Valentine’s Day: There’s No Such Thing as a Happy Ever After

I read a couple of interesting things on happy endings recently, and Valentine’s Day seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on them in a really negative way.

Romance writers and readers use HEA (‘happy ever after’) and HFN (‘happy for now’) as shorthand for endings. If a book ends with a wedding or similar level of commitment, that tends to be an HEA – obstacles conquered, commitment made. A less definite ending counts as an HFN, and may suggest a sequel might be on the cards to take our heroes/heroines to the ultimate HEA.

But, if you’ve ever actually been to a wedding, you’ll have noticed that the celebrant spends half his or her time explaining that a wedding is a beginning, not an end. It’s worth noting that 42% of marriages in England and Wales now end in divorce. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Charlie Cochrane wrote thoughtfully on whether you can give your characters a HEA with any plausibility at all in gay historical romance. Personally, I think that’s still a valid question if you take the words ‘gay historical’ out .

Basically, in any relationship, you can conquer the misunderstandings, the communication problems, the dragons/warlocks/albino monk terrorists trying to kill you, the issue that he’s a cat shifter and you’re a honey badger, whatever, and get to the point of a serious mutual commitment. But the real work starts after the thank-you notes are written/blood cleared up/novel ends. It starts as you squabble over towel choices, and get irritated, with each other’s parents, and realise that apparently you’ve tied yourself for life to someone who can’t grasp that the bins go out on Wednesday night, so you have to do it every single bloody week. Wednesday. Is that really so hard?

I was struck by an observation in this terrific post on sex scenes by Joanna Chambers.

When I re-read old and much-loved Georgette Heyer novels, I occasionally worry that the whole relationship’s going to go south as soon as the MCs try to consummate it. I loved Friday’s Child when I was 15, but now I can’t imagine Hero and Sherry having sex. (Actually, that is a lie, but I do have a vivid imagination).

I wholeheartedly disagree with this particular example (I’m convinced they’d be at it like rabbits as soon as they worked out what goes where, which in fairness might take some time because they’re both idiots). But it started me thinking about the ‘after the book’ endings, which I’ve written on previously so I’m just going to copy/paste and save effort:

Consider possibly the greatest romance ever written: These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. If you haven’t read this, a) do, and b) spoilers follow.

Avon, a really nasty dissolute 45-year-old rake, falls for Léonie, a 17-year-old spitfire. At last, he vows he will be worthy of her, and we fade out on Léonie dancing on a table, whooping up the newly discovered joys of the marital bed. Happy Ever After.

Then Heyer wrote Devil’s Cub, featuring Avon and Léonie’s grown son Dominic. Dominic is a dissolute disappointment to his parents. They have fought about him. They have been unhappy. And now Avon is an old, old man, and soon Léonie will be a widow, and even when Dominic marries the right woman, Léonie doesn’t like her. And then, even worse, there’s An Infamous Army, where we learn that Dominic’s kids are horrible and he was obviously as rotten a husband as anyone would have guessed.

I wish I’d never read the second two books. Avon and Léonie’s story should end with her dancing on the table while he laughs.

Nobody would read These Old Shades and call it an HFN ending, but it is. Avon and Léonie get their happy ever after only if we close down their story there. And that’s not just because of the two subsequent books; it’s because nobody gets a happy ending once you think beyond the big moment. People get old, and sick. They argue. They die. I don’t just dislike An Infamous Army for the above reasons; I dislike it because in its world Avon and Léonie are long dead and forgotten and nobody cares about them any more.

You know what the most HEA Heyer wrote is? A Civil Contract, where the hero spends most of the book in love with another woman, not his unwanted financial-transaction wife, and finally comes to realise that his wife is the one he wants to live with. Not a fantasy image, not a beautiful goddess, but a quietly contented partnership with the mother of his child, bobbing along. It’s the most plausible HEA she ever wrote, and the least romantic romance.

So: my name is KJ and I’m a romance author who doesn’t believe in happy ever after. I believe in happy for now. I believe in working hard for happy for now, I live in hope that you can sustain ‘now’ for a pretty long time. And I think that’s fine, actually, because ‘now’, the present moment that you’re living in, is all any of us actually have. The rest is hope.

