Tuesday 30 March 2021

January/February 2021 Articles about Bronte’s Mistress

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, tells the story of Lydia Robinson, the older woman rumoured to have had an affair with Branwell Bronte. The book was published back in 2020 by Atria Books, and, as we’ve entered a new year, I’m switching to a bimonthly roundup of the latest and greatest press coverage. 

January saw still more end of year summaries, like those I shared in my December post. Austenprose named Bronte’s Mistress the #2 historical novel of the year. This great article also highlighted other novels I’m reviewed and recommended on this blog—Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister, Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project, and Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society—along with Martha Waters’s To Have and To Hoax, which I very much enjoyed, and so many other books that I have to add to my “to read” list.

Courtney of Courtney Reads Romance shared highlights of the 764 (!) books she read last year, and ranked Bronte’s Mistress at #17. And Bronte’s Mistress WON the historical fiction category in the 2020 Bookish Jazz Awards, thanks to reader votes!

Meanwhile, with Valentine’s season upon us, I cautioned bookworms to count themselves lucky they don’t live in the times of Bridgerton, in this piece I penned for Women Writers, Women[’s] Books.

Bronte’s Mistress made it into LitHub for a second time with coverage of my interview for the New Books Network Podcast (check out my own essay for the publication on the links between this Bronte scandal and Charles Webb’s The Graduate here). And Booklist looked back on books including mine, which were written by women authors and appeared in 2020—the centenary year of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Thank you all for the continued love and support! I’ll be back with another instalment of this series in May, summarising March and April coverage.

If you’d like me to speak to your book club about Bronte’s Mistress, please get in touch. You can DM me on Instagram, message me on Facebook, or tweet @SVictorianist. And don’t forget to sign up for my monthly email newsletter below. 

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Saturday 20 March 2021

Writers’ Questions: “How should I format dialogue?” the writer asked.

Since the sale of my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, in 2019, I’ve been sharing answers to burning questions about writing and publishing on this blog (as well as my usual posts on all things Victorian literature and culture). Today, I’m tackling formatting dialogue—one of the things I see beginner writers struggle with the most.

First up, some caveats. I’m half British, half Irish, and live in New York City. Although I use British spelling on this blog, my novel was published first in the US, so I’m most familiar with standard dialogue formatting in North America. Additionally, as with any writing “rule,” there will always be exceptions. There are writers who are experimental with dialogue, but this post is about the standard approach.

So let’s get into it. 

The words that your characters say aloud should be between double quotation marks (“   ”). E.g. “It’s raining.” Sentence-ending punctuation (. or ? or !) goes inside the quotation marks to form a grammatically complete sentence.

To indicate which of your characters is speaking, you’ll need a dialogue tag, unless this is already clear from context. A dialogue tag contains a verb denoting speech and a character name or pronoun. It can precede or (more commonly) follow dialogue. 

Example of preceding dialogue tag:

He said, “It’s raining.” 

Example of following dialogue tag:

“It’s raining,” he said.

Tags and dialogue should be divided from each other by a comma (,), which comes before the quotation marks in a preceding dialogue tag and inside the quotation marks if the dialogue is followed by a tag. While the comma is standard, it can also be replaced within a line of dialogue by a question mark or exclamation point as appropriate. 

Example with a question mark:

“Is it raining?” he asked.

Example with an exclamation point:

“It’s raining!” he said.

This, however, is incorrect:

“It’s raining.” he said.

As is this:

"It's raining." He said.

A common mistake I see writers making is treating sentences like dialogue tags when they aren’t telling us speech happened. It can be a great idea to include action and body language within a section of dialogue, but just because a sentence follows dialogue it does not make it a tag!

This is incorrect:

“It’s raining,” he pointed at the window. 

This is correct:

“It’s raining.” He pointed at the window.

And this could work too:

“It’s raining,” he said, pointing at the window.

Verbs that writers do this with a lot include “to laugh” and “to smile”. Neither of these should be used as dialogue tags!

Every time a different speaker starts talking, the dialogue should begin a new paragraph.


“It’s raining,” he said.

“Really?” she asked.

Because of this, if your section of dialogue involves only two characters, after you’ve established the order of speaking, you can dispense with dialogue tags as the speaker is implied.


“It’s raining,” Jack said.

“Really?” Jane asked.


“I have to see this for myself!” Jane hurried to the window.

The verbs “to say” and “to ask” are the most commonly used in dialogue tags and are almost invisible to readers on the page, so don’t worry about overusing them! Occasionally, you may want to use a verb that tells readers how a character speaks, such as “to whisper” or “to shout”, but these should be used sparingly. Unusual dialogue tag verbs (think: “he ejaculated”) should be avoided as they sound ridiculous and detract from the dialogue itself.

