Cartoon – Kate Beaton http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php
I am a terrible writer in that I have definitely not read enough books. I was really bookish as a kid but when my true passion for movies took over I became far more picky and read far less. However my last two New Year’s Resolutions have been to read more and I have been catching up.I have actual opinions about books now rather than just superhero movies.
One genre of both movies and books that I’ve always held at arms length is romance. I’ve never actually been in love, unless you count unrequited affection for actors and singers (Morrissey for life), so for one I felt they were not for me. I’ve always seen them as cheesy and mass produced. Mills and Boon and formulaic romantic comedies have ruined my perception of the genre. A fun game my Mum told me about is to read the ridiculously floral and exotic names of the characters in the summaries of Mills and Boon books (ten points for a ‘Cassandra’). The romantic subplot has always been a tacked on feature of most movies, mainly to prove the inevitably male hero is straight and to provide him with extra motivation and a reward at the end (write to me for more film based gender studies rants). The entertainment environment I am so engrossed in has enough to make me cynical and unaffected when it comes to fictional romance.
Recently, however, I have dipped my toe into the world of classic romance in the form of our future ten pound note gracer, Jane Austen. I watched both major adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and read the book. I have now moved on to Emma. I found myself reacting to Pride and Prejudice exactly as women have been reacting to it for centuries. I laughed, I swooned, I fell slightly in love with Mr Darcy. Ok, a lot in love. He’s a major babe. And I feel a connection to Lizzie. The bolshy (scouse word meaning sarcastic and rebellious) second daughter of a female dominated family, the marriage resistant cynic, the girl who prides herself on being a good judge of character yet is sometimes blinded by her prejudgement, I can relate. She is flawed and three dimensional, as is Fitzwilliam Darcy.The “they hated each other at first” trope has never been better or less trope-y. I wanted them to get together, I booed Mr Whickham, I felt Darcy’s anguish when Lizzie rejects him. The question is, why did I have this reaction to THIS romance?
To explore this I am going to compare the book to my two least favourite in existence, Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. Beginning with Twilight: I picked up the book as a teenager with every intention of enjoying it as much as my peers. I have since been accused of “hating it because it’s popular”, but that has never really been my way. I tried to read it BECAUSE it was popular! I was in the target market, the premise was gripping, every girl my age loved it, why wouldn’t I? Some things are popular for a reason. I found that I couldn’t find a reason to read it after around 10 chapters and returned it to the library, much to the shock and disbelief of the girls who recommended it to me. I have since been told things like “ooh how can you know it’s bad if you didn’t read the whole thing?” and “it gets good in the second/third book, you just have to give it a chance. To the first I say if a book doesn’t grip me within 10 chapters it is clearly not worth my time and online extracts and those terrible movies have since proved my original Lizzie Bennet style dismissal. To the second I reiterate: if a whole book isn’t enough to grip a reader then it is badly written. The first thing you learn about creative writing is to hook the reader in the first sentence. My problems with this book could take up a whole dissertation but I’ll attempt to cover them in one paragraph.
Firstly I found both the main characters utterly un engrossing. Bella Swan is a dullard. She moved to a town of her own volition and complains about it constantly. Her Dad is perfectly nice to her and she is dismissive and cruel to him. Similarly the kids at her new school are friendly and kind to her and she mocks them, ignores them and treats their attempts at friendship like harassment while playing the “ugh I’m such a lonely outsider” card. She is also two dimensional, she doesn’t really have a character beyond complaining about everything, allegedly reading a lot and being clumsy. Ah, the ‘clumsy’ trope. Take an infeasibly perfect yet character free character and make them clumsy. Hey presto! You have a relateable! Flawed! Female! Character! As an actual clumsy person it irritates me when this pain-in-the-arse trait is played off as endearing. No one ever made eyes at me after I smashed a plate or bumped into a chair. Also what irks me is her total dependence on her vampire boyfriend Edward. The romanticising of codependency has never been worse. She goes into a deep depression when he kind-of breaks up with her. Similarly he attempts to kill himself when he hears sketchy reports of her death. This is not a healthy romance, it is two unstable people using each other as crutches. And as for Edward, I think he is not just a bad character but a dangerous one. Darcy’s unfortunate legacy is the “brooding serious guy”. Edward is controlling, abusive, humourless and possessive. He watches her sleep. HE WATCHES HER SLEEP and it is played off as a romantic sign of his utter devotion to her. That is my main problem with this series. Teenage girls are being taught that such behaviour is romantic and not emotional abuse. He basically loves her because he wants to drink her blood the most, which is the strongest metaphor for an abusive relationship I have ever come across. The two never banter, or have fun, or enjoy each others company much. They stare at each other and brood. This isn’t a story about love, it is a story about dangerous obsession.
