Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre

The reading public has long been fascinated with anything having to do with Charlotte Brontë, the author of Jane Eyre and the source of untold spinoffs, movies, and commentary. In fact, Jane Eyre has never gone out of print and has been translated into nearly 60 languages.

Now from the Center for Cartoon Studies and Hyperion Books comes a book that explores the woman behind the classic in Charlotte Brontë before Jane Eyre (Hyperion, $17.99. September 24, 2019). Written and illustrated by cartoonist Glynnis Fawkes, the 112-page graphic novel takes middle-grade readers on a trip back to 1837, when young Charlotte faced unrelenting discouragement and setbacks on the path to literary success, all set to the brooding backdrop of the isolated parsonage the Brontë family called home.

Fawkes’ pen-and-ink illustrations are crisp and vivid, capturing in shades of black, white, and gray the oppressive and highly patriarchal world Brontë navigated. It’s a biography that examines Brontë’s formative years and the challenges she faced. Fawkes intersperses Brontë’s own words, where possible, to better express her personality.

Fellow cartoonist Alison Bechdel provides an introduction into why Jane Eyre remains as relevant today as it did when first published under the pen name “Currer Bell” in 1847. A postscript and panel discussions explaining Fawkes’ thought process behind certain illustrated panels rounds out the book.

Charlotte Brontë Before Jane Eyre is a fantastic introduction to one of Western literature’s most enduring authors. Tuck this one into your child’s backpack, there’s much here to inspire anyone apprehensive about heading back to school. And though most middle-grade readers may not be quite ready to pick up Jane Eyre, Fawkes’s biography will whet their appetite.

Today I’m excited to share my Q&A with Maggie Thrash, whose emotional graphic novel, Honor Girl (Candlewick Press, $19.99, 272 pages), chronicles a fateful summer when the author first fell in love while at an all-girls sleepaway camp in the South. Thrash, also a writer for Rookie Magazine, spoke with me about accepting and embracing her sexuality, her years at Hampshire College, sleepwalking, the mental demands of riflery, and recognizing that pivotal moment when you realize you’ve grown up.

What moved you to write Honor Girl at this point in your life?

I needed to say this before I could say anything else. This book is the Maggie Thrash starting point. So much about my life– the way I think, the way I deal with love– all traces back to how I handled this summer. It was the first time in my life that I was faced with real, intense, adult emotions. Before this summer, I was a kid, and afterwards I was not—and there was no going back.  

Why did you decide to write a graphic novel instead of a traditional book? Honor Girl focuses on a very specific period in your life – your discovery/acknowledgement of your sexuality, and your first love. Was it difficult reliving your adolescence?  Was this book your way of coming out to the world?

I think comics are the best medium for memoir because you can be up-front and objective about yourself while also being incredibly personal. It wasn’t very difficult for me to relieve this period, because in many ways I’m kind of stunted– I still feel fifteen years old. So it wasn’t a stretch for me to reach back and relive those feelings. And yes, this is definitely me coming out to the world. I’d always been very secretive about my relationships with women, because being secretive made life easier. But the world has changed a lot in the last fifteen years, and diversity is being celebrated now.  

Did you ever reconnect with Erin, or is she firmly in the past?

She’s read the book, and we’re going to have lunch soon…. I’m kind of terrified! It must be very strange to see yourself and your memories through some else’s eyes, and to have that version published for the world to see. But she has been immensely supportive and cool.

What happened afterwards? You attended Hampshire College, and as a fellow graduate of a Pioneer Valley school (Smith), I can easily imagine that Hampshire was a far cry from Bellflower and Atlanta. Did you experience any culture shock when you got to college? What were your first impressions? How did attending Hampshire, and spending your undergraduate years in such an environment, influence your work and life?

Yes, Hampshire College was a huge shock! There was a nudist, and a girl who made art exhibits out of garbage piles, and a guy who dressed like a pirate every single day. The place was teeming with gay people and nonconformists and a wide variety of weirdos. It’s funny, on the first day of orientation, I found this one Midwestern boy who was wearing “normal” clothes– like a Polo shirt and jeans– and I latched onto him and he became my best friend. We navigated all the craziness together. I have probably never been happier in my life as I was at Hampshire College. It is a strange, wonderful heaven.

Have you stayed in touch with any of the girls from Bellflower?

I purposefully avoided contacting anyone while I was writing the book. I wanted to stay true to my perspective and not feel beholden to other people’s memories. It’s wild how two people can remember one event so differently. The idea of having to serve multiple perspectives was too overwhelming. All the girls in the book have their own stories. What ended up happening to the character of “Bethany” is pretty crazy, for instance. It could be a whole book of its own. But I was just like, I gotta stay focused and tell my own story here.

As a writer for Rookie you know that many young girls read and look up to you. Did you feel any of that pressure while writing?

Rookie readers are very compassionate. They get that everyone is flawed. I am not a fantastic role model in Honor Girl. I let people push me around, and I didn’t have confidence in my feelings or my intuition. But it’s important for me to be real with girls and to tell them, “You’re gonna lose some battles in life. It happens. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a loser forever.”  

You’re pretty good with a gun, but you haven’t shot anything in over a decade. Why? Do you miss it? Could you talk about why you took up riflery in the first place? (You allude to riflery as a way to bond with your father.)

It’s pretty random how I took up shooting. Mostly I did it because it wasn’t a popular activity at the camp, so it was a great way to get away from everyone (at camp you’re constantly surrounded). I definitely didn’t expect to be such a prodigy. Riflery is an interesting sport, because all it takes to excel is concentration and confidence. It’s 100% mental. When I went back to camp the next summer, the summer after the one portrayed in the book, I was a different person. My confidence had faltered, and I lost my magic. Like most prodigies, I totally flamed out. I want to shoot soon just to see what happens, to see if lost magic can be recovered. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Do you still sleepwalk? If so, what do you do about it? If not, how did you stop?

I rarely sleep-walk anymore. I grew out of it I guess. But I have a new, equally disruptive sleep malfunction where I wake up in the middle of the night screaming my head off. Usually I’m screaming for my dad, like, “DAAAAAAAAAAD!” It’s probably a deeply ingrained thing for girls in this patriarchal society, to scream for their fathers to save them.

Did you really see Brigadoon after you left camp? It seemed an appropriate coda to Bellflower disappearing into the past, just like Brigadoon vanishes into the ether.

Oh yeah. Every year my mom and I saw a musical on the way home from camp.Brigadoon always stuck with me. Partly because I’m Scottish and because the title song is so beautiful. But I also love how Brigadoon represents how nothing lasts. All anyone wants is to be happy and for time to stop. Brigadoon captures those two impossible desires.    

What are you working on now?

I have something pretty different in store for next year. It is fiction, and non-graphic. It’s a teen mystery. I think it will be interesting for Honor Girl readers to read it and be like, wow, so this is what became of Maggie Thrash. She grew up to write books about teenagers murdering each other. Nice.

Honor Girl, by Maggie Thrash; Candlewick Press, $19.99, 272 pages, ages 14 and up.