Do you want an HEA and damn the plausibility, or will an HFN do you fine? Have at it in the comments!

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30 thoughts on “Valentine’s Day: There’s No Such Thing as a Happy Ever After

  1. I could write a VERY long comment on this post but will keep it brief.

    First up, the 4 Heyer books you mention are all ones I had strong reactions to. I hated These Old Shades with a passion. I loved the other three in different ways. I remember the comment about Vidal and Mary in Infamous Army but I don’t remember taking away a sense they were unhappy together. However… now you’ve made me think about it and I find I have to admit that you could be … you are probably… right! Did I self edit this out later? I think I may have done so. (I self edit quite a bit as I read and doubt I am the only one. It is an interesting reading phenomenon.)

    More generally on HEAs, I find it very difficult to put into words what these mean to me, as a romance reader, but here goes.

    A really good HEA is like a musical note. It is like ending a song with one of those chords that expresses finality and rightness. Once the note ends, there is a moment (perhaps an actual moment, perhaps hours, or days) where the feeling lingers, beyond the ending of the music. I find that that feeling lingers, then it moves somehow, from happiness to a poignant sort of sadness. This sadness relates to the story being over. Yet it may find its shape and expression in me wondering about the characters’ future. Eventually, however, my mind adjusts and my sense of how the book ended settles into something permanent. It’s kind of a coming to terms with the fact that the book is fiction. Like when Bagpuss falls asleep and all his friends fall asleep too.

    I suppose what I’m really saying is that the concerns of reality – taking those bins out every Wednesday – dissipates after a while, along with the rest of the dream.

    Reply
    • I love the way you put that. I guess I see the endings less as a lingering note, more as a Butch Cassidy style freeze frame, holding a moment in time. But I absolutely see what you’re saying, and Bagpuss analogies always win.

      I’d love to talk Heyer over a drink at the Meet! I know a lot of people adore Devil’s Cub, I could never see it. For me there’s a whiff of unlikelihood in Mary – I think her practical plainness veers into a drab joylessness and I don’t see what attracts Vidal at all. (Whereas I adore Jenny’s much less adventurous, utterly domestic practical plainness in A Civil Contract, which I’m glad you love, it’s woefully underrated.)

      Reply
  2. Ah, good points!
    I think any of us who has been married/in a long term relationship can sympathize with the fact that there really is no such thing as “happily ever after”. There is commitment, but that is not the same thing, not at all.

    But writing is all about controlling how much information you give your readers. Where you end the story, as well as where you begin it, can make all the difference. Tell me about a villain’s horrible childhood and chances are I will forgive most of his evil ways. End with a wedding and I can pretend the happy couple stayed together forever.

    You are right when you say “the rest is hope”. I guess that is what we do when we write, isn’t it? We capture hope, and ideals, and possibilities, and add enough detail to make it all seem plausible. And I suppose that’s what we want when we read a romance: hope.

    Reply
    • Yes: any story is basically like chopping one strand of wool out of a tangle, isn’t it? This piece, not that one, starting here and finishing there. I’ve been thinking a lot about villains and their motivation in stories, but that’s probably a separate post…

      Reply
  3. KJ…this just depressed the crap out of me. ha! As a reader who DEMANDS a HEA and never reads stories w/o them, I insist that the fairy tale ends at the last page…or as far as my demented “they’ll never be sad or argue or have hard times again!” thoughts take it… 🙂

    Reply
    • You’re a proper romantic, you. 🙂 It’s not that I wouldn’t *like* rainbows for everyone, I just can’t quite buy it. But I think an equilibrium, a place from which to go forward, is a pretty good place to end even so…?

      Reply
  4. You’re right – HFN is more realistic. There are no guarantees in life. But love doesn’t mean you will never be sad, never be angry, never have trouble. I have been married for 38 years and I have had plenty of sadness, anger and trouble, but you know what – I still have love. If 42% of marriages end in divorce, then 58% endure.

    When I say I want a HEA in any story I read, I don’t mean I expect them to have a life filled with nothing but joy. I want to believe that whatever happens in their lives, their love will last. Avon and Leonie had troubles, but as I remember, their love endured. THAT is what matters.

