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A Girl Walks Into a Book
What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women's Work
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Pennington, today a writer and teacher in New York, was a precocious reader. Her father gave her Jane Eyre at the age of 10, sparking what would become a lifelong devotion and multiple re-readings. She began to delve into the work and lives of the BrontÃ« finding that the sisters were at times her lifeline, her sounding board, even her closest friends. In this charming, offbeat memoir, Pennington traces the development of the BrontÃ«as women, as sisters, and as writers, as she recounts her own struggles to fit in as a bookish, introverted, bisexual woman. In the BrontÃ«and their characters, Pennington finally finds the heroines she needs, and she becomes obsessed with their wisdom, courage, and fearlessness. Her obsession makes for an entirely absorbing and unique read.
A Girl Walks Into a Book is a candid and emotional love affair that braids criticism, biography and literature into a quest that helps us understand the place of literature in our lives; how it affects and inspires us.
One may say of Currer Bell that her genius finds a fitting illustration in her heroes and heroines—her Rochesters and Jane Eyres. They are men and women of deep feelings, clear intellects, vehement tempers, bad manners, ungraceful, yet lovable persons. Their address is brusque, unpleasant, yet individual, direct, free from shams and conventions of all kinds. They outrage "good taste," yet they fascinate. You dislike them at first, yet you learn to love them. The power that is in them makes its vehement way right to your heart.
—G. H. Lewes, from an unsigned 1853 review, Leader
The Brontë family tree
Cover page of Charlotte's Young Men's Magazine, August 1830
Charlotte's tiny books
"Morning," from a Young Men's Magazine
The Eyre family tree
Doodles in the flyleaf of Goldsmith's Geography
Cartoon of Charlotte waving
A Note on Textual References
I have reproduced all misspellings, odd grammar, and weird or missing punctuation used by the Brontës, their friends, and correspondents, following the lead of Juliet Barker and Margaret E. Smith. Where either of these exceptional scholars made conjectures on missing words or phrases, I have incorporated their text.
Walking into the Brontës
This is a love story. Charlotte Brontë and her sisters loved to write, and I fell in love with their words on the page, and I have been looking for that kind of love in and out of books ever since. And maybe you too have fallen in love with a Jane Eyre or a Paul Emanuel or, Heaven help you, a Heathcliff, and so you will know exactly what I mean.
Let me be clear, I am not a fairy-tale-magical-wedding-day happy-ever-after sort of person. My favorite fairy tales are the weird ones, where the girl who trod on a loaf gets sucked underground for her hubris, or one of the seven brothers straightens his hat and freezes the world, or dogs with dish-sized eyes wait for the soldier to strike the tinderbox, or the princess weaves coats of flax for her swan brothers. At the end of these stories, the heroine's just lucky not to be dancing herself to death in a pair of bewitched shoes. That spiky strangeness is what I like most about them. When it came to my own ever-after, perhaps my expectations were unconventional, but I had still wanted a storybook ending, one way or another. I had been ecstatic to find someone with a winning smile who laughed at my jokes and wanted me around. I thought we were building a life together. But after one too many disappointed expectations and undelivered promises I finally became suspicious that it wasn't going to happen. Whether I was unworthy, the person I had picked was too flawed, or the story I'd based my dreams on was a lie—something was broken.
As I got ready to leave the apartment that had finally started to feel like "ours," my battered and beloved copy of Jane Eyre was the last book I packed, in the last bag I lined up by the door. I was leaving, taking only what I had brought with me and could call my own. It was a dark, bitter moment with one flicker of solace: Charlotte Brontë would have approved.
When I first came to the Brontës, I was a child, naïve and unwary. The old-fashioned prose and thick spine of Jane Eyre were promising; lots of the books written for kids my age (ten or so) were like potato chips, gone in a flash and leaving nothing behind but a greasy residue. I waded into the opening pages, read about a young girl huddled in a window-seat reading Bewick's History of British Birds, and was intrigued. I'd spent my share of hours curled up reading while adults talked, and I found the notion of a window-sill hidden by curtains especially romantic. My "library" was under the fluorescent lights of a basement playroom where I escaped my toddler brother, who was too little to climb downstairs. Rather than the finely furnished halls of Gateshead that Jane Eyre longed to escape, I had a battered sleepaway couch, a plastic foosball table, a hot pink wooden toy box with a chalkboard, and an array of particleboard bookcases that groaned under the weight of Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, The Brothers Grimm, and Beverly Cleary. Despite these drastic differences in our circumstances, I related to Jane—there's no accounting for the affinity one lonely kid has for another.
