HEA. Happily Ever After.
I love spending time lurking on mswishlist.com, a website that aggregates tweets from literary agents. You get a lot of insight into what literary agents are thinking and what’s currently hot in the market. Besides the fact that identity politics reign supreme in the trad-pub world (are you a white male writer with a white male protagonist? PASS!!-but you’d also sure as shit, better not write a character from a group you aren’t a part of), one thing I’ve learned from my time there is that certain genres have rules. And sure, you can say there are no rules in writing, but the truth is, if you want to be traditionally-published, you have to adhere to genre conventions.
For romance, one of these conventions is a HEA. If it doesn’t have a HEA, it isn’t romance.
The book I’d like to talk about today is the classic romantic-adventure novel, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hawkins. I’m not here to argue that this book should be shelved in Romance. It probably is better suited to the Adventure section. What I’d like to argue is that the bittersweet, heartbreaking ending of the book is something the Romance genre could use more of.
Give me more tragic romance!
I’ve got to tell you, I think fiction has gotten too fluffy. Too happy. Too light and easy. That’s not the case for all media. In television shows (Breaking Bad! woot woot!) and movies (Melancholia) and music (*sigh* Sia..oh…Sia), we still see the value in catharsis. We still see how wonderful it is to feel sad, to feel pained, to feel longing and bittersweet loss. We see the value in flawed characters with unhappy endings.
Catharsis and tragedy have a long and wonderful history in human storytelling. The ancient Greeks performed two types of plays, comedies and tragedies. They believed both in the power of joy and humor and the power of sadness. They believed tragedies could help people to purge some of their negative emotions in a way that was immensely pleasing. Catharsis.
Somehow, we’ve gotten away from the incredible power of catharsis in fiction. You can have a dark character study in a movie or television show (The Joker, Cuck, Breaking Bad, etc), but in literary communities like Wattpad, my book Incel gets banned because my character says rude shit on reddit.
Fiction has lost its way, and while there is some grimdark fantasy that plays with morally ambiguous characters, it’s the small minority of fiction. I’ll cover the terrible loss of problematic characters in another post. For now, I’ll just lament the ways commercialism hampers the romance genre and has effectively killed the Tragic Romance.
The loss of the Tragic Romance is a great loss to literature. While I’m not generally a fan of Shakespeare, I do see the value in his most famous play Romeo and Juliet (if only it was always taught as a tragic romance-with dumb kids dying for the idea of love, rather than for any actual committed bond). When this beautiful story with such great insights into the folly of human nature is (rightfully) still taught in high schools and institutions of higher learning, why on earth do we have the genre convention ‘romance must have a happily-ever-after’?
I picked up The Prisoner of Zenda on a whim, from my public library. It’s a classic, but I’d never heard of it. I just happened to stumble across it, and I’m glad I did. Apparently, this author, who set his adventure stories in the fictional country of Ruritania, is the cornerstone of the Ruritania Romance subgenre. This is a subgenre of romance that is often described as ‘swashbuckling adventure with high romance.’
The story is hilarious, full of tension and excitement. The basic plot is that this English guy with no real goals in life has gone on holiday to Ruritania, a small country where the protagonist may or may not be distantly related to the royal family. When he arrives, he runs into a group of men who all exclaim how much he looks like the king (well, technically king-to-be, he is scheduled to be crowned as king the next morning). He meets the king-to-be, who has a great laugh at how alike they look. They all stay up drinking and partying, and the next morning the king can not be woken for his coronation. They suspect the wine he drunk may have been drugged by the story’s main villain, the nefarious Black Michael, the king’s half-brother, who is vying for the crown himself. The people of Ruritania have far more loyalty to Black Michael, and will support any effort of his to steal the crown. Because they can’t give Black Michael any opportunity to steal power for himself, a plan is hatched to have the English man stand in place of the king and go to the coronation in his place.
Our main character agrees, despite his misgivings. At the coronation, he meets the king’s cousin, Princess Flavia, and they strike up an adorable flirtation right away. Sigh…I loved their banter so much.
Before anybody argues that this is a political intrigue adventure story with a romance subplot and NOT a romantic-adventure, let me explain why the story would not be the same without the romance. When the MC and the king’s inner circle come back from the coronation, they find that the real king has been kidnapped by Black Michael. Now they need to figure out a way to rescue the king, without anyone finding out an impostor is in his place, all while Black Michael and his henchmen are all very well-aware that somehow a clone of the king was coronoted in his stead, BUT they can’t say anything about it without admitting they are holding the real king captive. Oh my gosh! The drama!
This all sounds very exciting, and it is, and it’s hilarious. There’s a real slapstick edge to the way Black Michael and his men have to bow and show respect to someone they know isn’t the king, and they have to hide how pissy they are to everyone.
The problem with relegating the romantic portion of the plot to subplot status, is that without the romance, there wouldn’t be any inner turmoil. It would be a very straightforward, and honestly, boring story. The guy on holiday wants to save the king. They fight bad guys and save the king. The end.
Instead, as they make their plans to rescue the king from the Castle of Zenda, Rudolf is falling deeper and deeper in love with Princess Flavia. He struggles with guilt over lying about who he is. He struggles with knowing she wouldn’t look twice at him if she knew who he really was. He even allows himself to fantasize about NOT rescuing the king, not for the power, but for Flavia. He is torn between these conflicting emotions between wanting to save the king (a man who is slowly descending into sickness and madness due to his inhumane captivity) and wanting to keep Flavia as his lover.
In the end, he does his duty and rescues the king, and the parting scene of Rudolf and Flavia was the absolute epitome of tragic romance at its finest. So beautiful! So much longing and passion!
“Is love the only thing?” she asked in low, sweet tones that seemed to bring a calm even to my wrung heart. “If love were the only thing, I would follow you-in rags if need be-to the world’s end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing?”…
“I know people write and talk as if it were. Perhaps, for some, Fate lets it be. Ah, if I were one of them! But if love were the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell.”
I kissed her hand.
“Honour binds a woman too, Rudolf. My honour lies in being true to my country and my house; I don’t know why God has let me love you; but I know that I must stay.”…
“Your ring will always be on my finger, your heart in my heart, the touch of your lips on mine…”
…into my ears and into my heart the cry of a woman’s love-“Rudolf! Rudolf! Rudolf!” Hark! I hear it now!
And then, Rudolf goes home to England and Flavia goes on to marry the real king, a man she does not love. And every year, Rudolf sends her a single rose, brought to her by one of the men he knew during his time in Ruritania, it is wrapped with a note that says, “Rudolf-Flavia-for ever.”
They never meet again, and he goes on loving her, wearing her ring and pining for her, all while admiring her for being so honorable and doing a duty that her heart fought against.
This is such an emotionally satisfying ending, for reasons I can’t quite articulate. All I can say is: catharsis. It’s such a wonderful emotion.
It’s just a damn shame that tragic romance isn’t given space in the romance genre. People in the trad-pub industry keep telling writers that if a story is romance it MUST have a happily-ever-after. I don’t get it. I really don’t. We are losing an incredible subset of romantic fiction.
Give me more sad, pining endings. Bittersweet. Painful. Delicious catharthis.
I need so much more of it.
“Shall I see her face again-the pale face and the glorious hair? Of that I know nothing; Fate has no hint, my heart no presentiment…But if it be never-if I can never hold sweet converse again with her, or look upon her face, or know from her her love; why, then, this side of the grave, I will live as becomes the man whom she loves; and, for the other side, I must pray a dreamless sleep.”
I give this book 4/5 stars and I can’t wait to explore more Ruritania Romance.