Jane Austen, Twilight and the Debate Over ‘Empowerment’ Literature
Earlier this year, the popular website Jezebel posted an article that dared to ask this scandalous question:“Is Jane Austen So Popular Because Her Books Are Kinda Just Highbrow Twilight?”. My immediate reaction was similar to many others–visceral and appalled. How could you ever compare the holy of holies, the word of Jane Austen, to a series of books that I believe are not only unoriginal, but also somewhat harmful to women?
Jezebel’s main reasons, it turns out, for equating the two authors lies in the unrealistic nature of the romances and in the brooding, arrogant personalities of the male love interests. Austen famously created heroines who were born into less than ideal financial circumstances but were able to escape those circumstances by marrying conveniently rich (and handsome) men. Austen usually ends her novels at the “happily ever after” point, following the typical fairy tale pattern that makes marriage seem like a light and airy conclusion instead of gritty and complex, entrenched in societal norms and expectations.
I suppose it is easy to write off Austen’s work as sugary romance literature enjoyed only by sentimental women, especially if you’ve never actually read any of her books. But there is so much more to Jane Austen than there seems, especially when her time-worn stories are contrasted with the recent Twilight phenomenon. It is more than the fact that Austen is simply “fancier”; even without all the empire-waist gowns and romantic waltzes her stories would still be engaging.
The real distinction between Jane Austen and Stephanie Meyer is the strength in personality of their female leads. Austen’s heroines don’t compromise or act subservient to their romantic partners, but rather behave on an equal playing field, at least in terms of wisdom and wit. They may be economically and socially disadvantaged, but Austen makes the audience well aware that that is through no biological fault of their own.
Meyer writes with a more uneven hand. She provides her heroine, Bella with few independent personality traits, save clumsiness and obsessive obedience to the boy she loves, the infamous Edward Cullen. Bella’s evolution revolves around Edward’s instruction and his Jekyll and Hyde like tendency to proclaim his undying love for her while at the same time condescendingly reminding her of the physical and emotional damage he is capable of inflicting. And while Austen’s heroine’s certainly grow and change from the situations they encounter, it is an evolution that they direct.
Elizabeth Bennett may have learned to be less prejudice by the end of her story, but it was a lesson she grew to realize herself, not a concept she had condescendingly explained to her. So even disregarding the fact that Austen’s dialogue and social commentary are much more layered and advanced than Meyer’s, the depiction of women’s agency is the real reason why this comparison ultimately doesn’t work for me.
Jezebel goes on to recommend novels like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth as alternatives, more suitable stories than Austen’s to be praised and obsessed over. I agree that both of those stories are profound, even essential, literary works. They are also depressing as hell. Wharton rarely gives her characters happy endings and most avid fans of Victorian literature know the fate of poor Tess.
These stories examine the way society limits and controls the behaviour of women though, and that’s what makes them essential. They show us the tragedies that occur from this kind of oppression and I love them for it. But no less essential is Jane Austen. Sure, the happy endings her characters receive may not seem consistently realistic, but women deserve to have that literary experience every once in a while. When I read celebrated feminist novels like The Awakening or The House of Mirth I find them enlightening and validating but rarely do they make me feel empowered.
When it comes to the stories of women, must realism always be equated with tragedy? Women deserve a reprieve here and there, to be given stories that depict them as assertive, clever, stubborn creatures without punishing them for it. The determined and unwavering nature of Elizabeth Bennett can make just as strong an impression on a reader as Tess’s last lament at Stonehenge, and there is room to be grateful for both.
Still from Catherine Hardwicke’s 2008 film adaptation of Twilight courtesy of Fanpop.com
Still from Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice courtesy of Radio Times.
Featured image: ‘Mr Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner’ – 1895 illustration to Pride and Prejudice by C.E. Brock, via the Republic of Pemberley
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