Then, as I read on, Jane's villainous aunt sent her to a miserable boarding school, with horrible people, who didn't understand anything that mattered, much less Jane herself. I was appalled. I wrote off Jane Eyre as unpleasant and unfair, a dull story about a plain girl's awful life. That first time, I never made it to Thornfield or met Mr. Rochester. It's possible I never even survived the ignominious "Liar" incident in Chapter VII. I have since gathered this experience is not uncommon—people tend to love Jane Eyre immediately or hate it. High school students made to suffer through it rarely make a return visit, unfortunately, and even adults who encounter it too late in life struggle to connect. London critic Elizabeth Rigby gave it an infamously harsh review in 1848, saying, "A little more, and we should have flung the book aside."1 After that first attempt, I actually did toss Jane Eyre to the floor and heard the pages skitter as they hit the linoleum.
But the book was so satisfyingly weighty. Even as I hurled it off the bed, it seemed like a book that should matter. I kept picking it back up. I stared down Mr. Brocklehurst. I endured the boarding school. I crossed my fingers when Jane dared to advertise for a new position. Eventually, I found that I liked it, despite its darkness, despite Jane's trials, which I took personally. To despise Jane was to despise me. By the time I finished it, I had come to love Jane Eyre. I was a chubby tomboy with a mushroom cut, who always talked too fast. I liked reading fantasy epics and singing along to show tunes in the car. But Jane Eyre took me somewhere new. Jane's pastimes were ladylike—drawing and sewing; her language was dense and archaic, and I occasionally had no idea what was happening, but she spoke to me. She opened that door that exists inside all devoted readers. She made my heart beat faster and my fingers turn the pages ever more eagerly, hungry to know more.
Charlotte Brontë writes children like the child she must have been—the thoughtful, imaginative kind, with mature powers of observation and broad depths of feeling. Though shy, young Jane was fearless when spurred by oppression or injustice, which we see when she loses her temper with her bullying cousin a few pages into the novel's opening. So what if she inevitably loses the fight and gets locked in her dead uncle's haunted bedroom, bleeding from the scalp—Jane throws herself, nails out, at John Reed's smug, hateful face and does her worst.
Often grown-up authors seem to assume that children's thoughts are as simple as the words they have at their disposal. Jane Eyre radically departs from this attitude. Young Jane had the same faculties of understanding and sensitivity her grown-up self would, the same resistance to wrongdoing and the same enviable strength of passion. We expect this in our heroines—Charlotte Brontë's contemporary readers did too—but giving this defiance to a kid in 1847 was terrifically subversive. Even at ten, I felt my mind was a morass of new and conflicting and imagined and hoped-for information I didn't quite understand, and it was gratifying to see this complexity acknowledged in print. Until Jane, I had to read grown-up books to be challenged, usually sacrificing the pleasure of someone to relate to in the process. I felt certain Jane would understand my overwhelming feelings, the tidal wave of contradictory thoughts and impulses that barreled through my brain on a given day.
Sometimes we read to find ourselves; sometimes we read to escape ourselves; sometimes we read to see ourselves more clearly. When I read Jane Eyre, the words arranged themselves to form pictures; I could hear the voices, feel the dank drafts whispering through poorly fastened casements. I could hear really old jokes! Charlotte Brontë had meant to be funny when she wrote that Jane had "not a whit" of faith in Mr. Rochester as he tried to propose to her, and I had understood her being funny, and thusly we had communicated. Jane Eyre pulled me inside of it. 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 Brontë has in turn provided exactly the right illumination for my life, but only when read at the right time. Try a Brontë novel too early, and you'll find yourself scrabbling around the sides, wandering off mid-story distracted, even bored. But open the right book on the right day, and it'll strike a bell you didn't even know needed to be rung.
That's how it was for me, anyway. Jane Eyre moved me to try Wuthering Heights, which I hated, then Villette, which I abandoned for being slow and inscrutable. In my early twenties I turned to Agnes Grey, which gave me a window into the life of a twenty-something woman and a nudge to grow up. I eventually devoured Shirley, savoring its feminism, friendship, and history; Charlotte is silly when she wants to be. After that, I tackled The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which tore my life apart, only to remake it better. By then I was finally ready for Villette, the story it took Charlotte so many tries to get right. These days I reread Jane Eyre once a year, and take doses of the others as necessary. Sometimes I consult them like an oracle or a Magic 8 Ball—I open to a random page and see what they have to say; it's an idiosyncratic art of bibliomancy, a kind of sortes brontënae.
