Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Happy Endings: How Far Does It Have To Go?

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.


  1. I understand this completely. As much as I love Cuevas' Dance, every time I read it I am left with a sense of impending doom. I tell myself that the whole family will have moved to England or the States before WWI, no problem, but of course that's not true. Sebastian wouldn't leave the family holdings.

    It's got to be a really excellent book for me to be willing to put aside such worries.

  2. A small point, Sarah--the title of the Laura Kinsale book you describe is Uncertain Magic (not Midsummer Magic). I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have recommended it to several friends.

    About the happy endings--yes, I insist on some strong hints from the author that apart from life's ordinary ups and downs, the hero and heroine will enjoy a long and happy life together.

  3. Yes, I too look for a happy ending that will go on and get frustrated when I know it can't possibly do so. However I never really put it into words before. It must be why I enjoying follow on novels that mention or feature past loved characters.

  4. Brenda, thank you. I'll fix it. I think I get the titles to Midsummer Moon and Uncertain Magic mixed up.

    I thought of another one: Les Liaisons Dangereuse. The Hamptom play makes explicit that even the bad characters who live at the end will die because the French Revolution is just around the corner. And that makes the ending somehow even MORE. But that's bad characters getting what they deserve.

  5. I have to be confident the characters are going to live to a ripe old age. When I read historic romances I find myself almost unconsciously calculating how much time left before the next major disaster of that era. For that reason I don't want to read about French aristocrats in the years leading to the Revolution, or anything set in the pre-Civil War U.S. South. Give me a nice romance set just after Napoleon has been exiled to St. Helena :-)

  6. I prefer not to have to worry about the HEA either. So if I know there's a large outbreak of the plague, or a war coming up (e.g. if it's set during the reign of Charles I, or, as others have said, not long before either the First or Second World Wars) it does make me slightly uneasy. On the other hand, given how many women died in child-birth, and how many children died in infancy, one probably has to suspend disbelief somewhat anyway, if the characters are to 'live happily ever after and die together when they're old and grey and surrounded by many grandchildren', rather than one or both dying at what we would nowadays consider a relatively young age and/or having to cope with the deaths of a number of children/grandchildren.

    In many ways, though, the HEA isn't really much more unlikely than members of the nobility marrying for romantic love, at least prior to roughly the Regency period, I think. I'm sure you know more about that than I do, Sarah, since it's your period, but I have the impression (from reading Coontz, for example) that for most of history, marrying for love was very rare, particularly among aristocrats. So perhaps since we're all suspending disbelief considerably, and thinking of the hero and heroine's relationship as an exception to the rule, we can do the same for their HEA, even if others are about to perish in a major catastrophe.

    I wonder if this wish to have a war/disaster/famine/plague-free HEA for the hero and heroine is why the Regency is such a popular setting for historical romances?

  7. Well, the Victorian era is probably more plague-free, with their slightly better understanding of medical realities, and relatively war-free, but I think the social literature of the time (Dickens, Bronte's Shirley, Eliot) that discusses the brutalities that man visits on man make it difficult to see the time as innocent and the endings as happy. The Regency period, famously, has Austen, who ignores anything nasty, brutish, or short about life and just discusses love, so it's easier to imagine the HEA. So I think you're right, Laura.

    And I can't suspend disbelief enough if WWI is ten years away to think that the hero won't be involved, or if it's 20-25 years away from the ending of the novel, to think that their children won't be involved. And for something like the Irish Rebellion to loom in the future of a politically-active, Catholic hero--it's just too much for me, and I don't want to invest in their story knowing that their HEA is less than 15 years long.

    Despite knowing that child-birth was dangerous (I myself suffered childbed fever and thank the good doctors for my access to penicillin!), people managed it. The Queen herself had way too many children and lived to a ripe old age. As did some of Jane Austen's many many sisters-in-law. So it's not suspending disbelief too much to believe that the characters could beat the odds, because other, real people did it.

  8. So it's not suspending disbelief too much to believe that the characters could beat the odds, because other, real people did it.

