Prepare to be shocked at some of the unhealthy ideals you never realised you bought into.
Popular culture throughout the ages has done much damage to our perceptions of what a normal relationship should look like. Many books romanticise unhealthy relationships, presenting them as desirable and an aspiration. Here are some particularly prominent books that do no favours for anyone looking to embark on a healthy relationship.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
It pains me to say that Jane Eyre is actually one of the worst books in terms of the unhealthy relationship it depicts and seems to remain ambivalent towards at the very best. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels, but it is a key reason that as a teenager I often glamourised unhealthy relationships myself.
Published in the 1840s, the novel’s central relationship unfolds between the eponymous protagonist Jane and her employer Mr Rochester. She is employed to work as a governess for Adele, a child under his guardianship who may or may not be his. Mr Rochester is rich, of high social standing and twenty years Jane’s senior. Jane has no money to her name, is essentially a teenager and is also, fundamentally, Mr Rochester’s employee.
As the relationship between the pair develops, Mr Rochester does several unpleasant and fundamentally unconscionable things.
- He strings along a wealthy woman named Blanche Ingram, solely for the purpose of making Jane upset. Blanche is horrible to Jane and Jane, feeling unable to voice her sadness because of the strict social codes that bind her, is reduced to something like depression.
- On the cusp of expressing his love for Jane, Rochester seems to venture and then retract the suggestion that the two of them could have a mutual relationship. This emotional cruelty is very much reminiscent of a predator playing with its dinner. Jane is not in a position to tell him to go away – she is very much at his beck and call in a world where employees had few to no rights, and where women had few opportunities for agency.
- There is one episode where he dresses up as a gypsy fortune teller and asks to speak to all the women of the house (this is when Blanche Ingram and several society ladies are staying there). He uses this opportunity to attempt to probe Jane’s feelings and deceptively find out information that she otherwise wouldn’t reveal – a true breach of trust.
Mr Rochester is fundamentally not great. And then of course, when he does try to marry Jane, there’s just that small issue of his supposedly ‘mad’ first wife who is very much alive but has been confined in his attic for quite some time. Jane only thinks of what sort of woman Bertha must be to deserve such a fate – she never questions what sort of man Rochester is to do that in the first place.
Twilight – Stephanie Meyer
Most women in their twenties now probably read this as teenagers. I remember being absolutely fascinated by this novel, and very drawn to the relationship between protagonist Bella and her vampire love interest Edward. But the whole premise of the relationship between them is a bit disturbing.
Firstly, when Edward first meets Bella, he is extremely stand-offish with her. It later transpires that Edward was being deliberately rude because as a vampire, her blood smelled so appealing to him that he desperately wanted to kill her – and he was trying to keep his natural instincts in check. So basically, the supposed love between the pair actually stems from a desire to kill. Linking murderous desires and affection definitely glamourises violent impulses. And also, this is totally superficial – why would you fall for someone just because they smell nice?
Oh and then there’s also Edward’s weird stalker-ish behaviour. Edward watches Bella sleep and sneaks about her room at night before he’s even got to know her (not that it would be acceptable if he had). He also monitors where she’s going and while this allows him to turn up at scary moments and ‘save’ her (like when she’s being harassed by some other men) it’s still not ok. What’s the point in being ‘saved’ by a creep who just won’t leave you alone?
Later in the Twilight saga (there are four whole books of this), the final book shows the pair on their honeymoon. But because Edward as a vampire is so strong, when they consummate their marriage Bella is left covered in bruises and the bed ends up broken in half. This is bizarrely presented as really sexy, but if that actually happened to someone it would be an incredibly traumatic first sexual experience. So why did the book make a bunch of teenage readers think this was ok?
There are a lot of questions that need to be asked about this saga, but we also need to question what effect it has had on the millions of teenagers who so eagerly devoured Meyer’s slightly clunky prose back in the day.
Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
This is another favourite book of mine but it must be said that it depicts some pretty unhealthy relationships. While Du Maurier does appear to challenge these relationships at points, the novel’s narrative voice rarely questions some of the things we see – not great for impressionable young readers.
The novel is told from the perspective of a young woman from a very modest background. While working as a companion to a much older woman, she meets Maximilian de Winter in a Monte Carlo hotel. After an incredibly short courtship, De Winter marries this young woman (who is never named) and takes her back to his stately home where reminders of De Winter’s dead wife Rebecca haunt her everywhere she goes. She constantly feels second best to Rebecca, and is tortured by this and a terrifying housekeeper who does her best to make the young bride feel inadequate. However, when De Winter confesses to our narrator that he actually hated Rebecca and killed her himself, the young woman rejoices. It’s terrifying, but the idea of male violence engenders no sympathy for Rebecca – instead the young woman takes De Winter at his word and suddenly feels secure in herself.
This is a world where relationships between women do not exist in a healthy form. And because of this, because of the lack of fellow feeling for Rebecca from our protagonist, she fails to recognise the serious risk that a murderer might pose to her. That she needed to learn of another woman’s murder in order to feel happy in herself is testament to the fact that the environment of De Winter’s home is one which keeps our protagonist on edge – not a healthy thing.
De Winter implies that he has killed Rebecca because she was unfaithful to him. Why that should ever be ok is beyond me. So what if she’s unfaithful? It doesn’t mean she deserves to be shot and killed.