These days, it is a firm convention of romantic novels that there must be a happy ending – otherwise, it confounds reader expectations.
While some writers and readers hold out that a ‘happy for now’ is sufficient – ie, it is left up to the reader to decide whether the new found happiness between hero and heroine can last for long – that is generally about as much of a challenge to the requisite ‘HEA’ as you will come by in a romantic novel: anyway, one that is written for the market.
Interesting, is that back in the nineteenth century this was not so. Many of the stories which in all other respects were clearly the precursors of the modern romantic novel, did not have happy endings at all.
Sometimes, this was possibly a moral requirement: there had been adultery, say, and in order to satisfy the moral requirements of the genre in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the guilty pair must be punished.
This lack of a conventional happy ending was what particularly intrigued me about a novel I read a few weeks ago by the late Victorian novelist Rhoda Broughton. It made me want to sample some more by this writer, now virtually forgotten.
This author, who wrote light fiction generally for escapist purposes, could be said often to have written romances. But this one that I read, while in style and theme so like a romantic novel, has an end which borders on the grim.
True, nobody dies in the story, except two older people in bad health, whose deaths are necessary for the plot, and neither are characters the reader has come to know. Still, the story ends with bitter disillusionment for the heroine, who has sacrificed a fortune and the close friendship of a true lover for the superficial attractions of the male lead. As for the male lead, he clearly considers himself heartbroken – though equally clearly, there will be a rush of women eager to console him.
This was called, ‘The Game and the Candle’. Here it is described by Wickipedia:
The Game and the Candle (1899) is like Jane Austen‘s Persuasion (1818) rewritten. Only this time the heroine has married for rational reasons and is freed in the beginning for her true love, which reason forbade her to marry years before. Her dying husband’s last will forces her to decide between love and fortune. However, a renewed encounter with her former lover forces her to see it was actually a good thing she had not married him. His love turns to be too shallow for her happiness. The novel is one of a mature and wise woman who has seen the world.
The story begins with the protagonist’s Jane’s husband, Henry Etheridge, who, in his late fifties, is thirty years older than she is, on his deathbed. He tries to exact a promise from her that she will not after his death marry the man with whom he overheard her exchanging love vows five years ago.
After that, Jane told this man, the fair, althletic,handsome, lively young Jack Miles, that they must part. Her husband says:
‘It is because I wish you well that I am going to make a request to you… When you replace me—my stipulation is that it is not by the—person of whom you took leave five years ago beside the fountain in the circular garden.’
If she does not make this promise, he will disinherit her.
She refuses to make it, though asking for her husband’s forgiveness for being unable to.
Jane’s friend through all these years has been her husband’s intellectual secretary, Willy Clarendon,who is also a distant cousin of her own. She hardly regards him as a man at all, but there are sufficient hints that he is in love with her.
He is given five hundred pounds through a legacy. He also suggests that Jane, now badly off by the standards in which she has been living since her marriage, must spend the period of her deep mourning – then a year – living near his sisters in Richmond, Surrey ( now virtually part of London; then a leafy village).
The house is described as very small, and she sees herself as relatively poor. Still, as she has two drawing rooms, has no need to work, and can afford a couple of servants – it won’t strike many modern readers that she suffers from a dismal standard of living. However, as she has been used to living in a stately home, it is something of a come down. Anyway, she is happy to have sacrificed wealth for true love.
They are both well aware that after that time, Jane will be in contact once again with the young man who exiled himself in California after their mutual love declaration.
Meanwhile, Jane cannot pretend to be overcome with grief at her loss:
Clarendon says: – “ Would it be possible—just for the present —just while you are out of doors, and liable to ill-natured comments, to—to—look a little less – ‘
‘Radiant’ suggests she, with great distinctness of utterance, though face and neck are in a blaze. ‘ Thank you for the hint. I will try.”’
Another person who lives nearby is – fortuitously for Jane – Lady Barnes, who guessed that she and Jack Miles were in love during that fatal visit to her marital home years back. She – another co-incidence convenient for Jane – has recently met him in California, and was very impressed by both his looks and his melancholy air:
‘He is filled out and bronzed. Oh, but bronzed! so much so that his hair is lighter than his face. I do not know how you feel, but that to me always gives such a superbly manly look…I do not know what his plans were—he did not know himself, poor fellow ! He said he was at a loose end. He repeated the expression several times—at a loose end.”
The phrase is not a romantic one, but such a pregnancy of sentiment is thrown into it as dyes in painful blushes the younger woman…She had no more doubted her love’s faithfulness than her own—faithful, though parted far as the pine from the palm…’
Jane has a romantic disposition, which has been starved in her loveless marriage. Now she must wait for this seemingly interminable year to be over, so that she can be reunited with Miles.