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. I have such faith in Jane Eyre that it always seems entirely plausible that this time, the ending might come off differently. There might be a new character to meet. Jane might not have such a hard time after fleeing the grounds of Thornfield. Rochester might come clean at the very start of their romance, or never have married Bertha Mason in the first place. St. John Rivers could let himself live a little and declare his undying love for Rosamond Oliver. All of these potential revisions seem equally possible. But it always happens the same way, as it has to happen, to eventually secure the happy ending I can't live without.
When I'm in need of relationship lessons, the books are all about how partners should be equals. When I'm in need of motivation, I notice they contain an awful lot about women managing their own affairs and getting things done. When I need a boost of self-reliance, when I need to be taught about patience, when I need to rediscover an internal moral compass: whatever I need, it turns out that's what the Brontës wrote. These novels examine women's independence, employment, social values, education, mental illness, alcoholism, adultery, trials of the soul, morality, mythology, and love, especially love. When you're tuned to the right frequency, there's a medicinal power in Emily's stubbornness, Anne's perseverance, Charlotte's sarcasm, and even Branwell's self-destructive dissipation.
I thought I had come to the end of the Brontë shelf, but then I found their poetry, Charlotte's letters, and a plethora of biographies. I read them all and I started over. I read the Brontës' juvenilia and their schoolgirl essays, their novella fragments and forewords to revised editions, their unfinished scraps and diary papers. I examined the doodles in the margins, their illustrations and sketches, Charlotte's watercolors and Branwell's portraits of their neighbors. My life has unfolded alongside the words of the Brontës, sometimes been carried by them. This is the story of that journey—there are advantages to having a literary roadmap, and there are costs. Their lives and their writing and my life and my writing have all come together in an entwining of threads that seems both surprising and inevitable.
The Bells are of a hardy race. They do not lounge in drawing-rooms or boudoirs. The air they breathe is not that of the hot-house, or of perfumed apartments: but it whistles through the rugged thorns that shoot out their prickly arms on barren moors, or it ruffles the moss on the mountain tops. Rough characters, untamed by contact with towns or cities; wilful men, with the true stamp of the passions upon them; plain vigorous Saxon words, not spoiled nor weakened by bad French or school-boy Latin; rude habits; ancient residences—with Nature in her great loneliness all around;—these—with the gray skies or sunset glories above—are the elements of their stories, compounded and reduced to shape, in different moods and with different success.
—Unsigned review of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Examiner, 18481
Had my father given me a different book in the spring of 1995, I might be writing an account of a lifelong obsession with Virginia Woolf or Mark Twain or even George Eliot (and I wouldn't be the first). But he gave me Jane Eyre and, unexpectedly, a mission. As I opened book after book, turned page after page, sought out source after source in my pursuit of the Brontës, I was trying to get as close as possible to them, to uncover who they were, how they lived, and why I felt like I knew them. I found myself asking questions. Are the characters inhabiting their fiction anything like them, or the people they knew? What do we have in common? What did they know about life that I need to understand in order to live mine? Though it often seems like the four Brontë children who survived to adulthood sprang, fully genius-ed, from their father's forehead, the truth is they began as scribbling children, writing to escape.
If you want a Lifetime Movie version of the Brontës, read Clement King Shorter's Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle; he's perpetually on the verge of histrionics. If you want an immaculately researched biography, read Juliet Barker's The Brontës.2 If you want to know about every surviving scrap of paper in Charlotte's hand, seek out Margaret E. Smith's scrupulously edited volumes of her letters and juvenilia. They'll tell you what you need to know. But my mission is to uncover how the Brontës became the writers I connected with—and these are the breadcrumbs that led me there.
Early on, I came across the biography written by Elizabeth Gaskell, a novelist who befriended Charlotte after her literary career took off. Gaskell created the enduring—and inaccurate—perceptions of Charlotte and her sisters as pallid, isolated, otherworldly waifs. Gaskell had the benefit of actual contact with Charlotte and her closest friends, but the strikes against her include an annoyingly dreary oversimplification of the Brontës' lives, a misrepresentation of Charlotte's father, Patrick, as rageful and callous, and the omission of anything scandalous or exciting whenever possible. Charlotte was her focal point, to the detriment of Emily and Anne, and Gaskell managed to make Charlotte seem both incredibly intelligent and incredibly passive in establishing herself. Passive was the very last thing I could imagine the person who'd made Jane Eyre being. I kept digging.
