Monday, May 9, 2011

The End of the Story: A Guest Post by Gerri Brightwell

Last Friday a colleague spotted me in the supermarket and rushed over to ask if I’d watched the royal wedding. I hadn’t and she looked surprised. She said she’d stayed up to see the whole thing. There was a pause, and I filled it by explaining that I thought Britain didn’t need a royal family because, really, how can you justify such an institution in the twenty-first century? I’m sure I sounded surly and humbug-ish, but it didn’t faze her one bit. She told me how wonderful the wedding had been, and what an amazing spectacle.

I walked away wondering what exactly people had watched the wedding for. The sheer spectacle of it? After all, the wedding wasn’t a story in itself so much as the end of a story (boy meets girl, boy asks girl to marry him, boy and girl have a huge public wedding) just as we see in traditional stories (think fairy-tales—or Jane Austen, for that matter). All the tension of getting a couple together in the face of obstacles has finally gone out of the narrative like air from a balloon, and there’s nothing left but to join the lovers in matrimony and send them on their way. Of course, we know that marriage is an arbitrary end point for a story. And then there’s that sticky problem of it encouraging us to assume that married life is a voyage over calm seas, when no one’s life can be free of trouble (just think of what happened to William’s mother, Diana). In truth, the story of a person (whether they’re real or fictional) only comes to rest when they die (if then—the way Diana’s image still sells magazines, or Eva Peron’s body was hidden and lost and moved for years after she died, makes me wonder if even death is the end of the story).

Did a hankering after the dream of married bliss explain why so many people watched William and Kate’s wedding? Why did they care, when William and Kate are so far away from most of us geographically, socially, and economically? Because we’re encouraged to care? The media, in Britain in particular, went full-tilt into the job of making William and Kate into what we call in fiction “rounded characters.” Why else were reporters lurking shortly before the wedding, and caught Kate unloading a cardboard box from the boot of her car—a box of papers, including one that may have been the wedding vows? Was this a story? No, but it was a glimpse of Kate as a real person, someone we might empathise with, and wasn’t that the whole point? That to be interested in the story of the wedding we needed to care about its characters?

Which brings me back to feeling so humbug-ish about the whole flap-doodle of the wedding. I wish William and Kate well, but only as far as I’d wish the same for anyone I’d never met. Beneath that small measure of goodwill lies my sullenness about the heart-warming feelings the wedding was used to generate. It’s all very well that two people who fell in love had a wonderful wedding, but weren’t we asked to care only because William is Prince William? Doesn’t that appeal to our emotions help paper over the undeniable fact that the royal family, and all that goes along with it (inherited privilege, traditions that are hierarchical and exclusive, a political system that only recently reformed the House of Lords, and so on), is indefensible?

But then, I’m British and sensitive about these things. Maybe I’m missing the point of the wedding’s appeal. Yesterday evening, when my neighbour and I were chatting outside, she told me she’d watched the wedding. I asked what she’d made of it and she said, “The hats! All the women were so formally dressed, but the hats!” and she made a sweeping gesture way up into the air to show me how wild some of those hats had been. “It was very entertaining,” she said, “just looking at those hats.” It almost made me regret not having watched it myself. Almost.


Originally from south-west England, Gerri Brightwell first came to Alaska in 1991 for three years but, after time away in Bangkok and Minneapolis, returned in 2004 to teach in the MFA program at UAF. Set in the late Victorian era, her novel The Dark Lantern considers secrets coming to light and respectable people not being all that they seem—or that they should be. 

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