I thought it wasn’t possible for me to hate a book more than Twilight. Then came 50 Shades of Grey. The demon spawn of Twilight. The hastily written and seemingly unedited and unrefined fanfiction of Twilight. I could write a book on how abysmally it is written and the cardinal sins of writing it commits but for now I’ll focus on it’s dreadful story and characters, which make Twilight look like a seminal exploration of love. Ana is so dull and one dimensional I hated her within the first page. She stands at a mirror and complains about being skinny and having big eyes, as though they are bad things to have. She complains about her friend being ill and leaving it to her to take this once in a lifetime journalistic opportunity to interview a billionaire. She is unrealistically out of touch with the world and bafflingly naive. I refuse to believe a modern college student does not own a computer and has never gotten drunk. It is simply not possible. And as for Christian, whom the authour Evil. L James described as a better romantic hero than Mr Darcy, I have never hated a fictional character more. He is abusive, manipulative and takes advantage of Ana’s worrying and unrealistic innocence. He treats her like crap and all his awfulness is dismissed and excused with a “bad childhood” backstory. He’s just so tortured, you see, he may treat her badly and have the maturity of a stapler but it’s only because he’s so deep and dark and tortured! And again their romance is one of unhealthy obsession and emotional instability. And once again an abusive relationship is being highly romanticised and sold to the masses in undoubtedly the worst written anything I have ever come across.
Compare these books and those like them to Pride and Prejudice. When Lizzie brutally rejects Darcy he neither begs for her acceptance nor spirals into melodramatic sadness. He explains his actions politely and says he will never bother her again if that’s what she wants. The line “Forgive me, madam, for taking up so much of your time” would never be spoken by a Christian or an Edward. Even after admitting his deep love for Lizzie and being told he doesn’t have a hope in hell and she hates him, he takes it graciously. He doesn’t harass her or cry “but I’m a nice guy!”, he doesn’t resent her. Even after saving her family from ruin and more than redeeming himself, he tells her that if she still doesn’t want to accept him he will leave her alone. THAT is maturity. That is a healthy romance. That is where the swoons are. Not “I must have you and I can’t live without you”, a respect for the other person’s wishes despite a deep attachment. Similarly, when she sees who he really is and falls for him she believes it to be too late and attempts to move on. The tension comes from their unwillingness to bother the other against their wishes. Neither of them see each other through rose coloured glasses. On their first meeting Darcy disputes her status as a beauty and refuses to dance with her. She knows his flaws and publicly calls him out for them. In fact, that is one of the reasons he falls for her. Their relationship is not a constant boring cycle of telling each other how great they are, and that’s why it’s healthy. Lizzie is a woman who isn’t afraid to stand up to him and can clearly think for herself. She is not a submissive waif who will bow to his every whim. She’s a bit of an idiot herself, jumping to conclusions and having every confidence in her assumptions about people. She has an over zealousness I and many others can relate to. The romantic element doesn’t come from seeing each other as perfect and ignoring the flaws, it comes from seeing the flaws and loving them anyway. Similarly in “Emma” the hero Mr Knightley is described early on as the only person who ever criticises Emma. She is bossy, proud and interfering, her romance with Mr Knightley is based on the fact he can get her head out of the clouds better than anyone, not on his constant praise and obsession.
These romances are human, realistic, healthy and take place between flawed and relateable people. The obstacles to their romances come from their own faults and miscommunications, not from ridiculous outside sources infringing on their perfect, argument-free relationship. Their physical beauty and personalities are not exaggerated or unrealistic, and the circumstances of their getting together reflect real life. The reason I and other people love them so much and why they endure is because we can see why they are suited and we can imagine it happening in our own lives. Darcy is such a dreamboat because he is such a gentlemen even in his lowest moments. Lizzie is such a babe because she is every bit as smart, witty and interesting as Darcy thinks she is. Not because he regularly declares it despite a total lack of proof for the reader. They aren’t self insert fantasies, they’re real people.