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Belles at midnight

Lucasta Miller

Filed under: Fiction

Stephanie Meyer's vampire novels are the latest reading sensation amongst teenage girls. Lucasta Miller looks at the continuing - and ambiguous - appeal of the gothic for female readers and writers.

Since its popularisation in the 1790s, the gothic novel has been particularly associated with female readers and writers. But – an unsettling genre by design – it has produced conflicting responses in modern critics: where some see it as feminist, a space in which women were able to transgress the limitations imposed elsewhere, others are troubled by the fact that it often seems to idealise female masochism.

Gothic crosses many boundaries, not least that between high and popular culture. If it encompasses canonical works such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Wuthering Heights, it has also recently seen a resurgence in the cult novels of Stephanie Meyer.

Since Twilight was first published in 2005, Meyer has found such a following that she has been hailed as the new J.K. Rowling; in November 2009 the latest film adaptation, New Moon, broke records for pre-booking in the United States, beating Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Yet where Harry Potter appeals to either sex, Twilight and its sequels appeal to an audience overwhelmingly composed of teenage girls, causing disquiet among some feminist commentators.

Twilight – for the uninitiated – tells the story of Bella Swan, an ordinary teenager in present-day America. When she moves to the unremarkable town of Forks to live with her father, she experiences typical adolescent anxieties as the new girl at the local high school. But she also finds herself attracted to the magnetic Edward Cullen, pale-skinned, amber-eyed, and gifted with mysterious powers. Eventually, Bella discovers Edward’s secret and admits her passion for him: ‘About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was part of him – and I didn’t know how potent that part might be – that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.’

Edward, it turns out, is an unusually moral vampire. He is filled with ‘blood lust’ for Bella, and has fallen in love with her at first sight (or rather smell). Yet he spends the novel restraining himself from biting her delicious neck, though she is more than willing to give herself to him (the touch of his ‘marble lips’ makes her ‘blood boil under [her] skin’ and turns her breath to a ‘wild gasp’). Despite her entreaties, he always pushes her away at the crucial moment: he does not want, he says, ‘to hurt’ her.

The result is a narrative whose drive is founded as much on desire endlessly deferred as on the melodramatic or supernatural events which burst at intervals through an otherwise humdrum school story. The sexual subtext has not been lost on critics, who have pointed to Meyer’s religious background and conservative lifestyle (she is a Mormon mother of three); it has been suggested that her fiction is propaganda, designed to make abstinence seem sexy to teenagers who might otherwise be tempted into losing their virginity. It has even been called ‘abstinence porn’

Feminists are particularly troubled by the perception that Bella is passive, with little autonomy where Edward is concerned. He is constantly saving her – especially from himself – and though at one point she says she wants to be Superman as well as Lois Lane, the narrative suggests that she really prefers to be the damsel in distress, happy to idolise Edward as her superior. (Not only is he superhumanly beautiful, he is rich, brilliant at everything he does, and he drives the fastest cars.

There is nothing new about moral objections to gothic. Feminists troubled by comparisons between Twilight and a drug habit (‘Is Twilight your brand of heroin? Welcome to our addiction,’ says one fan site) may be surprised to find themselves in tune with the nineteenth-century prude Hannah More, whose Moral Sketches of Prevailing Opinions and Manners (1819) put obsessive novel-reading in young women on a par with drunkenness in young men.

The most famous – and funniest – assault of that period on the dangers of reading gothic fiction came, of course, from Jane Austen. The impact of The Mysteries of Udolpho on Catherine Morland is uniquely and deliciously ludicrous, as she thrills to the nocturnal discovery of mysterious documents which turn out, in the light of day, to be a laundry list. But the position Austen adopts in Northanger Abbey was far from unusual among conservatives. She dramatises views frequently found in the conduct literature of the day, such as John Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady(1803), which argues that imaginative literature ‘inspires such a romantic turn of mind as is utterly inconsistent with all the solid duties and proprieties of life’.

