27 September 2013 09:16

Why is Twilight so controversial? Stephenie Meyer’s teen saga of heroine Bella’s love triangle with vampire Edward and werewolf Jacob possesses the power to polarise readers – who adore its romantic vision or deplore its retrograde sexual politics and sparkly, ‘vegetarian’ vampires in equal measure.

Earlier this year, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove infamously asked teachers if they would prefer their daughters to be reading Twilight or Middlemarch – implying, of course, the latter. Gothic romance, for Gove, is less good for teenage girls than weighty realism – unconsciously echoing two centuries of moralistic critics.

There are plenty of prejudices about women’s reading that Gove’s comments reveal – not least the idea that young women can’t make their own informed choices or be active critics of the texts they read. What interests me most, however, is the value judgement that Gove applies to Gothic literature. Later in the same speech, he cited literary critic F. R. Leavis, suggesting ‘There is a Great Tradition of English Literature – a Canon of transcendent works – and Breaking Dawn is not part of it.’

In the 1940s, Leavis argued that great literature was characterised by moral complexity, and that realism was the best mode in which to express this. Great novelists were serious, responsible and above all driven by a moral interest in life. Middlemarch was the pinnacle of this kind of literary achievement. Leavis had nothing to say about the Gothic novel: with the honourable but thereby baffling exception of Wuthering Heights, it did not merit a mention in his book.

I first read Middlemarch at the age of 18, in preparation for starting my university course in English Literature. I was infuriated by its heroine, Dorothea, who I thought was pretentious, made terrible choices and was an appalling role model for young women. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, spoke to my teenage self with an extraordinary vividness. Shelley’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, was also pretentious, made terrible choices and was an appalling role model. None of that was important – the book’s passion took me out of myself and inspired me, while its formal complexity and searching philosophical questions provoked me and made me think.

Gove’s criticisms are based on the assumption that literature should be ‘educational’ for young women – teaching them something and providing moral guidance rather than giving them pleasure. On the contrary, Gothic fiction aims to thrill rather than educate. Sometimes a moral is imparted along the way, but it is not the main aim of the genre, which is to cause a particular sensation in the reader – a frisson of pleasurable terror. Eighteenth century defenders of the Gothic novel claimed that it expanded the mind and stimulated the imagination. The Gothic novel tapped into a kind of wild creativity that enriched the soul.

For twentieth-century feminist critics Gothic novels, which historically were often written and read by women, could be seen as a way of dealing with fears and desires that could not adequately be represented in realist fiction. Shelley’s novel – written by a nineteen-year-old grieving for her stillborn baby – is famously often read as expressing the horrors of teenage motherhood. In this respect it is not so different, perhaps, to Breaking Dawn, in which Bella becomes pregnant with a monstrous vampire child.

I returned to Middlemarch in my late twenties, and found I’d changed my mind: now it seemed an accurate and moving depiction of the compromises that society forces bright, idealistic women to make. The book spoke to me differently at different times of my life. But this did not invalidate my earlier reading. Nor did it mean that I had stopped enjoying the Gothic: on the contrary, I was more immersed in it than ever.

The choice offered by Gove is a false one. You do not have to decide between Twilight and Middlemarch, realism and the Gothic, the canonical and the popular: read omnivorously, think critically, enjoy both.

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