Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Epilogues: The Cost of Sentiment

Dear Author has a fascinating post  on the problems of epilogues. I confess I don't much like them (with a few notable exceptions). What often draws me to romance is melodrama. (I know that's a loaded term but in this case I mean it in the most positive sense.) What inevitably turns me off is cheap sentiment; melodrama is sentimental, of course, but the difference, I think, is that it's expensive sentiment. It may be extravagantly emotional but the emotion feels earned. Epilogues,  especially those that emphasize pregnancy and children, often seem to me to dilute expensive sentiment with cheap sentiment--to use a kind of easy emotional shorthand to wrap things up neatly. I understand that many want, on finishing a romance, to be assured that the couple's relationship is sustainable--and that the epilogue often serves this function. I suspect I might be a bit odd in my distaste for reassurance--if the story hasn't assured me in the first place, if I'm not fervently convinced of the truth of the emotional arc, an epilogue isn't likely to sway me.

Of course, there's also my knee-jerk antipathy for stories centered around babies and children. Children in romance rarely seem to me anymore than an occasion for a dumb joke or a plot device. When I read romance, I want to read about adults. I want characters to be grown-ups, by virtue of age and experience. I want them to think like adults and act like adults, too. I understand that not every reader shares this particular prejudice--reading about children isn't something I enjoy but I certainly don't begrudge anyone else the predilection.

What bothers me, too, about many epilogues is what I see as a potentially troubling political position. Another attraction (for me) of reading about romantic love in a historical setting is the way it disrupts the social fabric. One of the reasons I think nineteenth century England has such an enduring appeal in Romancelandia is that lovers are always up against such incredible odds. From the Regency to the late Victorian, the established structures of race, class, and gender (though they change and reform throughout the century) are set up to discourage passion, or at least to reroute it through a very narrow set of socially acceptable channels. For a time there, it was truly a revolutionary thing--dangerous, antisocial,  rebellious--to pursue this kind of sexual and emotional fulfillment.

Opponents of romance like to talk about its conservativeness, its heteronormativity. Certainly the genre can have those elements--and when an epilogue works overtime to reinscribe its characters into the problematic social fabric they've been trying to buck, I start to feel some sympathy with those criticisms. How many times have we read the scenario in which rakes or bluestockings express their great ennui with the shallow/rigid/traditional society that enmeshes them only to see those same characters absorbed back into the fold at the end of the book? Often, indeed, this reabsorption seems to be a desirable end that the epilogue is designed to effect.

There are alternatives to this reinscription, of course. One is when the lovers yield the field--they move somehow outside of society to make their own space. This strategy can be an effective one, as it is in E.M. Forster's Maurice when Maurice and Alec disappear into the greenwood--or in Connie Brockway's All Through the Night (one of my all-time favorites), when Jack and Anne vanish into mist in the last line:

Filled with the singing sweetness of loving and being loved, she did not notice the fog finally enveloping them. And when a chance breeze blew it away, they were gone.

 In the other alternative, the book has to show how the union of the leads alters (subtly or explicitly) the social fabric in which they already exist. I think Meredith Duran's A Lady's Lesson in Scandal --the story of a noble and a woman who grows up as a factory girl in Bethnal Green--grapples with this problem in a really serious and fascinating way, though I'm not sure the resolution quite worked for me. (To be fair, I have a similar problem with Shaw's Pygmalion and Judith Ivory's The Proposition.) And, in the end, it is this alternative that may be the most interesting (and the most difficult to pull off). What it comes down to for me is that--if I want reassurance at all--I want to be reassured  that things are going to be different, that the conclusion of the romantic arc will change the way the characters relate to their historical milieu. My fantasy of romantic love is one in which the "ever after" part of the HEA is different from the "ever before." Otherwise, you get something like this claustrophobic bit from the end of Anne Sexton's "Cinderella":

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story. 

That story.

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