Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel Clarissa is a famously long book. At 1,499 pages, My Penguin Classics edition resembles the phone book of a medium-sized city. Next to it, War and Peace looks positively spry. Moreover, War and Peace has Napoleon and the siege of Moscow, to say nothing of Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha. Clarissa’s plot covers exactly four points: “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies…” reads the text on the back jacket.
I was in my early twenties when I read the book for the first time. It was the late 1990s, and I had moved to New York after college. I worked as a reporter for a financial newsletter and lived in a tiny, purple-painted studio in the East Village. I don’t remember how many evenings and weekends I spent devouring the book, but my memory is that I was in a state of absorption the whole time, going through the motions of my job, but alive mostly when I was at home or on the subway with the book in my hands. While reading, I turned again and again to that paltry, unpromising jacket synopsis, certain that the person who wrote it must be not only something of a killjoy but also an exceedingly poor reader, confused about the very events of the book. Lovelace, with all his good qualities, with all his charisma, wouldn’t really rape Clarissa, would he? And Clarissa couldn’t actually die at the end. No way.
I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice — the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating. Clarissa is perhaps the first great psychological novel, in any language. It is also deeply moral. Clarissa, like various Austen and Eliot heroines, embodies Kant’s dictum that to be truly good, one must be not warm-hearted but rational. She assiduously evaluates her actions by the light of the imperative to do only what is justifiable from the perspective of an impartial third party. Her virtue, much heralded within the novel, is not of the narrow-minded or sanctimonious sort. It’s far more impressive, even to a skeptical modern reader.
I was so impressed that for years after I read the book, I identified as a Richardsonian. This was no small thing for me. I was at a point in my life where my job seemed completely separate from who I really was or wanted to be. I had aspirations of writing a novel, but my attempts to do so had all inspired the opposite of confidence (a trend that would persist for many more years). For me, reading novels was not only a central preoccupation but the primary way I exercised my intelligence. Matters of taste meant a lot; to a large degree, I defined myself by them.
In practice, becoming a Richardsonian boiled down to a couple of things: searching for a copy of his then out-of-print Sir Charles Grandison and looking slightingly on those who preferred the picaresque comedies of Henry Fielding. Fielding was Richardson’s contemporary and his rival. In 1741, Fielding wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a young maid lustily pursued by her employer who heroically resists his immoral advances. In Fielding’s book — called Shamela — she’s a scheming social climber who declines to become her employer’s mistress because she hopes holding out will win her the brass ring (as it were): marriage to a wealthy man.
There was little love between Richardson and Fielding in their day, and there remains today a divide between their fans. Nor is this debate quite as arcane as it may at first sound to those who aren’t actively interested in 18th-Century British male novelists. The Richardson vs. Fielding question is commonly used as a shorthand to talk about two distinct and ostensibly competing types of novels. Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile — full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
For years, this schema sounded pretty much right to me. I’d read Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones. I’d even enjoyed it. The book tells the story of Jones, an infant foundling taken in and lovingly raised by a rich man, named (in the allegorical manner of the age) Mr. Allworthy. A jealous rival contrives to ruin Jones in Mr. Allworthy’s eyes and separate him from his one true love, the beautiful Sophia Western. Cast out, Jones goes traipsing across England, precipitating a series of baldly comic misadventures among robbers, recluses, revolutionaries, and — yes — gypsies. Along the way, Jones consoles himself for the loss of Sophia by engaging an assortment of ladies in various farcical sexcapades. Finally, the villain’s treachery is revealed, Jones and Mr. Allworthy are reconciled, and he and Sophia are married. And lest you hate me for the spoiler, I can assure you that from the first few pages of Tom Jones, you just know — from Fielding’s tone — that this is a book in which all will end well, the way you knew when watching Three’s Company that the misunderstanding would be cleared up by the end of the episode. In other words, Tom Jones is a comedy.
I appreciated comedy — in theory. Just as I appreciated the novel’s vitality and color and its aphoristic observations (e.g., “fellows who excel in some little low contemptible art are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art”). I was in principle willing to overlook its contrivance-laden plot and mechanistic love story, in which the libidinous but big-hearted Tom and the angelic Sophia are kept from living perfectly happily together only because of the viciousness, greed, and lust of others.
But on another level I relished Tom Jones’s weaknesses of plot and character development: they were ammunition. And as a Richardsonian, I felt defensive. To be a Richardson person is to be on the side of the squares: the cool kids seem to be off reading Delillo or Pynchon. And whatever one might say about Tom Jones’s flaws, it’s nothing compared to what an ill-intentioned Fielding acolyte can do with Clarissa’s page count, its squeamishness about sex, its didacticism and painstaking, sometimes plodding earnestness. Even Clarissa’s strengths — attention to psychology and to individual consciousnesses, highmindedness, and moral sensitivity — seem not especially literary, at least not to a certain type of reader. The book’s selling points aren’t purely aesthetic. Clarissa is full of observations whose power depends less on their linguistic virtuosity than on their truth — that is, their accuracy in capturing something about the human condition. (This does not exactly impress the kind of readers for whom the word “truth” must only ever be flagged by scare quotes.) Nor is Clarissa in any way political; it touches neither on systems nor on economics. Which means: there goes one way a novel can assert its importance.
There is, of course, a gendered component to this. It’s not that Delillo or Pynchon and other writers said to be in the Fielding vein are exclusively male tastes — I was introduced to Delillo in college by a female friend — but back then it felt to me that the readers who had the most assurance, who took for granted that they were the most sophisticated, the best arbiters, were almost all stringy-haired guys with French cigarettes dangling from their mouths and dog-eared copies of Gravity’s Rainbow on their bedside tables. They were the Angry Young Men that Jonathan Franzen described in his New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult,” and they had not worried themselves for weeks about Clarissa and Lovelace’s romantic troubles. If they had read Clarissa at all, they were more likely to discourse pompously about its old-fashioned technique — Clarissa is an epistolary novel — or its historical significance (Clarissa was one of the first mega-bestsellers, a huge hit, particularly with women). About the actual content, they seemed dismissive.
