The appeal of books that explore the appeal of books seems as strong now as ever. Readers’ memoirs are by no means a new genre but recent successes, such as Rebecca Meads’ 2014 My Life in Middlemarch, have highlighted the potential of memoirs that explore readers’ relationships with literary classics.
In a new book, Miranda Pennington, a New York-based editor and writing teacher, adds to recent offerings by sharing her experiences with the work of celebrated Victorian novelists Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë.
Pennington, who is interested in both the writing and the lives of the Brontë sisters, quotes at length from their letters and novels. Her focus, however, is her own fortuitous encounters with Brontë novels at difficult times in her life.
Pennington, who weeps with emotion on her first visit to Haworth Parsonage, the Brontë home, is by no means an uncritical reader of their work. One of the bolder moves she makes in her memoir is to write off Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a one-paragraph chapter titled Wearying Heights. Pennington softens her position in a followup chapter, where she engages at length with the novel. She stands by her negative assessment, however, concluding: "If I met Wuthering Heights at a cocktail party, I would have literally nothing to say to it."
As Pennington’s personification of a literary classic suggests, she is a person in search of good books and good company. The keynote of this memoir is longing: a longing for love and purpose, but also to feel close to the Brontës and to be guided by both the lessons of their novels and the example of their challenging but productive lives. She identifies closely with them; regarding her childhood, for example, she observes, "The Brontës and I all embellished our make-believe with books we’d read and stories we’d heard, blurring the line between reality and art as we lived inside our creations."
Some readers will be uneasy with Pennington’s prioritization of the utility of literary works — of how useful she finds particular novels in times of crisis. The novels she values most serve as confidantes and teachers; those that fare less well are those that fail to offer her personal guidance, such as The Professor, about which Pennington observes: "It has yet to provoke any significant life alterations for me, but that may be just an issue of timing."
Given that Pennington is herself an editor, minor errors in her discussion of the novels come as a surprise. She observes, for example, regarding Wuthering Heights, that "Cathy Earnshaw and Isabella Linton don’t live long enough to get to know their own children." While Cathy dies soon after the birth of her daughter, Isabella raises her son Linton on her own for more than a decade. Isabella is, in fact, a mother who knows far more than she’d like about her son’s petulant nature.
Pennington’s devotion to the Brontës is earnest, but her memoir is also very funny. Pennington has quips about both the novels she dislikes and those she adores, observing, for instance, that "Without Jane’s passion, Jane Eyre is basically a series of dismal British buildings populated by mostly unpleasant people with well-stocked libraries."
Observations like this one energize Pennington’s memoir, and are an invitation to Brontë fans to think about the books they cherish in new ways.
Vanessa Warne researches literature and the history of disability at the University of Manitoba.