My Gripe with Stephanie Meyer (Besides the Obvious)

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.

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22 Comments

Filed under Books I've Read (and Thought About), Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

22 responses to “My Gripe with Stephanie Meyer (Besides the Obvious)

  1. I’m sorry, Stephanie Meyer says that Jane Eyre is chick lit? First of all, there’s nothing wrong with chick lit. I consider myself a feminist and I love chick lit. Not all of it is good but I enjoy reading some of it. Secondly, f*#& off Stephanie Meyer. You inflicted the most useless “heroine” on the masses. Bella can’t do anything unless Edward is there to make it all better. When he leaves for her “own good”, she’s catatonic. Jane leaves Rochester when she realizes he isn’t what she thought he was and she goes and builds her own life. At least she tries to. Charlotte Bronte was writing within the constructs of her time when it was unthinkable that a woman could have any kind of life without a man to provide for her. Stephanie Meyer was writing without those restrictions, she had the chance to create a kickass heroine that did things for herself and she gave us a girl obsessed with a boy. No thanks. Jane Eyre shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath as Twilight!

    • Haha, well, she didn’t call it “chick lit” per se, but she’s talked about how the Brontës were an inspiration to her while writing Twilight. But yeah, the whole use of the term “chick lit” is interesting. I don’t usually use it because I don’t like it, but when I do, my kneejerk instinct is to use it to describe something like Twilight, and that’s…kind of unfortunate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the themes “chick lit” typically deals with, so it’s a shame that the word is basically used disparagingly.

      Anyway, basically, I agree with you. I’m definitely not going to be throwing out my copy of Jane Eyre anytime soon, because–if nothing else–Jane herself is just plain awesome. What gives me pause is more my personal reaction to Rochester himself–because he is an appealing character, and there’s a part of me that thinks I “shouldn’t” feel that way when I’m perfectly happy to talk about how absolutely creepy and abusive Edward Cullen is (based on what I’ve heard, at least, since I haven’t actually read the books). Then again, Jane is (obviously) a fan of Mr. Rochester’s, and she’s generally got pretty good judgment 🙂

      • I’ve never found Edward to be a particularly abusive or creepy character! I mean, he’s not particularly interesting but the only thing he wants is to take care of Bella. The irritating thing about the books is that Bella is such a wet blanket and she’s OBSESSED with Edward. He’s only ever cruel to her to try and convince her that it’s dumb to be in love with a vampire. Which it is.
        Ugh, I can’t believe she used Jane Eyre as inspiration for those books.
        You should read them – they are good for a laugh.

      • I actually did start to read one once, but I just couldn’t force myself to finish it. Although it wasn’t actually the characters so much–I mean, I thought they were a little annoying, but I could have dealt with it–I just couldn’t handle the writing itself.

      • Oh I know, it’s terrible. I read them at a low point hahaha

  2. Yeah, what The Paperback Princess said! Plus, Jane is totally self-aware and independent. She is not obsessed with Mr. Rochester and she demands the relationship be on her terms not his. Plus, it isn’t all Jane who reforms him. He has his own crisis and pays for it in the fire. Jane Eyre is all kinds of awesome!

    • That’s definitely true–Jane herself is amazing, so I would never seriously put the novel on par with Twilight. (And do I really even need to say that there is just no comparison at all in terms of writing quality? Just saying THAT feels like I’m already cutting Meyer too much slack for her writing.) Like I said above, the discomfort for me has more to do with how appealing Rochester is. Based on what I know about Twilight, I’m not a fan of Edward’s behavior vis-à-vis Bella, and it’s unpleasant to think that he and Rochester are cut from the same cloth.

  3. Being perfectly honest, if feminism says we shouldn’t enjoy any book at all, then I’d chuck in feminism and stick with the books. When did feminism turn into something that restricted us and to which we have to confirm? This old feminist always thought it was about freeing us to do what we want…

    • It’s funny–I feel like I spend a huge amount of time trying to dispel the idea that feminists are just killjoys, but that’s definitely what I thought as a teenager. I was mostly being tongue-in-cheek bringing feminism in to this post (if for no other reason than because I think there’s a lot of feminist-y reasons to LIKE Jane Eyre), but it is true that I feel a little twinge of guilt when I think about how likeable Rochester is as a character. A big part of me agrees with you that that’s absurd–particularly because, within the realm of the novel, Rochester DOES redeem himself, so where’s the harm? Of course he’s appealing. But the other part of me–the part that is pretty familiar with the statistics on domestic abuse–thinks that it’s not a good idea to perpetuate the idea that someone who starts out as a bad partner WILL reform. Some undoubtedly do, but most don’t. I will say, though, that of all the stories that deal in that basic storyline, Jane Eyre is probably the most realistic and the most empowering (Jane leaves him until he gets his act together, it takes a pretty extreme set of circumstances to get him to mend his ways, etc.).

      • For me, it’s all about when a book was written. I’ll tolerate all kinds of sexism, and even some racism, in the classics because it’s reflective of the time and of the upbringing of the authors. I’d feel quite differently about a book written in the last 30 or 40 years, though. I’m also snobbish enough to think that most people who read the classics are well able to avoid being influenced by the negative messages they sometimes send. I must admit I never could see what Jane saw in Rochester – Darcy’s much more my kind of man! 😉

      • I mean, if we’re going to get technical, my definitive literary man is Sydney Carton…but there are other good ones 🙂

        Anyway, you’re definitely right about the historical context being important. There are things that still make me cringe, but they don’t make or break the book for me.