In retrospect, I can see that these young men had their own reasons to feel insecure: If the realist psychological novel is the less avant-garde taste, it is also the culturally and commercially dominant mode. But because at the time I felt vulnerable, like the besieged party, I took a keen and in retrospect unseemly pleasure in blows struck against Fielding and his ilk. There was Samuel Johnson, who famously despised Fielding’s work, arguing (the critic Allen Michie tells us) that he created “characters of manners” while Richardson wrote “characters of nature.” (Lest there be any doubt as to which Johnson preferred, this statement clears it up: “Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer, than characters of nature must divine the rescesses of the human heart.”) I could also feel smug in pointing to contemporary allies, like Franzen, who in “Mr. Difficult” also recounts his move away from post-Modernist indifference, or even hostility, to the pleasures of the traditional realist novel. ([P]ostmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters,” he wrote. “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. “[C]haracters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.”) Even the critic James Wood appeared to be on my side, criticizing various post-Modern novels and favorably contrasting Richardson’s “seriousness about human activity” with Fielding’s “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Several months ago, I re-read Tom Jones. That is to say, several months ago, I walked around for a couple weeks in a state of rapture, pushing the book on anyone who’d listen.
The merits I’d once granted so patronizingly this time hit me with astounding force. That color! That vitality! Here, for example, is Tom eating dinner: “Three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox was now honoured with becoming part of the individual Mr. Jones.”
One of the characteristics of a great novel is that it is dense with the kind of fresh thought and observation that give the reader pleasure. Whether the pleasure is of the “haha” sort or the “aha” sort is less significant than the sense that the book is packed, that it seems to brim with ideas. (If you doubt this, just take a look at the first several pages of The Great Gatsby and notice how many fresh, smart and varied ideas are contained in those elegant sentences.) In lesser novels, the writer seems almost arrogant, as if he had a few ideas he was so impressed with that he thought they could carry an entire book.
Fielding delivers delightfully pointed observations in abundance. Here he is gleefully pointing up a bit of pompousness. The virtuous Sophia is being lectured by a self-satisfied aunt. Sophia declines to argue. Fielding writes,
“Argue with me, child!” replied the [aunt]. “I do not indeed expect it. I should have seen the world to very little purpose truly if I am to argue with one of your years. I have taken this trouble in order to instruct you. The ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you mine.” From which last words the reader may possibly imagine that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates than she had of that of Alcibiades.
When Sophia decides to run away from her father’s house because he and her aunt threaten to make her marry a man who is not Jones, she enlists the help of her maid, a woman named Honour. Sophia and Honour plan to sneak out in the middle of the night with only what they can carry. But as the moment of their elopement nears, “a very stubborn difficulty occurred”–namely, Honour has second thoughts:
When a lady hath once taken a resolution to run to a lover, or to run from him, all obstacles are considered as trifles. But Honour was inspired by no such motives; she had no raptures to expect, nor any terrors to shun; and besides the real value of her clothes, in which consisted a great part of her fortune, she had a capricious fondness for several gowns, and other things; either because they became her, or because they were given to her by such a particular person; because she had bought them lately, or because she had had them long.
This is the kind of detail we expect in a novel that pays close attention to character. It is also smarter than it may seem at first, less of a throwaway. It tells the reader something about Honour, about the tack of her mind, something we won’t forget, and it does so not by sneering at her but simply by listening in on her.
What it tells us is central to Fielding’s project. Where the beautiful and noble Clarissa inspires selfless devotion from all but the most hard-hearted of her servants, the beautiful and noble Sophia has to make do with more ordinary levels of commitment. Not that Honour doesn’t appreciate Sophia’s gentle disposition and generosity. She does—inasmuch as those qualities make Sophia an easier and more pleasant boss. Honour is not hard-hearted, but she is busily going about her own life; in her mind, she isn’t playing a supporting role in Sophia’s story but starring in her own.
Honour isn’t exactly complex — none of the characters in Tom Jones is. Yet the book as a whole feels richly and abundantly peopled in large part because Fielding is so very clear-eyed. For all the gags (girl fights, damsels tied to trees and rescued in the nick of time, intercepted letters, pocketbooks accidentally dropped and luckily found by just the right person), Fielding has a keen eye for social life, for the social organism. Consider an innkeeper, whom everyone in the village believes to be a “very sagacious fellow… [who is] thought to see farther and deeper into things than man in the parish.” Is this because the man’s neighbors are uniquely capable of ferreting out true merit? Probably not, according to the bemused narrator:
[The innkeeper’s] look had contributed not a little to procure him this reputation; for there was in this something wonderfully wise and significant, especially when he had a pipe in his mouth — which, indeed, he seldom was without. His behavior likewise greatly assisted in promoting the opinion of his wisdom. In his deportment, he was solemn, if not sullen and when he spoke, which was seldom, he always delivered himself in a slow voice.
This lack of sentimentality toward the common people makes for humor, yes — but it is no more farcical than George Eliot’s salty observation, in the first chapter of Middlemarch, that “the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
Fielding gets a lot of mileage from the human tendency to misread — to, say, mistake external trappings for intelligence or principled decisions to act against self-interest for weakness or stupidity. Time and again, Tom and Sophia are misunderstood by people less noble-minded than they are. Sophia, in particular, is accused of liking Tom only for his handsomeness — she is told that there are other, better men out there, that she has a shot of attracting even a titled suitor. Tom is likewise told that there are equally beautiful, equally wealthy women who might not give him so much trouble in the catching as Sophia does. The people who advise Tom and Sophia, who see themselves as wise (and who are often older than the young lovers) generally lack the moral capacity to understand them. These counselors imagine that Tom and Sophia’s claims of great and disinterested love are as hollow as such claims would be if they themselves made them. Watching Tom and Sophia get lectured at by a parade of self-satisfied boobs makes for good comedy — but it’s not slapstick. It is a way of acknowledging absurdity, laughter as a sardonic response to life’s inevitable humiliations and iniquities.
Nor is this passage slapstick. It comes fairly early on, when Tom, not yet sent away, is wandering drunkenly around Mr. Allworthy’s grounds. He runs into an old flame, a woman he recently found in bed with his tutor. But on this particular evening, she and Jones banter for a few minutes and then, as Fielding daintily puts it, “retire to the thickest part of the grove.” At which this point, Fielding launches into cheerful commentary:
Some of my readers may be inclined to think this event unnatural. However, the fact is true and perhaps may be sufficiently accounted for by suggesting, that Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one. Besides the before-mentioned motive assigned to the present behavior of Jones, the reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of those prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued that power in Jones…To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men receive double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr. Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader or teach him anything more than he knows already.