    You're right - some people survived the plague, plenty of women survived childbirth, despite the risks involved etc.

    I wonder if readers carry out a sort of mental risk assessment, and if the risks seem too high, they worry about the HEA. Even in a novel set just before a major rebellion/war, we could choose to believe that these particular characters survive, but it's much easier to accept the HEA if we aren't forced to think about these issues at all. Obviously it does depend on what the odds of survival are - they're not very good for aristocrats living in France just before the Revolution, and are probably even worse for people living in Pompeii just before Vesuvius erupted. By contrast, for upper-class people who didn't go to war during the Regency period, it was probably quite safe.

  9. Well, perhaps Tynan would have participated in the Rebellion and been killed, but perhaps he would have felt instead a higher obligation to his wife and children. In my head, that's how it ended. Which is neither here nor there.

    Perhaps, given the fact that it's the 18th century, he fell instead to a nasty virus or she died in childbirth or none of their children lived. The agreement we make in romance is that there are lots of ugly realities we simply don't discuss. We pretend they don't exist.

    I don't mind being taken to task for whatever a reader might like or dislike, but I'd rather it be done by one who has actually read the book and might then understand that The Black Angel had a very specific objective--it's the opening volley of what was meant to be a rather long series examining the real world beyond white, mainstream, upperclass Center of the World England, which had begun to weary me. I wanted to play outside the narrow little box hammered into place for us by the market. I hoped some readers would go with me, and it turned out they did (Black Angel is one of my most successful historicals).

    I'd hoped to play with expectations of all sorts--race, culture, the Empire in all its hugeness, religion and sex. The family is multiracial for good reasons, and they are more open- minded because of it. There is a lot going on that's is not evident in a skim or a skip through, and the heroine's reaction to his Catholocism--given her own history--is accurate.

    The second book in the group, Night of Fire, is a much stronger book, in my opinion, but it, too, would need to be read rather than skipped through. My approach to theme is more subtle than that, perhaps to my detriment.

    Barbara Samuel

  10. Barbara,

    I was absolutely not commenting on your book specifically--and I definitely want to read Lucien's Fall after the review it got on SmartBitches. Rather, I was (rather wryly) commenting on my own narrowly prescribed vision of what was "acceptable" in romances.

    I adore all of Laura Kinsale's books and I feel that they do what you're trying to do to some extent. I enjoyed the fact that there were bi-racial characters in Black Angel, and, to be honest, wish I could bring myself to read it purely for that.

    I am actively searching for your books in UBS, for what it's worth, but they're difficult to find and I'll hunt down Night's Fall.

    I was merely commenting on my own expectation, using your book as a jumping off point. Sorry if I sounded glib. And sorry I commented on the heroine's response to Tynan's Catholicism in light of not having read the book.

  11. Night of Fire. Not "Night's Fall." ::sigh:: Sorry again. Fighting a headache and time constraints.

  12. It's all right. I like the site and the intelligence here, and there's no harm in using a book as a jumping off point.

    I just wanted to contribute to the discussion and to defend my baby. :)

  13. I read books - contemporary, historical, paranormal - in total isolation from the real world (past, present & future).

    This is so, even if the author may mention 'she drank her Coke' or they went to 'Almacks' or whatever. I take that all as, in *this* world, they do those things. But I don't expend any energy wondering what else they do that I may also do or may also experience.

    If the HEA is compromised, its through the author's direct desire i.e. *she* mentions WWII coming up, *she* makes it known there's rebellion brewing in Ireland (or whatever. I'm no historical nut...which may also be the reason why I find it easy to ignore reality)

  14. I agree that the HEA is a particular pleasure that I have craved all of my life (though there is also a great deal of cathartic satisfaction in a scene at the end of the 4th act that makes me weep with shared empathy), but I have also found the end of some romances to be a bit deflating. It is during the epilogue, when the heroine and hero are surrounded by all their perfect, clever children and the virile Alpha hero has been declawed and pacified... I don't know -- there is something of a let-down at the mawkish scene of dull domesticity. Will anything romantic and exciting ever happen to the Happy Family ever again? Oh well.

