Elizabeth … now smiled at the rapidity and ease with which an affair was finally settled that had given them so many previous months of suspense and vexation. (Pride and Prejudice, chapter 55)
I promised I would take a closer look at how Jane Austen’s novels conclude, and specifically how she maintained the drama by keeping the happily-ever-after ending in doubt. As I thought through the six books, I realized that in every case the outcome could easily have been (and often is, in similar real-life situations) completely different.
What if Captain Wentworth had stubbornly clung to his bitter resentment against Anne for rejecting him? What if Emma had refused to listen to her own heart, and then to hear Mr. Knightley’s confession? What if Marianne hadn’t shown the strength to fight her way back from her despondency over Willoughby? What if Henry Tilney, Fanny Price, and Elizabeth Bennet had all given in to parental pressure – marrying, respectively, an unnamed heiress, an unprincipaled Henry Crawford, and an unthinkable Mr. Collins? All plausible outcomes, which makes the risk real and keeps the drama in play.
The intriguing “what if” scenario is something I play to the extreme in my third book, First of Second Chances (update: written third and published sixth as Leap of Faith), but it also crops up briefly in The Darcys of Pemberley when Elizabeth considers how close she came to losing Darcy:
How little she understood his reserved nature when they first met. She blushed now to remember how she censured him for pride and arrogance – not wholly undeserved – whilst her own conduct was equally at fault. What if they had never overcome those early misunderstandings? It could so easily have happened. No doubt most men would have walked away for good upon being so soundly refused. Elizabeth shuddered at the very idea.
The more real, imminent, and believable the possibility of the worst happening, the higher the drama. As for believability, only Sense and Sensibility could be accused of deus ex machina, requiring a little sleight of hand to rescue Edward from his binding engagement to Lucy Steele at the last possible moment.
I credit the award-winning ’95 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility with providing one of the best surprise endings I can recall. I hadn’t read the book yet, and so didn’t know how the story turned out (or even that Jane Austen could be trusted to provide a classic happy ending). After the scene where Edward shocks Elinor by revealing that he is honorably free and wanting to marry her, we move to a shot of the exterior of a church. A wedding is apparently taking place inside and, because of what’s come before, I’m expecting the bride and groom to be Edward and Elinor. I can still remember how blown away I was that Marianne and Colonel Brandon emerge instead – a surprising twist carefully crafted to delight. What a thrill for a writer (in this case the movie’s talented lead actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson) to deliver that kind of enjoyment to her audience!