It’s hard to resist Fielding’s affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement, not to mention his light touch with the classical reference. Yet Fielding is also admonishing us not to condemn reflexively, to be more truly just — more commonsensical.
For all his levity and playfulness, his love of “amours” (the more ribald the better), Fielding is, like Richardson, a writer whose moral consciousness is almost always in evidence. Apart from the exhortations to be better judges — more discriminating, less likely to be deceived by appearances—the book is packed with old-fashioned life lessons, delivered in the form of sermonettes, like this one:
The wise man gratifies every pleasure and every passion [in moderation], while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. It may be objected that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Of course, there are things that Richardson does well that Fielding doesn’t come near. When we read Clarissa, we come to believe in Clarissa and Lovelace far more than we ever believe in Tom or Sophia; we don’t merely root for them the way we root for Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to beat the bad guys and reunite in The Princess Bride. That’s in spite of the fact that Clarissa is excessively — almost impossibly — scrupulous, and Lovelace is, ultimately, a villain. Clarissa and Lovelace come to feel real in large part because the inner workings of their minds are so ingeniously, so convincingly delineated: Clarissa’s complicated machinations, for example, as she balances her attraction to good-looking, intelligent and gallant Lovelace against her aversion for what she correctly suspects is also part of his character (untempered vanity, a capacity for deception that is, in fact, revolting). Or Lovelace’s vacillation between his spontaneous admiration for Clarissa and his twisted, doomed desire to win her love without actually treating her very well. (He wants her to love him so much that she will relax her standards — even though the reader can’t help but suspect that if she did he would immediately lose respect for her.) We watch, riveted, as the two of them parry. There are so many moments when it seems that, with all their intelligence and charm and self-possession, they may yet prevent things from going completely awry, but alas…they’re fucked. Fits of pique and pride cause each to do that which brings out the worst in the other. And then there’s the end. The end! I won’t say much beyond what’s on the back jacket. All I’ll say is that it’s haunting.
I don’t think anyone has ever been haunted by Tom Jones. Delighted, for sure, but not haunted. Does that mean that Clarissa is a better book? I’m surprised to find that I’m not sure anymore.
What doesn’t surprise me is that I much preferred Richardson when I was in my early 20s. If guys like Franzen, with their early love of difficult texts, were angry young men, I was what might be called a melancholic young woman. As much time as I spent reading and thinking about novels, I also spent a lot of time brooding about my personal life, specifically about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and would-be boyfriends. I devoted as much ingenuity as I had at my disposal to the project of figuring out these slippery characters, trying to get a handle on who they were and make sense of their behavior. How could this one be so sensitive about art and politics and such a dick to women? How could that one have fallen for someone so vacuous? I also scrutinized myself — wondering where my overriding concern with relationships came from, what it meant, if it was something I should try to overcome in the name of becoming a better, more fully realized human being. If I turned to novels in part to distract me from these questions, I also turned to them for insight. I hoped they would shed light on what I grappled with. And because certain types of questions, about relationships and psychology and personal ethics, dominated my mental life, they seemed to me like the essential questions, the deepest ones.
These days, when I re-read books I read back and notice the notes I made in the margins, I am often struck by how humorless a reader I was. Rarely did I put a check by a joke — but if an author ever let drop an observation about the nature of love or the effect of solitude on the soul, rest assured that I double underlined it. An alarmingly high number of sentences I singled out for special approbation were proclamations that included the phrase “the human heart.” The truth was that I was so focused on amassing a certain kind of insight that I had very little time or energy to spare for anything else. A book like Tom Jones would naturally have seemed to me to be merely “fun” — by which I meant it was for shallow people who didn’t care so much about what was Really Important.
The reading I did in those years was incredibly meaningful. I don’t know that I will ever read so intensely, so hungrily again, and I did indeed learn a few things from those pronouncements about the human heart. But over the years, something has shifted in the way I read and respond to fiction. Humor has become a higher priority. I’ve become more sensitive to pleasures that are “merely” aesthetic — a well-turned phrase or an apt observation that sheds light into a particular character, even it isn’t of profound or generalizable import, even if it only gets something right about how a young servant would feel about leaving behind her gowns. And apparently I’ve become someone who can’t stop talking about how great Tom Jones is.
But I’m not the only one who has changed, moved toward a more catholic middle ground. Those lovers of Pynchon and Delillo, the angry young men whose sense of their own sophistication so aggravated (and intimidated) me? It turns out that a fair number of them have also moved away from their earlier positions. I don’t just mean Franzen and the re-assessment he described in “Mr. Difficult.” I can think of several men I know who have come to embrace some of the more psychological novels they once eschewed as “domestic” and “trivial” — and “feminine.” The critic William Deresiewicz describes just such a shift in A Jane Austen Education.
I’m in no position to say I told you so. How could I be, when I too have come to see my former position as smug and narrow in its dismissiveness toward books that weren’t exactly the type of books I liked best? My old approach, I see now, meant I undervalued not only Tom Jones, but also a wide range of books that don’t happen to foreground romantic relationships, from Billy Budd to The Trial.
I can no longer call myself a Richardsonian, except in the most promiscuous, non-exclusive sense. But maybe it’s time to stop reveling in this particular distinction. Tom Jones and Clarissa are both excellent books. For this particular reader at least, it’s going to be Richardson and Fielding instead of Richardson or Fielding. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, I’ll even give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Samuel Richardson—writer, printer, author of the 1740 bestseller Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded—often told a couple of stories about his school years. He liked to relate how, though not a stellar student, he was popular for his ability to spin a yarn:
“I recollect that I was early noted for having invention. I was not fond of play, as other boys; my school-fellows used to call me Serious and Gravity; and five of them particularly delighted to single me out, either for a walk, or at their father’s houses, or at mine, to tell them stories, as they phrased it. Some I told them, from my reading, as true; others from my head, as mere invention; of which they would be most fond, and often were affected by them.”