    Reply
  5. I came in late last night, read this and made a flip comment. Then read it again this morning. I dislike the bolt on HEA that a lot of books have so with you there. Using Heyer as an example,is like prodding the hornets nest of growing up (maybe why you did it ?) .

    In life all we have is the day, but we work hard at making the good days outweigh the bad – keeping a balance between binage, washing and that spark that brought us together in the first place and that’s what makes me happy (that and date nights with wine) In novels its enough to know that when you left the characters, they were in a good place. For me

    Hate Valentines day with a vengeance.

    Reply
    • With you on absolutely all of that, and particularly date nights with wine.

      I used Heyer as an example because she’s my touchstone, and I know her books pretty much off by heart…

      Reply
  6. Hi, I’m Jo, and I’m another romance author who doesn’t believe in HEAs 🙂

    I think this is why I never have my characters getting engaged/married at the end of a book. After having an ultimately unsuccessful marriage myself, I’m aware that even when you do try to make things work, it won’t always make you happy in the long term. I think that’s also why I enjoy letting my characters work through some of differences on page. I then feel happier that they’ll be well placed to deal with all their future relationship challenges, of which there will be many, even if mostly over mundane stuff like the bins!

    Reply
    • We should totally form a support group.

      Maybe there should be a new endings acronym. IAGP (In A Good Place), and the reader can decide for herself if that’s for now or for ever.

      Reply
  7. I can’t comment with any great authority on the HEA because I haven’t finished my first novel yet. I am certain though that I will want a HEA because I agree with the comment about a musical chord that gives that finality and satisfaction. I find books that actively mess you up with an unhappy ending are really annoying – especially if they seem as though they will end happily. Spoiler alert: Gold by Dan Rhodes does not have a happy ending. I read it without knowing about the author’s views on happy endings – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/apr/14/featuresreviews.guardianreview9 – I really enjoyed it until the last page when I realised the bastard had decided there would be no happy ending for me. I am still very annoyed about it and if I ever meet the author at a party, I’d stand between him and the bar (despite his empty glass) and make him recant his notions of the way novels should end. Beware, KJ, beware – block my happy ending and I will block your access to beverages at parties.

    Reply
    • Ah, well now, hang on (and don’t block my access to drink! I’m sorry!). I don’t at all buy into sad endings for the sake of sad. Sad for the sake of the story and the logic of the book is fine and right – but just making the reader suffer because it’s more literary or ‘a twist’ is a pile of bobbins. I have rarely felt as enraged and cheated as I did by the end of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin even if it was an eventual HEA, because of the years lost to the most pathetic, cheap, obviously engineered, bad-romance communication failure. Gah.

      Whereas, take A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (which is obviously not a romance novel, but is an interesting parallel). That book makes you briefly, wonderfully believe that things will work out for its protagonists. There’s a glorious flowering of human connection and, yes, developing love stories, which is pulled away in a manner so harrowing that I still feel sick when I think of it. (I read A Fine Balance on my honeymoon. Good call, KJ.) But, it’s absolutely right for the book – what happens to the characters is a microcosm of what’s happened to the country – and much though I wept over their fates, it would have been untrue to the story for their charmed existence to continue.

      Reply
      • You are, as ever, right. Unfortunately I have inherited my father’s genes when it comes to happy endings (no idea why that sounds rude to type) – he (and I) refuse to watch sad films or read sad books because we’re both journalists and we both see sad stories in the news all the time so, for leisure reading, we want joy and uplifting stuff and unicorns and kittens. My mother, on the other hand, is far more balanced and has that sense of what is ‘right’ for the tale. So we now have a shorthand in our family for whether a book is suitable for Dad or not – literally a parental advisory label.

        Reply
  8. Briefly coming out of the kingdom of lurkdom to comment on this post – btw, I really like your entries. They me me laugh, or think – or laugh and think. Thanks!

