Romance as Suffering

By Poison Ivy,

Here’s something I bet you never realized. Romances with happy ever after endings are a very modern concept. There has been a lot of discussion in romance land lately about how boring and stultifying it is to always have a happy ever after ending. But romances didn’t always end happily and they didn’t always get to a happy ending without a lot of pain and suffering along the way. Yes, one of my favorite types of romance, the tearjerker, is completely out of fashion these days, and it’s kind of strange when you think about it.

Most of the classic romances in history have been tragedies. They didn’t end well. Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde, Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot—well, you can understand why that one ended badly. But you get my drift. What we think of as classic romance was unhappy romance. And romance stayed unhappy. Yes, it is true that Jane Eyre did marry her Rochester. But Clarissa was undone by Lovelace and died. Poor Lucia di Lammermoor went mad and killed her bridegroom on the wedding night. And died. The lovers in “Swan Lake” reunited only in death. And Rhett Butler walked out on Scarlett O’Hara (which was getting off lightly, compared to these other classic unhappy endings).

But those of us who have been reading romances written in the past few decades are not used to anything but a happy ever after ending. Oh, we’ll accept them in classic literature, and even in classic films. There’s a wonderful article by Marlee MacLeod on describing the history of the three-hanky motion picture, or weepie. Also known as a tearjerker or soap or sudser. Movies have paralleled novels in telling about some very unhappy love affairs.

[[SPOILER ALERT. I’m about to give away some endings.]]

Now Voyager, published in 1941 and written by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the famous tearjerker Stella Dallas, was made into a Bette Davis movie, so it is still fairly well known. An ugly duckling from a wealthy family finally manages to shed her awkward social image. She falls into love with an unhappily married man. At this stretch of time, I don’t remember all the details, but I think that he was married to an invalid, the kind of woman that only a cad would try to divorce. And back then, divorce was not easy to obtain and still carried negative social consequences. So at the end, the two frustrated lovers agree to keep it platonic, and they light their cigarettes on one match. And that’s it. That’s as close as they come to a sexual expression of their love or to being together in the future. That’s their big (un)happy ending.

The Age of Innocence, published in 1920, written by Edith Wharton, was recently made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. It told how a man was so constrained by his upper crust social sphere that he dared not consort with the interesting married woman he came to love, and he even urged her not to get divorced from her brute of a husband because it would be scandalous. So he lived a lie his whole life, married the wrong woman, and when he was a widower, still refused to reunite with the woman he loved. Because he sacrificed love on the altar of social smallmindedness. It certainly wasn’t a happy ending.

The Prisoner of Zenda, published in 1894, and a number one bestseller in its day full of rousing action, ends unhappily. The hero saves the day, saves the king, and falls in love with the princess. But the princess, although openly admitting she loves him, chooses duty over love. And so the hero returns to England and his love marries the king, and all they ever exchange is a once-a-year love token. This should be a downer, and it is. But both the hero and heroine behave so nobly that their lost love is seen as a fine sort of suffering.

Various more obscure writers of the 20th century, such as Ruby M. Ayres, Kathleen Norris, Temple Bailey, Faith Baldwin, and Netta Muskett told weepy stories of loves that did not go well. The chief element in these romances was suffering. In many of them, the heroine had a strong sense of being alone with her miserable feelings. The other aspects of her life were as dross because she couldn’t be with the one she loved. She just suffered and suffered and suffered. In some of these stories, circumstances kept the characters from confiding their feelings. In others, they talked about them endlessly, but obstacle after obstacle (usually family duty or social consequences) got in the way of being together. If they did have a fleeting period of happiness, it was set up in such a way that everyone knows it can’t last. Such as in Three Weeks, by Elinor Glyn. I can remember one story that went on and on, with the heroine suffering every step of the way and in every conceivable manner. It was great. (Well, actually, I remember the reactions I had; the details and even the name of the story escape me now.)

Romances today just don’t go in for such extended suffering. Women still have enormous responsibilities, but the responsibilities don’t force romance heroines to give up on love. It isn’t necessary for a heroine to reject the man she loves to take care of her aging mother, or her young siblings, for instance. Societal roles are much more fluid today, too. Men don’t stand on their pride and refuse to marry women who have more money than they do. (Actually, I’m not sure this was ever true. But in fiction, it used to be a terrible barrier.) Women’s social lives are not determined by their reputations in the same way they used to be. Single mothers abound, and the worrisome issue of having been seen with the wrong person and thus condemned to social shunning just isn’t an issue for most people in our society. The suffering part of romance today is cut short. Instead, the stories focus on how the main characters solve their conflicts. And the conflicts are usually as much interpersonal and internal as they are external and forced on them by others. Thus, a modern Ruritanian romance would have action and adventure and conflicts between the hero and heroine, and yes, concern that maybe the princess can’t marry the commoner. But by the end, something gives, and it all works out.

It’s probably a good thing that modern romances are so optimistic. But wait a minute. People have been complaining about happy ever after endings. And the current rage is the paranormal romance, in which at least one main character, or both, are dead. Or rather, undead. Or else they are werewolves, condemned to a life of being hunted and misunderstood, and…hmm. Maybe the suffering romance is still with us after all.