I give Twilight a lot of shit, sometimes, because not only is it plain bad, but it also presents an unrealistic and dangerous portrayal of what “true love” should be. However, I think sometimes that focusing so specifically on Twilight is unfair. Twilight uses a romantic trope that’s been around since before the phrase “Byronic hero” had any kind of meaning. Dark, brooding, dangerous – it’s sexy, it’s fascinating, and I’m very certain that there’s an element of “I can fix him, but only me, because I’m special” running through the minds of the women who enjoy this romantic fantasy. I went through my own vampire phase during my teenage years, so despite the fact that I am no longer a particular fan of that romantic trope, I can understand the draw.
I bring this up because I’m reading a book that my mother recommended to me – Mary Stewart’s Madam, Will You Talk? I’ve read Stewart’s Merlin series before; they’re probably my favorite of the contemporary additions to the King Arthur mythology. Madam Will You Talk? is ostensibly a murder mystery with a romantic flair – but I’m finding myself more troubled than romanced.
Which is why I bring up the Twlight comparison. The male love interest, appropriately named Richard Byron, was accused of murdering his wife’s lover and nearly killing his son. Stood trial, was acquitted, and then was nearly murdered by his wife himself. We don’t know any of this at the beginning, however; we know that he was accused of murder, is mad, and is trying to find his son. Our main character has been charmed by this thirteen-year-old boy, and does her best to keep him out of what she thinks is his insane father’s murderous claws.
But Richard Byron, looking for his son, spends most of his time following and threatening the main character. And not only that, he actually injures her a couple of times, and more or less imprisons her in a hotel room for a day. She spends the first half of the book running away from him, out of her mind with fear; right before she learns of his true motivations, they engage in a high-speed car chase around the south of France. Not sexy – scary. She’s terrified, terrified, terrified — fascinated! and then at the end of the book they’re married.
What troubles me is not the gender relationships of the 1950s and Byron’s condescending treatment of her after he shares his back story with her; it is not the Byronic hero which has been so often replicated in romantic literature since the dawn of the sexy, dangerous love interest; it is not even the blurbs on the front cover that say things like “there is a fine love affair,” despite the lack of emotional consistency on the part of either Byron or Charity Selbourne. (And yes, that is her actual name.) What bothers me so profoundly on this was that my mother – both a brilliant and a strong woman – handed it to me and said, “This book is really excellent; you should check out Mary Stewart’s other mysteries, as well.”
This book is really no different than Twilight. It’s Twilight for 1950s English murder mystery fans. There is less sexy abstinence, and more tragic widow, but the basic romantic theme is the same – this man is probably going to kill you, but there’s just something about him that makes your bits tingle! I’m caught up halfway between saying, “Chill out on the gender dynamics of Twilight, guys, because Stephanie Meyer isn’t the only culpable author here,” and saying, “We should analyze the gender dynamics of all of these novels because I find them unsettling.”
Neither of these options is particularly good. Analyzing gender constructs is always a helpful thing; and Twilight is bad enough on its own that even without the gender dynamics, I would still decry its popularity. What makes it worse, however, is that the Twilight novels are marketed to teenage girls, whose personalities – including romantic judgment calls – are still germinating. Lascivious romance novels and Mary Stewart’s almost-Stockholm murder mysteries are aimed at grown women interested in their romantic fantasies, grown women who already know better. Wuthering Heights, after all, was not a YA novel.
(As Kate Beaton is one of my favorite webcomic artists, this comic is relevant to my interests. And personally, I would rather be the brooding anti-hero than wind up with him.)