One of the most – cough – discussed posts we’ve had on Queer Romance Month recently has been about the happy ever after in queer romance. What the post, and the responses to the post, highlighted for me was just how complex and emotive this issue is. And while that would probably make any normal person STFU, I’d kind of like to talk about it. So the next two QRM-inspired posts for AAR are going to be about the HEA: in this one I’m going to ponder what HEA means in the context of queer romances, and in the companion post next week, KJ Charles is going to talk about why the HEA is valuable and necessary on its own terms.
Before I get into it, however, I would like to clarify that I have no issues with the way in which the romance genre is currently understood and defined. Romance as a concept is a very broad and nebulous thing, but, if we take genre to be, in essence, a publishing construct that tells us what we’re getting, then I am fairly comfortable with the idea that a genre romance is, unchangeably, and at its heart a “central love story with a happy ending”. Romance often comes under attack for being described in a way that seems to imply a formulaic structure, but actually most genres work that way. Thrillers are defined by there being a threat that is confronted and overcome. Horror, by contrast, is defined by there being a threat that is confronted and not overcome. Mysteries are defined by there being a mystery that is posed and solved.
Usefully, I think you can make a strong analogy between the revelation at the end of a mystery and the Happy Ever After at the end of a romance. And, yes, you could write a story in which a mystery was a raised and was never resolved (The Name of the Rose, The New York Trilogy and even The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time all spring to mind) but it wouldn’t really be genre mystery, it would be literary fiction using the modes of mystery storytelling. Just as many romance readers read romances to feel good, many mystery readers read mysteries to play along at home, and not finding out whether you got the answer right would be deeply frustrating.
To me, the history of the mystery novel provides an interesting counterpoint to the current discussion about the position of queer romance within romance, especially as it relates to the HEA. For much of the early twentieth century, the mystery novel (or the detective novel if you prefer) was dominated by a tradition that had its roots in likes of Murder in the Rue Morgue, Mystery of the Yellow Room and The Moonstone and traced its lineage through Sherlock Holmes to Poirot and Miss Marple. The revelation in what you might call the British Country House Mystery was a distinctly amateur and a distinctly upper class affair. It’s a quirky educated man gathering all the suspects together in the Chinese Drawing Room of Waverly Manor and declaring with absolute authority: “So, you see, it is only possible for the killer to be the victim’s sister, Lady Penelope Stoatthrottler.”
When the genre migrated to America the old forms no longer really fit. The USA has a notable shortage of manor houses, mysterious bequests and posh twits with too much time on their hands. What it does have, however, are mean streets down which must walk a man who is himself not mean. The American detective story gave us a new breed of hero who embodied a new set of values. Whereas the classic British detective story is all about the world being restored to its natural and hierarchical order, the hardboiled detective story is all about a lonely individual’s attempt to make sense of a fundamentally lawless world. While the setting changed and the characters changed, the basic structure of the narrative didn’t: there was still a mystery (or a crime), there was still an investigation, and there was still a revelation. The important thing is that the style adapted to suit a new subject and a new audience, but in a way that left the heart of the genre intact.
To bring this back to romance, I would argue that opening the romance genre up to queer stories is analogous to opening the detective genre to American stories. All the key features remain the same but they may wind up looking very different in their new context. Insofar as a happy ending is a definitional part of genre romance, it is a definitional part of queer genre romance, but a happy ending in a queer relationship cannot be defined solely by reference to heteronormative conventions. As part of the discussion over on QRM, Kaetrin essentially defined the HEA as: “Together and alive
The conventional fairy tale definition of “together” implies, not to put too fine a point on it, eternity. When a story ends “and they lived happily ever after” it does not admit of the possibility that the prince and princess had a tempestuous affair that lasted eight months, and from which they walked away enriched as people. It doesn’t allow for them have two kids, kind of go off each other, but remain together out a shared mutual respect and real feelings of love for their family. It doesn’t encompass the idea that they could go out clubbing one night, meet a handsome blacksmith’s son and take him back to the palace with them. The phrase “happy ever after” evokes a very specific and very normative image of a socially accepted, religiously sanctioned, heterosexual, emotionally and physically monogamous relationship that probably involves children. This is an idea which doesn’t even appeal to all straight people, but which actively excludes a great many queer ones.