  4. Nope, you don’t need to turn in your feminism card, coz Jane is about as 19th century feminist was you could get (published anyway!). She spends parts of the book dreaming of escaping her gender expectations and full on accused Rochester of thinking she’s stupid just because she’s female!
    I haven’t let Twilight kill anything for me, but I think that’s because I loved them… The first one anyway. But I was 15 at the time and haven’t read them since the hype began!
    I was working in a bookshop when those Twilight inspired classics first appeared… There was SO MUCH RAGE. We were all fuming! I hope that they’ve converted at least one Twilight fan to the classics, but I bet the vast majority who were expecting another Twilight would have chucked it in. Hell, I’d give up if I was expecting a sweet vampire romance and got Wuthering Heights 😛

    • Well, I was being a little togue-in-cheek when I said that. I have no plans of throwing away EITHER Jane Eyre or my feminist card. For one thing, I cheerfully read and enjoy a lot of authors with less-than-PC opinions. For another, as you say, Jane herself is awesome. My only real qualm about Jane Eyre is based more in my own reactions to it, because Rochester IS an appealing character, and logically, I feel like I shouldn’t be saying that when I’m perfectly willing to condemn characters like Edward Cullen. Ah well, if Jane can cut him some slack, so can I 🙂

      I actually read an article about the Twilight-inspired classic covers that included some quotes from people who had been drawn to reading them because of the similarity. Pretty sad/hilarious. My favorite was one complaining about the novel (I think that one was Wuthering Heights) being written in Old English. It made ME want to throw a copy of Beowulf at them, and medieval lit isn’t even close to being my specialty…

      • I feel like throwing away my feminist card when I start reading those trashy romance novels with a half naked man on the cover 😉

        Rochester is far sassier than Cullen, so I cut him some slack! Plus, he isn’t perfect and he knows it, which is far more real than a super rich, devastatingly handsome, eternally young vampire who sparkles!

        Hahaha oh dear! I’ll join you and throw a copy of The Canterbury Tales! I’ve done a lot of work with Medieval texts in the full on Old English style, and Wuthering Heights is practically baby language in comparison =P But that reaction is definitely what I expected. I wouldn’t expect a 15 year old who has only read YA Twilight-ish type books before to jump right into Tess of the D’Ubervilles with no trouble… hell, sometimes I can’t!
        Actually, the quote on the front of the Tess copy I saw was hilariously missing the point, and I’ve never even read the book yet =P

      • Aww, you should definitely try to get around to Tess at some point. Hardy’s wonderful (though a little depressing).

        As far as Wuthering Heights goes, the one thing I will say is that I’m not a fan of the phonetically rendered dialects. I don’t think it bothered me the first time I read it, but when I reread the novel (on a deadline)…I had some less than charitable thoughts about Joseph. It really slowed me down. Still not Old English, though 🙂

      • I know! I do have a copy, but I’ve been afraid of how depressing I know it will be!
        I had trouble with the dialect- it was partly the reason why it took me several tries to get through the book and ended up reading it as an audiobook! I’m not a huge fan, if it’s done well it’s okay, but generally it’s hit and miss.
        Joseph is the biggest arsehat in the book… him and Young Heathcliff made my blood boil!

  5. I think the best thing you can do about Stephanie Meyer is forget about her.

  6. I didn’t even know that Stephanie Meyer liked Jane Eyre. Boy, way for her to pull inspiration from something and turn it into a steaming pile of sh*t… Anyway. I’d never, ever, ever in a million years call Jane Eyre “chick lit.” It’s just too damn well-written. I didn’t even know that (some) feminists found it offensive. Guess that means I’ve successfully filtered out that particular strain of feminism. Hah!

    • Hah, well “offensive” might be a bit strong. “Problematic” maybe (since that’s everyone’s favorite buzzword–mine included)? But in any case, I’m not seriously consider tossing my copy of Jane Eyre–it just disturbs me a little that I have something in common with Stephanie Meyer.

  7. I think a lot of writers can enjoy a book and be influenced by it, insofar as influence translates to trying to create similar characters and inspiring a similar plot, etc. Pieces of the books we like drift into our creative soup, their flavors definitely influencing our own works, but the original can be watered down past recognition, as it was in Twilight. When I read it, I never thought, not once, “this is just like Jane Eyre.” Edward was…well, too much of a cardboard protector to me. He seemed far less human than Rochester.

    And as for feminism, I always thought the goal was to free us to be more of a woman, not less. If we can’t admire a likeable, flawed man who changes because he responds to a positive, albeit female influence, then I would question our freedom. Admire, but not be blind to his faults: if he hadn’t changed and if he never responded to Jane as his equal, I think we’d hate the book. He’d be an alluring abuser, and nothing more.

    Thanks for the link to Meyer’s comments. I thought it was interesting that she compared herself to Jo in Little Women, since Jo never, even in her most melodramatic moments, concocted a story with a vampire who came to her in her dreams and told her she’d written his story all wrong. 🙂

    • Well, my comment about feminism was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I take your point. I suppose where the guilt comes in, for me, is knowing that the real-life Rochesters rarely do change, so it seems…dangerous to respond to that in a novel?

      And I have to admit, I’ve never actually read Little Women, so I can’t actually say much about its influence on Meyer either way! That comment did surprise me, though, since those are two novels I’d never have put together.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

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