Reading Lucy Coats's wonderful set of posts about attending Charles and Diana's 1981 wedding (here, here and here), I found myself dwelling on the very unhappy outcome of that particular marriage. This time around, expectations are more grounded for William and Kate, and I wonder how much that indicates a wider cultural shift - one that can't help but be reflected in our literature. Does anyone believe in fairytale endings any more?
Once upon a time, it was a given that children's books would end well. With the exception of a few authors, all of the horrid beastliness of adult life was kept well away from the kiddiwinks. Many of us were raised on the idea that good would triumph over evil and that the princess would find her handsome prince and live happily ever after. I certainly don't remember any stories where the prince was losing his hair at the age of 28 and his slightly potty father was nearing retirement age, yet still waiting to inherit the throne. Maybe I should have read more Norman Hunter books.
The happy-ever-after ending got a bad reputation, in part because of its glibness. It was perfectly acceptable to mire a protagonist in the deepest danger and then, within a single chapter, turn things around and resolve everything in the positive. There was little regard for the messiness that such an outcome left behind, much like there is little regard for the cost of property damage left after the end of the average action movie.
I wouldn't want to lose the moral complexity of the modern children's novel, because it's the very thing that attracts me to the form - a wonderful balance between brisk storytelling and emotional truth. An author like Jacqueline Wilson has spent her career showing us the uncertainties of modern life, how adults are often as clueless and confused as the children they raise, and how we all need to pull together to keep the family unit afloat. Most children do still have what we'd like to think as "a childhood" (whatever the tabloids might say), but they learn early on about the kind of world they are growing up into. With this background, is it any surprise that endings need to be more ambiguous, more understanding of the way that life is an ongoing struggle that doesn't end on the final page?
Some genres will go to the other extreme, choosing endings that are deliberately bleak or cruel. A true dystopia, for instance, doesn't leave much room for a cheerful ending. These resolutions strike me as just as contrived as the happily-ever-after, yet it has to be argued that they are realistic. Life itself holds no happy endings - disease and dissolution lie at the end of all our stories. Perhaps the most unvarnished closing sentence of all belongs to the Grimm Brother's The Adventures of Chanticleer and Partlet:
And so, all were dead.
Should we aim for the blunt and bitter, or look for a sense of hope at the close of our work? Life, after all, will go on without us and the world will still be here long after we are gone. Let's hope our books will be too.
Edit - In a super-spooky development, Katie Dale was writing on exactly the same subject at the same time I was - except her blog post got more comments. I'm not bitter. http://edgeauthors.blogspot.com/2011/04/happy-endings.html