And obviously I’m not suggesting that every HEA in a romance necessarily implies marriage and babies, although in my experience few of them are incompatible with that interpretation. If I’m saying anything, it is that there is a spectrum with “are literally together forever” at one end “don’t get together at all” at the other. It’s fairly clear that the “together forever” ending counts as an HEA and the “not together at all” ending doesn’t, but there is no sharp line you can draw inbetween to say where romance ends and not-romance begins. I think it’s reasonable to say that a story would fail as a genre romance if, at the end of the book, the reader does not believe that the relationship will last and have value, but how we judge that, both in terms of what we think will happen and what we think it will mean for it to happen, is very subjective and very personal.
I got into an interesting conversation on Twitter a while ago about Georgette Heyer’s Venetia. As it happens, it’s one of my favourite Heyers. It’s kind of a rake & virgin story but, more interestingly, at the same time a friends-to-lovers. Towards the very end of the novel, with the frankness that has characterised their relationship throughout, Venetia and Damerel (the hero) have a conversation about his sexual proclivities.
“You’d know about my orgies!” objected Damerel.
“Yes, but I shouldn’t care about them, once in a while. After all, it would be quite unreasonable to wish you to change all your habits, and I can always retire to bed, can’t I?”
“Oh, won’t you preside over them?” he said, much disappointed.
“Yes, love, if you wish me to,” she replied, smiling at him. “Should I enjoy them?”
He stretched out his hand, and when she laid her own on it, held it very tightly. “You shall have a splendid orgy, my dear delight, and you will enjoy it very much indeed!”
I had always read this as the two of them playing about, but for several people involved in the thread, it ruined the HEA for them. They felt Venetia’s failure to extract a solemn promise of sexual fidelity from Damerel, and his failure to offer one, meant that he would inevitably cheat on her and that this would, in essence, invalidate their relationship. For me, it really doesn’t. Partly because Damerel is very much a Rochesterian rake, driven to sexual excess from boredom and self-loathing, rather than any particular interest in, well, shagging so I can’t actually imagine him wanting anyone except Venetia. But mostly because I simply don’t see sexual fidelity as a necessary part of a successful relationship, assuming everyone knows what they’re getting into, and it’s very clear from this scene that – even if they’re not joking –Venetia does.
Nevertheless, this discussion made it clear to me that, for at least some people, “happy ever after” does not just mean “together and alive”, but “alive, and together in a very specific way.” And, of course, it’s completely okay for people to choose their reading matter on whatever basis they like, and to invest in whatever they invest in, but I think it’s also highlights the subjectivity of these judgements. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying Venetia wasn’t a genre romance just because some people don’t believe in the happiness of the ending.
Part of the issue with the subjectivity of happiness in a romance ending is that the genre and the genre-reading community naturally builds up a shared language of signs, symbols and signifiers which together communicate that the relationship will work. Interestingly, a lot of these signs and symbols actually make very little sense. The fact that someone has saved you from terrorists or given you your first orgasm or woken you up from a hundred years sleep is not, in reality, any kind of sensible basis for a long-term relationship. But we accept these tropes because we are used to them. If the conventional happy ever after rings hollow in some queer narratives and to some queer readers, I suspect that it is because so many of these tropes cease to be accessible. At its most basic level, the biggest relationship success trope that the romance genre has is marriage which, across most of the world and throughout most of history, has actively, and with the full force of law, excluded queer people.
There are so many things which heterosexual couples take for granted and which queer people have to fight for that the structures necessary to render a HEA plausible in a queer narrative might be utterly different from those that appear in conventional heterosexual romance. We know from decades of romantic comedies that a big romantic gesture in a public place is code for “these two people are meant to be together and their relationship will work out fine” but, for queer people, just having the right to express your romantic interest in public is not a given. If Notting Hill had been about a same-sex couple, by standing up a press conference, Hugh Grant’s character would not only have been apologising to Julia (Julian?) Robert’s character he would have been actively outing him, which would very much have changed the context – and arguably the romance – of that scene. It is only possible to believe in a relationship that is founded on something as shaky as a last minute airport dash or a climb up a fire escape or a boombox under a window if you start from the assumption that your relationship is validated and supported by the world you live in. If you can, essentially, take as read your right to love who you want. And the sad truth is, this is a luxury a lot of queer people don’t have.
This isn’t to say that HEA endings don’t have a place in queer romance, because they absolutely do. Nor is it to say that because happy endings might look different for some queer people than for some straight people that queer romance is an entirely separate entity from mainstream romance. But to make a happy ending ring true for a queer audience you can’t necessarily rely on the same markers and assumptions that come pre-packaged with a heterosexual relationship. Everybody has the right to a happy ending, but it has to be an ending you can believe in.
Author Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret. His latest book is Sand and Ruin and Gold.