During my first week studying English Literature at uni, I didn’t really know what made a ‘good’ book in the eyes of my professors, or indeed in the eyes of the other students who seemed to know it all and then some.
I was a very young, unworldly 18-year-old, still about 10 days away from meeting the boy who would shape my life for the next eight years. My thoughts were nervously preoccupied by which posters would convey the philosophical spirit I believed was bursting to get out.
The books I went for at this age generally brimmed with romance and adventure, and more often than not a fair bit of goriness. Reading centred around escapism and impassioned declarations and the sort of heightened emotions I imagined would be a regular occurrence for me.
In short, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga monopolised popular culture at a time in my youth when I was extremely susceptible to the idea of an ordinary girl with low self esteem being thrust into a mysterious world.
There is a brief window in life when love, or rather the idea of love, feels supernaturally huge and important, so that when you read about sparkling, baseball playing vampires grappling with their bloodlust, you do so without so much as a snigger.
There was so much about the story of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen that appealed to my innocent, unpractised heart, from the forbidden nature of their romance to the endless perilous moments they had to overcome together.
And so, when a creative writing lecturer made a well-received joke about Twilight being rather a long way outside of the literary canon, I found myself blushing fiercely as I quickly realised this was a book to leave firmly wedged in my childhood bookcase.
Back to present day, and I’m now approaching the achier, grumpier end of my twenties – with a decidedly wearier view on affairs of the heart – and yet I am still easily won over by an against-all-odds love story.
Nowadays, the novels on my bedside table focus on quieter, more relatable narratives, with romantic heroes who have complicated inner lives and personal motivations beyond wanting to live eternally with their icy cold first boyfriend.
Of course, I’m far from the only seemingly sensible woman to have once had her head turned by the flying, mind-reading Edward, or indeed by his shape-shifting love rival, Jacob Black.
In 2010, as the hype reached a crescendo, Meyer was ranked 59th on Forbes’ annual Celebrity 100, with earnings of $40 million. But staggering sales and figures tell just half a story, with the phenomenon largely unfolding in teenage bedrooms; propelled by daydreams and page turning that preceded the posters and merchandise.
And so, with the news of Meyer’s upcoming sequel Midnight Sun, I began thinking about the countless girls who grew up with Bella’s voice in their ear; now women with careers or perhaps non-supernatural children of their own.
UNILAD spoke with Niamh, 23, who came to the series as a 13-year-old who hadn’t yet had a proper relationship.
Although she wasn’t a ‘die hard fan’ of the ilk who, in her words, would put Bella as their profile picture, the book appealed to her, both because of its popularity and for the way it reinforced her existing ideas about romance.
I’ve always been a bit of a hopeless romantic so I liked how Edward was always there to save Bella. It’s very un-feminist in 2020 to expect a guy to swoop in and save you, but as a young teenager it’s something you relate to.
Many twenty-somethings can recall those solitary moments at midnight when you couldn’t stop turning the pages, or sleepovers where you would solemnly pledge yourself to Team Edward or Team Jacob.
From anonymous fan fiction to pencil sketches of Edward’s chiselled cheekbones, Twilight was a means to push through your angst and express creativity.
It was also a bonding activity between those who erred towards the more alternative side of the social divide. The town of Forks, with its secretive, supernatural undercurrent, gave young people who maybe felt out of place at school or at home a sense of affinity or belonging.
Niamh told UNILAD:
I definitely felt ‘misunderstood’ as a young teenager. I was a moody little sod and felt I really related to Bella’s awkward, moody character. I think all teenage girls feel that way to be honest, so Stephenie Meyer hit the nail on the head making Bella relatable to the readers.
Niamh’s perspective on the core relationship of the book has shifted somewhat over the years, and she no longer expects a man to ‘swoop in and save’ her. However, she retains affection for some aspects of Edward’s ‘chivalrous and gentlemanly’ character; attributes she still regards as important.
Niamh doesn’t view the series as particularly problematic, reasoning:
At the end of the day the story is fiction and needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Look at the likes of the The Hobbit or the Game of Thrones franchises – people often enjoy these things as they’re an escape from reality.
While I may have taken it a bit more literal as a 13-year-old reading them, I can appreciate now that they’re just good stories.
UNILAD also spoke with Fran, 28, who’d been a little older and more experienced upon first opening that forbidden apple front cover.
Aged around 16 or 17 at the time, Fran was already a bit ‘jaded to romance and so-called chivalry’ and had picked up the book thinking it might be ‘funny’.
Although she enjoyed the books, Fran was critical enough at this point to be wary of the fantasy of Edward. She was also wise enough to assess less appealing aspects of Bella’s character; her unappreciative and sometimes downright bratty nature.