Another tale, also possibly apocryphal, involved his favor with the neighborhood’s young women—although not for the reasons you might think. At thirteen he was not of an age to be wooing the daughters of the local gentry, but he did have a reputation for turning a nice phrase, and they often sought his advice in answering their love letters: “…these young women, unknown to each other, having a high opinion of my taciturnity, revealed to me their love-secrets, in order to induce me to give them copies to write after, or correct, for answers to their lover’s letters.”
It’s an engaging thought that the man who would become famous almost forty years later for writing Pamela—a novel in letters of a young woman struggling with a love affair—would have spent his early days surrounded by young women, helping them write their own love letters. Such a story at least ought to be true, which is perhaps why Richardson—usually notoriously vague on the subject of his childhood—was careful to tell it.
Samuel Richardson was already in his fifties, a successful London printer whose contracts included printing official reports for the House of Commons and several daily newspapers, when two bookseller friends first approached him about producing “a little volume of Letters, in a common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers, who were unable to indite [sic] for themselves.”
Up to that point, Richardson’s life had been that of an industrious middle-class craftsman. The son of a joiner—a carpenter specializing in finished woodwork—he had some schooling, although not the intense classical instruction preferred by the era’s educated circles. With little family money, no obvious patronage to support his “storytelling,” and neither the talent nor inclination for woodworking, in 1706 he apprenticed himself to a London printer named John Wilde. Richardson did well in Wilde’s shop, rising to oversee operations. He married Wilde’s daughter, scraping up the funds to start his own print shop, and by 1722 was successful enough to take on his own apprentices.
Eighteenth century London was ripe with opportunity for a printer. Literacy was on the rise. The middle class—people with some leisure to read—was growing in both numbers and influence. Pamphleteering was the Internet of the era, and everyone with something to say needed a printer to help them say it. Alongside political tracts, booksellers found a high demand for nonfiction, especially of the instructional variety. Housekeeping handbooks, etiquette guides, gardening manuals, books on treatments for various illnesses, books on improving one’s memory, treatises on how to live a good and righteous life—self-help, it turns out, is a favorite subject no matter what the era. One of the first books Samuel Richardson ever wrote was a manual for apprentices on how they should conduct themselves. (He advised them to avoid the theater, taverns, and gambling.)
So it wasn’t entirely unusual for a couple of booksellers, sensing a potential market, to suggest to Richardson, a successful printer known for his way with words, that he pen a book on the art of letter-writing. What was unusual was the result of the endeavor, a wholly new kind of novel: Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded.
An epistolary tale written as a series of letters from a young servant girl to her parents, Pamela is the story of the eponymous heroine who, finding herself the object of her master’s unwanted attentions, resists his advances and repeated seductions until he at last consents to marry her properly. She then assents to his proposal and the two live happily ever after—that is, once Pamela’s virtue, beauty, humility, and good sense win over those members of her husband’s family who object to his marrying so far below his station.
Modern readers might be somewhat amused to learn that this bodice-ripper is regarded as one of the early examples of “realistic” fiction. Is there any plot less true to life than the lord of the manor marrying his serving girl? Pure fantasy that, albeit a lucrative one for a writer or bookseller.
But Pamela’s realism has little to do with the plausibility of the story. It lies, instead, in the novel’s scope and language. Richardson, and some of his literary colleagues like Daniel Defoe, were writing stories not based on rehashed plots from mythology, Biblical parables, or ancient epics, but instead wholly invented and entirely contemporary. The language was deliberately casual, rather than poetic. “I thought,” Richardson would later say when asked about how he came to write Pamela,
“the story, if written in an easy and natural manner, suitably to the simplicity of it, might possibly introduce a new species of writing, that might possibly turn young people into a course of reading different from the pomp and parade of romance-writing, and dismissing the improbable and marvellous, with which novels generally abound, might tend to promote the cause of religion and virtue.”
Usually when a writer starts talking about “a new species of writing,” we gird ourselves for something opaque and avant-garde. Richardson’s novel was certainly experimental, but the experiment was in bringing literature down, so to speak, to the level of the everyday. Pamela herself is a working girl (in the literal sense of the word). She has good principles, but no resources. Her most valued possession is her virtue, and her highest ambition is to not shame her mother and father by losing it. Her one conceit is an addiction to “scribbling”—as her frustrated seducer calls her constant letter-writing.
Pamela’s language is simple and straightforward. So simple, in fact that some readers complained of her “coarseness” in early editions, and Richardson would continually refine her language in later printings. Her letters home were filled with both accounts of her trials and detailed descriptions of her day: “I had a pretty good Camlet quilted Coat, that I thought might do tolerably well; and I bought two Flannel Under-coats, not so good as my Swan-skin and fine Linen ones; but what would keep me warm, if any Neighbor should get me to go out to help ‘em to milk.” It is a wonder, wrote one critic, that we are not told the exact number of pins Pamela had about her, and how many could be bought for a penny.
Richardson wrote Pamela in a flurry of productive energy, beginning, according to his own account, on the 10th of November, 1740, and finishing exactly three months later. As he completed each new section, he gave it to his wife and her friends to read—his own personal focus group for the novel’s target audience. Because the morally conservative, professionally ambitious Samuel Richardson had a definite goal for his “new species of writing”: he wanted the book to sell. And he knew that even then, as now, women bought fiction.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Pamela must be regarded as one of the most successful novels of all time. It spawned a flood of both imitators and satirical “anti-Pamelas,” as well as a plethora of unauthorized “sequels” that purported to continue the story of the love between Pamela and her Mr. B.—“fan fiction” has apparently always been with us. One of the best and most hilarious satires was Henry Fielding’s Shamela—a riff on the novel that started a literary “war” between Fielding and Richardson that may or may not have been staged (historians are divided on the subject), but did have an excellent impact on the sales of both authors’ books. (“O,” moans Shamela as she feigns a faint in response to her suitor’s attempt to get her clothes off, “what a Difficulty it is to keep one’s Countenance, when a violent Laugh desires to burst forth.”) Richardson himself wrote a couple of sequels, which flopped; Pamela, in these later works, demonstrated a tedious habit of talking philosophy. The moralizing that could be endured for the sake of the original’s more salacious plot was insupportable on its own.
