KJ Charles’s three Society of Gentlemen Regency romances were all rated Desert Isle Keepers by All About Romance. A Seditious Affair, which was awarded a coveted A+, was voted tied first for Best LGBTQ+ Romance in the All About Romance annual poll, and received Honourable Mentions for Best Romance and Best Historical Romance set in the UK.
Today, author Alexis Hall interviews KJ about the Society of Gentlemen trilogy.
AJH: What drew you to the Regency period as a setting?
KJC: When I wrote the initial story, The Ruin of Gabriel Ashleigh, it was pure homage to the classic Regency romances. I wanted sexy queer Heyer, so I did my best to write some. But the Regency is an incredibly interesting period of social change and turbulence, war, riots, upheaval, the old order hanging onto power and the rise of modern thought. So when I was thinking of expanding the short story into, erm, a massive trilogy, it seemed like a good opportunity to explore some of that.
AJH: When I’m trying to explain Society of Gentleman to other people, I usually go with “queer Georgette Heyer” but actually they’re a lot more political. Which is not to say they’re not also incredibly romantic. How did you strike that balance?
KJC: As they say, the personal is political. My pleasure in a romance pretty much depends on the conflict between the MCs, and you don’t get much more of a conflict than being on opposite sides of a whacking great social divide, preferably with one party trying to arrest/kill the other. I love romances where the characters choose to tightrope-walk over an abyss to be with the person they love, risking anything from disgrace to hanging in order to get there. (I like my stakes high.)
AJH: I think we tend to think of Regency romances as focused on high society, but some of the major characters in the series are actually working class. The hero of the third book is a servant, for example, and the love interest in the second a radical. What drew you to these sorts of characters, and did you have any concerns about writing them?
KJC: I’m British, so obviously I’m obsessed with class. My grandmother was a housemaid in a big house, my grandfather the chauffeur, and they both faced losing their jobs, in the middle of the Great Depression, if they got married. (That’s what I call a conflict. They did marry and they were indeed both sacked for it.) I see no reason why aristocrats should have all the starring roles, especially in a setting where class divide can be such an integral part of conflict.
In general I am very keen on historical romance’s move to feature more working- and middle-class characters. There’s so much fascinating detail and so many great stories to be told (I adored Rose Lerner’s Listen to the Moon, about a maid and a valet), and I love a bit of realism in my historical romances.
Plus, I really wanted to write about personal/political/social conflicts, and that very much meant looking at the working classes. Silas is part of the rising self-educated artisan class of the time, a lot of highly ambitious, intelligent people who were demanding change and improvement. David is in the peculiar position of a trusted servant, highly regarded and respected, necessary to his master’s comfort, but completely disposable as well. They’re strong, intelligent men but relatively powerless, on the face of it, and I really wanted to explore how that could be made to work in apparently very unequal romantic relationships.
AJH: Harry and Julius of A Fashionable Indulgence are both complete dandies (which I adore) and the dandy is very much a staple of the Regency romance. I would say, though, it tends to be played for laughs and in this book it represents something darker and more complicated: a place of security and concealment for two people caught between worlds (Harry, caught between his working class upbringing and his upper class future, and Julius no longer at war but unable to find peace). Do you think there’s more depth in these sort of tropes and archetypes than we realise because we’re so familiar with them?
KJC: Oh, definitely. Dandies fascinate me firstly because it’s a kind of masculinity that we lost touch with, culturally, for ages and still haven’t really regained. Men who were respected in many circles for being beautiful and well groomed and caring about their clothing. So I love the freedom that dandies had to pore over the right buttons and the cut of a coat, but you also have to ask yourself, what happens in your head when getting dressed is basically your job? Why would someone choose to spend three hours putting clothes on every day? I would happily wear the same pair of jeans and T shirt for the rest of my life, so I am not naturally attuned to dandies, but I felt sure there must be something else going on there—clothes as a way for people to remake themselves, and distract the world from who they are underneath.
AJH: A Seditious Affair (the second book in the series) is a love story between an upper class politician and a lower class agitator. How the hell did you manage to write a sympathetic Tory? And I can’t help but notice he’s a masochist. Were you exorcising any demons about the outcome of our recent election?
KJC: I wrote a lot of that book in a state of rage and fear about current political developments. There are so many parallels with now which I didn’t intend but which were inescapable in the writing of it. Dominic was always going to be submissive and masochistic because I wanted to write about how a socially conservative man can come to terms with having what many people would see as degrading or weird desires, when he has no name or context for his feelings and even his best friend/ex lover doesn’t understand. So that’s what it was about but it is, er, possible that his humiliation kink became a bit more pronounced, and comprehensively fulfilled, as I wrote. *cough*
As for a sympathetic Tory… well, the great abolitionist William Wilberforce was a Tory. He voted consistently for measures that repressed the working classes and denied them representation and rights. But he also had a houseful of decrepit servants that he employed for life, which he was in no way obliged to do, and gave huge amounts of money, sometimes more than his annual income, to charitable causes supporting the poor—and he dedicated his life to ending slavery, too. It’s a strand of Conservatism that believes in hierarchy and class superiority but that is also very strong on the duties and responsibility of the people higher up. And while I don’t agree, a big theme of A Seditious Affair is acknowledging that other people’s differences are valid, and their beliefs may be honestly, decently held even when you disagree with them. It’s not something I find any easier than anyone else to do, but I tried.
