A few months ago, Alison Morton was my guest, talking about alternate history. Today I’m very pleased to welcome back my friend, author Sue Barnard, who’s talking today about alternative endings to famous stories. Her latest novel, Heathcliff, was published yesterday and it’s a great read. I know, because I had a sneak peek a while ago. Tell us about your inspiration, Sue.
Devising different endings
A few years ago, I came across the prompt Write The Book You Want To Read. Ever since I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s amazing 1968 film of Romeo & Juliet, I’ve loved the story but hated the way it ended. The book I’ve always wanted to read is the one with the alternative ending, in which the young lovers don’t fall victim to a maddeningly avoidable catastrophe.
Why, I asked myself, should there not be such a book? And the answer came straight back: Why not indeed? And if it doesn’t exist, then go ahead and write it.
I started out by looking at all the events which combined to cause the final tragedy, and worked on the basis of “How would the story have developed if just one of those events had happened differently?” The eventual result was The Ghostly Father, first published by Crooked Cat Books in 2014. It’s a sort of part-prequel, part-sequel to the original tale, but with a few new twists and a whole new outcome. When I began I was writing it just for myself, but judging by the number of people who have been kind enough to say they enjoyed it, it seems that I’m not by any means the only person who prefers the alternative ending.
I also explored the idea of alternative endings in my 2017 novella Never on Saturday. The story is based on an old French legend, but I decided that the protagonist deserved better than she got in the original story.
But alternative endings are not a new phenomenon. One of the earliest examples dates as far back as 1681, when the author Nahum Tate produced an alternative version of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. In Tate’s play, Cordelia & Edgar are lovers, and Lear regains his throne at the end. Although I’ve never seen this version, I must confess I have some misgivings about it, because it does not include the enigmatic and fascinating character of the Fool. Personally I can’t imagine how it would work without him.
Sometimes the ballet Swan Lake is performed with a happy ending, in which Von Rothbart is defeated and Siegfried & Odette are reunited. It could be argued that this might have been what Tchaikovsky originally intended, as the final chords of the ballet music switch from the minor to the major key.
Perhaps the cleverest example of the alternative ending occurs in John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. A few pages from the end, the story diverges into two possible outcomes, both of which are equally plausible. In early print-runs of the book the two endings were identically paginated, and the publishers had to include a note at the beginning to assure readers that this was not a mistake.
Resolving unanswered questions
My latest novel, Heathcliff, does not so much offer an alternative ending as fill in a gap. In Wuthering Heights Heathcliff vanishes for three years, and returns as a rich man, but his disappearance is never explained. My novel (published on 30 July 2018, to coincide with the bicentenary of the birth of Emily Brontë) speculates what might have happened to him during those missing three years.
Wuthering Heights is not the only book where questions are left unanswered. The central mystery in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock was deliberately left unsolved during her lifetime. It was eventually explained in the missing final chapter, which was removed from the original manuscript before publication, and only released after the author’s death.
Other unanswered questions are definitely accidental, such as the ending to Charles Dickens’ last and unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Several authors have already produced their own suggestions about how the story might have ended, but the many and varied discussions on these alternative endings are probably far more interesting than the book itself. This may be a good thing…
About Sue Barnard
Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet whose family background is far stranger than any work of fiction. She would write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her.
Sue was born in North Wales but has spent most of her life in and around Manchester. She speaks French like a Belgian, German like a schoolgirl, and Italian and Portuguese like an Englishwoman abroad.
Her mind is so warped that she has appeared on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show, and she has also compiled questions for BBC Radio 4’s fiendishly difficult Round Britain Quiz. This once caused one of her sons to describe her as “professionally weird.” The label has stuck.
Sue joined the editorial team of Crooked Cat Publishing in 2013. Her first novel, The Ghostly Father (a new take on the traditional story of Romeo & Juliet) was officially released on St Valentine’s Day 2014. Since then she has produced four more novels: Nice Girls Don’t (2014), The Unkindest Cut of All (2015), Never on Saturday (2017) and Heathcliff (a Wuthering Heights spin-off story about Heathcliff’s missing years, published on 30 July 2018, to coincide with the bicentenary of the birth of Emily Brontë).
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Copyright © Vanessa Couchman, Sue Barnard 2018, all rights reserved.