June 01, 2017

(+++) AH, ME

A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work. By Miranda K. Pennington. Seal Press. $16.99.

     Memoirs are, by definition, self-involved, self-focused and self-revelatory. To bring in readers, they need to go beyond all the self-ishness and find a way to reach out beyond the self. Miranda K. Pennington’s way of doing this will connect her with fellow lovers of the Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – and fellow members of New York City’s self-professed intelligentsia, as well as with academics interested in well-done authorial research. This is a determinedly small audience but inevitably a passionate one, and Pennington carefully reaches out to it while avoiding any writing that might resonate with others who are unlike her and her circle.

     Pennington is literary in orientation, introverted and bisexual, and finds in the lives and works of the Brontë sisters a form of support for all these aspects of her own personality. The Brontës and their characters become Pennington’s sounding boards for her own life, turning into her heroines, people (or characters) to whom she looks for coping strategies that she has difficulty finding on her own. Pennington has done considerable research on the Brontës and their books, and discusses the novels themselves in some detail – this literary memoir is really for people who share her knowledge of the Brontës’ works, if not necessarily the intensity of her near-obsession with them. Pennington actually discusses the novels alongside elements of her own life, an approach that is quite clever but also rather unsettling, as if the personalities and characters of the Brontës’ time are very much alive and well and functioning in New York City today. For Pennington, that is exactly the point: they are ever-present in her life and her experiences. Readers with similar feelings, or ones at least willing to suspend their disbelief in matters of the Brontës and Pennington being quite so closely intertwined as Pennington makes them out to be, will find themselves swept into this book in the same way that Pennington is swept into the Brontës’ creations.

     There has been a lot written about the Brontë family – the three sisters and their brother – but nothing treating the Brontës as avatars of modern self-help, which is essentially how Pennington treats them. Pennington appears to be quite serious about incorporating elements of the Brontës’ lives and writings into her own contemporary urban existence – at one point, for example, she talks of using Jane Eyre’s response to Mr. Rochester’s “mad wife in the attic” life as a model for her own handling of a relationship. In elements like this, though, readers who are less than fanatical about the Brontës may find that Pennington pushes things rather too far – that whole mad-wife thing was, after all, a convention of a time when attitudes toward marriage and divorce were considerably different from those today, and the convenience of having Mr. Rochester’s insane wife set the house on fire and die by a suicidal jump from the roof can understandably appear more than a little silly to many modern readers. It scarcely seems the sort of event around which one would wish to build one’s personal life (not that Pennington actually claims to have any madwomen in her attic: New York City residences are typically apartments and thus rarely have attics at all).

     There is considerable creativity in the structure of A Girl Walks into a Book, and the writing is fluid and often surprisingly involving and amusing. The parallels with the Brontës are insistent and at times strained, even if they do not seem that way to Pennington (although perhaps she is using a bit of literary license to draw the Brontës ever closer to her life). The notion of integrating academic research and analysis into a personal memoir is an intriguing one, and Brontë fans will likely enjoy the intelligence and clarity with which Pennington takes them on a literary tour in which the sights pointed out are ones that other tour guides (that is, literary critics) have not necessarily noticed. Certainly finding relevant themes and lessons in literature is one reason we continue to read creative works of many earlier times, even times far distant chronologically and experientially from our own. It is both a strength and a weakness of Pennington’s book that she does not find the Brontës’ time, concerns and attitudes to be all that distanced from ours today – a strength because it leads Pennington to make some interesting connections and learn some interesting lessons, a weakness because it limits the audience of the book to people whose feelings about the Brontës are as strong, or nearly as strong, as Pennington’s, which are very intense indeed.

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