I have written before about the inspired ending to Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’, which is, along with ‘Hangover Square’ considered to be his masterpiece.
I won’t do it justice here, unless I explain something of the story, which is essentially a dark comedy. It concerns the grim – and often ludicrous – experiences of the lonely, early middle aged Miss Roach in a Henley boarding house called – with a typical Hamilton facetious touch – ‘The Rosamund Tea Rooms’ – in England during 1942; in other words, in the middle of World War II.
She incurs the wholly unjustified vindictiveness of two of her fellow lodgers. One of these is a German woman, Vicki Kugelmann, whom she has previously tried to befriend, the other a type which I gather was common in the ‘genteel’ boarding houses of the era – the impossibly overbearing and reactionary Mr Thwaites. They encourage each other in taunting Miss Roach, and gibing at her support for democracy.
Miss Roach has developed a mild flirtation with an American GI, the generous but unreliable Lieutenant Pike,who wishes, if he survives the war, to enter the laundry business. He has even proposed to Miss Roach: ‘Though she had laughed at the laundry, she had never entirely discounted it’.
The predatory Vikki, taken along to a meal with Lieutenant Pike and some of his GI friends through Miss Roach’s charity, throws herself at the unreliable, drunken Lieutenant Pike, and contrives to come between him and Miss Roach and to steal him as ‘her American’, though she smugly informs Miss Roach that: ‘I am not the Snatcher. I do not snatch the men’.
Then Miss Roach, already feeling undermined through the constant sniping comments from Mr Thwaites and Vikki, hears that Lieutenant Pike in fact is notorious for going about proposing to every woman with whom he becomes entangled, so his previous proposal was empty. She feels; ‘deprived of all dignity’.
Vikki gradually reveals herself as hating the British, and Mr Thwaites has always been a closet fascist. After a prolonged psychological battle with these two, Miss Roach finally emerges triumphant.
Lieutenant Pike shifts his allegiance back to Miss Roach, but has to leave when his unit is transferred. Having inherited a sum of money from her aunt, she leaves the boarding house in triumph. Mr Thwaites has now died of a sudden agonising illness – and Vicki has been asked to leave to boarding house for inviting Mr Thwaites and Lieutenant Pyke into her room in a drunken spree.
Miss Roach is invited to see the retired actor Mr Prest – always despised as ‘common’ in the Rosamund Tea Rooms – brought out of retirement to star as the wicked uncle in a pantomime. This, and the delight of the childish audience, gives Miss Roach a feeling of transcendence: ‘There was an extraordinary look of purification about Mr Prest..and…Miss Roach felt purified.’
She has taken a room for a couple of nights in Claridges (able to pay through her small inheritance from her aunt): Here her strange feeling of purification continues:
‘An orchestra was now playing in the lounge, and sitting and having that last drink…something else was added to Miss Roache’s state of mind…there came a sort of clarification of mind, in which she could see in their correct proportions all the things which had occurred to her in the last few months…
She saw Mr Thwaites in his right proportions…The trouble with that man was that he had never stepped beyond the mental age of eleven or twelve, nature having arrested him at a certain ugly phase…
She saw the Lieutenant in his right proportions. Not strong of mind, easily affected by drink, in a foreign land, in a mood of sexual excitation, in fear of the future and over anxious to live life to the full, the poor man had gone about in drink making love to the girls and asking them to marry him…
She saw Vikki in her right proportions. A wretched woman that, more wretched than evil…savagely egoistic. And in her sex obsession, vain. And in her vanity cruel…She probably wasn’t really the concentration camp, stadium yelling, rich, fruity, German Nazi which Miss Roach had at times thought her (and yet she very probably was!) and now Miss Roach found it easy to forgive her.’
Settling down to sleep, Miss Roach, ‘That slave of her task master, solitude …hopefully composed her mind for sleep – God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us.’
Patrick Hamilton was in fact an atheist, but if ever a line was written in a state of inspiration, that last line of supplication to the Deity is it.
To me, the feeling that it inspires sums up the state of mind in which the author must be himself or herself, in order to inspire that same leap of transcendence in the reader.
This is the culmination of that satisfactory ending. We’ve had the fireworks, and we’ve done the prosaic stuff with tying up the loose ends.Now you must impart to the reader a feeling of peace and completion.
This is the culmination; this is where you leave the reader who has paid you the compliment of joining you in a sojourn through your imaginary world. You must leave that reader contented.
In a fictional work that has any aspirations to merit, that moment of parting is all important. .
You can’t afford to leave that reader dissatisfied. Unless you are writing a series, in those last pages, you must tie up those loopholes in the plot, that goes without saying. You must resolve your main characters’ dilemma, end that quest, bring down those barriers .
You have to bring about completion as surely as any conveyancing solicitor handing the client those coveted house keys.
And evocation of mood is a great part of it.
In light novels, say a romance pure and simple, you only aim to solve the main characters’ dilemma and bring them together. It is that which gives the reader her (less often his) emotional high. It’s ended nicely, for those protagonists, anyway.
But if you are writing something deeper, that is hardly enough. You want to evoke a more expanded mindset that that. You want that reader to feel almost stunned and emotionally both drained and fulfilled, by first the drama of those concluding chapters, and then to come to a sense of peace.
I’m not, of course, implying that we can hope to come even close, were we to write and rewrite our ending lines several thousand times, but below are the ending lines to ‘King Lear’.
Cordelia is dead, Edmund’s repentance when he found himself dying after his fight with Edgar wasn’t in time to save her; the once foolish, vain and authoritarian King Lear, who has run mad and been restored to sanity again by that rejected daughter, has himself died of a cracked heart; Goneril has poisoned Regan, and then stabbed herself to death, and ‘My poor Fool is hanged’.
The slaughter is awful. It is given to Edgar (the probable future ruler) to say:
‘The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’
It wouldn’t even be a good idea if we could replicate that tragic grandeur. It is probably better for the mental stability of the population that we don’t read several such great works of literature each week. We would become overwrought.
For all that, we must, of course, always try to write the best version of whatever it is that we are writing or we won’t be aiming high enough: we’ll be churning out pot boilers.
There are some writers who have managed to do that and produce something of lasting value – I would argue that Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories achieved that, however light a value he placed on them – but they have not been many.
But if we want to write something of value, then at the conclusion of a story, that feeling of transcendence, that mindset of rising above petty differences, of compassionate awareness of the tragedies in life – of the terrible waste in human misunderstanding, must come through.
When I first finished reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a good long time ago, and read the concluding passage:
‘I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fl uttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.’
Those evocative words gave me that feeling.
That was as myself in a transcendent mood.
Later, when I came to think about it, having reverted once more my everyday self – I decided that I personally found the ending of the story unsatisfactory because Healthcliff never repents of his evildoing – he explicitly tells Nelly Dean that he has done nothing wrong.
I have learnt since, that Emily Bronte had given much thought to the final destination of the ‘unrepentant man of iron’. Now I would hazard that the ending is not meant to give any definitive indication of what that final account will be, other than at the last, we are all perhaps incorporated into that all encompassing peace.
And, of course, with regard to all the above, if you are writing a series, then that job is in some ways even harder, as in each stage, you must have an interim ending which gives a partial sense of completion and then finish with the fireworks and the roll of drums and then – that final piece of imaginative empathy.
Well, that is what we must aim for. We can only try.