If there’s one thing I’ll never forgive Stephanie Meyer for (besides general misogynistic grossness), it’s ruining the Brontës for me.
Let me tell you a little story, in belated honor of Valentine’s Day. I did not read Jane Eyre until my sophomore year of college. I read it because I was required to read it for a course, and if I hadn’t been forced to read it then, it probably would have been years before I got around to it. I had read (and adored) Wuthering Heights, but the things I liked about Wuthering Heights were not things I expected to find in Jane Eyre. I thought at the time that I only enjoyed love stories with a twist. Star-crossed love, obsessive love, unrequited love—they all fascinate me; what I didn’t like (and still, for the most part, don’t like) in a story is happily-ever-ever love. I knew Jane Eyre was more or less a happily-ever-after kind of romance, and as a 19 year old with pretensions of academic seriousness, I didn’t expect to like it.
I was so, so wrong.
I’m trying to remember my experience of actually reading Jane Eyre for the first time—whether, for example, I burst into tears when Jane returns to Mr. Rochester—but that’s not what sticks in my mind the most. I guess I must have finished the book first and then spent the next several days and weeks slowly thinking my way into falling in love with it, because all I know is that at some point I started to feel like that reunion scene was one of the most beautifully tender things I’d ever seen. When push came to shove, I just couldn’t resist the redemption arc. The “dissolute man saved by the love of a good woman” thing has been done a thousand times—Jane Eyre itself is a partial deconstruction of it—but, at the risk of losing all my feminist street cred, I have to admit that in Jane Eyre I totally, completely bought into it in the end. I thought it was lovely and marvelous, and I carted along an audiobook copy of the damn novel to the hospital when I had to have surgery a month or so later—just to get me through the days.
I still like Jane Eyre, although I don’t idolize it the way I did during that initial infatuation. What I like about it now (besides Jane’s dry humor) is the fact that it was one of the first “happy” love stories I had encountered that actually felt plausible to me. It’s rare—even now, in the 21st century—to find a romance that engages with the realities of gender inequality in any meaningful way. Jane Eyre’s storyline is melodramatic and far-fetched, and, yes, Rochester begins the novel as a manipulative, exploitative jerk. All that said, Jane Eyre has a level of self-awareness that contemporary love stories would do well to emulate. It painstakingly chips away at the imbalances in Jane and Rochester’s relationship until, at the end of the novel, it leaves you with an egalitarian union that you can actually admire—one that, if you’re a feminist, you don’t have to feel too guilty about liking.
Which is why I can’t forgive Stephanie Meyer. Because Stephanie Meyer has made me ashamed of liking Jane Eyre (and, to a lesser extent, Wuthering Heights). She’s made me feel like it’s “chick lit” (and God, I don’t even like that term!). Those Twilight-inspired covers they put out a few years ago aren’t helping matters, either.
I’ve talked in the past about how I’m a snob, so it should surprise no one when I say that it pains me to think about people picking up Jane Eyre because they liked Twilight. I usually take comfort in telling myself that they won’t understand why Jane Eyre is so superior to Twilight (because, you know, I’m a snob), but honestly, I’m sure part of the reason that I don’t like thinking about this is because it makes me question whether I’m just mindlessly devouring the grown-up, intellectual version of Twilight.
This has all been at the top of my mind lately because I’m writing about Jane Eyre for Shmoop, and I’ve reread several chapters of the novel to jog my memory. I don’t exactly swoon over Mr. Rochester, but I’ll admit that I find myself smiling at some of what he says. Take the following exchange, when he’s asking Jane about St. John Rivers:
“His appearance,—I forget what description you gave of his appearance;—a sort of raw curate, half strangled with his white neckcloth, and stilted up on his thick-soled high-lows, eh?”
“St. John dresses well. He is a handsome man: tall, fair, with blue eyes, and a Grecian profile.”
(Aside.) “Damn him!”—(To me.) “Did you like him, Jane?”
There’s something charming about his gruffness in this scene—probably because, by this point in the novel, Jane is so clearly in the position of power. His questions are so transparent, and his supposed “aside” is clearly audible. He comes off as disarmingly ineffectual, and you just want to give him points for trying to keep up appearances. And then, of course, I think to myself that that’s exactly the message this kind of storyline is trying to send—you too can reform a bad boy into a fetchingly harmless man, so just stick it out!—and I feel like I need to turn in my feminist badge.
So should I be thanking Stephanie Meyer for forcing that to my attention, or blaming her for ruining a book that does have a lot going for it? I’m still not sure.