    It probably all comes down on what one sees as a HEA. I never thought the HEA was intended to be “never fight again, never ever having a single doubt or a single bad day and always wholeheartedly loving your partner’s probable shortcomings”. That’s just such a plastic vision of a HEA – IMO, of course. There’s nothing real about it. So, for me at least, HEA is something differet. I’m well aware that divorces and separations are commonplace, but it’s also true that, despite it all, a lot of couples do remain together, and not just because it’s habit/more comfortable/easier/more convenient. Despite the glamour that comes off, time that ages, little idiosyncrasies that may or may be not become more irritating as years go by, some people continue to choose their partners, because together they are happier, their lives together are better – because they are a unit. That’s the kind of HEA I always picture in the romances I read and like. Yes, yes, were I to be extremely rational I would probably apply some real life percentage to what I read – e.g. 42% of the books I pick up are about couples that will not last long together after the last page. Ugh. Ok, good m/m books are not easy to find and I read a lot of crappy romances anyway. 😉

    Have a good day!

    Agata

    Reply
  9. Maybe the “H” in HEA & HFN should be redefined as “Hopeful”! Excellent post, KJ.

    Despite everything, despite personal experience, I still WANT to believe in happy ever after. I haven’t read These Old Shades, but I’m with you on not wanting my HEA spoiled – if I ever do read it, I’ll be pretending the sequels don’t exist! 😉

    Reply
  10. Great post 🙂
    I agree with all of this. I consider all my story endings to be HFN because that’s life – even if the characters do get engaged at the end, that’s only the beginning.
    All relationships are a work in progress and I don’t think that’s actually negative view.
    I love stories that end with the possibility of the characters going the distance (whether HFN or HEA). But with any romance novel you’re only ever seeing a snapshot of a significant period – usually the getting together part, so we just have to hope that it works out for them in the long run.
    That’s good enough for me, but I often wonder if I’m a little unromantic for a romance writer too 😉

    Reply
  11. HEA probably means, for an author, stop the clock at the point which gives the best likelihood that the couple will muddle through live happier together than they would have been apart. As a reader, that’s what I want to see. As Jay Northcote says, we’re only seeing part of a significant period in their lives.

    Most novels focus on only part of someone’s life; maybe literary fiction tends to focus on character-building, thought-provoking [aka miserable, generally, so far as I can see] periods while romance novels focus on the romantic relationship which is the one most likely to succeed for that character.

    Reply
  12. Ah, this is a great post! I’m with you, BTW, on the Heyer novels. A Civil Contract is one of my favorites, probably because it *doesn’t* run true to trope. It’s a lovely, lovely story, however, about a man who finds the perfect woman for him right beneath his nose when he’s been looking in the wrong direction all along. As for the others, when we fall in love with a set of characters, we want to know more about them at their next step in life–finding out that thirty years have passed and their lives are depressing and sad–um, no. I don’t need that dagger in my heart! Like you, there are some sequels I wish I’d never seen or read.

    I’m a bit of an odd duck in that, as my day job is emotionally draining,I’m drawn to romances because of the HEA factor (I often have to have people screen stories for me in order to avoid things I’d rather not read about in my entertainment). On the other hand, I’m not really a hearts and flowers kind of person, so I don’t need the big declaration, the wedding, the arrival of the baby. In fact, I suspect I’m a bit put off by that sort of thing simply because it *does* feel too neat, all ends tied up.

    We know that Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet can’t possibly have the perfect HEA–their temperments, their families, and most of all, Darcy’s radical behavior change, suggest that times will be a tumultuous at Pemberly. But we’re okay with that because Jane has Bingly, and Elizabeth has Darcy, and we have the strong sense that come what may, these men will stick by their ladies from now on. I would be surprised and disappointed, however, if Lydia didn’t continue to get into terrible predicaments, laughing them off and heading full tilt for the next disaster, or that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t have some passionate rows. I am happy with the ending of Pride and Prejudice because I know these things are inherent, and my mind can occupy itself for hours happily imagining future events.

    In my own writing, I prefer not to tie up every loose end. My characters may or may not declare undying love. If they don’t say the words, however, it’s because they’ve shown the depth of their emotions with almost every action. I have been pinged by readers, though, for not having the big declaration scene. I guess the reason I do these things is because once I’ve spent so much time with a group of characters, I’m not sure I want their story to end with a wedding and a kiss–for the very same reasons you list. It’s not the end, it’s a beginning. Anyone that’s been in a long-term relationship can also tell you that it is not getting to the declaration that’s the hard part–it’s maintaining the flame through the years.