And salacious it is. If the book’s wide appeal was founded on the fact that every female reader saw herself as the virtuous Pamela, they were also deliciously shocked and scandalized by the trials she faces and the advances she must defend herself against. Mr. B., the young, impetuous master of the house who is hell-bent on seducing this servant girl, is not at all circumspect. He traps her in a garden and puts his hand down her dress. He molests her whenever he can get her alone—which, since he is master of the house, is whenever he likes. He hides in her bedroom closet and watches her undress. He attempts to get into bed with her and rape her, even though the housekeeper is watching. When Pamela begs to be sent home, he kidnaps her, imprisons her at another estate under the guard of a leering woman who continually urges her to just give in and let the master have his way with her. He tries to purchase her favors with money, making promises to aid her poverty-stricken parents followed by vague threats about what might happen to them if she doesn’t give in. He fires, ruins, or arrests anyone who tries to help Pamela out of her predicament. He even concocts a plan to hold a sham marriage with a false priest.
After all this, it is something of an about-face when Mr. B., defeated by Pamela’s steadfast refusal to compromise her virtue, insists that his passion has turned to love and offers to marry her for real. And for the modern reader, Pamela’s happy acquiescence is inexplicable:
“Well I will, I think, trust in his Generosity! Yet is it not too great a Trust? —especially considering how I have been used! But then that was while he vow’d his bad Designs; and now he gives me great Hope of his good ones.”
In other words, Mr. B. has changed. Even better, she has been the one to change him—the secret hope and desire of every woman ever trapped in a bad relationship. No wonder Pamela was so popular.
In his excellent book The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt suggests that Richardson wrote Pamela as both an indictment against the state of marriage in an England rife with clandestine, sham, and “Scottish” unions (Scotland being the favorite destination for eloping couples since the age of consent there was only sixteen, and parental permissions were not required), and as an illustration of the ideal married state: one based on mutual respect, virtue, and most importantly, openly proclaimed and legal proceedings. England in the mid-18th century suffered from a surfeit of unmarried women, while men were marrying later and later—ostensibly because it wasn’t proper to start a family until one could afford to keep one, but in reality because, as the 17th-century Christian writer John Bunyan so eloquently put it, “Who would keep a Cow of their own, that can have a quart of milk for a penny?” The birthrate of illegitimate children was skyrocketing. Richardson, a man who liked to make moral arguments in print, attacked the dissolute state of English matrimony with the capable and forthright pen of Pamela.
And it is here, perhaps, that Pamela becomes “realistic” to a modern reader, emerging as a real woman amidst the moral lessons and unlikely romancing. As powerless as this servant girl is against the forces arrayed against her, as bereft she may be of either the physical strength to resist an assault or the financial resources needed to flee, she does have one thing—her voice. Pamela will not shut up. It drives her licentious Mr. B. to absolute distraction. She has an answer for every improper advance he makes, a pithy response to every debauched attempt upon her person. He accuses her of being “saucy”—a word with more serious implications than it has now—and “a slut,” which at the time meant something like a bold hussy, not a girl who slept around.
But Pamela is not to be silenced: “And what is left me but Words?” she asks, again and again to anyone in hearing distance. “And can these Words be other than such strong ones, as shall shew the Detestation, which, from the Bottom of my Heart, I have for every Attempt upon my Virtue?” Throughout the story Pamela makes several attempts to escape her captivity, which are usually thwarted by her unfortunate tendency to faint when frightened. The one thing in which she is always successful, however, is procuring pen and paper. In the end, it is all the armor she needs.
Samuel Richardson would go on to write two more successful novels: Clarissa in 1748—all 900,000 words of it regarded on its publication as his “masterpiece”—and The History of Sir Charles Grandison in 1753, which he purportedly wrote in response to reader demands for a “male Pamela.” By this point, however, he was in poor health.
While he continued to write, most of his energy was spent on nurturing and mentoring other writers. He famously rescued Samuel Johnson from a near brush with debtor’s prison, earning that author’s eternal gratitude. Richardson also went to great effort to support women writers, including Sarah Fielding, the sister of Henry Fielding, suggesting that the supposed rivalry between Richardson and Fielding was an amicable one.
By the time of his death in 1761, Richardson had abandoned writing epistolary novels in favor of writing real letters to his many friends. His collected correspondence is staggering. Even so, it is in the voice of an impassioned young woman, not of a wise old man, that Richardson will be remembered.
Chabon. Obreht. Franzen. McCann. Egan. Brooks. Foer. Lethem. Eggers. Russo.
Possible hosts for Bravo’s America’s Next Top Novelist? Dream hires for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
Nope — just the “Murderer’s Row” of advance blurbers featured on the back of Nathan Englander’s new effort, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And what an effort it must be: “Utterly haunting. Like Faulkner [Russo] it tells the tangled truth of life [Chabon], and you can hear Englander’s heart thumping feverishly on every page [Eggers].”
As I marvel at the work of Knopf’s publicity department, I can’t help but feel a little ill. And put off. Who cares? Shouldn’t the back of a book just have a short summary? Isn’t this undignified? But answering these questions responsibly demands more than the reflexive rage of an offended aesthete (Nobody cares! Yes! Yes!). It demands, I think, the level-headed perspective of a blurb-historian…
Let’s be clear: blurbs are not a distinguished genre. In 1936 George Orwell described them as “disgusting tripe,” quoting a particularly odious example from the Sunday Times: “If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” He admitted the impossibility of banning reviews, and proposed instead the adoption of a system for grading novels according to classes, “perhaps quite a rigid one,” to assist hapless readers in choosing among countless life-changing masterpieces. More recently Camille Paglia called for an end to the “corrupt practice of advance blurbs,” plagued by “shameless cronyism and grotesque hyperbole.” Even Stephen King, a staunch supporter of blurbs, winces at their “hyperbolic ecstasies” and calls for sincerity on the part of blurbers.