Fran – who remains firmly on the side of Team Jacob – said:
I never like Edward because I thought he was creepy. While I came to the books having already experienced love and dating enough to not be molded so much by books I read, I can see how younger and more vulnerable readers might suffer if they sought out blokes like Edward. Super weird guy.
There are – famously – many, many problematic aspects to the books, and, in reality, you would not want to become romantically entangled with Edward.
Indeed, the series has even previously been used to educate about violence and abuse, with Edward and Bella’s relationship widely viewed as unhealthy at best, and dangerous at worst.
Throughout the increasingly intense saga, Edward demonstrates disturbing and coercive behaviour, controlling Bella’s movements and restricting who she is allowed to see; behaviours which would ring alarm bells in any adult relationship.
As their romance unfolds, Edward slashes the tires of Bella’s car to stop her travelling around independently and jealously forbids her from seeing her werewolf friend Jacob. This is framed as protectiveness, and makes for an uncomfortable reread.
There are even instances where Edward sneaks into Bella’s bedroom at night and watches her, which would be absolutely terrifying if experienced in real life.
There is no question that this is a potentially harmful message to send to young girls, but the women I spoke to were able to engage with this grim undercurrent; marking it out as disturbing whilst still being able to enjoy the dramatic, absorbing silliness of the series.
Fran told UNILAD:
I wanted to think it was degrading and anti-feminist because, in my logical brain, I knew it was totally f*cked up.
But I honestly didn’t analyse the book that critically at the time of reading because it’s escapism so far removed from any reality a reading befitting the real world feels a bit pointless.
Like, I can be a feminist and still enjoy literature that arguably glamorises the kind of relationships I’d never dream of championing in real life because I know the difference between fiction and reality.
Long before Jane Austen first parodied the genre in Northanger Abbey, grown ups have wrung their hands over the reading material of young girls, and the corrupting influence of anything veering too much towards the realm of lusty gothic.
Never have I seen this so blatantly than with the reaction to the Twilight series. While we lost ourselves between those pitch black covers, adults bounced from scorn to concern and back again.
English teachers and cultural critics alike were alarmed by this chaste but racy reading material, a regressive series about restraint and excessive abstinence in all senses of the word. Blood, sex, desire.
Fran told UNILAD how she believes much of the ‘sexist bullsh*t criticism’ surrounding the series to stem from assumptions rather than critics actually engaging with the material:
As with all kinds of sexism, it comes from an institutionalised, ingrained fear of female expression, especially when it comes to sex and romance and love – and the desire to put it down is compounded by the feminine power.
Twilight has in its army of followers and also in its very pages, told as it is from a strongly female perspective.
The problem is, Twilight is a bit of escapism and fun with the capacity to mean an awful lot to some people, just like any other book.
So, fans of Twilight are perpetually stuck between the proverbial rock of enjoying their literature in a light-hearted way and the hard place of never been taken seriously enough because it’s ‘Just For Girls’.
Niamh agreed that, ‘the things young girls fangirl about always gets more stick than what boys are obsessed with – hence the term “fangirl”‘.
Niamh also noted that Twilight fans can be ‘quite extroverted’ about their opinions on the book, remarking that ‘the more you talk about something, the more you’re opening it up to criticism’.
It’s unclear whether or not Meyer’s new book, Midnight Sun, will freshen up the dusty vampire narrative by giving Bella a little more agency and Edward a bit less creepiness.
Retold from the perspective of Edward, Midnight Sun is set for publication in a far different world from its predecessors.
Young people today are far more engaged with social issues, and are used to seeing strong female pop culture protagonists, from Katniss Everdeen to Rey Skywalker. It’s unclear whether Bella and her incessant moping could quite cut the mustard this time around.
As noted by Fran, Meyer would be making ‘a huge mistake to not move with the times’, and to do right by her now twenty-something readership. Readers who have since loved, lost and pined in numerous Earthly ways.
As for me, there’s part of me that’s still a bit curious about what exactly Midnight Sun will hold, and whether Meyer is now writing with her old fans in mind, or whether she will be reaching out to a whole new generation.
I still like the occasional dash of gothic horror with my novels and films, although I prefer to leave these more theatrical aspects firmly outside of my love life.
Admittedly, I do sometimes miss the younger me who gorged on the much maligned writing of Meyer like a big, sickly slab of chocolate before dinnertime, the various clunky cliches and troubling tropes washing clean over my head.
And sometimes I can’t help but wistfully recall a time when I was gripped by the idea of an all-conquering, obsessive love. The simple lightning bolt cut which divides your old, boring life from a new, exciting destiny.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please know that you are not alone. You can talk in confidence 24 hours a day to the national domestic violence helpline Refuge on 0808 2000 247.
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