Would you object very much to some more slight gloominess? Or perhaps it won’t be so terribly gloomy by the time we’re done – but let us talk of endings and beginnings, and Stevenson. I’ve always liked this thing that Stevenson wrote in a letter written from Samoa to J.M. Barrie:
If you are going tho make a book end badly, it must end badly from the beginning.
He was expressing his disapproval about giving emotional whiplash to the reader, about tacking sad endings to stories that were not made to end badly. He groused in particular against George Meredith’s Richard Feverel, that “begins to end well; and then tricks you and ends ill” in a way that, Stevensons says, “does not issue inherently from the plot.”
I wonder what he would have thought of the original ending that Theophile Gautier wanted for his Capitaine Fracasse. After several volumes of rather jolly adventures of the picaresque kind, poor Sigognac was to plod home, defeated and despondent, and lock himself in his crumbling castle’s crypt to starve to death…
Only the decided intervention of Gautier’s wife and publisher saved Sigognac’s life and spared the readers many tears… I wonder, though: did the writer miss the true quality of his book entirely? Because the fact is, he tried to dig his heels, he defended his Crypt ending as logical, sad, true. He must have thought that – again as Stevenson put it – the Crypt ending issued inherently from the plot. It would certainly have matched the tone of the beginning, with the lengthy, bleak description of the dilapidated castle, the old servant, and most of all the young hero himself – a dejected, mournfully despairing wretch at twenty-five. He still manages to be strikingly handsome – but he’s the hero of a novel after all. And then he goes on all sorts of adventures, joins a bunch of strolling players, falls in love, fights duels… So perhaps the story began to end ill, then forgot all about it?
Allowances must be made, surely, for the fact that Captain Fracasse was very long in the writing, and then serialised – nothing to promote iron-clad consistency, as any reader of Dickens will know. Still, we look back on young Sigognac’s very bleak entrance, and wonder: what would it have been like, if the publisher and Madame Gautier hadn’t vetoed the author’s logical, sad, true ending?
And we wonder rather the same about Stevenson’s Hermiston – if for different reasons. Young Archie Weir is the gentle, unpractical son of a very ill-matched marriage, very much at odds with his judge father – who is neither unpractical nor gentle – and with the world he is expected to fit in. And I don’t know whether my perception is coloured by Stevenson’s own words – but to me Archie is in a worse case than Sigognac: he is the kind of person who is not equipped to be happy in the world he has to deal with. And in fact, certain descriptions of young Archie put one in mind of Stevenson’s own youth in Edinburgh – and this begs the question: did he see himself as a story that had begun to end badly from the start?
Well, we don’t know for sure, because Stevenson died leaving the novel unfinished – but to Barrie he writes that, while he originally meant for Archie’s story to end very ill indeed, the thing was proving “a heavy case of conscience”. It had dawned on him that there were ways to provide a happy ending after all – so, why not?
Hence, more questions: did he simply see that he had somehow not built the story to require a sad ending after all? Did he go back to rework the beginning to make it end well? Did he just want it to end it well – perhaps because he had written enough of himself into Archie, and he was unwell enough by then, to wish for the happy ending?
We’ll never quite know, of course, because Stevenson died leaving the novel unfinished, but the letter to Barrie is meaningful. He didn’t want Archie to die anymore, if it could be possibly avoided. As he says of Richard Feverel, “it might have so happened; it needed not; and unless needs must, we have no right to pain our readers.”
And I don’t know about paining the readers – but we certainly have no business making them feel cheated.