The excesses and scandals of contemporary blurbing, book and otherwise, are well-documented. William F. Buckley relates how publishers provided him with sample blurb templates: “(1) I was stunned by the power of [ ]. This book will change your life. Or, (2) [ ] expresses an emotional depth that moves me beyond anything I have experienced in a book.” Overwrought praise for David Grossman’s To the End of the Land inspired The Guardian to hold a satirical Dan Brown blurbing competition. My personal favorite? In 2000, Sony Pictures invented one David Manning of the Ridgefield Press to blurb some of its stinkers. When Newsweek exposed the fraud a year later, moviegoers brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of those duped into seeing Hollow Man, The Animal, The Patriot, or Vertical Limit (Manning on Hollow Man: “One hell of a ride!” — evidently moviegoers are easy marks).
When did this circus get started? It’s tempting to look back no further than the origins of the word “blurb,” coined in 1906 by children’s book author and civil disobedient Gelett Burgess. But blurbs, like bullshit, existed long before the term coined to describe them (“bullshit,” in case you were wondering, appeared in 1915). They were born of marketing, authorial camaraderie, and a genuine obligation to the reader, three staples of the publishing industry since its earliest days, to which we will turn momentarily.
But before hunting for blurbs in the bookshops of antiquity, it’s important to get clear on what we’re looking for. Laura Miller at Salon writes: “The term ‘blurb’ is sometimes mistakenly used for the publisher-generated description printed on a book’s dust jacket — that’s actually the flap copy. ‘Blurb’ really only applies to bylined endorsements by other authors or cultural figures.” Miller can’t be completely right. For the consultants at Book Marketing Limited — and their numerous big-name clients — blurb describes any copy printed on a book, publisher-generated or otherwise, as evidenced by the criteria for the annual Best Blurb Award (ed note: as per the comment below, this is the typical British usage). So much for authorship. The term is often used of bylined endorsements that appear in advertisements. So much for physical location. And if we try to accommodate author blurbs, even Wikipedia’s “short summary accompanying a creative work” isn’t broad enough.
What a mess. In the interest of time I’m going to adopt an arbitrary hybrid definition — blurb: a short endorsement, author unspecified, that appears on a creative work. So Orwell’s example and Manning’s reviews would be disqualified if they didn’t appear on a book or DVD case, respectively. I’ll leave that legwork to someone else, because we’ve got serious ground to cover.
If you needed beach reading in ancient Rome, you’d probably head down to the Argiletum or Vicus Sandaliarium, streets filled with booksellers roughly equivalent to London’s Paternoster Row. But how to know which books would make your soul shriek with delight? There was no Sunday Times; newspaper advertising didn’t catch on for another 1,700 years, and neither did professional book reviewers. Aside from word of mouth, references in other books, and occasional public readings, browsers appear to have been on their own.
Almost. Evidence suggests that booksellers advertised on pillars near their shops, where one might see new titles by famous people like Martial, the inventor of the epigram (nice one, Martial). It’s safe to assume that even in the pre-codex days of papyrus scrolls, a good way to assess the potential merits of Martial’s book would have been to read the first page or two, an ideal place for authors to insert some prefatory puff. Martial begins his most well-known collection with a note to the reader: “I trust that, in these little books of mine, I have observed such self-control, that whoever forms a fair judgment from his own mind can make no complaint of them.” Similar proto-blurbs were common, often doubling as dedications to powerful patrons or friends. The Latin poet Catullus: “To whom should I send this charming new little book / freshly polished with dry pumice? To you, Cornelius!” For those who weren’t the object of the dedication, these devices likely served the same purpose that blurbs do today: to market books, influence their interpretation, and assure prospective readers they kept good company.
Nearly fourteen hundred years passed before Renaissance humanists hit on the idea of printing commendatory material written by someone other than the author or publisher. (Or maybe they copied Egyptian authors and booksellers, who were soliciting longer poems of praise (taqriz) from big-shot friends in the 1300s.) By 1516, the year Thomas More published Utopia, the practice was widespread, but More took it to another level. He drew up the blueprint for blurbing as we know it, imploring his good friend Erasmus to make sure the book “be handsomely set off with the highest of recommendations, if possible, from several people, both intellectuals and distinguished statesmen.” This it was, by a number of letters including one from Erasmus (“All the learned unanimously subscribe to my opinion, and esteem even more highly than I the divine wit of this man…”), and a poem by David Manning’s more eloquent predecessor, a poet laureate named “Anemolius” who praises Utopia as having made Plato’s “empty words… live anew.” What would he have written about The Patriot?
Hyperbole, fakery, shameless cronyism: though it will be another three hundred years before blurbs make their way onto the outside of a book, things are looking downright modern. In the 1600s practically everyone wrote commendatory verses, some of which were quite beautiful, like Ben Jonson’s for Shakespeare’s First Folio: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage / Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage, / Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night, / And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.” (Interestingly, Shakespeare himself never wrote any — one can only imagine what a good blurb from the Bard would have done for sales.)
It was only a matter of time before things got out of control. The advent of periodicals in the early 18th century facilitated printing and distribution of book reviews, and authors and publishers wasted no time appropriating this new form of publicity. Perhaps the best example is Samuel Richardson’s wildly successful Pamela, an epistolary novel about a young girl who wins the day through guarding her virginity. Richardson made excellent use of prefatory puff, opening his book with two long reviews: the first by French translator Jean Baptiste de Freval, the second unsigned but likely written by Rev. William Webster, which first appeared as pre-publication praise in the Weekly Miscellany, one of Britain’s earliest periodicals.
Hyperbole? “This little Book will infallibly be looked upon as the hitherto much-wanted Standard or Pattern for this kind of writing”; “The Honour of Pamela’s Sex demands Pamela at your Hands, to shew the World an Heroine, almost beyond example…”
Fakery? The book also had a preface by the “editor,” really Richardson himself, which concluded a laundry list of extravagant praise with the following: “…An editor may reasonably be supposed to judge with an Impartiality which is rarely to be met with in an Author towards his own Works.”
Shameless cronyism? De Freval was in debt to Richardson when he wrote his review, as was Rev. Webster, whose Weekly Miscellany was funded partially by Richardson.
All of this sent Henry Fielding over the edge. Nauseated as much by the ridiculous blurbs as the content of the novel, Fielding wrote a satirical response entitled Shamela, which he prefaced with a note from the editor to “himself,” a commendatory letter from “John Puff, Esq.,” and an exasperated coda: “Note, Reader, several other COMMENDATORY LETTERS and COPIES of VERSES will be prepared against the NEXT EDITION.”
