We can’t get enough of ‘Happy ever after’

11th January 2019

The seasonal surge of sentimentality prompts in adults as well as children a yearning for happy endings, whether at home, on screen or in fiction; for everything to come right in the last reel, literally or figuratively.

It is thus that authors and scriptwriters are perennially torn between the harsh claims of realism, and the advantages to their incomes of giving the public what it wants.   Consider, for instance, the final scene of My Fair Lady, which delights its audience by depicting Eliza creeping back to the monstrous Higgins.

Shaw, in his superbly cynical postscript to Pygmalion, the musical’s dramatic forerunner, dispels this illusion of togetherness.  ‘The true sequel’, he wrote, ‘is patent to anyone with a sense of human nature in general, and of feminine instinct in particular’.

Eliza marries the talentless, penniless but adoring Freddy Eynsford-Hill, preferring a lifetime of having her slippers fetched by him, to herself fetching those of Higgins. Colonel Pickering buys them a flower shop above South Kensington station, and pays its persistent losses.

Shaw concludes: ‘It is astonishing how much Eliza still manages to meddle in the housekeeping at Wimpole Street…And it is notable that though she never nags her husband and frankly loves the colonel, she has never got out of the habit of nagging Higgins that was established on the fatal night when she won his bet for him….The colonel has to ask her from time to time to be kinder to Higgins’.

Sunny souls may claim that this outcome represents a happy ending, but it is certainly not the one imagined by Fair Lady fans.

E.M.Forster likewise wrote a 1958 appendix to A Room With A View, published half a century earlier, fantasising about his characters’ fates. George Emerson rose fractionally in the social scale, becoming a clerk in a government office.   But then the First World War mucked things up: he proclaimed himself a Conscientious Objector, horrifying his mother-in-law Mrs.Honeychurch.

Lucy Emerson was reported to the police for continuing to play Beethoven- ‘Hun music’. Her idealistic father-in-law died an unhappy man.  Brother Freddy became an unsuccessful doctor and sold Windy Corner to developers.   George and Lucy, financially straitened, moved from Highgate to Carshalton, where they raised three children.  In World War II George became an overage corporal, was captured in North Africa and imprisoned in….Italy.

The good news about the Emersons was that their love survived, so perhaps it did not matter that Lucy fell out of the upper middle class into the world of ‘Mifs’ so despised by Nancy Mitford- people who pour milk in first.

Evelyn Waugh composed an alternative, less unhappy outcome of his 1933 novel A Handful Of Dust. Readers will recall that cuckolded Tony Last fell into bondage, condemned to end his days reading Dickens to a madman in the South American jungle.

An American magazine demanded a more upbeat outcome as a condition of serialization, and got it.  In Waugh’s revision, Last returns from his jungle sabbatical to find a contrite wife on the dockside. Brenda asks timorously: ‘You aren’t still in a rage with me, are you ?…over that nonsense with Mr.Beaver, I mean ?

She confesses that her lover had bolted: ‘You see, you didn’t leave me with very much money, did you ? and that made everything difficult because poor Mr.Beaver hadn’t any either’.

Soon afterwards Tony visits London, leaving his wife to suppose that he is arranging disposal of the flat in which she had sinned. Instead, however, he arranges to retain it for his own purposes, though ‘I think it would be better if my name didn’t appear on that board downstairs’.

Thus Waugh indulged American magazine readers with the notion that decent, deceived Tony turned the tables upon his adulterous wife. Yet who of any discernment could find this version artistically effective or romantically convincing?

A century earlier, It is hard to believe that a girl as self-willed as Emma Woodhouse would much enjoy marriage to Mr.Knightley, twice her age, forever subjecting her to pompous homilies. And while we are Austening, what of Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy? Cleverclogs say that her family’s awfulness would not matter, because Pemberley lies far from Longbourn.  Come off it.  Mrs.Bennet, a woman ‘of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper’ would never be out of her daughter’s Chatsworth-lookalike.  Darcy would surely have taken the Grand Tour rather than endure the plaguey Bennets.

Yet in raising these speculations, I waste ink. Literate humankind is desperate to believe in the happiness of every Knightley and Darcy. Bulwer-Lytton persuaded Dickens to change his original bleak conclusion of Great Expectations, to permit Pip and Estella to come together. Trollope goes a step further: In the first chapters of Dr.Thorne, he offers a soothing taste of reassurance. Despite all the tribulations that will beset his hero Frank Gresham, ‘I am too old now to be a hard-hearted author, and so it is probable that he may not die of a broken heart’.

He knew his 19th century public, and anticipated his 21st century one. Many of the author’s protagonists secure wealth as well as love. In our real lives, we know how remote the possibility that Prince Charming will find enduring happiness in the arms of Cinderella, a girl whom he has met only once, at a ball. But we go on hoping, and embracing novels, movies, musicals brimming with hope. Happy New Year.

Originally published in The Times £rd January 2019.

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