    Perhaps that is why I keep reading Gabaldon's Outlander series, despite the sometimes over-the-top melodrama that interferes with Claire and Jamie's happy life together. But I can't help but feel some anxiety, now that the Revolutionary War is approaching, what will happen to the characters? Sure, it would have been nice to know that they lived HEA at the end of "Dragonfly in Amber," but then there would have been no adventures to look forward to. As a person of approaching middle age (eek!) I like to think that there is still more to life than the enchanted walk down the aisle (which I have never done, perhaps symbolically) ahead. After all, the HEA is supposed to be the END. If I'm still not happy, there must be more to come, right? : )

  15. Dalia, when you say that you 'read books [...] in total isolation from the real world (past, present & future)', do you mean that you read everything as though it were an alternative reality/fantasy novel? What I mean is, is it just the history/social conditions which you don't mind being different from 'the real world', or do you also expect the emotional reality of the stories to be 'in total isolation from the real world'?

    I'd agree that there are some historicals which might be easier to read and enjoy if one pretends that they're really alternative history/fantasy, because if read as historical romance one might not find them very convincing (which takes me back to some of the things I said in my post about wallpaper historicals). All the same, I do require characters who seem internally convincing/behave in a way that seems realistic in some way (to me).

    Jennifer - good to 'see' you again!

    the virile Alpha hero has been declawed and pacified... I don't know -- there is something of a let-down at the mawkish scene of dull domesticity. Will anything romantic and exciting ever happen to the Happy Family ever again?

    I think this is a problem with making both excitement and contentment external. By which I mean that if what makes someone exciting is that they're a rake/spy then obviously when they give that up for goodness and happiness (as symbolised by happy estate workers, delightfully cherubic heirs and beautiful wife) then yes, happiness can seem very dull. It'll make most of the novel seem full of movement and challenge, and by contrast the epilogue will seem rather static and restful (broken only by the 'entertaining' mischief that the little cherubs get up to). People say that 'the devil gets all the best tunes' and they tend to prefer Milton's Paradise Lost (Satan features rather prominently) over Paradise Regained, and Dante's Inferno over the Paradiso. Making goodness and happiness seem interesting and exciting is clearly a challenge, but I think quite a lot of authors manage it, and suggest that the characters will still have plenty to say to each other and interesting things to do (other than have amazing sex) after the end of the novel.

  16. Hi, I followed the link here from Jane's rant on HEAs and romance at Dear Author. I read and enjoyed The Black Angel without even thinking about the upcoming rebellion. I have no problem enjoying books set in the Victorian era or before World War I. If I'm reading in the romance genre, I suspend disbelief about death in childbirth and other historical dangers. If I'm convinced of the characters' personal compatability, then unless the author shows something bad happening to the characters at the end of the book, I believe that they'll have a happy life together and I generally don't give much thought to their future.

  17. As someone who writes romances within that 20 yr time frame prior to WWI, as well as someone who feels that conflicts, wars and disasters heighten the romance, I have to say that I "read in a bubble" as well. Not that I ignore the real history, but that I consider the book I'm reading to be a story during one place and at one time. If the author chose to mention the tensions leading to WWI, or the Civil War(English or American), etc of course I'll think about it once the book is over. But I don't automatically see it as the characters being doomed because of a disaster that we, knowing in hindsight, can "forsee". Which is why I heartily dislike one aspect of Regency romances: the white-washing of the Napoleonic Wars into this "club" to give Regency heroes a suitable "dark and dangerous" background. I think that when readers back away from reading books set around a certain period because of our knowledge of history, it's kind of trying to live in a fantasy world where everything's goodness and safe. Certainly we all want loved ones and beloved characters to remain safe within the bosom of the family (or bookshelves), but reading novels or not reading them because you're too obsessed with the impending crisis? IMO, odd.

