Best Historical Fiction 

A Bookish Way of Life

Bronte Blog

The Eyre Review

Laura’s Reviews

The Lit Bitch

Nurse Bookie

Reading the Past

Sprained Brain

Haven’t ordered your physical, digital or audio copy of Bronte’s Mistress yet? Find a list of suggested places to buy here, or get in touch with your local independent bookstore. Want to get my most important updates delivered straight to your email inbox? Sign up for my monthly newsletter below.

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Saturday, 26 September 2020

August Interviews with Finola Austin

August was a crazy launch month for my debut historical novel, Bronte’s Mistress, and September hasn’t been much quieter!

So, rather than my usual roundup of relevant articles (see June/July as an example), I’m sharing THREE update posts. Last week, I shared the articles I wrote, which were published in release month. And, in an upcoming post, I’ll be sharing the best articles about Bronte’s Mistress penned by others. This time round though, I’m sharing a recap of all the written interviews and Q&As with me that were published in August. I hope you enjoy them!

One of my favourite interviews was discussing scandalous women with fellow writer, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, for Frolic. We talked about inspiration and research, historical fiction vs. modern values, my most loved historical places and more.

The interview with Elizabeth was part of the Bronte’s Mistress Blog Tour, which also included two other great Q&As. Standout questions included being quizzed by the Reading Frenzy on Victorian motherhood, and telling Historical Fiction Reader whom I would cast in a Bronte’s Mistress movie or miniseries!

I’m always on the lookout for great new historical fiction reads, so I was delighted to be interviewed for the Historical Novel Society Review’s New Voices column, along with three other debut historical novelists. I’ve now added Molly Aitken’s The Island Child, Katie Hutton’s The Gypsy Bride, and Gretchen Berg’s The Operator to my to-be-read list.

In addition to being a member of the Historical Novel Society, I’m also part of the Authors Guild. It was an honour to be featured in their Member Spotlight interview to talk about why writing matters and my tips for overcoming writer’s block.

One of my favourite literary email newsletters, Bidwell Hollow, also interviewed me. We talked about writers I love and how I first developed a passion for Victorian literature. And I also did interviews for fellow writers’ blogs, including an interview with Rebecca Taylor, where I shared my path to publication, and a nerdy chat with fellow Bronte-fanatic Writer Gurl NY.

Believe it or not, I still have more to say (!!), so if you’d like to talk to me about Bronte’s Mistress for your blog or website, please do get in touch! And remember, if your book club wants to read my book, I’d love to join your meeting via Zoom. Download the Bronte’s Mistress reading group guide here. In either case, contact me via my website, or get in touch on Facebook or Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

August Articles by Finola Austin, Author of Bronte’s Mistress

Wow. August was such a month that we’re now midway through September and I still haven’t recovered! Thank you so much to those of you who made the release of Bronte’s Mistress so special. Haven’t ordered your copy yet? There’s a list of places you can buy the book here (please note, for those of you in the UK, Waterstones is your best bet for speedy delivery…thanks, Covid). 

I’ve previously run roundups of the February/March, April/May, June/July articles featuring Bronte’s Mistress. But in August so much happened that I’m divvying up the content into three posts. In this first, I’ll list the articles I wrote that were published during release month. In the second, I’ll share the Q&As and interviews I did, which included some great questions! And, in a third blog post, I’ll detail some of the wonderful articles and reviews penned by others.

So, without further ado, let’s get into it.

The article I was most proud of getting published last month was a piece for Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books on “How Writing My First Novel Prepared Me To Write My Debut Novel.” While the release of my first book was a huge moment of celebration, I’ve been rejected many times along my writing journey. I was so pleased with the positive response I received when I shared this story with others. If you’re a writer who’s aiming for publication, know that it does happen. You don’t need connections. You can get an agent from cold querying. You can pick yourself up and write another book.

I was also pleased to have two of my articles land in MAJOR publications. I wrote an essay, “Was The Graduate Inspired by a Bronte Family Scandal?” for LitHub (one of my favourite websites), following the death of Charles Webb, author of The Graduate. And I wrote about the inspiration for my book for Oprah Magazine (!) in “This New Novel Explores the Secret Lives of the Other Two Bronte Siblings.”

I also courted controversy in a piece for Frolic on “What I Learned Writing About One Of History’s ‘Bad Feminists’.” I talked Bronte scandal with Historia Mag in “The Bronte Affair: researching the scandal that enveloped literature’s most famous family.” And I shared “6 Tender Stories of Forbidden Love” with Off the Shelf, showcasing some of my favourite reads when it comes to taboo romance.