    As someone else here said, however, we’re taking a snapshot of the characters and their lives, and a story has to have a beginning and an ending to be satisfying. I just prefer to leave the door open for more trouble to walk in! 🙂

    Reply
  13. What a great article, KJ!

    Let’s face it, and they all lived happily ever after is the boring part of the story. The fun part of it is everything that happens before, and I place a lot of the blame of this romanticized ideal of hearts and flowers and rainbow farting unicorns squarely upon the shoulders of Walt Disney. Not that I don’t love Disney’s interpretations of some of the classic tales, but in reality, the original versions of those stories weren’t romantic, they were cautionary tales that have been repackaged and marketed to us with the tagline that “True happiness only comes after the I dos.”

    Reply
    • Quite. HEA means the fun is over. (I was reading my daughter a fairy tale that ended something like, ‘and they got married and had sixteen children and lived happily ever after’, and all I could think was, that’s not HEA, that’s H-E-L-L.)

      Reply
  14. What an interesting post! Hmmm, I’m another person who uses the HEA of romance novels as my drug of choice to combat the not-always-so-happy-endings nature of my work. I seem to most adore novels where the couple works as a team against outside odds. It makes their HEA more believable, if they have a proven track record of excellent communication abilities and compatible skills. Like Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series (heavily Heyer inspired)- I just love seeing them progress from lovers to parents to grandparents. I know that they would never give up on each other, because their relationship comes first. That, and they know where the bodies are buried, another component of everlasting love 🙂 Thanks so much for your squee- worthy books. I’m making my husband read them next, so I can go on about them out loud!

    Reply
  15. I have to say I am so relieved to see authors and you commenting that you don’t like HEA because I have a lot of problems with it too.

    For me it’s not the happily endings per say that I have a problem with but the way it seems to be constructed in the romance tradition. It seems like in romance HEA, even HFN, has to involved monogamy, cohabitation, marriage or an equal level of commitment among other things. It can’t just be these two people are happy together by the end of the book.

    That makes me uncomfortable because relationship markers, like cohabitation or marriage isn’t possible for a lot of queer couple even now. Never mind if you are writing within a historical or quasi-historical setting.

    That doesn’t mean that these couple don’t have, or have had, meaningful relationships or happy ending. They’ve just needed to define them in different ways. And yeah, sometimes that kind of happy ending is saying, “you make me really happy in a way no one else can. And even if it is just for today that’s good enough,” because for a lot of queer couples it has to be throughout history and most of the world even today. Besides a lot of queer couples don’t want these things even if they can have them because that’s not how they define their relationships.

    I know at the end of the day I don’t define the success or familiar of my relationships by if we end up co-parenting, living together, getting married or remaining monogamous. In fact, although I would like to have some of these things, none of them play a role in defining what I think of as love or a healthy relationship. That is in part because my ability (like the ability of all queer people) to have any of these things is depended on who I’m in a relationship with and where we live.

    So then it becomes difficult to see readers basically say “this happy ending isn’t good enough,” because it doesn’t involved cohabitation, monogamy, marriage etc.

    I think there are a lot of readers out there willing to take any kind of happy ending that makes the characters happy as good enough whether it includes these other relationship markers, is long term or not. But there is a definitely a sizable presentation that want it to fit the formula. Even that in and of itself is fine as along as their is some recognition that happy endings are going to look different for different people, especially different types of queer people.

    That’s why I more often than not I say I’m an author against HEA. Not that I’m against happy endings I just don’t do the happy ending= these specific relationship markers formula.

    Reply
  16. I’m inclined the same way. I think you can’t call it a HEA unless the story follows them to the grave (and they die at the exact same moment, so they never have the grief of being parted.) Instead I think of them as HFN, and in some cases with a pretty good shot of it being an HEA, if nothing too bad happens. In some cases I think of an ending as “HFN, but you two are definitely going to be negotiating who gets to keep the dog and how to split the DVD collection in a few years.”

    One of my endings I’d call “Not exactly happy, but there for each other, with the rather strong possibility that they might both be murdered within a month.” Well, they live a dangerous life. 😉

    I’m also a strong believer that a happy ending for the romance does not have to mean all of their other problems in life are all fixed too. They can still have challenges ahead of them. The point for me is that they’ll be facing those challenges together.

    Reply
  17. Pingback: March of the Links | Becky Black

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