A Brontë Bibliomemoir: Miranda K. Pennington’s “A Girl Walks into a Book”

Branwell Bronte’s painting of Charlotte, Anne, and Emily.

A bibliomemoir can be a fan’s unforgettable romance with books.  A Brontë bibliomemoir is always a kitschy Vegas wedding.

This year I have read two Brontë bibliomemoirs, both written in a quasi-“pop” style. The writers share their insights, but their humor borders on kitsch, and I can’t figure out who the intended audience is.

Smantha Ellis’s Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, called “a selfie memoir” in the TLS, is jarringly uneven.   (I reflected on it in an earlier post.) Miranda K. Pennington’s new book, A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work, is a selfie celebration of lifelong Bronte fandom.  Of the two, I much prefer hers.

Pennington, a writer and teacher in New York,  boldly takes on all three Brontës in her first book. She especially loves Charlotte’s Jane Eyre; is almost equally fascinated by the  Sapphic elements in Shirley; and is more cheered than I am when Lucy Snowe in Villette settles for second-best boyfriend.

Pennington raves about the underrated Anne’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which deals with alcoholism and domestic abuse.   Like Branwell, the Brontes’ ne-er-do-well brother, Pennington was an alcoholic in college. She appreciates Anne’s urge to write the then-shockingly candid novel about the heroine’s flight and hiding from her alcoholic husband.  The biggest shock?  Pennington is not an Emily fan.  Instead of meshing her own reflections with a synthesis of critical views of Wuthering Heights, she writes an ill-advised  parody of the masterpiece.

Pennington’s writing is laced with humor and snarkiness, as well as sincerity. She entertains and educates subtly.  The writing is occasionally awkward, in a style reminiscent of rapidfire internet posts, but that is par for common readers, unless they are Virginia Woolf.  (And, by the way, I learned from Pennington that Woolf wrote an essay after visiting Haworth about her distaste for visiting writers’ homes.)  Although Pennington is neither a critic nor a biographer, she has done extensive research on the Brontës.

She is earnest, if verbose, as she describes the Brontës’ effect on her life. She rereads Jane Eyre every year, and  is inspired by the  heroine’s courage and independence.

I needed the Brontës to help me figure out how to function in the world around me, and their work is always up to the task. Even though their characters live, think, and speak in outdated and occasionally unwieldy prose, it still startles me to be reminded that they aren’t real. It seems much more likely they exist in the ether somewhere, fully formed and waiting for a reader to bring them to life again.  Believing that my favorite characters live outside their pages may be why I hear new messages with every read.

The book is arranged chronologically, following  Pennington from her first reading of Jane Eyre to the present.  Her history with Jane Eyre goes way back.  Her father gave her Jane Eyre when she was 10 (and isn’t that Jane’s age when we first meet her?), and, after hurling the book across the room with frustration, she picked it up, kept reading, and was forever influenced by Jane’s independence and unshakable moral code.

She also describes the act of reading.  In the following passage, she captures  the experience of falling into Jane Eyre. 

When I looked back at the clock, it seemed time had gone faster while I read, the cost of living two lives at once. It was almost as good as time travel. Anything outside those pages vanished until, all too soon, I reached the last page, the adventure ended, and I was back on my bed where I started. Learning to speak Brontë gave me a secret power that nobody else had. And Jane Eyre was the key—it’s what put me on the path to living my life in sync with the Brontës’ work. It inspired a quest to discover as much about Charlotte Brontë as I could. Each Bronte has in turn provided exactly the right illumination for my life, but only when read at the right time.

Miranda K. Pennington

The chronological structure is her greatest problem.  I kept thinking she should have started in medias res.  Her voice becomes more authentic in later chapters, when she delineates her struggles with alcoholism, bisexuality,  and unsatisfying jobs. The Brontës’ novels really do fit her needs at different stages of life.  She rightly says that the Brontes address many of her issues:   the  cross-dressing and conversations about feminism in Charlotte’s books, alcoholism in Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and every level of dysfunction, albeit in a Gothic, poetic form antithetical to Pennington,  in Emily’s Wuthering Heights. 

The last chapter, “Haworth,” is a great travel piece.  Here she lets loose and describes the excitement of her  trip to Haworth. (Why haven’t I gone there?)  Naturally, her husband gets sick. Doesn’t somebody always get sick on vacation?  But she is thrilled by her research at the Haworth library, gets to handle (wearing gloves) the Brontës’ hand-stitched juvenile books,  and her husband recovers in time to walk the moors and see the Bronte Waterfall.

Will Bronte fans enjoy this uneven but entertaining little book? There is a Brontë industry, so surely it will sell.    Think of A Girl Walks into a Book  as a hand-stitched little book by an amateur, or a trip  through the personal realm of a modern Brontëist.  It won’t suit the needs of scholars, but may inspire you to return to the Brontës.