The most popular romantic heroines of recent years, Bella Swan of the Twilight saga and Anastasia Steele of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, find a goddess-like power in the decisions they make about their bodies, especially their determination to have sex with dangerous, domineering men. The rhetoric of choice and girl power makes each heroine’s body-bruising surrender of control seem an assertive and liberating act — a deed that, according to Anastasia, proves her to be more daring than 19th century romantic heroines like Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
However, the way the contemporary heroines carry themselves (or rather fail to do so) shows their lack of control over their bodies from the beginning: Bella and Anastasia cannot enter a room without tripping over their own feet, and to stand upright they depend on the strength of the preternaturally graceful heroes. The heroines’ clumsiness might seem to unsteady cultural expectations of feminine bodies, but it serves instead to reinforce traditional gender roles, relations of inequality that are more effectively trodden down by the independent walkers of 19th-century romantic fiction, particularly Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre.
Stephanie Meyer’s Bella Swan is defined by her clumsiness. The vampire Edward Cullen catches Bella when she stumbles, and he declares his love for her after carrying her up a mountain and demonstrating his superior strength and grace. By contrast, in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (one of Bella’s favorite books), Mr. Darcy is first seen at a ball, “standing about” in a “stupid manner,” while Elizabeth Bennet defies convention by walking on her own for miles over rough country. Darcy then finds himself drawn to her eyes, which “were brightened by the exercise.”
The romance in E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey begins with Anastasia Steele tripping and falling headfirst into the office of billionaire CEO Christian Grey, who first sees her on her hands and knees and helps her to her feet. Through their interview, she remains flustered and awkward while he is “coolly self-possessed.” By contrast, the romance in Brontë’s Jane Eyre (which Meyer cites as a primary inspiration for Twilight and which is invoked even more frequently by Fifty Shades) begins when Jane, walking a country road alone at dusk, witnesses a horse slip and bring its rider, Edward Rochester, to the ground. The gruff, injured Rochester has to lean heavily on the small but steady Jane in order to make it back to his horse.
The relative positions of the hero’s and heroine’s bodies in these scenes matter; they signal not only interpersonal power relations but also the wealthy hero’s position of power within broader social structures. Although each hero’s body language differs somewhat from the others’, the message is the same: Darcy can stand apart from others, Rochester can command Jane’s aid, Edward can manage Bella’s body, and Christian can disquiet Anastasia because of the power differential legible in the men’s well-dressed bodies and physical bearing.
The fundamental difference between the 19th century romantic novels and the contemporary romances that borrow heavily from them is in the self-possession of the heroines. Although the unmarried and all but dowerless Elizabeth Bennet and the orphan governess Jane Eyre are in positions of greater social vulnerability than their contemporary counterparts, neither 19th-century heroine is willing to sacrifice self-respect in order to gain financial security or love. Their daring solitary walks presage an independence of mind and a willingness to walk through the world alone rather than marry without mutual respect (Elizabeth refuses two such offers) or stay in a relationship that threatens one’s sense of self and soul (as does Rochester’s request that Jane stay with him as his mistress after his living wife is revealed, an offer from which Jane literally walks many miles away).
By contrast, the scenes in which Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele literally fall at the heroes’ feet and rely on the heroes’ strength to stand foreshadow each heroine’s willingness to stay in a relationship with a man whose dominance overwhelms her sense of self, and without whom she seems lost. Both Edward and Christian stalk the objects of their desire, and are described as predatory lions, which makes Bella and Anastasia the willing prey. When Anastasia decides to enter the lion’s BDSM den and “play this sex god at his own game,” a high-stakes game to which “he’s the only one who knows and understands the rules,” she takes pride in her relative daring: “Elizabeth Bennet would be outraged, Jane Eyre too frightened.” (Jane does in fact tremble in the face of Rochester’s sexual aggression, but with desire, not fear. She keeps Rochester at bay until after they are married because she knows the heavy penalties that women bore for sex outside of marriage in Victorian society.) Anastasia finds her “inner goddess” as she claims kinship with Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield, the 19th century heroine who is raped, sexually used, and socially degraded by a wealthy man: “Tess would succumb, just as I have.”
In the Twilight saga, Edward prevents Bella from succumbing to her desire; he refuses to have sex with her until after she marries him. Although Edward’s enforcement of sexual abstinence seems to invert gender expectations, it also underscores Bella’s dependence on his strength. After the wedding and bruising vampire/human sex, when it becomes clear that the birth of their child will kill Bella, Edward turns her into a vampire; he thereby makes her as strong and graceful as he is. At the end of the Twilight saga, Bella’s physical transformation from clumsy victim to able protector creates the equality and balance in their relationship that she had recognized it lacked from the beginning.
The newfound equality between Bella and Edward, symbolized by her running and hunting alongside (and sometimes ahead) of him, is achieved through Edward acting upon Bella’s body. By contrast, the balance ultimately struck between Elizabeth and Darcy, and between Jane and Rochester, is due in large part to the heroines’ strength of mind and independence of spirit — qualities emblematized by their daring solitary walks. In the closing chapters of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, hero and heroine walk together, side-by-side.
Of course sheer pluckiness alone cannot annul structures of inequality. Austen emphasizes these social structures at the end of Pride and Prejudice by showing that hypocrisy and greed continue to prosper, while Brontë, Meyer, and James set their happy endings at a remove from social reality, in fairy tale homes that somehow keep the corrupt world at bay. In these latter novels, structures of gender inequality are discernible in the stage-management necessary to achieve even the appearance of a marriage of equals: in the Twilight saga, Bella gains superhuman strength and an enhanced psychic ability that enables her to protect Edward and their supernatural community; in Jane Eyre, Jane gains financial independence through an unexpected inheritance, and the (divine?) maiming and blinding of Rochester makes him physically dependent upon her. The wounded hero is equally essential to the balance struck at the end of the Fifty Shades trilogy; just by (passively) being with him, Anastasia helps Christian to recover from a childhood of physical and psychological abuse. That is undoubtedly part of the appeal of the Byronic hero — the fantasy that the wounds he carries from his past will make him as dependent upon the heroine as she is upon him.
The resolutions of these 19th century and contemporary romantic novels share elements of the Cinderella fantasy, of the wealthy and worthy prince getting down on one knee before the heroine. The crucial difference is in the heroines’ journeys to that point: Bella and Anastasia spend much of theirs stumbling, being carried, or on their knees, while Elizabeth and Jane walk defiantly, and often alone. When, mid novel, Jane walks away from the threat that Rochester poses to her sense of self, her “indomitable” resolution is one we cannot imagine Bella or Anastasia declaring: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” For truer heirs of Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre, readers of contemporary fiction must look elsewhere.