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!