my thoughts on romance novels and the brooding anti-hero

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.

Wait, what?

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.)

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7 comments
  1. Bill said:

    First of all, fuck Twilight.

    Second, one reason I’ve always been enamored with the concept of the Byronic anti-hero is that the concept of the ideal romantic hero has always struck me as perniciously unrealistic. I guess I like emphasizing the fact that sometimes love can be dysfunctional & messy & painful, but still be love.

    Clearly though, conditioning women (or men) to seek out either extreme is a bad, bad idea.

  2. kat said:

    When I posted this, I knew you would comment, and I want you to know that I meant no personal affront. The Byronic anti-hero is fascinating, and it’s really interesting that he’s such a romantic trope. And like I implied: out of all of the character tropes out there, the Byronic hero is the one with whom I identify the most.

    That said, I dislike that it’s been rammed down my throat that he’s the one I’m supposed to be so fascinated by from my female point of view. He is, and always has been, incredibly popular. The vampire thing, from Anne Rice to Buffy and Twilight, is only scratching the surface. A lot of romance novels (read strictly from a research point of view, and sometimes secondarily because it has dirty bits) frequently have this asshole anti-hero romantic lead that the main character is wetting her pants over because he’s so much more of a *man* than her dickless douche of a suitor.

    (Which also brings into the question the masculinity of these various romance characters, but I haven’t done enough research to really talk about that, and frankly I don’t care to.)

    And the same goes for, you know, the Bronte novels. (Fuck a lot of Wuthering Heights, right?)

    From a female point of view, the anti-hero is a *dick*. It’s supposed to be so romantic, that your one true love is an asshole who just needs your help to become a gentle, loving, and caring person — and if that actually happens in real life, awesome. You’ve just fulfilled the dream of millions of women. However, it happens so very rarely — and it’s always dangerous. The Byronic anti-hero is so frequently abusive, but the way romance novels are constructed suggests that that’s not a *bad* thing, it’s just another part of your man that you can *change*.

    I had a really interesting conversation with Meredith this summer about sexual fantasies, the specifics of which we will not get into, but part of what we touched on was my inability to get any kind of enjoyment out of “hooking up with the anti-hero.” Because I’d much rather *be* the anti-hero than hook up with him. To reiterate: anti-heroes are dicks. Kind of like me.

  3. Bill said:

    Oh, no personal offense was taken, I assure you. I agree with you. And I can totally understand how the normative aspect of the ubiquitous attraction to the anti-hero in culture could annoy you. I have similar issues with our culture’s prescriptions for what I’m supposed to find attractive in a woman. My quibble is semantic.

    Though they share the same pedigree, I’d tend to draw a distinction between the “bad boy” archetype and the Byronic hero. I’d characterize the former as a plebeian vulgarization of the latter. I feel the need to defend the concept of the Byronic hero from such debasement.

    The examples you cite (including Heathcliff, even though he’s considered a canonical Byronic hero) are just straight-up assholes. Less extreme examples (specifics escape me at 8 AM) might include run of the mill objectifying bastards and leather-jacket clad criminals. There’s no real depth to these “bad boys”. They’re just bad people. Telling women that’s what they should want, cause *they* can save him, is, indeed, friggin’ stupid and pernicious.

    To my mind, a true Byronic hero isn’t defined by his sheer dicketry so much as his complexity. He’s a hero who fucks up in ways that don’t fit the monomyth, and has decidedly un-heroic flaws, but a hero nonetheless. He’s bad because he defies convention & is rough around the edges, not because he’s actually a bad person.

    When I think Byronic hero, I think Stephen Dedalus or Batman or Han Solo. Yeah, they can be dicks, but they’re not *abusive*. And beneath that dickish veneer they’re truly good, caring people. And they aren’t “transformed” into this decency by the love of a woman. Yes, loving such people can be dangerous. But I’d argue depth and danger go hand-in-hand in many areas of life. And there’s a difference between the danger of loving Stewart’s psychopath, and the danger of loving Batman. (And no, I don’t mean the social ostracism & possible psychotherapy that comes with having a crush on a comic book character.)

    Above all, what attracts me to the Byronic hero is the concept’s assertion that deep flaws, stark difference, & questionable motives don’t preclude one from being a good person. And its implication that such imperfections might, in fact, be necessary for a deeper sort of goodness.

