My obsession with the Brontë juvenilia and basically everything Charlotte ever wrote before penning her masterpiece, Jane Eyre, in 1847, meant that just the title of Glynnis Fawkes’ new book, Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre was enough to spark my interest. I’m glad to see an increasing focus on the Brontë juvenilia and the stories Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne wrote during their childhood and early adulthood which were set in the paracosmic worlds of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal. We can never write or read enough about the adult novels of the sisters, but historically, their early fiction, in addition to Branwell’s own prose and published poetry, haven’t had much of a look in besides references to and recaps of Patrick Brontë’s famous gift of twelve toy soldiers to his son which proved to be the catalyst for these worlds. As stated above, the title of Fawkes’ book was promising, but does it deliver a fresh, or at least a deeper, look at Charlotte’s early fiction?
Rather than focus entirely on Charlotte’s early fiction, the book is a sort of graphic novel meets biography which documents incidents in Charlotte’s life which led up to the creation of Jane Eyre. Consequently, the book skips about backwards and forwards in time to cover various incidents, beginning with a 21 year old Charlotte receiving a letter at Roe Head School in 1837, covering her childhood play and writing, her time at Cowan Bridge, her attempts to publish her work as an adult, and her eventual success with Jane Eyre. The book does assume that the reader is familiar with the events of Jane Eyre, which is presumably why they have picked it up; in search of more information about the life of the woman who wrote it. I wasn’t a massive fan of the introduction and thought it would have worked better as an afterword, particularly as IT CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS ABOUT THE PLOT OF JANE EYRE. We can do without that, thank you very much, even working on the assumption that the reader has read the book; some may use this text as a way into the works of the Brontë sisters (and Branwell), and some may have stumbled upon the works of Charlotte’s siblings first. Anyway, I digress.
Fortunately, the rest of the book is a big improvement on the introduction. Firstly let me say that the illustrations are amazing and really help to bring the sisters’ lives and Fawkes’ words to life. It’s clear that over the years Brontëites have formed a sort of template regarding the appearance of the sisters and their personalities that are used once again here. However, I really appreciated the fact that in Fawkes’ text, Charlotte is depicted as driven rather than controlling, Emily’s independent streak stays away from awkwardness, Anne is pleasant rather than meek, and crucially, Branwell’s demons are depicted but he is not depicted as a monster himself.
Don’t let the style of the book deceive you; there is an awful lot packed into it, some familiar, others less so. There are some “hard facts” mixed in with re-imaginings of scenarios in the lives of the siblings. I particularly enjoyed the nods not just to the Brontë juvenilia generally (the toy soldiers once again make an appearance), but to specific stories such as when Charlotte is depicted writing A Day at Parry’s Palace, which you can read more about by clicking here. I also adored the scenes where Charlotte’s favourite hero, the Duke of Zamorna appears to tempt her away from the reality of her life teaching and back to Angria once more. See Charlotte’s Roe Head Journal for the incident which inspired this scene here. The panel discussions at the end of the text are a hidden gem some may miss if they shut the book at the mention of the word “Postscript”, and provide more information about the lives and works of the Brontës in addition to some of Fawkes’ choices when putting her book together.
Ultimately though, Fawkes’ book’s greatest success is not merely in exploring the lives of the siblings, using Charlotte as a focal point, but demonstrating that they did not merely sit down one day and decide to become authors. Interestingly, this was not something lost on Charlotte; at the age of 14 she penned a short play, The Poetaster in which she mocks an aspiring poet with a belief in spontaneous genius. Fawkes’ book highlights the fact that there was actually a Before Jane Eyre, and that there is more to Charlotte’s life and works than one novel (no matter how fantastic it is). Along with her siblings, Charlotte loved, lost, played. fought, wrote, faced rejection and embraced success. Overall, this book can work either as an introduction to three trailblazing female authors, or as background for those familiar with their works but hungry for more. Bravo.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon.
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
All quotes are taken from Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal (Oxford University Press, 2010), edited by Christine Alexander.
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