While Fielding may have been the first to parody blurbs, it was another literary giant who truly modernized them. A master of self-promotion, Walt Whitman knew exactly what to do when he received a letter of praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson. The second edition of Leaves of Grass is, as far as I know, the first example of a blurb printed on the outside of a book, in this case in gilt letters at the base of the spine: “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career / R W Emerson.” (Emerson’s letter appeared in its entirety at the end of the book along with several other reviews — three of which were written by Whitman — in a section entitled “Leaves-Droppings.”)
Whitman’s move wasn’t completely unprecedented. The earliest dust jacket in existence (1830) boasts an anonymous poem of praise on the cover, and printers had long been in the habit of putting their device at the base of the spine. Nevertheless, the impulse to combine them with a bylined review was sheer genius, and Emerson’s blurb can be read as greeting not only Whitman, but also the great career of its own updated form.
After Whitman there were further innovations. A century ago, fantasy author James Branch Cabell (unsung favorite of Mark Twain and Neil Gaiman) prefigured self-deprecators like Chris Ware by including negative blurbs at the back of his books: “The author fails of making his dull characters humanely pitiable. New York Post.” Or, as Ware put it on the cover of the first issue of Acme Novelty Library: “An Indefensible Attempt to Justify the Despair of Those Who Have Never Known Real Tragedy.” Unlike Cabell’s, Ware’s first negative blurb was self-authored, but those featured on Jimmy Corrigan were not. Marvel Comics followed suit when it issued its new “Defenders.” (A related strategy — Martin Amis’ The Information was stickered “Not Booker Prize Shortlisted.”)
These satirical strategies highlight the increasingly common suspicion, nascent in Fielding’s parody of Richardson, that blurbs just aren’t meaningful. Publishers, however, have evidently concluded that blurbs may not be meaningful, but they sure help move merchandise. Witness the advent of two recent innovations in paperback design: the blap and the blover (rhymes with cover).
The blap is a glossy page covered in blurbs that immediately follows the front cover. In deference to its importance, the width of the cover is usually reduced, tempting potential readers with a glimpse of the blap, and perhaps even accommodating a conveniently placed blurb that runs along the length of the book.
The blover is essentially a blap on steroids, literally a second book cover, made from the same cardstock, that serves solely as a billboard for blurbs. Blovers are not yet widespread, but given the ubiquity of blaps it is only a matter of time. (For an extreme case see The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where the blover’s edge sports a vertical banality from Entertainment Weekly — “I couldn’t put the book down.” — not to mention the 56 blurbs on the pages that follow.)
Blovers and blaps… what next? For my part, I can see where Orwell, Paglia, and Miller are coming from, and I certainly wouldn’t bemoan the disappearance of blurbs. But not everyone is like me. Some people enjoy glancing at reviews, or choosing a book based on the endorsements of their favorite authors. Blurbs sell books (maybe), and they allow established writers to help out the newbies. Those are good things. And since regulating them is as unfeasible as banning reviews, as long as blovers don’t replace covers I guess blurbs are a genre I can live with. And who knows — one day Murderer’s Row might be batting for me.
Previously: To Blurb or Not to Blurb
Image credit: wikimedia commons
Whatever your feelings about Twilight, you have to admit that the breadth and scope of the Twilight phenomenon is spectacular. Boy wizards aside, literature-inspired hoo-ha of this magnitude just doesn’t come along that often. To begin with, there is the dizzying array of memorabilia: Twilight band-aids, duvet covers, water bottles, umbrellas, jewelry, wallets, life-sized wall decals, as well as the standard t-shirts and movie posters. Kristen Stewart, the actress who plays Twilight heroine Bella Swan in the film adaptations, has expressed astonishment that rather mundane items of clothing she’s spotted wearing sell out in hours. There’s a Twilight make-up line that includes a pinkish gold-flecked lotion that promises to give “Twihards,” and anyone else, vampirically luminous skin (according to the editors of Lucky Magazine, “it’s gleamy but not over-the-top-Edward-in-sunlight-sparkly”). And that’s not to mention the Twilight fan blogs (oh, TwilightMomsBlog!) and the legions of YouTube videos posted by less satisfied Twilight readers burning, beating, and taking chainsaws to their copies of the best-selling novels (Breaking Dawn, the fourth and last book in the series, sold 1.3 million copies in the first day; total sales of all of the books are at upwards of 40 million, and since the final installment came out last year, all four books in the series have remained in USA Today’s top 10 bestsellers). And then there are the sell-out midnight shows whose fangirl audiences reportedly squeal with delight when the lights dim. The father of one of these fans told me that his 14-year-old daughter had taken to signing her text and email messages “Twilight,” instead of her name.
The books have also had a startling effect on the small town of Forks, Washington, the setting of Meyer’s series. Tourism has been booming. Last year, the mayor of Forks declared the weekend of September 12-13th to be Stephenie Meyer Day Weekend (September 12th is Bella Swan’s birthday). This year, the weekend’s events include a birthday breakfast for Bella, tours of Forks High School (where Bella was supposed to have been a student), a Twilight character look alike contest, and a sunset bonfire at the Quileute Reservation, on the same beach where, in the novels, Bella meets Jacob Black, a Quileute teenager, who becomes her best friend, a werewolf, and the rival of the beautiful teenage vampire Edward Cullen for Bella’s affections. By all accounts, this year’s celebration was a massive success, nearly doubling Forks’ population of somewhere around 3,000 and drawing visitors from as far away as England and Japan.
Marveling at all this on the eve of the second Twilight movie’s release, I found myself thinking of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Pamela, published in 1740, was the first best-selling novel in English; it is the story of a teenage servant girl who resists her aristocratic master’s increasingly violent sexual overtures, eventually wins his heart and becomes his wife. It was the first novel to inspire the sort of frenzy that Twilight is inspiring right now. Like Twilight, Pamela spawned themed merchandise: Pamela tea cups and tea towels, Pamela prints and painting, Pamela fans, Pamela playing cards. Pastors recommended the book from the pulpit and European intellectuals as well as private citizens sang its praises. Rousseau, for one, reported weeping copiously over it. There wasn’t any declaration of a Pamela Day, but one famous and oft-repeated anecdote about the Pamela mania verges into the kind of confusing of the fictional and the real that the Forks’ Twilight celebrations offer. There are many anecdotes dating back to the eighteenth century, in which Pamela’s wedding is taken as fact or publicly celebrated. In one of the best known, from an 1833 address given by Sir John Herschel at Eton, a blacksmith in a small village in Windsor got hold of a copy of Pamela
and used to read it aloud in the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience…At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived, which brings the hero and heroine together, and sets them living long and happily according to the most approved rules—the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout and, procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing.