I was also a guest blogger for three of my favourite blogs as part of the Bronte’s Mistress Blog Tour. I shared “10 fascinating facts I learned about the Brontes while researching Bronte's Mistress” with Bronte Blog (home of all things Brontes online). And, while we can’t travel right now, I gave readers a glimpse into my research trip to Yorkshire in “The Villages of Great and Little Ouseburn—the Forgotten Stops on the Bronte Trail,” for English Historical Fiction Writers. Finally, I was a guest for a day on the Silver Petticoat Review, writing a piece on “The Brontes and the Victorian Mrs Robinson.”

Writing and publishing these personal essays has been hard work, but it’s also been very rewarding. With each one, I’ve considered something new about Bronte’s Mistress and what my novel means to me. I dreamed of writing pieces like this when my novel existed only in my head. Thank you all for reading them!

Do you have a book club that would love to read Bronte’s Mistress? If so, I’d love to join your meeting via Zoom! Download the Bronte’s Mistress reading group guide and contact me via my website. Alternatively, get in touch via Facebook or Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianist

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: Mr Rochester, Sarah Shoemaker (2017)

When it comes to Jane Austen vs. the Brontes, Austen definitely has a winning number of twenty-first century novels that take her life and works as their inspiration. However, one of the best parts about releasing my own Bronte-inspired novel, Bronte’s Mistress, this summer has been connecting with other writers who have taken the Brontes, not Austen, as their subject.

I recently reviewed Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride and Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte. This week it’s the turn of Sarah Shoemaker’s 2017 novel, Mr Rochester.

Among modern Bronte readers, Edward Rochester, the hero of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, has a mixed reputation. To some, he’s a swoon-worthy male lead. To others, he’s deeply problematic, due to his time in the colonies, not to mention his mentally ill wife in the attic. Most, I think, find Rochester flawed, but not irredeemable, although this interpretation lends credence to the idea that all a troubled man needs is the love of a good woman to save him.

Sarah Shoemaker makes no apologies for being a devoted Rochester fan and the focus of her novel is on fleshing out his life prior to his meeting with Jane Eyre. The book is made up of three parts, uneven in length—1. Edward’s childhood. 2. His time in Jamaica (including his marriage to Bertha Mason), and 3. The story we’re familiar with from Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel.

Shoemaker’s prose is beautiful and demonstrates her familiarity with nineteenth-century fiction and Charlotte Bronte’s style in particular. This is the sort of historical novel that could at times pass for a novel written in the period it’s set in. I found this especially true in the early chapters, which chart Rochester’s education and apprenticeship as the neglected second son. Shoemaker paints a believable picture of how a boy in Edward’s position might have been raised, and his experiences provide an interesting, gendered counterpart to the childhood we know Jane Eyre will later live through.

In Jamaica, a young Rochester never fully confronts the horrors of slavery, expressing some discomfort at the idea, and queasiness at the brutal punishments delivered on behalf of him and other White landowners, without having a profound moment self revelation. While this response is believable, I was longing for a little more reflection, as Rochester matures into the man whom Jane can fall in love with.

The section covering the same material as Jane Eyre is close to the source material. While Shoemaker does enhance the plot, adding a few more complications, purists will be pleased to see the reverence with which she handles Bronte’s work. The novel made me went to read Jane Eyre again, or even have the books open side by side to double check what was twenty-first century invention.

In her dedication, Shoemaker mentions her ‘fascination’ with Rochester, and her passion for the character and for Bronte’s book really comes through in the text. But I couldn’t help but wonder if part of a Gothic hero’s fascinating charm is in his unknowabilty. Now that we have access to Rochester’s thoughts, can he be as fascinating as he was before? And at those times when Jane Eyre is inscrutable to him? Well, thanks to Charlotte, we know exactly how she feels.

Do you have recommendations of books I should read next, as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist

And have you ordered your copy of Bronte’s Mistress yet? Oprah Magazine named my book one of this Fall’s top reads, while Christian Science Monitor calls it ‘a stirring defence of the maligned Mrs Robinson.’

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Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Honeymoon, Dinitia Smith (2016)

 It’s been a crazy week since the release of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which is based on the true story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman who allegedly corrupted Branwell Bronte. But that doesn’t mean I’m taking a break from my regularly scheduled programming here on the Secret Victorianist!

In this latest instalment of my Neo-Victorian Voices series (reviewing books set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first), I’m talking about The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith, another biographical novel inspired by the life of a Victorian writer and focused on the relationship between an older woman and a younger man.

Here, the woman in question is George Eliot (born Marian Evans), who, after living with George Lewes for 24 years, despite his marriage to another woman, shocked London society by wedding a man twenty years her junior following Lewes’s death.