If one of your characters speaks at length in a monologue, you may want to include paragraphs. When these occur within dialogue the rule is that you shouldn’t close your quotation marks at the end of a paragraph, but you should open them again at the start of the next.


“I’m going to talk at length now,” Jack said. “I warn you I may go on for several paragraphs for the purposes of this example. I might have mentioned it was raining. Well, it rained yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

“In fact, I can’t remember the last day it didn’t rain, making for thrilling dialogue examples in this blog post.”

You won’t want to write entirely natural dialogue in your novel, as in real life people talk in fragments, are ungrammatical, and, um, say “um” a lot. But you will want your dialogue to feel natural. This means that occasionally, you may want your characters to speak in grammatically incomplete sentences. 

If your character is interrupted by another character, use an em-dash (—). Ideally your readers should be able to guess how the sentence would have ended had the speaker had a chance to finish.


“It’s rain—”

“I saw,” Jane said.

If your character’s speech trails off (e.g. they’re deep in thought or wistful), use ellipses (...).


“I haven’t seen rain like this since…”

“I know,” said Jane. “I’m sorry.”

Still with me? If so, let’s make things even more confusing, by talking about dialogue within dialogue i.e. when one character quotes another. In this instance, the quoted speech should appear in single quotation marks (‘  ’).


“What did Jim say?” Jack asked.

“He said, ‘It’s raining,’” Jane said, putting down the phone. 

I hope this post has been helpful in running over the basics of how dialogue should appear in your novel manuscript. Still have questions? Feel free to contact me via Facebook or Instagram, or to tweet me @SVictorianist

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now. For writing tips and more, sign up to my monthly email newsletter below.

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Tuesday 9 March 2021

Review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, Kate Summerscale (2012)

My debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress (2020), is about Lydia Robinson, the married woman who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, the Bronte sisters’ brother. So I was intrigued to read a (non-fiction) book about another real Mrs Robinson—Isabella Robinson—whose divorce scandalised the nineteenth-century press.

Kate Summerscale’s 2012 book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, is less of a biography of Isabella, and more of a social history about the advent of divorce in Victorian Britain, which takes the Robinson vs. Robinson & Lane case as its centrepiece. 

Like my Mrs Robinson, Isabella was in her forties when she began an affair with a younger man. However, in this case, the object of her passions was also married and her social equal—a doctor and proponent of hydropathy, whose business would be significantly damaged if courts found he had committed adultery.

But, wait, you might be thinking—wasn’t divorce illegal in England? It was during the 1840s when Branwell and Lydia engaged in their ill-fated affair but, in 1858, when Henry Robinson read his wife’s private diaries and exposed her infidelities, the legal system had just provided a provision for a total separation, albeit with caveats. 

Divorce still couldn’t be procured due to incompatibility or unhappiness. But a man could now divorce his wife for adultery. For wives things were harder. They had to demonstrate that their husband had been guilty of an additional crime (e.g. abandonment or cruelty)—breaking the marital vow was not enough. 

In practice then, divorce was complicated and expensive, so it was largely the upper middle classes who flocked to the court. The Robinsons were wealthy and well connected. Henry was fixated on revenge. The story was one designed to capture the public imagination.

A curiosity of the case was Mrs Robinson’s written confession—her diary, a document she’d assumed her husband would never read. Isabella’s legal counsel ultimately “defended” her from the charge of adultery by arguing that she was insane. She was, they claimed, a nymphomaniac who had blurred the lines between fact and fiction in her journal, an adulteress in her heart, but not in reality. 

This Victorian refusal to accept the simplest explanation for women’s actions, especially when this involved acknowledging their sexual appetites, is one I’ve written about previously on this blog, for instance in my 2013 Women in the Witness Box series. This pattern played out in both literature and life, from the notorious murder trial of Madeleine Smith to Isabella’s divorce hearing.

The testimony about the diary also reveals public uneasiness about the influence of novels on their (largely female) readership. Women were considered prone to hysteria, exaggeration and dangerous excitement. And Isabella Robinson was seen as having novelised her own life, whether by acting out her fantasies or just indulging in them privately. As Gwendolen Fairfax notes in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Overall, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is a good read if you’re interested in the history of divorce and/or women’s rights in the nineteenth century. There are also great passages on Victorian medicine and pre-Freudian psychology, as Summerscale discusses how the Robinsons and their circle engaged with phrenology and sought “cures” for masturbation (spoiler: prostitutes). But don’t pick this up expecting titillation. Isabella and the men she desired don’t leap of the page. This is a scholarly, if accessible, work; Summerscale leaves sensation to the novelists. 

What book would you like me to review next? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. If you’d like to read a novel about Lydia Robinson, whose disgrace preceded Isabella Robinson’s, make sure to check out Bronte’s Mistress in hardcover, audiobook and e-book. And, for updates on my writing and blog, subscribe to my monthly email newsletter below. 

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