She leads a lonely life in Richmond. She seems to have no family, and has no real confidante in her difficult situation. Lady Barnes is sympathetic, but self centred, her life revolving about her badly beloved, spoilt dogs. Typical is the behaviour of
‘… a very nice, but not very well-conducted English terrier, who, having stood before her looking significantly up in her face for some moments, now, annoyed at her inability to take a hint, stands up on his hind-legs and begins to scratch at her sombre lap with as much vigour as if he had mistaken it for a rabbit-hole. ‘ I am afraid that Jock means you have taken his chair,’ says his mistress regretfully. ‘ Would you mind changing to this one? It is quite as comfortable, only he does not fancy it…’
Lady Barnes, however, is in correspondence with Miles, and makes it clear to Jane that she will let him know of her surroundings. Interfering and given to thinking of herself as a romantic, too, she is all for forwarding the cause of love.
Descriptions of the self indulgent demands of Lady Barnes are typical of the delightful vein of comedy which runs through this story. At its best it is worthy of Jane Austen.
So is the depiction of Willy Clarendon’s sisters, who have, through years of trying to ‘keep up appearances’, turned into almost professional spongers. They are forever obtaining theatre tickets, presents of cast off clothing, house plants, anything that they can wheedle out of people.
The younger and prettier one, Mabella, is particularly shameless about this. She looks on every male acquaintance as a potential source of funds.
Clarendon himself is tormented by Jane’s dismissive attitude towards the very idea of him as her admirer. For some time, he refuses to let her work alone with him on his academic projects, on the grounds that it would cause gossip. Jane remarks that this is ridiculous. He writhes in humiliation, but she cannot see it. Finally, he agreed to let her help him with his research.
The months drag on. Spring comes, and one day, the housemaid announces an unknown visitor:
‘He who once, in the white light of the Circular Garden, crowded all the agony of his desire and farewell into one mad storm of forbidden kisses, is now raining kisses as mad, but with the glad contrary of farewell in them, upon eyes, and lips, and hair. For an instant or two she is as mad as he, lost in reckless rapture…’
Jane, who is about to receive a visit from her late husband’s sister, who has been estranged from her since his death and her refusal to explain why she was cut from the will, has a delicious short meeting with him, learning that he is staying with Lady Barnes. She then sends him away, though with difficulty, just before her sister-in-law arrives.
Miss Etheridge wants Jane to go back to living at the hall. Jane cannot accept, and she leaves, bitterly offended.
Meanwhile, the Clarendon sisters agree that Jack Miles as Lady Barnes’ guest will be useful:
‘He gives one the idea of being just the sort of man who would be good for any number of opera-boxes and theatre-tickets,’ for they have heard that he has come into a lot of money lately.
This news disappoints Jane, who feels that if her lover is in a position to give her a life of luxury, her great sacrifice of a fortune for his sake has been rendered ineffectual.
Clarendon, when he hears that Jack Miles has called on her without invitation, bursts out that was ‘the action of a bounder’. Jane is outraged.
‘He looks at her with despair in his heart; looks right into the irreconcilable wrath of her blue eyes, staring enormous out of a linen-white face. But his ships are in flames behind him, and there is nothing for it but a desperate onward march… The next thing of which he is conscious is that he is in the roadway, though whether ejected through the window, kicked downstairs, or by the simple process of putting one foot before another till he gets there, he could never tell.’
Some months later, just as her year of mourning is up, Jane sees Clarendon walking on the common, and is shocked by how thin and haggard he looks.
However, she soon overcomes her guilty feelings about that. She is to be Lady Barnes’ guest in the Western Isles of Scotland, and reunited with Jack Miles:
‘The moment that they reach the shelter of the wood he takes her in his arms, and for the rest of that wonderful morning scarcely lets her go out of them again. Up the firneedle-strewn path, with a hundred blissful stops for new and ever new caresses, they slowly climb, till from the colonnade of larch-stems they step out upon the rocky brow of the hill, and look down upon the sea.’
Jane idealises him and wants to hear all about how he has spent his time over the last six years. He is rather vague about this: he has wandered about, earned the gratitude of an older woman for a small favour, and unexpectedly inherited a fortune from her.
When she asks him if during that time he has ever thought, or said, a word of love to any other woman, he says that he refuses to answer such senseless questions, and kisses her into silence.
Jack Miles is dashingly amorous in his courtship of the glamorous widow. At dinners, he shamelessly neglects the other guests:
‘He has put his elbow on the table, ruthlessly turning his shoulder upon his other neighbour, and is shading his eyes with his hand, so as partly to hide the fury of admiration in them, while he tells her how distractingly beautiful she is, that he should like never to see her dressed in another gown than the one she is now wearing, etc.
‘Shall I come down in it to breakfast to-morrow ?’ she asks, with what she means to be a sobering little laugh of derision, but which shares too much of the quiver in his own voice to serve its purpose. He goes off into fresh extravagances…’
Jane’s disillusionment Miles comes gradually. She finds out that he tells coarse (and one may assume, sexist) jokes with his fellow male guests after the ladies have withdrawn. One of her guests says:-
‘Do you hear them laughing? How I wish they would let us share the joke! Of course, it is another of Mr. Miles’s stories. Whenever I ask Jim what they have been laughing at, he always says, ‘’Oh, one of Miles’s,’and invariably adds that it is quite impossible to repeat it.’
