Romance and forests (and maybe a few vampires)
Her beauty, touched with the languid delicacy of illness, gained from sentiment what it lost in bloom…now entered another stranger, a young Chevalier…in [whom] elegance was happily blended with strength, and had a countenance animated, but not haughty; noble, yet expressive…
I had an existential crisis the other day when one of my good friends (NOT an English major) told me she was reading Twilight. Now, I am of the opinion that while this book is explosively popular, that just makes it explosively popular trash teen fiction of the Buffy-meets-Mr Darcy type, mixed with a little early Anne Rice and, I don’t know, Nora Roberts. Obviously Stephanie Meyer has been able to tap into some deep yearning teenage girls have to marry and have raucously violent sex with glittery, undead 100-year-old teenage boys, but that still doesn’t make the books good, and neither does throwing in the odd symbol (here, have an apple).
While I was on my high horse, however, ranting about this to said friend, I realized something. One, that I probably should read the book before I judge (another issue for another post) and two, that a lot of what I read on an every day basis for my Popular Literature program was, in fact, described as trash at one point or another.
Case in point: Anne Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest. This is a story about a beautiful orphan girl named Adeline who is taken in by a family running from their debts in Paris to the French forest, where they take refuge in an abandoned abbey. Here, in the various nooks and crannies that ruined abbeys are wont to have, they find a manuscript which appears to be the diary of a man who had been imprisoned there, a rusty dagger, and a skeleton.
Eventually this family meets the owner of said abbey, a Marquis who decides he wants to marry Adeline. Unfortunately for him, he is accompanied by a handsome young chevalier by the name of Theodore, who quickly forms a very intense (and yet chaste) attachment to Adeline and spends much of the rest of the story fighting off the evil Marquis and his henchmen with one arm while supporting the swooning Adeline with the other. There is blood, swordplay, incest, lost-and-found nobility, and an outrageously happy ending. It’s amazing – and yet the subject matter would seem to be undeniably trashy.
Critics of the time declaimed it as unrealistic, superstitious and likely to make young women hysterical over nothing. Jane Austen wrote a whole novel, Northanger Abbey, that basically said that silly girls who read silly novels like The Romance of the Forest will get silly, irrational ideas and start to see ghosts and specters and murder everywhere they look, and will have to be talked down by sensible (if a bit effeminate) men who they will eventually marry.
Other novels I have read recently can be accused of the same flaw. The Great God Pan, Lady Audley’s Secret, and She: A History of Adventure all involve a lot of sexuality (if not actual sex), a lot of coincidence, and a real penchant for sensationalism. In that case, who am I to say that the intense-yet-chaste nature of Adeline and Theodore’s relationship has more literary merit than the similar relationship between Edward and Bella?
Well, the simple answer is that I’m an English student. This means that while I am not the most educated person on the face of the planet, and while I have a profound lack of knowledge of literary criticism that I blame squarely on my American education, I can recognize literary theme, sociological contexts, and moral, spiritual and social issues in texts.
This also means that I can tell you that The Romance of the Forest has stood up to criticism for almost two centuries now. Critics have ripped this book and its genre to shreds, and have found layers upon layers of intention and meaning and issues that I simply don’t have time or room to go into in full.
You could make a living off of the portrayal of women in Radcliffe’s novels (including the fact that Radcliffe clearly knew that most women hate women they feel threatened by in some way, which explains why Adeline’s foster-mother hates her because Adeline is prettier than she is, but Adeline can easily make friends with Theodore’s pretty sister). Radcliffe was also aware of the tension between the supernatural and the rational, which she dramatizes by using seemingly supernatural events to create suspense and interest, but also ultimately explaining them away with rational (though pretty contrived) conclusions. This novel is a representation of the battle between pre- and post-Enlightenment thought, in which Enlightenment is the victor.
It also shows a continuing British nationalism, in that Radcliffe set the story in France, a crazy place where crazy things will happen that could never occur in Britain. The importance of social order is another major theme — it’s shown later that the Marquis gained his title through murdering the rightful heir, an act for which later he is severely punished, and everyone is eventually returned to their rightful social standings and marry people of the correct class. The few working-class characters are mostly evil, and mostly die.
Well, teenagers yearn for love/sex but may be scared of it, hence the fact that Bella does not have a single romantic choice that involves her not falling in love with a potentially dangerous supernatural being. Teenagers are still children enough to love the fantastic, but adult enough to be interested in more mature themes. And the covers are nice, if nothing else.
On a more personal note, Stephanie Meyer seems to believe that women should fear men, or she is at least is at least informed by one conservative Christian view that men are raging sex beasts who lose rationality in the hunt for someone to mate with. Bella’s choices seem to be a wolf-man and a blood-sucker, not rational beings by any means, and certainly connected with images of violence and consumption. Not exactly a positive view — and take a look at one of the creepiest movie posters I’ve seen, with Mr. Dashing Vampire hovering over Miss Helpless and Submissive Female like a barely modified incubus. The Nightmare, anyone?
Okay, so maybe that’s a little extreme. The thing is, besides the obvious allure of the Dark Side, there isn’t a broader scope to this novel, so far as I can see. Bella never has a real choice — her choices range from not so good to worse, from marrying a vampire and becoming one of the undead to hooking up with a werewolf and possibly being destroyed by vampires. Maybe it’s a statement about how love conquers death. Or maybe we’re all dead. Or something.
Really, though, I think Stephanie Meyer just wanted to tell a good story. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as we recognize that for what it is. I mean, Nora Roberts can tell a pretty good story. But it takes something more than a good plot to make something a good book. And while The Romance of the Forest and other novels of that type make statements about real and relevant issues, and thus take their place in the canon, books like Twilight really don’t seem to have a point — beyond giving girls an excuse to fantasize about sleeping with the sparkling undead.