I was not especially interested in reading Fifty Shades of Grey because I had a strong sense it was not really ‘aimed’ at me. In the end I was compelled to so because I felt left out of conversations with women friends my age who had read it, or at least started doing so, and wanted to talk about the puzzle of its apparent wide appeal. Some people have suggested that not having read a book doesn’t usually stop me talking about it. Even so, in order to be able to take part in these discussions I thought I’d better give it a go.
As is now widely known, Fifty Shades of Grey is a piece of erotic/romantic fiction with leanings towards the gothic that started its life as slash fiction developed in response to the Twilight series. Like a significant proportion of such fan writing (going back many decades to fan responses to the early Star Trek TV series) its focus is on the sexual. In this instance it explicitly indulges in the desires that (as far as I know having only seen two of the films rather than reading the books) could be said to drive the Twilight series but which in this fiction are, for the most part, repressed and/or deferred.
I would guess that a key element of Fifty Shades appeal is that, via an identification with first person narrator Anastasia (Ana) Steele , it allows the reader to engage in BDSM fantasies without (apparently) suggesting that she/they are, or should be, naturally or inherently ‘submissive’ as women. This is something that (I gather) is a point of principle amongst many practitioners of BDSM, a world in women are often ‘dominants’ and importantly where, for the most part, role and fantasy are recognised as such.
There are always those who for a range of reasons assume a transparent correlation between fantasy and actuality. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of Fifty Shades fans are not included in this group, even as they choose to suspend their disbelief. Although its claim to ‘realism’ may be greater that that of the Twilight series, this book does require a rather large dose of such suspension. This largely because, as is evident in the difference between the earlier and later books of Lauren Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Slayer series, lengthy, detailed and repeated sex scenes tend to work against narrative and character development.
These elements of Fifty Shades are noticeably thin and perfunctory leaving the reader to supply the gaps. Outside the sex scenes the action mostly consists of familiar situations and generic set pieces, and the supporting characters depend so heavily on those in the Twilight books that they are barely sketched in all. Ana and Grey are occasionally better realised although, interestingly, they come most ‘alive’ in their email exchanges. Ultimately however, as characters they are constructed from attitudes, mannerisms and behaviours borrowed from the more formulaic end of romantic fiction. This embraces everything from the fact that Grey’s need for ‘control’ arises from a tragic childhood, to Ana’s faux- naïve lack of confidence in what is evident to the reader as her own very ‘conventional’ attractiveness. Holy shit (she implies) how puzzling that every man I meet seems to fancy me when I am so pale and thin (read: Hollywood star slender and with flawless creamy skin) and have such difficult hair (read: long thick, lustrous) that insists on escaping its pony tail (read: in charming tendrils).
The dependence on cliché at times verges on parody, for example the scenes which attempt to establish Grey as a businessman. These employ a shorthand of impressive offices, glamorous blonde assistants, loyal bodyguards, private jets, important meetings and urgent phone calls that convey absolutely no sense of what he actually does for a living. His repeated phone calls about aid deliveries to Dafur are presumably intended underline his philanthropic nature and guarantee his basic ‘goodness’. However, for me this reference creates such a collision between his generic, fantasy ‘business’ world and all too real world issues and tragedies as to alienate me from the novel as a whole.
Albeit on a far lighter note, a similar alienation occurs for me around some of Ana’s ‘tics’, in particular her constant ‘lip biting’ which Grey finds so provocative. I don’t think I have ever encountered this gesture outside of the more formulaic genre fiction. Its never been clear to me exactly how you bite your own lip but trying out various versions in the bathroom mirror rather than sexy, the best look I could get was ‘deranged squirrel’ (do try this at home -safe word –acorn). Either I was doing it wrong, or this could be an intriguing insight into the world of BDSM, or most probably it only works with very young, full lips.
Having been distanced from the fiction in this fashion, it strikes me that in a novel with a first person narrator, the perfunctory way in which of Ana describes her friends and family and the almost total lack of interest she gives to their lives, emotions and concerns, lends itself to a reading of this central figure as astonishingly egocentric and self absorbed.
However, as I’m suggesting above, the point of this book is not really the characters and narrative but the sexual fantasy, mixed up with a cake-and-eat-it one of being reluctantly but inexorably swept up in a world of wealth and glamour: or as it used to be put more succinctly in the 1980s; shopping and fucking. Fifty Shades also offers the pleasure of identifying with melodramatic emotional excess. All these elements are apparent in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, which rather than Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles , a work frequently cited in Fifty Shades as a signifier of Ana’s ‘intellectual credentials’, might (along with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights) be seen as a major historical precedent for romantic fiction in general but especially for the whole gothic erotic romance/romantic erotic genre.
In case this reference and my general attitude towards Fifty Shades, appears to be an attempt to assert my own ‘intellectual credentials’ at the expense of James’s, I want to point out that like many women when looking for ‘escapism’ I have often turned to such fiction in all its forms, from Mrs Oliphant, the Brontes and Jane Austin to Mills and Boon, Helen Fielding’s Brigit Jones books and more recently (amongst others) gothic/romance/erotica series by Kim Harrison, Charlaine Harris and Lauren Hamilton, of which the Twilight books can be seen as the ‘teen’ version.