In her novel, Smith imagines the relationship that might have existed between Marian and John Cross, the younger man she married, using their honeymoon as a framing device from which to jump back in time and tell the story of the writer’s life and the genesis of her novels, including Middlemarch (1871-2).

This surprised me as I was expecting more of an emphasis on the honeymoon itself, Venice, where the newlyweds travelled, and Cross (including the psychotic break he apparently suffered during the trip). However, I soon settled into an enjoyable and readable overview of Eliot’s life.

The focus here is very much on Marian’s relationships—with her parents and brother, and with the various men with whom she enjoyed untraditional romantic and sexual unions during a century we often characterise as sexless and repressed. And this is where the novel is most successful. George Eliot the intellectual doesn’t jump off the page, but Marian Evans, the thinking and feeling woman does. Readers may be disappointed at the lack of older woman/younger man frisson (Cross’s feelings towards Marian seem more akin to heroine worship), but Smith paints a believable picture of a literary great who yearned above all for companionship and feared being alone.

As a writer myself, I found it hard to relate to the occasional epiphanies Marian had about the plotting of her novels (why do films and books usually characterise these moments as happening when the novelist is doing anything but writing??), but anyone who’s enjoyed reading George Eliot’s novels and is looking for a readable overview of her life will be well pleased with Smith’s fictional biography.

Do you have any suggestions of books I should read next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Haven’t ordered your copy of Bronte’s Mistress yet? Find out where you can buy the novel in hardcover, e-book or audiobook here. And to be in with a chance of winning one of three signed copies I’m giving away this August, sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. Already subscribed? You’ve already been entered!

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Saturday, 1 August 2020

Introducing…the Bronte’s Mistress Blog Tour!

It’s August! That means it’s finally release month for my debut historical novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which will be published by Atria Books on August 4! I’d love to see you all at my virtual launch event at Strand Book Store, NYC, which will be the night before on August 3 (register here). And, if you love the Victorian period as much as me, please consider ordering Bronte’s Mistress in hardcover, audiobook, or e-book now.

As a blogger who’s shared my passion for nineteenth-century literature and culture with you here for the last seven years, I’m especially excited to use this post to announce the Bronte’s Mistress Blog Tour, which will be running from August 3 to August 16.

What does this mean? Two weeks of great content as popular blogs and websites specialising in historical fiction, historical romance, and women’s fiction feature guest blogs and interviews with me, and excerpts from/reviews of my novel. The tour is being organised by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose and I’m looking forward to all the stops!

Think of this blog post as the blog tour contents page. Each day throughout the tour, I’ll update the list below with links to the newly published pieces.

Introduction – Austenprose

Before the official launch of the tour, Austenprose published an exclusive preview of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 3 – Bronte Blog

A guest blog by me on 10 fascinating facts I learned about the Brontes while researching Bronte's Mistress 

Aug 3 – The Reading Frenzy

A Q&A with me about my main character Lydia Robinson, her parenting choices, and the Bronte siblings’ demons

Aug 3 – Austenprose

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 4 – Lu Reviews Books

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 4 – Best Historical Fiction

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 5 – English Historical Fiction Authors

A guest blog by me on the villages of Great and Little Ouseburn—the forgotten stops on the Bronte trail

Aug 6 – Historical Fiction Reader

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 6 – Captivated Reading

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 7 – Reading the Past

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 7 – Diary of an Eccentric

An excerpt from Chapter Three of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 8 – Nurse Bookie

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 10 – Frolic Media

I’m interviewed by fellow historical novelist Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

Aug 10 – Historical Fiction with Spirit

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 10 – Bronte Blog

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 11 – A Bookish Way of Life

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 12 – Chicks, Rogues and Scandals

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 12 – Laura’s Reviews

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 12 – Historical Fiction Reader

A Q&A with me, including who I would cast in a Bronte's Mistress movie...

Aug 13 – The Lit Bitch

An excerpt from Chapter Five of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 14 – Silver Petticoat Review

A guest blog by me on the “Victorian Mrs Robinson”

Aug 14 – The Reading Frenzy

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

Aug 16 – Probably at the Library

A review of Bronte’s Mistress

I hope you enjoy the tour! And if you pre-ordered Bronte’s Mistress, thank you so much. I hope you love it. If you did, please review the novel on Goodreads and Amazon, and spread the word. You can also connect with me on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.


If you’d like to win a signed hardcover copy of Bronte’s Mistress, sign up to receive my email newsletter below. If you’re already subscribed, or if you sign up in August 2020, you’ll be in with a chance of winning one of three signed copies (open internationally). Winners contacted September 1. 

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