Monday, August 22, 2011

Jane Austen and Happy Endings

Some people drink to deal with stress, others binge on junk food. I turn to Jane Austen. I've got both recent versions of Pride and Prejudice on DVD, the BBC version when I've got a whole day to sit and watch the story in every detail, and the Keira Knightly version for when I have only a few hours. I also indulge in Clueless, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, and have most of her books on my Kindle. There's nothing like a happy ending to turn my mood around. That's why I go to such great lengths to write happy endings.

Which many would say bars me from writing "serious literature" - but I write science fiction too, so it should be obvious to everyone that I don't much care what the literary establishment thinks of me. I'm always amused, though, at people's attitudes towards a happy ending. Stories that end on a high note are "fluff", harmless but trivial.

Yet a happy ending isn't rewarding if the character's conflicts are trivial. Take Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, isn't the prettiest girl in her family. That would be her sister, Jane. Her fortune isn't assured. She and her sisters cannot inherit from their father and Jane's all but confirmed engagement to a wealthy man has been abruptly cut off. By the middle of the book, Elizabeth has had two marriage proposals that would save her family, one from Mr. Collins, the man who will inherit her father's estate, and the other from Mr. Darcy, an arrogant, disagreeable fellow who is fabulously rich. Because Elizabeth wants a happy marriage, she turns them both down, which in that era means she dooms not just herself, but her entire family. Even worse, her younger sister, Lydia, runs off with a man with no money, no honor, and no intention of making her an honest woman. All of the Bennett sisters are tainted by association, their marriage prospects are gone, and they will be turned out of their home upon the death of Mr. Bennet.

These aren't "fluff" concerns, and it would have been easy for Austen to make this book a tragedy. She could have ended it just after Lydia's elopement, but it is her decision not to end the story there that makes the happy ending possible. I think life is like that too. In order to find our happy endings, we have to resolve not to say "The End" until we pass through our dark times and trials and find a way to succeed.

Austen found a way to create a happy ending for Elizabeth Bennet that was believable and satisfying. A vitriol fueled visit from Mr. Darcy's aunt sets the wheels in motion. What appears to be a lost cause for the Bennet sisters contains the cleverly hidden elements that turn the tables on all of their ill-wishers. The sisters rise triumphant from what looked like certain doom. Pride and Prejudice's ending proves that Austen is a master storyteller, because a lesser storyteller would never have been able to turn the plot so completely and convincingly around.

Which is why I turn to Jane Austen, not to escape my life, but to learn how to change it. Happiness isn't easy. Feeling like you're on top of your troubles and in control of your life takes hard work, creativity, and endless patience. As they say, when you're walking through the valley of darkness, keep walking! To live our lives from happy ending to happy ending is a skill which I'll admit I haven't mastered yet. Until I get there, I'll practice in my writing. And every time I fail, I've got a drawer full of Jane Austen movies and books to lift my spirits and keep me going. Here's to not saying "The End" until we find our happy endings.

My book, Time and Eternity, is about twenty-five year old Alice O'Donnell, who receives something that looks an awful lot like a revelation from God that her dream will come true. In many books, this might be the beginning of endless bliss, but in real life? Yeah. It's the beginning of a tough journey in which she questions her sanity. Everything that should go right for the revelation to come true, goes wrong. Answers aren't easy and I won't tell you how it all is resolved, but I promise that there's a happy ending.


  1. I too believe in writing happy endings, and my favorite JA quote is: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subject as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and have done with all the rest." MP

  2. This is wonderful! I completely agree, Emily. I do believe in happy endings, which is why I write of them. I will confess that I once judged romance novels harshly as "fluff". Not that I did not love the fluffy story, mind you, but that I did not see the deeper plot lines as significant.

    I have always preferred a happy ending over a tragedy. Even in sci-fi or fantasy novels the heros triumph and restore peace to the land, or whole universe in some cases. I like that! Good trumps evil! In essence that is the same as a romance novel, although it usually isn't the entire world at stake. Yet that makes it more real because a romance is about individuals and their lives, which we can relate to.

    That is why Austen remains popular today. Everyone, male or female, can relate to the problems encountered by her characters, and the characters themselves.

    Good luck with your novel. And thanks for an insightful essay on Jane Austen.

  3. Thanks Sharon! I too am a sci-fi and fantasy fan. I write short stories in that genre as Emily Mah (

  4. Which is why I turn to Jane Austen, not to escape my life, but to learn how to change it.

    Too true Emily. Everything I need to know I learned from Jane Austen.

  5. Nice article Emily. I like happy endings and maybe, that's one of the reasons why I love Jane Austen. I don't know why some writers and directors are over obsessed with dark/sad endings nowadays, it's like a scream about 'Hey,I write serious stuff, I am an adult!'. Happy or sad endings must be the result of the story. And of course, the story must be good :). And Jane Austen was a master of that! :)

  6. Indeed she was. It's incredible to me how this woman who lived 200 years ago is still able to tell me stories that are so true and give me new perspectives on life.

  7. Great thoughts Emily. We do love her don't we?

  8. The trouble I have with Jane Austen is that she leads us down a path toward a tragic ending only to surprise us with a deus ex machina. Our minds are nourished by the experience I suppose. All is lost. That's life. Ah, but no, all is gained. It's like the ending of the Book of Job when all his losses are restored (yet not really; Job is more profound than JA).

  9. Yeah, I think a lot of people feel that way about JA. I've got a slight quibble with the term deus ex machina in this context because she does set up the ending as the result of character action at the beginning. I.e. Lizzie makes Darcey into a better man by refusing his proposal the first time around. Being a stalwart friend to the man you love opening the door to a proposal in Sense and Sensibility. The end of The Importance of Being Earnest is deus ex machine - the guy couldn't control the fact that his name really was Earnest. But yeah, not everyone likes things tied up into a neat bow. For a Job story, I prefer A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Lots of great parallels there!