Holy crap, guys, here are some words tl;dr I am so sorry:
I have been brooding on something for a while now — more than half a year, off and on, really — and it seems like now might be as good a time as any to throw it out here. It is not secret that I have some enmity for the Twilight books, as my Esme persona demonstrates. It is especially infuriating to me when Twilight fans insist that we detractors are against the books because we simply miss the point, it’s supposed to be escapist fun and we’re just thinking about it too hard. Well, it’s said that books are supposed to make you think but, ironically, trash literature like Twilight has existed from the very beginning. Twilight is insanely popular, of course, and there are fervent fans who can be almost frightening in their devotion; there are also vehement detractors.
This has happened before. Specifically, in England, in the mid-1700s. Yes, there was a Twilight phenomenon in 1740 — except it had nothing to do with sparkling vampires. Everything centered around a little book called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by a printer named Samuel Richardson. While reading Pamela and doing research on it for a class around eight or nine months ago, I was struck by how the reception of Richardson’s novel mimics that of Twilight.
First of all, people either loved or hated it. The whole middle class of readers literally split into factions — the so-called Pamelists and Anti-Pamelists. The Pamelists argued that the novel was a heartwarming morality tale that showcased the redemptive power of love and Christian marriage; one prominent proponent of the book (and I am searching my notes like a madman and can’t find his goddamned NAME but I know he did this) said that if there were two works in the English language that should be saved in the event of the destruction of all literature, they should be the King James Bible… and Pamela. The Anti-Pamelists, conversely, condemned the novel, because it was seen as morally despicable and dangerous.
Is this all sounding familiar? Okay, let’s get down to some details.
Pamela is the story of, unsurprisingly, Pamela. It is an epistolary novel, presented as Pamela’s letters (and eventually her diary) to her poverty-stricken agrarian parents from her relative luxury as a servant girl living in the house of one Squire B., caring for the Squire’s sick mother. Unfortunately, Madame B. kicks the bucket, and Pamela assumes she will be sent home. This is not the case, however, as Squire B. offers to let her stay on for a while and offers up gifts of expensive clothes and perfumes and so on. I am sure we all know where this is going, but as Pamela insists in her letters to her parents, B.’s intentions are noble.
Of course, they’re not. The Squire soon makes himself apparent by attempting to seduce Pamela, who is intensely pious and rebukes him. This results in him half-heartedly attempting to rape her. Like, a dozen times, in various situations. I am not joking. Pamela doesn’t enjoy this and eventually the Squire gives into Pamela’s demands that she be allowed to return home. But en route the carriage takes a strange turn and, much to Pamela’s surprise, she finds herself at Squire B.’s country home. She is soon imprisoned there, and more attempts at rape are made and her life is generally quite miserable. The Squire wants her to be his mistress, no wedding bands involved, and she repeatedly refuses; after a few months of imprisonment he finally (!) lets her go for real.
But on her way home, Pamela has a startling realization: She is in love with Squire B. She makes a U-turn, heads back to the country home, and she and the Squire confess their undying love for one another, get married, and a few other problems arise (the Squire’s past lechery has some consequences, which is to say illegitimate children, that threaten the marriage), but suffice it to say that they all live happily ever after.
The Pamelists lauded the novel because it demonstrates how a pious young woman was able to help a sinful man find redemption. The Anti-Pamelists savaged it for its portrayal of a gold-digging young woman who successfully leads on her weak-willed, wealthy employer until finally conning him into marrying her. Now, class issues aside, we can comb through this mess to pick out some important bits.
First of all, a first-person female protagonist who, depending on which camp you fall into, is either “pure” and psychologically real or a hollow, somewhat disgusting, selfish excuse for a human being. Then we have the rich, dangerous male love interest with a dark secret; he is horrifically controlling and manipulative and — despite this — still an object of affection for the female protagonist. It may seem like I glossed over too much of the story in my summary for Pamela’s love epiphany, but that is literally how it happens in the story: she simply has a startling realization she loves him, and has loved him the entire time, and that’s why she was so adamant that he not sleep with her out of wedlock. Outside of the text we have the diametrically opposing factions of the readership — the ardent fans and vehement critics. (Since these were the days people played things fast and loose with copyright, there are a few rather hilarious contemporary parodies of Pamela, including the piquantly titled Shamela.)
Some of the similarities here are nothing special. Richardson, in writing Pamela, essentially created the romance novel (or, in some arguments, the English novel in general, the first bestseller) — but Austen and the Brontës took the tropes he established and did things much, much better. Pamela, in case I have not been clear, is a stupendously terrible book, but it is the raw material from which the later works were refined (Jane Eyre, for instance, has a great scene with Rochester disguised as a gypsy that plays as a sendup of a similar scene in Pamela).
But despite this popularity, Pamela is largely forgotten today — the Austen and Brontë books it begot are remembered far more often and far more fondly. The only people who seem to be reading Pamela are students of literature like myself. It really is fascinating for various reasons, mostly cultural: it is the first clear picture of a middle class marriage and the emergence of an autonomous “nuclear” family, it deals with anxieties in England at the time over the perceived surplus of bachelors (what was called the Marriage Crisis), and marks a turning point in the depiction of women as lascivious seductresses (think Eve) toward women as virtuous, almost nonsexual beings pitted against the lecheries of men (paving the way for the Victorian paradigm that is to some degree still in effect today).
So trashy books can still be of some use, at least in an historical context. But this leads me to wonder what could possibly be gained from Twilight, if we think about it in terms of Pamela. Its level of popularity and infamy seems to be roughly equivalent, but what does Twilight “show” us that hasn’t been shown before? What does it tell us about the time in which we live? In 300 years, I suspect it will be largely forgotten, like Pamela. But will students of literature be reading it for the sheer social interest? Will Twilight bring up a a new crop of Brontës to actually do something interesting with the basic subject?
Perhaps we can find something in the way the text differentiates itself from Pamela. For instance, in Twilight it is Bella who is portrayed as the more sexually willing and marriage-jaded partner in the relationship, reversing the “virtuous woman” turn I remarked upon above; it is not a pious woman who redeems a man, but rather a magic virtuous sparkly manpire that teaches a cynical young woman that there is such a thing as true love. It’s a break — or a reversion — of convention. Is this a one-off thing or a signal of another shift in cultural perceptions? Are the implications good or bad?
Other than this, I can think of no way in which Twilight revolutionizes social or literary conventions in the way Pamela did. So, in short, what does Twilight’s popularity mean? Anything or nothing at all? A big question, and one that probably won’t be answered well until we’re a few decades down the road and can see exactly how history is moving.
I must acknowledge here a debt to Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, which was an invaluable resource for helping me place Pamela in a cultural context and drawing my attention to the ways in which its rise and fall mirror Twilight’s own. Anyone interested in early Englightenment literature or the novel form should probably check that book out, it rocks.
Hey, congratulations, you made it to the end of this ramble! Have a Crazy Author Fact. We all know SMeyer is Mormon, and her religion has some weird effects on her writing. Well, Samuel Richardson was kind of a nutcase, too! You see, he apparently hated physical contact with people and often wore gloves to keep his hands from touching icky people germs; I also mentioned he was a printer. Well, he was also a complete hardass and thought his employees would swindle him every chance they got. To make sure his employees worked when he was out of the room, he had a tiny, secret office installed with a peephole, so he could do his own work and keep tabs on the people in the printing room. This is the man, ladies and gentlemen, who invented the romance novel.