Stephanie Meyer may seem not to be well-acquainted with Northanger Abbey, but she does, surprisingly, cite Pride and Prejudice among her influences, which also include Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. In his aristocratic aloofness, Edward Cullen is supposed to be a modern-day Mr Darcy. The difference is that Bella is far more easily susceptible to him than the spirited Elizabeth Bennett is to Darcy.

Meyer perhaps looks back to such classics because they appear to offer love stories untainted by premarital sex. Yet sex was always the area which worried the early nineteenth-century moralists most when it came to gothic fiction and imaginative literature in general. Though Catherine Morland’s virtue is never threatened, other Austen heroines are put in sexual danger by their reading. In Sense and Sensibility Marianne Dashwood’s passionate love of poetry makes her vulnerable to the rakish Willoughby, while in Mansfield Park Maria Bertram commits adultery and ruins her life after participating in an amateur production of Lovers’ Vows, enacting Hannah More’s stricture that ‘The circulating library is no unfrequent road to the Doctors’ Commons [the divorce court]’.

More regarded novels as inappropriate for young women because ‘imagination, that notorious corrupter of the heart…by indulgence of seducing images…prepares for surrender of virtue.’ In The Mysteries of Udolpho, the heroine is threatened with rape; though she remains unsullied, the worrying implication is that the reader is supposed to find the attempt on her virtue exciting. Some male gothic of the 1790s, such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, was frankly pornographic, and, even more frankly, misogynistic; whether the female gothic of the period incorporates or subverts such misogyny remains a moot point.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, which incorporates some gothic themes, is highly ambivalent: its heroine, incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, falls in love with a seductive fellow-inmate who impregnates and betrays her. Though her story illustrates the injustices of patriarchal society, Maria’s heroism is, disconcertingly, inextricable from her victimhood. As feminism developed in the nineteenth century, Wollstonecraft would be shunned by progressives such as Harriet Martineau because she was seen as a ‘poor victim of passion’. Sexual Puritanism, once the province of reactionaries, had been taken to the bosom of the women’s rights’ movement, whose supporters found gothic hard to stomach.

Even the greatest proponents of female gothic, the Brontës, disconcerted some progressive-thinking women; and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre remain disturbing. Heathcliff is an undoubted psychopath and sadist who subjects his masochistic wife Isabella to physical assault; Mr Rochester locks up his mentally ill wife, gets a kick out of telling his teenage governess the details of his rakish sex life, and mentally tortures her by manipulating her jealousy. Sadomasochism is a definite if discomforting feature of Charlotte Brontë’s erotic imagination: in Shirley the heroine is ‘fettered’ and ‘chained’ by her lover; in Villette, Lucy Snowe’s brain ‘thrills to the core’ imagining a nail knocked through her head. Brontë’s romantic – at times psychologically dark – vision has lovers fighting for dominance rather than slipping easily into equality.

Edward Cullen is the pale literary descendent of Mr Rochester (himself inspired by Byron, who was also the original for the first vampire in gothic fiction, Lord Ruthven in John Polidori’s The Vampyre). Bella is likewise paler and less vigorous than her predecessor Jane Eyre: she has less free will, she is more submissive. Jane asserts herself in the face of Mr Rochester’s pleading and refuses to become his mistress, after the discovery that they cannot wed; Bella has to rely on Edward’s self-control to protect her from her own masochistic desires. This is not a message which one can imagine either Charlotte Brontë or Jane Austen would have supported. For all that Brontë, in her romanticism, found Austen emotionally limited, one imagines that the pair would have found a rare point of agreement on this issue.

Charlotte Brontë is such a master of psychological inwardness, and her writing has such subjective depth and intensity that its conflicts and paradoxes only serve to enrich it. Despite modern critics’ attempts to transform her into an icon of the women’s movement, and despite being called a ‘moral Jacobin’ by her contemporaries, she herself was not a supporter of socially progressive feminism. A Romantic individualist, she was not even an egalitarian: her politics were high Tory. Liberal Victorians were, in a sense, right to find both Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s work disturbing. If read without the sentimentalising rose-tinted spectacles of twentieth-century Hollywood versions, their stories still have the power to shock. Twilight may channel some Brontëan themes, but compared to its models even its perversity seems limp.

Lucasta Miller is the author of The Brontë Myth.