THE essential facts are these: Patrick Brontë was a curate, the Anglican equivalent of a parish priest, in a small town in Yorkshire, in the northern part of England. He married a woman named Maria and they had six children, three of whom joined the ranks of the most famous Victorian novelists, one of whom never recovered from the fact that he did not. While I cannot hide the fact that Charlotte is my favorite, I am a stalwart Anne supporter as well. If it would establish Anne as the second-most-important Brontë, I would serve as her second in a duel. The historical neglect of her work is that appalling. We'll get to her later, I promise.
Maria was the daughter of a prosperous Penzance merchant family. She met Patrick Brontë in 1812 at school in Rawdon, Yorkshire. He was a thirty-five-year-old autodidact, a curate, a poet, and the author of a fairly moralizing novel, The Maid of Killarny. He had changed his name from variously spelled versions of "Branty" to "Brontë" after leaving Ireland to enroll in St. John's College in Cambridge in 1802. The shift camouflaged his Irishness, honored Lord Nelson, the Duke of Bronte, and looked better on paper. Patrick and Maria became engaged eight months after they met. Surviving letters from Maria reveal her to be a sweet and thoughtful woman, eager for Patrick's guidance and companionship. At twenty-nine, having lost her parents a few years earlier, Maria was accustomed to a certain amount of independence and freedom; when she decided to marry, it was because she had found a man she respected and loved enough to allow him to guide her. She even calls him "My dear saucy Pat," which is as embarrassing as any parental PDA.3 They married in December of 1812, settled into Patrick's curacy in Hartshead, and proceeded to have six children.
Their daughters Maria and Elizabeth were born in 1813 and 1815 (the same years Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice and Emma, respectively). Charlotte was born in 1816, followed by Branwell, the only son and family pet, in 1817. Emily, strong-minded and antisocial, was born in 1818, and finally, in 1820, came Anne, the quiet, opinionated, and oft-forgotten. Shortly after Anne's birth, the family moved to Haworth, a milltown near Keighley, where Patrick became the village curate. His responsibilities included giving sermons, performing ceremonies from baptisms to funerals, and generally maintaining the spiritual welfare of the populace. Haworth was small and industrial then, supported by weaving mills and those who worked in them. With the village church and graveyard at its highest point, the town spread down cobbled streets and narrow lanes lined with shops and houses into the Worth Valley. As a matter of fact it still does, though the mills are closed now and the Brontës are not merely residents, but the raison d'être of the town. It's surrounded on all sides by glorious moors filled with heather and tall grasses and lush green fields crisscrossed by picturesque stone walls. When the Brontës lived there, trees hadn't yet been planted near the church and the view was bleak in the gray autumn and winter, but a walk uphill in any direction would yield an incomparable view of the surrounding countryside.
Contrary to lore that surrounds the Brontës and their Parsonage in the popular imagination, they weren't in the middle of nowhere, their yard wasn't desolate and windswept all year round, and they didn't lack access to community resources. They attended local concerts, art exhibitions, and the Mechanics Institute, which hosted lectures and social events. True, the graveyard comes right up to the Parsonage garden, and 41 percent of children born in the village died before the age of six, but there was more to their lives than all-pervading death.4 The sooty grayness that covered the yellow stone of the small houses and shops was due to smoke from the mills, not from some inherent regional depression.
Patrick was an astute, well-read, political thinker, and he embraced his children's active imaginations and vociferous opinions. He read them newspapers, brought history to life through storytelling, and hired art and music teachers as the children became old enough. They were allowed to read whatever they wanted, from Aesop's Fables and Arabian Nights to Edinburgh's Blackwoods literary magazines. Patrick Brontë's Gaskell-induced reputation as a hothead and a bully doesn't seem entirely merited (and in fact was based on the testimony of one disgruntled servant). The bond between Charlotte and her father sustained them both in the wake of the losses that awaited the family; she was always willing to place Patrick's welfare above her own.
