“My body was made of paper, ink flowed through my veins, my organs didn’t exist. I was a fiction.”
Consent, Vanessa Springora
“As always, the truth is slipping further out of reach with every word he says.”
The Comeback, Ella Berman
“An older man using a girl to feel better about himself—how easily the story becomes a cliché” the narrator of My Dark Vanessa states near the end of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel, encapsulating a central problem that seems to exist for those women writers who wish to write about relationships between younger women and older men. How to write all the nuances of such a relationship within a cultural milieu that has turned the sheer weight of stories, so often from male authors and auteurs, into cliché? After I handed in a final draft of my own novel, in which a middle aged male photographer gets entangled with his young female muse, I discovered a kinship with a group of other recent books that sought to negotiate this problem of representation through metafictional means, by making the male protagonists in their novels agents of representation or figures of cultural power—directors, writers, photographers and teachers—who entrap the young female characters not only in sexual relationships but within the web of their own words or art itself.
In My Dark Vanessa, the narrator is as trapped by the text of Lolita, which haunts the novel, as she is by the influence of her former teacher, Strane, “If I tug on any string hard enough, Lolita will emerge from the unraveling,” In the memoir Consent by Vanessa Springora, which is described by its English translator as “a memoir of abuse, but […] also a penetrating exploration of both language and literature […] as a vector of power,” the painfully young V. also reads Lolita obsessively and is seduced by G., a celebrated French author, who softly recounts “the long history of illicit love affairs between young girls and middle-aged men […] The litany of examples was endless. Faced with so many similarly edifying examples, how could I disagree?” The seduction of both girls is made through fiction and by reminding them of their literary and cultural predecessors. In fact, all five books discussed in this essay have scenes of sexual abuse or seduction that take place in the offices of the male characters or in libraries, the girls surrounded by shelves of venerable, masculine texts.
Consent illustrates with staggering lucidity the link between cultural power and sexual abuse as it reveals the exploitation at the heart of G.’s autofiction which he mines his diaries for, linking his sexual desire directly to his authorship: “he took possession of my youth for his sexual and literary ends” Springora writes, “I hated him for trapping me inside the fiction that was being written, constantly, in book after book, in which he always gave himself the best role.” There is almost an otherworldly power to this authorship and metafictional slippage, in the fictional world of My Dark Vanessa where Strane shows Vanessa her name in Nabakov’s Pale Fire—“seeing my name on the page this time feels like a free fall, a loss of control.” she thinks, “Maybe this really was predetermined. Maybe I was made for this”—and in Consent where the first book of G.’s V. picks up to read opens with a sentence containing her birthday.
This seemingly supernatural ability of authorship is mirrored by Alison Wisdom’s portrayal of Wesley, the eerily charismatic cult leader in the novel We Can Only Save Ourselves, a darkly haunting tale of a cheerleader, Alice, who joins his cult of young women. Wesley meets Alice for the first time by taking her photograph and is “a storyteller, though he might not have called himself that. A story implies fiction, and he spoke the truth. Often, though, he referred to his photographs, the stories a picture could tell with no audible language.” Through the web he weaves with words, the power Wesley has over the girls soon spills out of photographic representation. “The girls did what Wesley wanted. He planted seeds in the wet earth of their brains every morning,” Wood writes, “Wesley made the sun shine. Wesley made it rain. Wesley steered the winds. He never told Alice he was responsible for these things, but she began to see patterns emerge.” Later in the novel, the assertion that he is a “magician. A prophet. A god.” and that he would “know” Alice’s thoughts, combines with the natural phenomena of an earthquake to heartbreaking results, as Alice accepts that she exists only in the world he has created, that he is the author of all.
In The Comeback, a brilliantly sharp and timely novel about a former teen star, Grace returns to Hollywood to reckon with the abusive director, Able, who controlled her teenage years. Able moulds her from their first meeting, turning her into one of his own fictional creations, perfecting “everything about me—my backstory; my classic, insouciant style; even my sarcastic interview manner—before my face ever appeared on a screen.” The Comeback is skilled in its exploration of the process of gaslighting, as Able’s storytelling manipulates not only how Grace is seen by the outside world but also her sense of self and her own thoughts: “You’re not making sense,” he tells her early on, “I’ve noticed you’ve been doing this more and more lately—distorting reality so that it fits in with a narrative you’ve created in your mind…I nodded, and my grip on reality loosened with every word he spoke.” He implies that any attempt for Grace to have her own inner, personal narrative—about herself, her life, and her desires—is somehow perverted, wrong, and that his story of her is the only true one.
The girls in these novels have a natural wish to be seen, noticed, as girls coming into their own sexuality, as does Maeve, the vulnerable teen cancer survivor in my own novel who becomes a photographer’s muse. “Who doesn’t like to hear about themselves, how other people see them—isn’t this very thing Wesley’s trick with the camera?” Alice thinks in We Can Only Save Ourselves. The gaze of the men is not a passive, objective thing however but an active, creative, destructive force that consumes its subject.
“He says he sensed my difference as soon as he laid eyes on me,” Vanessa says in My Dark Vanessa. There is a connection between being seen (he laid eyes on me) and being read (he sensed my difference) and how this separates her from herself and makes everything feel unreal. To be seen is to be (mis)read—“I never would have done it if you weren’t so willing,” Able repeats to Grace in The Comeback—and to be read is to have been already written, turned into a text authored by someone else, vanishing the real girl of flesh and blood.
