The bibliomemoir is a genre which has been on the rise over the last five years although it has been around a good deal longer. From Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch to Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine, the market is rich with books which mingle literary criticism with confessional autobiography. Every true bookworm is able to point to a book which had a transformative effect and just about all of those are willing to read about the life-defining reading experiences of others. Miranda K. Pennington’s Brontë-themed bibliomemoir has a special significance for me as she wrote a guest post about the lesser-known Brontë novels for this site, during the last time that Brooding about the Brontës ran. Pennington has been an extremely avid Brontë fan since childhood and her contemplation of how her relationship with these long-dead writers had affected her own development really got me thinking.
A Girl Walks Into A Book is a reminder to me that no two people ever read the same book. It seemed to me that Pennington and I had come at Brontë fandom from entirely opposite directions. Based in America, her memoir concludes with an emotional visit to Haworth, the ultimate site of pilgrimage. For me, that is where it all began. It was the visits to the strangely cold house in the midst of all the old buildings which made me into a four year-old Brontë fan, even though I was none too sure what it was that they had actually done. Actually engaging with the texts came a long time afterwards. Does this mean that Pennington has a closer understanding of the Brontës work, having encountered those before the mythology?
Unusually for a Brontë memoir, Pennington focuses more on the novels and their characters rather than the wider Brontë legend. Her first love was Jane Eyre and she admits that ‘If I met Wuthering Heights at a cocktail party, I would have literally nothing to say to it’. This fascinated me because on my first read, I had the exact opposite reaction. Reading Heights reminded me of walking on the moors after a visit to the Parsonage and I loved the drama of all these people who hated each other, while emotion of Jane Eyre left me with exactly no thoughts whatsoever. But I was twelve. I had growing up to do.
Comparing our contrasting experiences, I can see that it took me a long time to look at the Brontë novels for life advice rather than as simple reading milestones. I read Jane Eyre for the first time with my mother, only because it remains one of her favourite books and she wanted to share it. I read Tenant because it had been on TV and Heights and Agnes Grey because they had been on the radio. I have the same issue with Jane Austen – I read the books too early and failed to understand them and it is only through blogging that I have gotten round to revisiting and discovering what I missed. I agree with Pennington though that even as an adult, Heights has little advice to offer its reader other than ‘Do Not Marry For Spite’.
A Girl Walks Into A Book is definitely a book for the true fans. Not only is Pennington fairly heavy on the spoilers, but she does assume a reasonable working knowledge of even the lesser known novels such as Shirley or Villette. This is not really a Brontë biography, it is a personal introspection on the intersection of reading and life. Contemplating the Brontë sisters’ long slog towards publication, Pennington contrasts her own professional trials and tribulations. Reading Shirley made her consider her attitudes towards dating. Musing on Mr Rochester prompts thoughts on her impulse to try to rescue an unworthy boyfriend. Tenant and the tales of Branwell Brontë impels Pennington to confront her own relationship with alcohol. I have had snapshot moments where reading the right book at the right time has made me see a situation differently, but nothing as deeply abiding as Pennington’s relationship with the Brontës. I felt oddly jealous that she was so much more tuned in.
Naturally enough, I differed with some of Pennington’s conclusions – I always liked the sound of Arthur Bell Nicholls and I think it’s rough that people judge him based on the word of Ellen ‘Pay Attention To Me’ Nussey. While the finale of Villette is a bit of a sucker punch, I also think that the point of the novel is to be an anti-marriage plot, so Lucy finishing up alone was I think Charlotte’s point. She wrote a book for women who had no expectation of marriage so giving Lucy a husband would have been a betrayal.
I enjoyed this book for the same reason why Pennington was such a fantastic guest writer two years ago – the girl can really brood up some serious Brontë. It was that post of hers which first made me think that ignoring Shirley and Villette forever was just not going to work in the long-term. In this her first book, Pennington’s voice is unflinchingly honest, about herself as well as her feelings for the Brontës. While many bibliomemoirs veer more towards the whimsical or self-deprecating, A Girl Walks Into A Book is unusually raw. Pennington’s confessional style and deep enthusiasm for her subject reminded me to look beyond all the carping about minor points of Brontë mythology and to remember that the Brontës wrote about passion, about the self and about making your way in the world. This is fan art of the highest distinction.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by Hachette UK on May 16th 2017
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Personal Memoirs, Literary Criticism, European, Women
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