In celebration of Queer Romance Month, Joanna Chambers, Alex Beecroft and KJ Charles are here to discuss queer historical romance.
KJC: So, let’s kick off with a thing I see a lot. Many readers of queer romance resist historicals because they’ll be ‘depressing’—based on what people know of historical attitudes to homosexuality, particularly between men, and to nonstandard gender identities. Is this a view you’ve come across?
JC: More than that. It was my view :-) Actually it was Alex Beecroft who changed my mind
KJC: Which book?
JC: Captain’s Surrender. (I review it here.) I remember being uplifted the final notes of the book. I mean that in the musical sense. It ends with this wonderful sentiment of No boy ever ran away to sea to be safe. It reminded me of one my favourite poems, ‘Safety’ by Rupert Brooke (“Safe, though all safety’s lost; Safe where men fall; And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.”). Sometimes, safety is … not worth it.
KJC: Yes, I get that. When the stakes are so high, so much higher than they are in a relationship that can be legally sanctioned, and more has to be put at hazard. Which is not to underplay historical suffering, but to credit the courage of people who followed their hearts anyway.
AB: *g* I’m kind of bashful to jump in now, but I’m going to anyway. I’ve certainly come across the idea that historicals must be depressing, but I’ve never thought so myself. If you don’t want to deal in the high stakes drama of love in the face of death, because that cuts a little close to home and sometimes you just want to stop being brave for a while, there are also plenty of historical periods where homosexuality and other gender issues were not a problem. You know? You can write in Rome or Ancient Greece, or navigate the slightly different problems among the Vikings. Do any of us know what the attitude to LGBT people was among the Aztecs? Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out!
KJC: Aztec blood sacrifice romance. Now there’s a conflict. :) But yes, absolutely. One of my favourite books is Brothers of the Wild North Sea by Harper Fox, in which, a bit of unpleasantness with a fanatical monk aside, the male/male relationship isn’t the issue. A lot of the book is the two characters trying to make a relationship and make things better around them.
JC: I’m also kind of fascinated by the gaps in official history. I don’t believe that there were comprehensive attitudes shared by all. It’s that thing of who history is written by. *his*story, you know? I’m interested in the extent to which people found a way.
AB: I’m researching ancient Crete at the moment, and you can literally see how the assumptions of the archaeologists almost completely shape what they’re seeing. The same society, the same relics, and some people see terrible kings with monsters in their basements while some see a peaceful matriarchal society headed by priestesses. Sometimes I think we’re entirely justified in putting things back in, because as you say, people would have found a way and they deserve to be celebrated.
KJC: That’s absolutely right. There are holes in a lot of history, and the threads are spun out of assumptions anyway. I just saw a documentary about a new 16th century graveyard (as in, they just found it digging tunnels for a railway) in London, and the documents discovered have shown a much greater black presence in London than was previously thought. Because (white historian) people weren’t thinking to look.
JC: Yes. This. One of the challenges of writing historical is to walk the line between authenticity and challenging assumptions. Some of the sources I read before writing Enlightenment pointed to a far greater degree of social mobility and interaction than our traditional “Austenesque” or “Heyeresque” view of the Regency period. Yet, if you depict that, people will call you out.
KJC: Don’t start me. The Regency was basically a police state. I’m just finishing a trilogy with a political slant and I was amazed researching it just how bad things were, how oppressive. I really like the way that the genre is broadening. And that conflicts in queer Regency romance are moving beyond the limited and depressing ones (self-hatred and legal sanctions). I think the queer historical genre is in quite an exciting place at the moment.
AB: Yes, one of the things I’m hearing people say at the moment is that they don’t want a lot more books focussed on coming out, or how tragic it is to be LGBTQ. What they want are books in which LGBTQ people have adventures and are heroes, and their sexuality is part of it but not the whole, in the same way as it is for straight readers/characters.
JC: But I think that is an important story too. To realise, how very recently, how difficult that was. To be aware that you take hard-won rights for granted at your peril.