    (I like Wuthering Heights, mainly because I read it as a tragedy, not a love story. Remember, I also listen to emo rock. Notice I put this last. haha Didn’t want to undermine my credibility in the first paragraph.)

  4. Bill said:

    Short version: Being an arrogant, unconventional dick doesn’t make one a Byronic hero, it just makes you an arrogant, unconventional dick. One has to actually be a deep, good, heroic person to be a Byronic hero.

  5. Thanks Bill, for informing me of this blog.

    Now before I get into the anti-hero subject I have to state: Wuthering Heights is NOT A ROMANCE STORY. It’s one of my favourite books and it drives me nuts whenever someone refers to it as such. Calling Heathcliff a tragic character is a bit closer: he was a pretty good child, although already lower by birth – it is indicated that he is an Irish orphan, and we all know how they were viewed by the English in the 1840s – but then he was abused, grew up in terrible isolation, developed an unhealthy and impossible love for the partner of his isolation, catherine, who left him for the civilized world that he was alienated from. He reflects a particular place and culture more than anything else.

    On another level he is the ID, Edgar the Superego, Catherine the Ego. And in that reading, as in the former, it is a dark exploration of character, psychology, alienation, and society. The “romance” between Catherine and Heathcliff is just a tiny piece, and since she died halfway through the novel and he was never changed by her I don’t see how the same message that is found in Twilight is in any way present. Now the films do alter the story, and completely ignore part 2, but that is Hollywood for you.

    Ok, now as to what Bill was probably actually interested in my comments on:

    I agree with Kat in that the hero she describes is omnipresent and frustrating. It requires analysis. The problem is bigger than Twilight; I’d say Twilight is even the culmination of such attitudes. Yet, as Kat pointed out, there is a difference between this fantasy being directed at women, versus it being directed at teens. I think that is what makes Twilight so culpable. On tumblr I’ve encountered a number of teenage girls who confirm studies and my perceptions that girls today are actually believing this crap, and investing way too much of their self-esteem into having a boyfriend. It doesn’t matter how the boy treats them, in fact the suffering makes them better! Would it be surprising if boys dealing with such girls never develop a respect for such girls or any inclination to change? They have not developed the depth of a traditional byronic hero, nor the good that is supposed to be uncovered by love *snort*. Twilight is both a symptom and a cause of a growing self-esteem problem among girls that I fear will be a great leap backward for feminism.

    As Bill points out, it is also important in this analysis to distinguish between the “bad boy” archetype and the byronic hero. I agree that it is the complexity of a byronic hero that is fascinating for while they are on one level archetypal, they are also fully formed and each cannot be understood without reference to the society that they are influenced by and reacting to. I honestly still think the best example is actually the pre-Byron byronic hero: Eugene Onegin. I like that he is “changed” by multiple events, not just the love of a woman, and when he actually confesses his love she turns him down.

    Which brings up another thing: it isn’t just the brooding hero that is important here in terms of studying dynamics. One thing that distinguishes something like Buffy from something like Twilight is the heroine: the former has a complex and strong (although initially naive) fighter, the latter a flat and weak character whose sole concern is her love. Undeveloped characters can just serve as a way for the reader to better imagine themselves in the role – and this is often found in romance and adventure stories – but in Twilight it is treated as an ideal, something for the young readers to aspire to, because then they will be rewarded by love and protection *gag*. Having a strong heroine may not remove all of the problematic aspects of the brooding anti-hero, but it does create different dynamics.

    And…I’ll shut up now. Fascinating post and commentary.

  6. Bill said:

    Interesting. A strong heroine has agency within the context of the romance. (and is so much hotter) I’m much more comfortable with that sort of dynamic. Even if the male anti-hero is something of an assbag, we can say to ourselves, “Well, it’s her decision.” A strong heroine isn’t a victim, she’s an agent making a bad decision.

  7. kat said:

    That’s a good point, Bill and Mo, and something that I think changes my mind about this particular character type. The problem is, in most of the “traditional” wish-fulfillment/romance-type novels, the heroines are generally *not* strong characters, but rather sort of wimpy floppy women — especially when they actually meet their romantic interest. Which I think is reprehensible and only serves to teach women that in order to be sexually/romantically available to men, they have to be as passive and submissive as possible. Which, as we all know, is total bullshit.

    But seriously thanks for bringing some actual lit theory to the discussion, Mo. It’s something that I lack, and I appreciate the insight.

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