Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham by Emily Bingham
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016, 384 pages
In the extraordinarily patriarchal world of the 1920s, young Henrietta Bingham used her charm and family’s money to influence society both in the United States and abroad. With friends such as those in the Bloomsbury Group, Bingham seduced men and women alike with her charisma but with retrospect drawn from relatives’ memories and Bingham’s own documents (including letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and psychological reports on the subject), a darkness which shadowed Bingham’s life emerges. In Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham, Bingham’s grand-niece, Emily, collects the artifacts of her great-aunt’s life in an attempt to gain a better understanding of her family history while bringing to light the great impact Bingham had on her family, friends, acquaintances, and the world beyond.
As a student of history, Emily Bingham’s (I’ll use the author’s first name going forward to avoid confusing her with the subject of the biography) strength is clear. Her historical account of Henrietta and the world around her brings the reader into a detailed sepia world. Deeply disturbed by the loss of her mother before her eyes in a car accident, Henrietta lives a bold and rash life, unafraid to take charge. And while the author often paints this unashamed character as a point of pride, she does not shy away from pointing out the damage Henrietta brought to those around her. Emily’s smart to acknowledge that she is, indeed, related to the subject of the work though she had no memory of contact with Henrietta and the majority of her family viewed her unfavorably up to Henrietta’s death. Emily also notes that the book began as a project for her degree.
Though an interesting character, Henrietta seems to feature less than the title of the biography would suggest. Instead, the effect Henrietta had on the world around her takes the main stage. Relationships with Henrietta, platonic or otherwise, clearly caused the partner and other relevant individuals a good deal of grief. They were so often tied up in themselves and their feelings for Henrietta that they seemed to forget that she, too, was human and not the goddess they made her out to be. Though this is somewhat a reflection on Henrietta herself, the readers are still left with a greater impression of Henrietta’s impact than of Henrietta herself, which serves to perpetuate this vision of Henrietta as greater-than-human.
By the end of this chronicle of Henrietta’s life, I felt somewhat abandoned. Sure, Henrietta’s boom of cultural impact certainly had its ripples beyond her intimate circle, but what of the woman herself? She is left behind in Emily’s narrative, leaving the world with a whimper, so contrary to her life prior. Though certainly Emily could not dictate the events of her great-aunt’s life to provide a more structurally sound narrative that better reflects what we’ve come to expect in fiction and the bioflicks we all seem to love so much, I couldn’t help but feel that, “I read all of this for what, exactly?” Its anticlimactic end is the true show of how this book was more a personal project for Emily which happened to make a decent enough story that it was worth selling, to some publisher, than it was a true work of biography.
But we’re given other bits that perhaps make the time invested worthwhile – the discussion of LGBTQIAA individuals in the early-to-mid twenty-first century gives new insight to the hostile climate to those less familiar with the nuanced challenges of the time. Henrietta’s relationship with her father provides an extraordinarily interesting look into the grief of a widower and his unwillingness to let his daughter into the world. The influence of money alone rears itself as a powerful force in Henrietta’s world. All-in-all, Irrepressible isn’t the most riveting, but to the right reader will have some excellent passages worth the time.
❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