AJH: In the third book in the series, A Gentleman’s Position, we finally get Richard’s story. As the leader of the Ricardians (the group of queer gentleman at the heart of the books) he has a strong but also rather remote presence in the series. And, uh, honestly a lot of us thought he was kind of a prig. At least until this book. What sort of challenges did you face writing him? Given he’s very much a man of his time—raised to pride and privilege—how did you go about making him understandable and attractive to a modern audience?
KJC: That was a challenge! His position seems unfair and unreasonable to modern eyes (as does his difficulty accepting Dominic’s desires). But Richard’s born to nobility and inherited immense wealth, and he believes that his power gives him duties. Call him an overbearing prig if you will (ahem) but the flip side of that is that he’s idealistic, moral, and profoundly responsible for his friends, employees, servants, family. Fundamentally, he believes it’s his job to take care of everyone for them. And that is not okay, but…there are worse motives.
So the focus really had to be on getting the reader to understand that Richard is genuinely trying his best for the people he loves—while doing harm when he fails to see outside his own limited view of what’s best. Because, despite being hugely privileged, he’s just as constricted by his place in a rigid social structure as anyone else.
Shelley’s poem about the Peterloo Massacre (a major event in book 1) talks about “the prison halls of wealth and fashion”. Irritatingly, it wasn’t published until long after the setting of the trilogy so I couldn’t use the line, but that was very much what I had in mind with Richard.
AJH: This is a completely unfair question to ask since it’s the equivalent of asking someone to choose between their kids, but the series has a diverse and fascinating cast. Who are your favourites? Is there anyone you wish you could have written more about? Is there anyone you, cough, intend to write more about?
KJC: Oh goodness. I loved writing Ash because he’s very kind, and not very clever. Julius because he’s so rude, and it is glorious fun to be rude. Silas is, I think, my favourite partly because I have so much respect for the people like him, who fought for freedom in the full knowledge they’d lose, but paved the way for reform a generation later. But also, he’s a very satisfying counterpoint to the Regency beaux of whom I’ve read so much. I love beaux, but it was huge fun to have a scruffy, grizzled revolutionary snarl his way through a world of balls and breeches.
I will be writing a Christmas coda that ties up one of the minor characters. I would really like to write the story of how supporting characters Jon Shakespeare and Will Quex met, but when/if I’ll have time I don’t know.
AJH: I know I’ve mentioned Georgette Heyer, but were there any books that particularly influenced or inspired the series?
KJC: Hmm. The Unknown Ajax, possibly. Not directly, but I so admire the beautifully orchestrated ending of that book, with a whole group working together to get one of their own out of trouble. Hugo’s problem and solution in that book is entirely different to mine, but that was a shadow I felt over me while writing. And The Masqueraders, also, which deals with a very politically dangerous time in the earlier Georgian period (the Jacobite rebellion) and involves lots of gender-bending and a magnificent supporting character who waves two fingers at class and fronts his way to victory. (And also a very tall, socially respectable hero getting embroiled in shenanigans, now I think about it…)
AJH: I don’t agree with this myself, but I’ve heard it said that queer historical romance is fundamentally implausible because there cannot be happy ever after in a grossly homophobic society. What would you say to this?
KJC: I don’t see why queer romance shouldn’t have the same gloss as het does. After all, can women have a happy ever after in a grossly misogynistic society with no contraception or postnatal care? If I can believe my het Regency heroine won’t give birth to eight kids, watch two of them die before the age of five, and suffer from a prolapsed uterus and continual yeast infections for the rest of her life, I can believe my queer Regency men will continue to avoid unjust law.
That said, it is important to me to set up situations that are plausible for a historical HEA, as far as it’s possible. So I can’t present a future in which everyone’s family rallies round to offer love and protection, much though I’d have liked to; there’s no way that the Silas/Dominic and Richard/David relationships will ever be fully accepted by most of their closest friends, let alone anyone else. But my society of gentlemen will continue to be protected by Richard’s wealth and David’s cunning, and their mutual allegiance. It’s the best I can do.
It is obviously not okay to handwave the horrors and injustices of the past. But part of romance is writing stories of how we’d like things to be, and imagining the happy endings people deserve. And that includes queer romance as much as any other.
K.J. Charles is giving away a copy of all four books in the series to one lucky winner. Make a comment below to be included in the giveaway.
KJ Charles is a writer and freelance editor. She lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. She writes mostly romance, usually historical, and often with some fantasy or horror in there. She is mostly tea-oriented.
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret. He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.