Romance writers take a lot of heat for being unrealistic because they want happy endings in their books. Real life, and hence worthy fiction, is at worst a tragedy and at best random with a good chance of misery.
Real life leaves a lot to be desired. That’s why so many people seek out happy endings when they want to read, relax and escape. The most popular defense is that we are just giving the readers what they want. They majority of people seem to desire justice and happiness for the main characters, which is why romance is the best selling of all fiction genres.
But it’s not like we were the first ones to come up with the idea.
And in The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde describes a novel where "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." And he seemed to agree, since his play is a deliciously fluffy confection and with multiple happy endings.
I learned in college that his editor made Charles Dickens add a happy ending to Great Expectations, for the sake of the audience. They preferred that Estella reform from her shallow ways and discover that Pip was a hottie. Dickens might have saved his ending for the English classes of posterity. But he knew what side his bread was buttered on and sold out to make sales.
But these are both well loved classics. “All’s well that end well,” does not always hold up under close scrutiny. Today, while researching Regency theater for an upcoming book, I learned not all of Shakespeare’s plays were automatic classics. Old Will ripped off plots from every classical source he could find. But Nahum Tate did him one better and began stealing from him in the late 1600’s. Only Nahum decided to improve on the originals.
In 1681, he rewrote Richard II as The Sicilian Usurper, changing it to be "full of respect to Majesty and the dignity of courts". But apparently he didn’t do such a hot job. It ran three performances and was then suppressed for being too political.
He also fixed Romeo and Juliet to give it a happy ending.
His version of King Lear, which had no fool, fewer deaths and more marriages, was so popular that it was still playing in the Regency. The famous actor Edmund Kean tried to bring back the Shakespeare version, saying that the audience would "have no notion of what I can do till they see me over the dead body of Cordelia."
The critics loved it. The audience did not. So he went back to Tate’s version.
I’m not going so far out into left field as to suggest that Lear would be better if it wasn’t a tragedy. And I feel deeply for poor Edmund, trying and failing to take Lear back to its tragic roots.
But I have to laugh, thinking of the audience leaving the theater and whispering, “Didn’t Cordelia marry Edgar the last time we saw this? I hate sad endings. Why did we come here?”
How about everyone else? Happy endings or sad? And which sad ending stories are so delicious that you are willing to make an exception?
Christine is giving away a paperback copy of Miss Winthorpe's Elopement and Dangerous Lord, Innocent Governess to one lucky commenter! The giveaway is open internationally.
To enter, answer Christine's question: Happy endings or sad? And which sad ending stories are so delicious that you are willing to make an exception?
Please leave a valid e-mail address along with your answer. The contest is open until Monday, 7/25/2011, at 11:59 pm CST. Good luck!