An 8th grade student of mine is reading Jane Eyre for her tutoring sessions with me. I hadn't read the book for four years, and as I read the part of Rochester with my student (she opted, of course, to read Jane's lines) I realized I had forgotten how hilarious Rochester can be in his exchanges with Jane: "The forehead declares, 'Reason sits firm and holds the reins...Well said, forehead; your declaration shall be respected."
I have also in the four years since reading Jane Eyre read the Twilight Series.
Hold on. I'm getting somewhere with this. And it's not a place I expected to get.
Everyone needs to lay off Stephenie Meyer.
That's right. I said it. I was the Women's Center librarian in college. I love good feminist books, and I wouldn't group Twilight among them. And I still say everyone needs to lay off.
It's not because Meyer's books are supremely well-written. It's because as I revisited Jane Eyre, the obsessive and supremely unhealthy nature of Jane's feelings for shifty, brooding Rochester kept ringing a bell. It took me a minute or two to realize that they reminded me of Bella Swan's feelings for Edward Cullen (a character named after Rochester), her shifty, brooding vampire.
And then it all fell into place. People love talking trash about the Twilight books and the Mormon mother of three (who went to Brigham Young University and studied English Literature) who wrote them. And they need to give it a rest, unless they'd like to talk trash about the English canon also.
Meyer makes no secret of her love of the books of the Bronte sisters especially; she apparently rereads her favorites once a year. The plot-nods to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights in New Moon aren't exactly subtle; these books themselves are cited in Meyer's stories and the movies they spawned--and, we may as well acknowledge, this "product placement" has caused a huge upsurge in the purchase of Wuthering Heights et al across the nation.
Across the planet, even. The Twilight books have gone viral, universal. I, for one, wasn't as annoyed at the worldwide popularity of a story like Twilight as much as worried. Bella's is not the worldview I want young girls across the planet to have, but it's the worldview they're encouraged to, and this fact is as old as the classics. Bella's obsessive love for Edward has a precedent, and that precedent can be found in books like Jane Eyre.
Should we be concerned that a story of unhealthy, imbalanced, obsessive relationships between young people who would--and do--fling themselves off of cliffs for one another resonate with the current generation of tweens? Clearly. The location of an adolescent girl's self-worth and self-definition in the perceptions of those outside herself, specifically men (insert joke about males gazing here) is sadly endemic to many cultures and has been for many a century. The recent wave of "myspace suicides" attests to this terrible reality. But do we need to acknowledge that this literature and the pathos that secures its fanbase have a long and hallowed history in the canon? Probably, if we'd ever like our tweens and the literature they read to move past it.
One of my favorite memories of my freshman college roommate, a mild-mannered soccer player, is her exasperated reaction to a Jane Austen novel. "She just spent three pages describing someone's spectacles!" my roommate cried, letting the book flop aside.
So would Bella spend three pages obsessing over Edward's, if he wore any. And does anyone who's read the novels Meyer grew up reading wonder at it?