KJC: What really struck me, writing political Regency, was the overlap. Lower class people without votes, women rendered utterly powerless by the laws around property and marriage, gay (as we’d now say) men at risk of hanging—all these people being treated as lesser in different but ultimately similar ways by a patriarchal system.
AB: I think that’s right. One of the things historicals can do is to show how very bad it can get, and why we cannot relax any vigilance now. On the other hand, one of the other things historicals can do is give you a nice holiday away from all of that into a time where almost everything was different. I know I’m harping on Crete at the moment, but there’s an amazing picture of a priestess that suggests at least some kind of degree of genderqueerness in that society. (She’s officiating at some ceremony, bare breasted and wearing what looks like a strap-on.) And of course the theory is that that was a matriarchal and egalitarian society. It’ll be interesting to see what assumptions of mine I end up challenging while writing that. But hopefully the compare and contrast will be both entertaining and useful.
JC: Small aside to squee over Mary Renault’s Bull From the Sea and the companion novel which I ADORED as a teenager.
AB: The Persian Boy is my top m/m ever :)
JC: I have a question about HEAs in historical queer romance, and what it might be. What you find satisfying. Like, with the example from Captain’s Surrender I mentioned earlier and what I said about musical notes. I have this thing about the emotional music / tone at the end of stories. What feeling you are left with. That is what romance readers are waiting for. That is why the HEA is such an endlessly debated topic. With Alex’s book, it was this exuberant hopefulness, this excitement about the future, that contrasted so beautifully with what had gone before. It felt like … I don’t know, swan-diving off a cliff.
KJC: I think this is a fascinating subject. In part because I have a firm belief in any romance that there’s no such thing as an HEA, just an excellent place to stop. (You know, in het romance, we frequently cut before things like trying to give birth without epidurals and hand-washing.) For me, the wonderful ending is the one where you find the equilibrium, the balance point, the place where they both know and have that connection. It might not mean that all the problems are over forever, of course. But, as with the end of Enlightened, you know that they’ve found a point of … I can’t say it better than balance. Universal balance.
AB: I suppose I don’t really believe in a happy ever after. That’s so final! For example, if they get married at 25, they’re probably going to be alive for up to 75 more years. Did their lives end with marriage/pairing up? No! They just went from having adventures while being alone to having new adventures together. They’ve found someone to share a fascinating new life with, and for some people it may be raising a family, but for others it may be discovering the New World or defeating the Viking invaders. Life gets better when you have someone to share it with, but it doesn’t end there.
JC: I’m no stranger to a controversial view. My personal philosophy on this is that people often focus quite literally on what a HEA or HFN, but in terms of delivery it’s actually more ephemeral than that. It’s not about choosing one of the five or six RWA sanctioned outcomes, it’s about how you feel. It kind of takes us back to KJ’s original question about people worrying about being depressed. They read romance because they want a positive outcome. A happy outcome. Our job is to deliver that in a way that feels real and that doesn’t cause their willing suspension of disbelief to crumble and I LOVE THAT, I love that we get to imagine possibilities of happiness.
KJC: Yes, I get you. I think in the end, all romance, whenever set and whoever between, has that issue. And I think queer historical romance can do it as strongly as any—more so in the periods when people were literally risking their necks for love. When we see the connection made and the determination to overcome whatever obstacles, and the thing that crackles between two people, and both of them fighting for it and getting there—well, that’s what I’m after. I call it a HFN, but I can equally see it as a shining note on which to finish. As long as it shines.
AB: Yes, my only objection to a HEA is that it has too strong a feeling of stopping, for me. As Joanna said, I like the feeling of ending on a new beginning, because better things are yet to come.
Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years. Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two children in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist. Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has led a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.
Joanna Chambers always wanted to write. She spent over 20 years staring at blank sheets of paper and despairing of ever writing a single word before she (re)discovered her love of romance after having her first child and found her muse. Joanna lives in Scotland with her family and finds time to write by eschewing sleep and popular culture.
KJ Charles is a writer and freelance editor living in London. She has a husband, two kids, and a cat when he’s not off on a murder spree. Find her all too often on Twitter, or look up KJ Charles Chat on Facebook for book chat and sneak peeks.