  18. Camilla, why do you think you feel that 'conflicts, wars and disasters heighten the romance'? Is there something about the possibility of loss that, for you, leads to greater emotional intensity in your response to the novel?

    I'm wondering if this is at all related to what I was discussing in my post about sin and redemption. It seems that some people feel that more suffering and conflict make a romance more intense and a 'better romance'.

    I can see how this would be so - almost all the great love stories seem to end in tragedy, and somehow this seems more of a 'grand passion' than if people end up in cosy domesticity.

    reading novels or not reading them because you're too obsessed with the impending crisis? IMO, odd.

    Personally, I find romance in the cotidian and the heroic in the struggle of daily living. Stories of grand and tragic passions tend to make me think things like 'use your common sense' or 'calm down and have a nice cup of tea, dear'. Different people have different tastes, and are looking for different things in a romance, whether that be intensity of emotion, catharsis, comfort, validation etc.

  19. Hi Laura (if you ever read this very late reply)

    You said: What I mean is, is it just the history/social conditions which you don't mind being different from 'the real world', or do you also expect the emotional reality of the stories to be 'in total isolation from the real world'?

    What do you mean by emotional reality?

    As for the history/social conditions - if the novel is set in a time and place of which I feel qualified to speak (the English-speaking Caribbean in my case)I'll be on the alert for 'proper' accents, descriptions and culture that strike a chord etc. So, if the writer decides to write about living in thatch huts and 'smiling and welcoming natives' (to give an extreme case), no, I won't be able to read the novel in isolation from reality.

    However, if the writer sets the novel in say, 2004 in Grenada , when I knew there was Hurricane Ivan which decimated 80+% of homes on the island in the 'real world'; or in Trinidad in 1990 when there was a coup d'etat and people died, I wouldn't expect a mention of it necessarily.

    I suppose it all depends on how much 'real' background info the writer gave apart from the crisis event. If the novel was largely set in micro the whole time, I'd be ok with her giving it a pass (and I would then give it a pass myself). However, if the writer was big on country affairs within the novel itself but left out those events, then I'd have a question mark - which wouldn't affect my enjoyment of their romance (I wouldn't be thinking: did X or Y die from the hurricane/coup) but it would strike some points off the writer's skill at painting the picture.

    Okay, I've just re-read what I said and managed to thoroughly confuse myself. Good luck understanding.


  20. Hello again, Dalia. Thanks to the fact that blogger emails us a notification whenever someone posts a comment, we do know about new comments, even if they're on old posts. It's a very useful feature.

    Anyway, what do I mean by 'emotional reality'. I suppose I mean I want some sort of consistency, so that characters don't suddenly change part way through the story. I suppose it could be argued that in this fictional world all people have personality changes every few days, but I think that would make it very difficult for readers to feel close to the readers. I have the feeling that when characters behave in a way that's usually described as 'out of character' it's almost always because the characters are being squeezed by plot constraints into acting a strange way (e.g. if a normally sensible heroine suddenly decides that she no longer trusts the hero because a character she knows is untrustworthy has told her that he's been seen with another woman, so the heroine then rushes out unprepared and is captured by the villain).

    Sometimes one gets emotionally accurate, but historically inaccurate behaviour (e.g. if a Regency lady doesn't even think that snogging a masked man in a cupboard during a ball might put her in a compromising position). That will tend to annoy historical purists, but probably won't annoy other readers in the same way that a sudden onset of emotionally inaccurate, Too-Stupid-To-Live behaviour would.

    From what you're saying, it seems like you wouldn't like historical inaccuracies, but if a major event is deliberately ommitted, you won't worry about it, e.g. Austen doesn't mention current affairs often, so most readers don't tend to worry about how they might affect the characters. However, if a major event is mentioned which might put the characters in danger/change their lives, then you'd expect the author to give some indication of how it affected them. And if the author mentions some major events but conveniently seems to miss out mentioning one that's rather important, that would affect the author's credibility as a researcher, but wouldn't affect your enjoyment of the story.