In My Dark Vanessa it is Vanessa’s recognition of her realness, of herself as something other than a fictional character of Strane’s own destructive creation, that offers an epiphany. “I watch her walk away,” she thinks of Taylor, another woman who was abused by Strane, “not a rumor but a real person, a woman who used to be a girl. I’m real, too. Have I ever thought that about myself so plainly before? It’s such a small revelation.” In The Comeback, however, not even Grace’s symbolic realisation that she is no longer subject to Able’s scripts on- or off-screen, when she drives them both off a cliff because “he doesn’t think I’ll go through with it”, is enough to puncture Able’s power (“I didn’t kill him, I gave him a vacation,” Grace drawls bitterly after she wakes up in hospital). That must be done through words, through her naming of his abuse in a speech she gives as she hands Able his lifetime achievement award at a film festival. In Consent, V. finds her revenge through turning G. into her own character (he is after all, not named in the book beyond a symbolical letter, so she is quite within her power to do so) stating “For many years I paced around my cage, my dreams filled with murder and revenge. Until the day when the solution finally presented itself to me, like something that was completely obvious: Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?”
But for the girls in these books deciding to tell your own tale is not without its dangers. Grace thinks of “how even if I somehow managed to say the right words out loud, each one would only ever bind me tighter to Able […] After that, I would never be anything more than Able’s victim,” and refuses to give a quote to the female journalist who comes knocking at her door. Vanessa, too, refuses the journalist who presses her. Perhaps these journalists reflect the authors’ own ambivalences at adding to a canon of stories featuring these relationships. But more likely they stand as symbols of fact, versus the power of fiction to hold uncertainty, to resist the demand to tell the “truth”—a concept which so many of the male characters claim as their own domain, using it to gaslight and dominate the female protagonists.
In another novel that has ties to this set, The Margot Affair, the seventeen-year-old protagonist becomes entangled psychosexually with a male journalist, David, and his ghostwriter wife, who seek to use Margot’s story, that of the secret love affair between her minister of culture father and actress mother, for their own ends. Margot feels stifled by the secrecy, by having her identity hidden and her life story untold, and after David flatters her beauty and maturity at a party, she eagerly offers it. His wife, Brigitte, betrays Margot by giving the transcripts of her many interviews to another journalist who publishes the story in Vanity Fair, apparently as her own revenge for Margot sleeping with David. This is the second time Margot’s story has been told in the press and yet “this time around it wasn’t so much the feeling of losing my footing,” Margot thinks, “as one of loss, pieces of me breaking apart and dividing into smaller pieces until I was barely there.”
At the close of the novel it is the actress mother who has her turn to say her piece about the affair, in a theatre performance she has devised and written, in a moment that reunites the estranged mother and daughter. At the time I found myself a little disappointed with this ending though—where was Margot’s chance to tell her own story, her moment of self-determination?—until I realized that it wasn’t only that of course her story had formed the plot of the novel and its flashbacks itself, but that, just as Vanessa in My Dark Vanessa realizes the “small revelation” that she is real, it is the everyday rhythms of Margot’s life that fill the novel and make it so pleasurable to read—the clothes she wears, her schoolwork, her descriptions of her and her mother’s small flat, and above all, the sensuous details of the food she eats and cooks (it is no surprise to learn that Sanaë Lemoine is an accomplished food writer)—that bring her to life for the reader, that animate her own desire, not the desires of those who gaze on her and see her parents or want to steal her story, channelling her subjective experience directly to the reader.
Because these books are pleasurable to read, no matter how dark their subject matter might be; their prose is sharp and tart, lush and soft, mesmerizing and haunting; which seems to stand as a counterpoint to the way the girls inside of these books have their pleasures, desires, hungers—whether sexual or otherwise—used against them, misread by the male characters and their parents or society at large, dispossessed. “I feel ashamed of how much I wanted it all” Grace says of her early acting career; “in someone else’s mouth the word [abuse] turns ugly and absolute…It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it” Vanessa says in My Dark Vanessa; “If you’d seen the way you looked at me…,” Brigitte tells Margot, “Like you wanted something from me, something I could actually give you.”; “She was beginning to feel the allure of a similar rapaciousness,” the chorus of mothers say fearfully of Alice in We Can Only Save Ourselves, “the pull of being so hungry, how good it feels to want so much.”
The power and perils of storytelling, the way young women are so often trapped inside cultural stories authored by men, and the ability of the gaze to transform and destroy, were themes that obsessed me in my own novel. The Ophelia Girls is haunted by both the figures of Ophelia and Elizabeth Siddal, the model for Millais’ infamous painting who suffered from pneumonia after posing for him in a cold bathtub and later died tragically young. As my character Maeve becomes a muse for Stuart in the present day of the novel, posing for his photographic versions of paintings of Ophelia and Persephone and becoming consumed by his desires, Maeve’s mother Ruth remembers a summer twenty-four years earlier when she and her group of female friends made their own portraits of each other as Pre-Raphaelite heroines in the river near Ruth’s grand family house, becoming muse and artist both. What lies behind the impulse to portray yourself as a drowning, beautiful girl and what does it say about the experience of girlhood, I wondered, having been obsessed for many years with the proliferation of such self-portraits across the internet. Why pose as Ophelia, one of the mothers in the novel asks Ruth and the girls, out of all of Shakespeare’s women, why not “someone with bite, someone with more words?” “Because,” one of the girls replies, “when Ophelia steps onto the stage with her flowers, she stops everything. She ruptures the story.”
I wanted to explore whether the girls could tell their own story through the iconography of Shakespeare’s heroine and Millais’ painting, reaching towards a real muse of flesh and blood and channelling her in the river, and how it felt to lie floating in a waterlogged dress, weeds around your ankles, flowers clutched in your trembling hands, as a camera lens captures you looking beautiful and tragic. Does it matter who is behind the lens—a friend or an older man who wishes to use you for his art and desires—and is the sensory pleasure of posing like that strong enough to counterpoint the very real risk of drowning, metaphorically or literally?
Jane Healey’s The Ophelia Girls is available now via Mariner Books.