A reader friend recently sent me Barbara Samuel's The Black Angel. In my usual way, I flipped through the beginning and the end. Basic story, as far as I can make out, is that a Georgian beauty is ruined in her teenage years--and really ruined this time: she has sex and everything without any hope of marriage--and much later marries a man her father found for her. She marries for the money, he for the society standing he hopes to gain through her family. Hilarity ensues. Typical story, right?
Well, he's Irish. And his Deep Dark Secret (TM) is that he's Catholic. When her brother tells her this, her response is "That's all? He's Catholic?" First of all, as an eighteenth-century scholar, this bugs me. She would understand what this means and how bad it is. If he's ever discovered (and he goes to mass in London, for heaven's sake), he'll lose all his land, his wealth, her influence, everything. And Catholics were reviled and hunted and despised and discriminated against like blacks were in the South in the 1950s. So that ahistorical reaction bugged me. But that's not why I can't read the book.
I can't read the book because the story is set in 1786. After he tells her that he can't ask her to fight his fight with him, she tells him, "The world is changing. . . . The American colonies are free. There are revolts in the islands. Perhaps it will not happen peacefully, and perhaps not only you, but your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to fight. But freedom will never be won if you give up" (361). When he finally accepts her, he says, "It will never be easy, but with you, I can face whatever comes" (362).
In 1798, however, there's the Irish Rebellion that is crushed by the British with more savagery than the Scottish Rebellion of 1745, with atrocities and massacres on all sides (Irish Protestant, Irish Catholic, and British). That's only fourteen years between the "happy ending" of Samuel's book and the very non-happy ending of the Irish Rebellion, in which the hero, considering his stated politics, will probably participate and probably be killed.
Laura Kinsale uses the Irish Rebellion in her Uncertain Magic. Kinsale actually has British soldiers destroy the hero's estate halfway through the novel. Toward the end, the hero, heroine, and other characters make their way through Ireland during the Rebellion. In fact, the hero saves the heroine's brother from jail when he's taken up as a rebel. But the hero and heroine have a realistic happy ending after the Rebellion's over.
This is not the case in Samuel's novel. The happy ending there won't last for more than fourteen years, and I'm not comfortable investing myself in characters who will manifestly NOT live happily ever after and die together when they're old and grey and surrounded by many grandchildren.
I'm equally unhappy reading books that finish within twenty years before World War One. That's why the Regency period is safe for me--there's not too many hideous, horrible wars in the nineteenth century for the British. However, hop the Pond and I don't like reading books about Native Americans in the nineteenth century. No matter how happily the romance ends, the life of the hero and heroine is not going to be happy. Same with pre-Civil War books set in the American South.
I apparently like my happy endings to extend way beyond the ending of the novel. What about others out there? Are you satisfied with a happy ending that ends with the book, or do you require it to last the natural life of the hero and heroine?
*Samuels, Barbara. The Black Angel. New York: Harper, 1999.