When I taught creative writing we did a session on the importance of endings and the different types of endings that there are in books. “And they all lived happily ever after” is the classic last line. It’s easy to dismiss this as a formula but it's far more important than that. It’s a reassurance and it sums up the theme of the story. In fairy tales, folk tales and romances the story is about conflicts and barriers to happiness. The reassurance for the reader is that all is well and will continue to be so after the end of the book. Jane Austen uses this theme to end her books. Emma ends with the words: "the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” Perfect happiness. That's what I want.
In other genres, though, slightly ambiguous endings do seem to be popular, as though hinting that although things seem okay for now, who knows what is going to happen in the future. Perhaps this is a reflection of the world we live in. But again, that's the world I'm trying to escape in my reading. I remember being slightly disappointed when I got to the end of High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and the last line was: “Tonight, for the first time ever, I can sort of see how it’s done.” It didn't inspire me with confidence. Even worse, when I finished Fatherland by Robert Harris and I was on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happened: “He took off his cap and threw it, sent it skimming across the grass the way his father used to skim flat stones across the sea. Then he tugged the gun from his waistband, checked to make sure it was loaded, and moved towards the silent trees.” AND? I assume there weren't pages missing at the end of my copy.
I'm an unrepentant escapist in my fiction, and in my writing I can make those HEAs happen. Which makes it all the more shocking when occasionally I hear from a reader who tells me that they weren't convinced by my Happy Ever After. This, after all, is the pact that I make with the reader. I will provide a believable and satisfactory happy ending. Actually I'm trying to provide the best damn story I can with an ending that will blow readers away. I want to make sure that they believe my hero and heroine will still be together in fifty years time. So when I first got feedback like that, for Lord of Scandal, I thought: "I've failed. Where did it all go wrong?"
Well, of course I had failed with that individual reader. There's no getting away from that. But I'm not so sure I've failed overall. For me part of the enormous challenge of writing historical romance is to twist the conventions and to give my characters deep and fundamental conflicts that means that their behaviour puts their happy ever after at risk. Then I do my very best to show the change and growth in those characters which ensures that they will be happy. I know this isn't going to convince all the readers all the time but if it works for most people most of the time then I'm very happy and I think I've done a good job.
With Lord of Scandal, I always knew that the character of Ben Hawksmoor was going to be controversial. Born into poverty, disowned by his father who denounced him as a bastard, Ben had to fight for everything in his life and as a result valued financial security above everything else. He was selfish, self-interested and utterly materialistic. When asked by his cousin if there was anyone he wanted to love and cherish he replied simply: "Yes, me." Ben wasn't a rake but he was a scoundrel of the first order and he was completely ruthless in going after what he wanted. Unsurpringly there were readers who thought that the book was too dark and Ben too heartless ever to reform. For me the excitment was to create a character like that and then challenge his value system by showing him another one, that of the worth of love over money, as demonstrated by the character of Catherine, the heroine. It was a hard journey for Ben, but I felt that at the end of the book, when he turned down Catherine's dowry because all he wanted was her, he had learned a tough lesson. And I didn't believe that a few years down the line he would revert to type, go back to Catherine's aunt and say: "You know that thirty thousand pounds you offered me? Well, I've changed my mind about taking it..." In other words, it was a life lesson. He had changed.
Most recently, in The Undoing of a Lady I created a heroine, Lizzie Scarlet, whose characterisation my editor described as "brave." When your editor says something like that you that you know you're on dodgy ground and that some people are going to hate the character. But as with Ben, I hoped that to know Lizzie, to understand her background, is to love her, forgive her and enjoy watching her change. Readers will let me know whether the risk I've taken has succeeded and whether they buy into her happy ending.
Of course it isn't just the individual characters who dictate whether that HEA will work, it's the combination of the hero and heroine and the way that they resolve the deep differences between them. Again I have a tendency to take risks by putting together those characters who really shouldn't be perfect for each other and then working to show that they are the other's ideal match. In my next book, Whisper of Scandal, I have a hero who is an explorer, A Bear Grylls, Born Survivor type, matched with a heroine who is a Regency fashionista. He lives to travel. She lives to shop. It shouldn't work. I hope the readers think it does and that after taking risks the books deliver perfect happiness.