But then again, it's possible he was harsh in his youth and mellowed with age—like my own father, who tended to explode with anger when frustrated by his children, his wife, or his work, but who also introduced me to much of the arts and culture that I still love as an adult. I could never stand up to his fury, but the happy times are unmatched. Maybe Patrick's anger didn't bother her as much. Maybe Charlotte's coping mechanisms were more developed than mine. Maybe reports were exaggerated. We'll never know.
After giving birth to Anne, her fifth daughter, Maria Brontë began suffering symptoms of uterine cancer. She died in 1821, when her eldest was eight and Anne was only a year old. Maria's unmarried sister, Elizabeth Branwell, came to live with the family and take care of the children. In July of 1824, the eldest Brontë daughters, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent to the Cowan Bridge School for Clergymen's Daughters for a more formal education; Charlotte followed in August and Emily in November. They were taught English grammar and literature, geography, history, arithmetic, some natural sciences, and needlework. Thanks to poor ventilation and an inhospitable climate, both Maria and Elizabeth contracted consumptive illnesses and were quickly brought back home, where they died in May and June of 1825. Emily and Charlotte were called home immediately afterward, where they were educated by Aunt Branwell and Patrick alongside their younger brother and sister. This all sounds like it happened fast—a quick trip to school, a tragic loss, and a brisk ride home again. But think of childhood's emotional calendar. The low moments seemed to last forever, and the bright moments flash like streetlamps outside a car window. Even if every other year of her life was full of curiosity and creativity, the trauma of losing two sisters soon after losing her mother must have intensely affected Charlotte, who was already so sensitive. She woke to find herself the eldest daughter instead of a sheltered third, responsible for her younger siblings as she'd never been before.
In good weather, the Brontë children went to the moors behind the Parsonage and spent days walking and climbing, studying plants and animals, and telling stories together. Of the few images we have of the sisters, most are drawings or paintings they made of one another—Branwell's grouping of the surviving four (which he later painted himself out of, leaving a chalky gray pillar in his place) is the most famous. I used to mock Branwell for the portrait's ungainliness, until I saw it in person—he does capture something exciting in Charlotte's eyes. By contrast, Charlotte's watercolors are expressive and delicate, especially her botanicals.
The storytelling "plays" that represent the Brontës' earliest surviving written work may have begun before the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth, but they developed into nearly full-time occupations afterward. The sheer volume of the Brontës' juvenilia proves the rumors of their sickly depressiveness as children must have been greatly exaggerated. They kept busy by creating richly layered imaginary worlds drawn from the books and magazines that filled the Parsonage. The impact of losing their mother shows up in their fiction, where the mothers are either missing, careless, reappearing after a long absence, or impossibly warm and generous.
The Brontës first began recording their imaginative storytelling on paper in 1829, when Charlotte set down The History of the Year. In it, she recounts how she and her siblings had adopted their favorite characters from history, inspired by a set of Branwell's toy soldiers they called The Twelve. Charlotte claimed the Duke of Wellington, Branwell took Napoleon Bonaparte, Emily chose "a very grave looking fellow" they called Gravey, and Anne's was "a queer little thing very like herself" dubbed "waiting Boy."5 They conscripted their tiny subjects into adventures both mundane and supernatural. Maybe that sounds weird, but let ye who never enjoyed mutant turtles named after Renaissance artists cast the first stone. They traveled to an imaginary Africa, established their own pretend nation-states, fought for and against their rulers, conducted courtly intrigues, and dabbled in romance. Within their imaginary kingdom of Glass Town, the sisters and Branwell ruled as Chief Genii or Little Queens and a Little King, and each had their own country to manage. The young Brontës also imagined themselves in a school superintended by the Duke of Wellington, who became Charlotte's lifelong hero.
"Pennington's devotion to the Brontës is earnest, but her memoir is also very funny."
—Winnipeg Free Press
"This is about as far from dry, passionless literary criticism as you can get. Pennington treats the Bronte material with the reverence of a book lover, but never loses sight of the sisters also being human, with human foibles and vulnerabilities. She weaves her story through theirs to great dramatic effect, giving thoughtful examination to how literature can affect our lives."
—Portland Book Review
"Pennington understands the Brontë sisters and is skilled at bringing them to life."
—Providence Sunday Journal
"Pennington combines long-term, deep knowledge of a biographical subject with a certainty that life lessons may be drawn from that subject in the here and now. Her approach is eye-opening, personal, and engaging."
—The Santa Fe New Mexican
- On Sale
- May 16, 2017
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press