Frankly my dear, I do give a damn

Are there any great tragic novels that would benefit from a happier ending? Adi Bloom reports on a World Book Day question for children

Heathcliff and Cathy get married and live happily ever after. The evil Voldemort decides that he would rather be friends with Harry Potter than try to kill him. Rhett Butler realises that, frankly, he does give a damn.

These are alternative, happier endings to famous novels, that pupils are being asked to consider as part of a survey conducted to mark the forthcoming World Book Day on March 2. The day is an annual celebration of books and reading.

Schools, libraries and bookshops are encouraged to hold events which persuade children of the value of a good book. The survey asks pupils to name their favourite fictional happy ending.

A list of 14 happily concluded titles are given, along with space for respondents to include their own favourites.

So Jane Eyre's famous announcement ("reader, I married him") is being held up for comparison against the moment when Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy put aside their pride and prejudices.

More ambiguous endings are also listed. For example, readers are asked to consider Small Island, by Andrea Levy, in which a woman gives up her illegitimate baby to another couple, among the happy endings.

A spokeswoman for World Book Day said: "A happy ending underlines an optimistic way of life. People like the idea that they could live happily.

It makes them want to carry on.

"But it's quite hard to agree whether an ending is happy or not. We want to get a discussion going."

Pupils are then asked to consider which of 14, despair-ridden endings they would like to change. Gone With The Wind and Wuthering Heights feature alongside tear-jerkers such as Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Ian McNeilly, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "Novels reflect life, and life is rarely happy or unhappy," he said.

"Changing an unhappy ending could be denying reality, and the whole purpose of the text. Tess would be totally undermined by everyone living happily ever after. But anything that sparks debate is worthwhile."

Organisers expect Victorian novels to top the poll. But they also anticipate a large number of votes to go to James Joyce's tome, Ulysses, an ending only the most grit-teethed readers have reached. Mr McNeilly agreed.

"Ulysses is definitely a happy ending," he said. "You're happy you've finished it."

* Britain's leading authors have compiled a list of essential reading for children. The Royal Society of Literature asked six literary names to nominate their 10 top books for pupils for its magazine RSL.

Poet laureate Andrew Motion's choices include John Milton's Paradise Lost; Homer's Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses; TS Eliot's The Waste Land; Henry James's Portrait Of A Lady; Charles Dickens's Great Expectations and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Harry Potter's creator, JK Rowling chose, among others, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Roald Dahl's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and The Tale Of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter.

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, chose Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet and The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


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