In fact, when I first picked up Villette around the age of 13, I was under the impression that it might be a frothy historical romance in the vein of Georgette Heyer’s ‘Regency’ novels. Habituated to Heyer book titles such as Venetia, Arabella and Frederica, I assumed that ‘Villette’ was the heroine’s name. On this point and on several others I was disappointed. At that age I found it difficult that, in contrast to Ana in Fifty Shades, if the first person narrator Lucy Snowe is disparaging about her physical attractions her assessment is shared by all the other characters. The only person who genuinely sees ‘beyond’ this never described but clearly less than arresting surface, is school teacher Monsieur Paul Emanuel. In his interactions with Lucy this figure is as ‘controlling’ as Grey (without the sex) and similarly has a somewhat ‘tragic’ past, is a notable philanthropist and while not rich, his financial resources eventually transform Lucy’s life. Nevertheless, in contrast to the seductive Grey, Paul Emanuel is also described by Lucy as physically unprepossessing, bookish, devotedly religious, waspish and mercurial in temper (rather than ‘brooding and mysterious’) and sometimes vain and personally ridiculous. In short, for a teenager, an unsatisfactory romantic hero.
For at least two thirds of the novel, Lucy Snowe (and by extension possibly Bronte herself) seem to agree with this judgement and the ‘hero’ figure appears to be Dr Graham John Bretton. Graham is not only charming, handsome and easy going but possesses a range of other admirable qualities. However, eventually circumstances force to Lucy admit to herself what she (and by extension the rest of us) has always known; that her longing is in vain because Graham is more swayed by feminine prettiness, girlish ways and social position than by quieter, plainer virtues and even as a friend he is not wholly to be relied upon. Gradually then Lucy (and again by extension the reader) come to appreciate the less immediately and obviously attractive Paul Emmanuel as he proves himself the truer, more steadfast friend to Lucy, eventually becoming her suitor, although their marriage is deferred until his return from a three year trip overseas.
In many respects, Ana, like so many other romantic heroines is Lucy’s distant relative. Indeed, there is an echo in the choice of names ‘Snowe’ and ‘Steele’ and perhaps in both instances these are intended to be read as ‘clues’ to certain key qualities in the characters? Both these figures can also be seen as being torn between the desire for independence and for love, between ‘heart’ and ‘head’, higher ideals and worldly seductions. While both are capable of a certain degree of ironic self reflection, both are also sometimes melodramatic in the force of their emotions and both also evince a certain degree of masochism. Yet if I can’t help but poke fun at Ana’s account of herself, it is partly due to the influence of Villette. On one hand Lucy’s ironic self reflection is just so much more convincing, on the other the novel plays with and upon her ‘reliability’ as a narrator in ways that reveal her at times as a not entirely sympathetic figure, and more importantly, render all such narrators suspect.
Of course, Villette is a far more complex and thematically ambitious novel than Fifty Shades and the vast majority of contemporary romantic fiction. I have now re-read it during each decade of my life and every time I have found that, although in outline the characters and events may be as I remember them, their meaning and importance shifts radically. This obviously reflects changes in my own thinking and experience about romance, love and by implication sex and how these things might figure in relation to other aspects of my existence. Nevertheless, openness and ambiguity are a fundamental qualities of this novel and what makes it eminently ‘re-readable’, a very different manner from a novel which simply depends so heavily on the generic as to leave ‘gaps’ or ‘holes’ in its diegetic world.
Villette’s ‘openness’ is summed up by its final passages, which allows the reader a choice of endings for Lucy and Paul Emanuel. The writing might incline towards what might conventionally be regarded as the ‘unhappy’ ending but ultimately, in effect, Paul Emanuel is left in the same state as Schrödinger’s famous cat, potentially dead and not dead and therefore potentially returning and not returning. When I was younger this infuriated me. I wanted closure and certainty and their refusal seemed sadistic both to the reader and towards the character of Lucy. Now I think I missed the point. There was never to be a straightforward happy ending for Lucy as written, except in a permanent state of suspension between Paul Emanuel’s absence and the promise of his return, because this allows her to be independent without feeling that she is alone and unloved in the world. His actual return and their marriage might attend to her loneliness but his character is drawn as such that he would, without malice, entirely rob her of this independence and her need is both for love and for independence. This was perhaps far more of a fantasy for women in Bronte’s day than today. Even so, perhaps somewhere behind the clichés the same or similar theme might still be seen as driving Fifty Shades.
Either way, it was encountering Fifty Shades that provoked me to my 5th decade re-reading of Villette and for that I’m very grateful to E.L James. The echoes of the latter in the former are interesting to consider but really it is unfair to put these two books along side each other. They offer the reader very different pleasures which are not ‘competing’ and do not necessarily cancel each other out. Right now though, Fifty Shades probably has a far wider, more enthusiastic readership, so I want to take the opportunity to promote Villette, especially to any Fifty Shades fans who might consider emulating Ana’s interest in classic English Literature.It does contain lengthy passages concerned with religion and moral thinking expressed in terms of extended metaphors, which for the contemporary reader can appear convoluted and tedious. At the risk of outraging literary purists, I’d say be prepared to skim read some of those (I certainly do) in favour of the many passages, exchanges, plot lines and descriptions that are still intriguing, highly entertaining and moving. And if the relationship between fantasy and actuality is at issue, I think Lucy Snowe still has as much, and indeed even more, to say about the difficulties, pleasures and complexities of lived femininity as Bella in Twilight or Ana in Fifty Shades, and certainly far more than poor old, pretty, drippy, doomed Tess Durbyfield.