Charlotte Bronte Before Jane Eyre by Glynnis Fawkes

I think we need a new term for books like this: it’s more of a graphic biography than a graphic novel. As such, we don’t have a story with an arc or pacing; rather, this is a series of vignettes of Charlotte Bronte’s younger years. Each scene is derived from Charlotte’s letters/musings as well as the thoughts of her contemporaries who interacted with her. As such, it is a bit jarring and things jump around quite a bit. At heart, though, the authors/illustrators seek to highlight the experiences that produced the Bronte sisters’ novels, with an emphasis on the sister for whom we have the most surviving information.

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The sisters’ (and brother’s) personalities do come out nicely: Charlotte and her flights of fancy, Emily’s down-to-earth pragmatism and intense privacy, and youngest Anne’s biddability. They were a family of characters, to be sure, and the story of their family is one of continued tragedy, only some of which is covered here but goes well beyond their gothic-feeling novels.

Fans of Jane Eyre will recognize many scenes from Charlotte’s life. Although it was Emily who was most interested in the reality of those around them, all three would write based on their experiences. It makes for an interesting biography because quite a bit of their life experiences can be assumed from each of their stories. We can see Charlotte’s life’s progression, from the unfortunate youth at the boarding school in whose care cost two of her sisters’ lives, to the fanciful crush on a Belgian professor, to eventually dropping her more fanciful stories and concentrating on a more grounded story. Frustration with a dead-end life, lack of means, her gender, and endless occupations featuring soulless and frustrating teaching/governess work also feature here strongly.

At the end of the book, the author notes where she took inspiration from for certain scenes – be they letters to Charlotte’s good friends, musings from her father in later years, or from the books themselves. And although the emphasis is on Charlotte, her two surviving sisters and brother also are nicely developed.

In all, a nice biography full of black and white drawings, more in the lines of vignettes rather than a cohesive story. The inspiration for many of Jane Eyre’s scenes are very recognizable here. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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