These readers were practicing the English custom of ringing church bells to celebrate and announce a marriage–though in this case, the marriage of a fictional hero and heroine: Pamela and her former master, the landed squire named Mr. B.
Pamela was revolutionary in its day and Richardson was both celebrated (as by the Windsor townsfolk) and reviled for the novel’s “leveling” tendency. Servants and common laborers were widely considered a lesser order of being in the eighteenth century—there to serve the pleasure of their masters, whatever that pleasure might be. The idea of a titled landowner marrying his maid—when he might sleep with her with impunity—was considered scandalous and subversive, to say the least. Historian Lynn Hunt’s recent book, Inventing Human Rights, claims that novels like Pamela were foundational in the development of the idea of human rights that surfaced explicitly in the French and American Revolutions of the late eighteenth century.
On the surface, then, it would seem that the similarity between Twilight and Pamela, between Bella and Pamela, ends in their popularity and the mania they inspire(d). But these twin phenomena, one sitting at each end of the history of the novel, I think, share more. By an admittedly cynical and reductive reading, Twilight and Pamela are the same book, the same archetypal female fantasy: a poor or undistinguished girl is chosen as “the one” by a handsome, rich, aristocratic man who sweeps her off her feet and takes her out of her (more or less) grubby, mundane, low-born life. And the cynical reading goes further. These are not merely Cinderella love stories; in fact, they are not love stories at all. By the cynical reading, these novels are only about class, about becoming rich, becoming one of the rarefied beautiful people.
A year after Pamela’s publication, Henry Fielding published Shamela, a parody of Richardson’s novel motivated by the belief that Pamela didn’t resist her master’s attempts to rape her out of fear or a moral certainty that her desires were just as important as his, but because she thought she might get more out of him if she held out. Fielding’s sham Pamela is a hypocrite, a wily girl on the make—after money, finery, and social position that she was not entitled to by birth or by her incredible virtuousness (which Fielding tells us is only a ruse designed to ensnare Mr. B, her master.). Pamela protests too much on Fielding’s reading: he suggested that Pamela’s belaboring of the spiritual peril that Mr. B’s advances threaten her with, combined with her obvious attraction to him, didn’t quite ring true.
In Pamela’s case, I think Fielding goes too far. A marriage to a landed, titled man would have been quite literally beyond the wildest dreams of a servant like Pamela, even assuming that she possessed the sort of calculating wiliness that Fielding attributes to her. In fact, if she were as wily as Fielding drew her, Shamela would have known that she’d never become Mr. B’s bride. (Only by the rules of Richardson’s quasi-allegorical plot can Pamela’s virtue be rewarded as it is.) But in the case of Meyer’s Bella Swan, I think Fielding’s hypocrisy reading might stand. Like Pamela (and Pamela is more convincing), Bella insists that what she values, particularly in her beloved vampire Edward, is spiritual: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body,” she tells us.
But why, if the spiritual is supposed to be paramount, are the Twilight novels so distractingly full of money – literally, piles of cash – and the things money can buy? “There was enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade,” Bella reports of the Cullen family home. This cash buys Bella an acceptance to Dartmouth, a special order Mercedes (a model preferred by drug dealers and diplomats for its bulletproof glass—Edward’s very protective), a Ferrari, lots and lots of couture clothing, and a faux rustic cottage in the woods that I came to think of as a version of Marie Antoinette’s hameau (the little faux farmhouse where the queen and her ladies played at being peasants). All of this, Bella claims to resent or to feel uncomfortable accepting.
But the idea that the Cullen wealth holds no appeal to Bella, when it is Bella herself who draws so much attention to it in her first-person narration, just doesn’t stand. When, at the end of the fourth book, she finally admits a little pleasure in the jaw-dropping, head-turning spectacle that this wealth allows her to become, it feels like she is finally admitting what she’s felt and wanted all along—a pleasure that anyone, most especially a teenage girl, would feel:
He took the calf-length ivory trench coat I’d worn to disguise the fact that I was wearing Alice’s idea of appropriate attire, and gasped quietly at my oyster satin cocktail gown. I still wasn’t used to being beautiful to everyone rather than just Edward. The maitre d’ stuttered half-formed compliments as he backed unsteadily from the room.
Of course, the idea here is that it’s (spoiler alert) Bella’s newly enhanced physical beauty that stuns the man (she’s become a vampire at this point, and vampires are more beautiful in order to attract their prey, i.e. humans), but Meyer/Bella lingers on the clothes—the things money can buy.
Bella’s compulsive observation of the Cullens’ beauty and their beautiful things does not come to seem a metaphor for spiritual superiority but a conflation of material wealth, physical beauty, and moral elevation. While the books suppose to be about a perfect, otherworldly love (this love could be metaphor: it certainly doesn’t exist in the real world), the material intrudes constantly (cars, money, clothes), suggesting that beauty and money and blessedness and happiness are all one, confused and interchangeable.
This pernicious lie that is at the heart of Twilight. When I see pictures of young girls waiting in line to buy these novels or tickets to the movie, this is why I get angry. I don’t get angry because Meyer’s recycled the classic female fantasy of the most desirable boy picking the girl he never will in real life (I love My So-Called Life, while knowing all too well that Angela Chase (Clare Danes) would never have gotten Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) in “real” life), I get angry because Meyer didn’t seem to trust the unbelievable love between Bella and Edward as sufficient to hold her readers’ interest. Love, apparently, needs to be tarted up in designer clothes, given sparkling six-pack abs, armed with platinum credit cards and Ferraris before we’ll recognize it. For all of its heavy-handed allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, Twilight is, in the end, fatally invested in the shallow materialism and the youth and beauty worship that continue to define and corrode American popular culture.
It’s scarier than vampires.