My niece, like about a billion other teenage girls, is a big, big fan of Stephenie Meyer’s series of books. When we were having a bookish chat over Christmas I said I’d read Twilight; I was most intrigued to know what all the fuss was about. I do find these big phenomenon fascinating, because at the heart of a cultish bestseller like this, there has to be a potent fantasy casting its magic spell. Twilight is a love story between a 17-year old girl, Bella, who has come to the wettest, dreariest part of the US to be with her father, after her mother has remarried. Hold that thought in your mind, it’s important. Heroines of love stories never have their parents around, are orphans in an ideal world, but need to be isolated in any case. There she becomes attracted to a boy of unearthly beauty, Edward Cullen, whose family tends to keep its distance from the rest of the school crowd. When Edward saves her from a fatal road accident by sheer superhuman strength, she is instantly aware that he is, as the saying goes, different from all the other boys. Yes, indeed. It turns out that the Cullens are vampires, but of an unusually civilized kind. They have learned to overcome their animal instincts and will not attack their own, choosing instead to take off for long periods of hunting in the wilderness. But when Edward and Bella fall in love, their relationship is unusually fraught, as her attraction for him is partly romance and partly straightforward hunger. The dawning sexuality in which the narrative is steeped is necessarily strictly contained, as for all Edward’s tender love and chivalry, there’s always a risk he might just forget himself and eat her.
Such a possibility is a masterstroke designed to send a thrill down every teenage girl’s spine. Doesn’t desire itself, with its urge to possess and consume, always inherently contain the threat of destroying the object it wants so badly? But that would be the end of that, so no, of course Edward isn’t about to eat her. What he does instead is protect her, ever more strenuously, ever more courageously as the story progresses. To begin with, Bella simply wanders into trouble, over and over again, but by the end you could be forgiven for seeing her as actively seeking her own destruction, partly out of a fascination with sacrifice, partly out of the pleasure of dicing with death and having Edward rescue her from the very brink. So what Twilight sets up is a fantasy of love as a place of perfect safety, perfect rescue. Much emphasis is placed on the inseparability of Bella and Edward, the fact that Bella cannot let Edward out of her sight for a moment without being panicky and scared, and the sheer, tumultuous bliss she experiences when she is with him, in a relationship that hovers on the edge of sexuality whilst firmly foreclosing its possibility. Hmmm, I thought, interesting.
My first inclination was to view this as a very moral book. In an age of graphic and insistent sexuality, it glamourises constraint in relationships and reintroduces old-fashioned virtues of chivalry, respect and romance. The vampires are exemplary in their desire to choose the path of virtue and to curb their animal natures. Bella, like most teenagers, can’t ‘explain’ anything to her parents, and the enforced secrecy is what almost leads to disaster. I was a bit astounded to learn that this vampire romance had been written by a Mormon mother and then, in retrospect, it did make sense. But as I poked around the internet having a look at other reactions, I was surprised by a Catholic website that took great exception to the books. There was a passing reference to the unpalatable theme of the undead, but what really got to the mother who was writing was the fact that these young people were toying with sexual feelings at the immature age of 17, and in one shocking scene had spent a night together (in an entirely chaste way). Madness is rarely wrong, just misguided, and so that gave me food for thought.
And so I wondered more about love and romance and the shaping fantasy behind the book. The dominant feature of Edward’s and Bella’s relationship is its symbiosis, which is to say that they merge into one another, they want to create a little universe in which only the two of them exist. Inside that world, Edward is all powerful and protective, Bella utterly vulnerable and protected. In other words, the relationship returns Bella to the first and most potent of all love affairs – the one with the mother. When babies are born they get a very powerful experience of love in their mother’s arms. It’s the place where we all learn what we think is meant by that capacious ragbag of a word ‘love’, and the experience will determine how we respond to love, give love and what we want from love, possibly for the rest of our lives. It’s a founding moment, and one that casts a long, long shadow. That first experience seems to fade as the child grows up and separates from the mother. Now, separation should not be confused with the end of love for a parent, no, it’s the end of one kind of love and the beginning of another that is better because not based in dependency. Family relationships can be deeply loving with all parties contentedly separated, but some children can think they have moved right away from the parental domain out of dislike, and yet still find themselves conducting endless angry, frustrated conversations with the parent lodged in the back of their mind. Separation is a healthy thing, for all concerned, although mothers in particular are often dazzled by how hard it is to give their children up to the world. And daughters can find it harder than sons to break away from their mothers because they are the same gender, destined to be similar. Often the first chance the daughter has to make a decisive break with her mother is when she falls in love.
It’s inevitable that love affairs are haunted by the ghosts of relationships past. All early romances are destined to be about recreating perfect mothers in the people we love. The more perfect the ‘mothering’ we receive in a relationship, the better it’s likely to look. Although not necessarily for the children who have formed what are sometimes called ‘wobbly’ attachments with their first carers. If the mother (or whoever) has been significantly distant, absent or over-demanding of the child, then it’s more than likely the child will have the same images of perfection in his or her head, and long quite desperately for a love relationship. Once inside it, however, they will find either a) their feet head rapidly for the door or b) they behave badly, capriciously (despite all good intentions), criticizing their loved one whilst throwing themselves into their lap screaming ‘Deal With Me!’ Well, there’s a little bit of that in all relationships, of course, but as with most things, it’s a sliding scale. Still, I digress. Relationships are the place where we hope to experience the homecoming of symbiosis, of feeling at one with another person, seen, recognized, understood, loved just as we are, protected, special. But they are generally the place where we work that early relationship out in an adult context of mutual give and take, tolerance, compromise and hard work. It’s the place where we really understand what it is to be separate and loving – not in the relationship out of sheer, helpless need and thus crippled by low self-esteem, not requiring perfection from the other person because our survival seems to depend on it. Unconditional love is what all children must have; but love between two adults must be conditional on the good-enough behaviour of all concerned, or else potentially destructive inequalities result.
Which brings us back, finally, to Twilight and Bella, who arrives in Forks motherless, and thus ready to embark on the adult adventure. Only in her love affair, Edward, as a mothering figure, is almost too perfect and too powerful. As the novel progresses, so Bella regresses, becoming ever more incapable of looking after herself, ever more threatened by dangerous external forces, until at the book’s climax she is literally carried about, bundled up in the arms of Edward’s family as if she were indeed a little baby, the gap between her clumsy incompetence and the vampires superhuman perfection mirroring the gap of development between the child and the parent. When I thought about that, I thought about the outrage of the Catholic mother, whose possessive control of her children brooked no opposition from competitive vampires. Even seventeen was too young an age in that mother’s eyes for the hint of separating sexuality to be whispered into her children’s imaginations, but possibly the chasteness of the relationship actually made it worse, as if a mother’s place could clearly be usurped and accomplished better by some pretty stranger. And it makes sense, too, that the big question facing Bella in the remainder of the series, is whether or not she should become a vampire. It would only be by raising herself to their standards of development that the relationship could ever be an equal one. Overall, I felt that Twilight was an intriguing halfway house for teenage girls, a fantasy of symbiotic love with a twinge of controlled sexuality, the lure of delicious regression in the arms of a safe hero, and the offer, distant but powerful, of a painful process whose accomplishment would finally mean a relationship on equal terms. No wonder it’s been so very, very appealing.