‘You are always rather frightened when I begin to question you,’ says Jane, examining the cleared countenance before her with less passion and more keenness in her eyes than her lover quite relishes. ‘ I believe you have some dark spot in your past that you are afraid of my putting my finger upon. No—do not be angry ; it is only a stupid joke.’
Jack Miles sulks, saying it is no joke to imply that he is a blackguard. They soon make up this tiff, but Jane begins to discover that they are far from soul mates.
Another guest teases him about coming back late with Jane, as he had done in London with Mabella Clarendon. Jane would regard it as absurd to allow herself to be jealous over this, but she also learns that:
‘There are limitations to the endowment of that personality which her unknowing idolatry had vaguely gifted with every mental as well as physical grace. If theirs is to be that ideal union which she had pictured, it must be by the suppression of one half of her own nature. Mr. Miles never voluntarily opens a book, and the artless dismay written on his countenance when her full heart leads her to illustrate their own bliss by some quoted line from the poets teaches her not to repeat the attempt.’
Then total disillusionment comes. She surprises the man she is to marry in six weeks with Mabella Clarendon in his arms. He is comforting her with kisses over her latest financial troubles.
Jane leaves for Richmond, telling Lady Barnes that she has had bad news and forbidding her to tell Jack Miles or anyone. On her journey Jane broods on all that she has sacrificed for Jack Miles.
‘She that forty-eight hours ago was rich beyond the dreams of avarice, possesses nothing in this or any other world. She had never had but one thing, having sold or tossed away all else to buy it; and now it is gone…
Her husband, old and crabbed indeed, but who had loved her in his way, and treated her with forbearance and even generosity, and into whose deathbed she had put a sting far sharper than death itself; the desolate old sister-in-law, upon whose broken heart she had flung back her magnanimous offers of help and difficult kindness; the self-less, devoted friend whom she had insulted and alienated; the good name in whose tarnish she had insanely rejoiced, as bringing one more offering to her god’s piled altar ; the position which would have given her weight and authority among her fellows; the riches that would have been a potent engine for the good of others.’
Now Jane despises herself for having worshipped a false god:
‘For the first time she sees her deity as he is ; the commonplace good fellow, with his cheap jests, his limited intelligence, his promiscuous tendernesses…Has her love, then, when stripped of its fine clothes, been nothing but sensuality? that love which she had clad in such imperial purple, and titled with such high names, the love that had dethroned heaven’s King and overshadowed earth’s brotherhood.’
This is where the novel parts company with the romance genre, where the obligatory happy or happy-for-now ending inevitably rules out such grim ethical and metaphysical quagmires. Romantic love in the romance genre is generally shown to be worthwhile. In ‘The Game and The Candle’ for Jane, it frankly is not. This book, then, both for seriousness of purpose and anti romantic theme, is very reminiscent of Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’
Jane in this story and both Philip Hepburn and Sylvia herself in ‘Syvlia’s Lovers’ make the mistake of worshipping a fallible human being, Philip with Sylvia, and Sylvia herself with the dashing shameless opportunist Charley Kinraid.
On reaching home, poor Jane spends an hour lying on the floor in pure self abnegation. She rises from it changed. Jack Miles follows her, of course. He duly turns up:
‘ It is clear that he has come straight from the train—travel-stained, with his bright short curls ruffled, pale under his tan, yet in the dishevelled sincerity of his agitation handsomer than ever. Yes, her eyes at least had not deceived her —the shell is what she had thought it.’
He assures her he only felt sorry for Mabella over her bills: ‘I have never loved, never : shall love, any woman in the world but you. You believe that I love you?’
She responds: ‘I never loved you. I loved someone that was masquerading in your shape.’
The author tells us that he goes quite quickly, though his tears fall on her hand as he takes it to kiss it. She watches him walk off down the street, saying to herself:
‘I bought you very dear—very dear ; and now I have thrown you away.’ He is out of sight, and she turns from the window, murmuring to herself: ‘ As a dream when one awaketh.’
Oh dear! That is a stark ending. We are not even told if she makes it up with, and even comes to encourage the attentions of, that formerly despised true lover Willy Clarendon.
Maybe I am cycnical, but it seems to me, that as Jane will almost certainly never fall in love in such a way again, she might as well marry Jack Miles, and enjoy him as an attractive, entertaining and charming but flawed life companion. True, she no longer worships him so absurdly and poetically, but that is hardly a bad thing. As she cannot undo the damage that she has done to others (assuming that she still cannot return Wllly Clarendon”s feelings), she might as well enjoy the prize for which she has sacrificed so much. After all, he there is no evidence that he has done more than kiss and flirt with Mabella Clarendon. To break things off over some kissing and flirting seems an extreme reaction.
Of course, the author might, in a roundabout way acceptable to a respectable female Victorian readership, be implying that Jack Miles actually lived as a gigilo with the older woman who left him a fortune.
Still, I suppose that as an orthodox nineteenth century Christina, Rhoda Broughton was thinking, just as Elizabeth Gaskell did, that in making a false idol out of a human being, Jane, like Philip and Sylvia, has broken the first commandment, and must suffer penance accordingly.
As I said, I must read some more of this author and see what I make of her other books.