Over the next month, AAR will run a column a week as part of our participation in Queer Romance Month. This, penned by author KJ CHarles, is the second of the four.
I don’t like queer historicals, they’re so depressing.
If you don’t like your romance to be angst-filled, and you want to be assured that when you close the book, you leave the characters at the start of a blissful life together, it seems that queer romance has a problem. How can you have a happy ending to a male/male Regency romance when your heroes not only can never come out, but could face the gallows if they get caught together? How can the reader believe in a proper HEA in a hostile world? Isn’t every queer historical romance either a parade of angst or an unconvincing denial of the horrible realities?
Much of the past was an awful place for queer people, particularly though not exclusively men. I’m researching a Regency trilogy, and the newspaper reports give a horrific picture: a litany of blackmail, persecution and betrayal, prison, the pillory and the gallows. Of course wealth and social position helped a lot. As ever, you can get away with more if you have money. But really, realistically, can historical romance give queer couples a happy ever after?
Well, here’s the thing: who says historical het couples should get one?
My favourite romance of all time is These Old Shades. Avon is a dissolute 45-year-old rake who’s been whooping it up for 30 years in the most shocking way. 17-year-old Leonie has been brought up in the worst slums of Paris by a family who regard her as an object, including a vicious young man. Are you seriously telling me Avon doesn’t have tertiary syphilis and Leonie hasn’t been raped? Are you telling me either of them still has their teeth?
And I’m sure you know that. Take the Regency period. You know that marital rape wasn’t a concept, let alone a crime; women had no rights; marriage wasn’t so much a glowing future as a chance not to starve to death at the hands of an uncaring relative. You may know that women faced at least a 1 in 7 chance of dying because of pregnancy or labour, unless they went to a specialist obstetric hospital, when the chance of death rose to 1 in 3. You probably know that women found marriage so hard to come by because of the appalling slaughter of the Napoleonic wars, decimating a whole generation of men who died on the ships and the battlefields, of wounds or disease.
We all know that stuff, but we don’t read historical romance for historical misery. We read for the escape, for happiness and comfort and entertainment and a nudge to keep on going. It doesn’t devalue the appalling suffering of those women if we occasionally rewrite the past to give them a wonderful romance and a happy ending.
So why should queer people be excluded from that rewrite? Why aren’t we as quick to suspend reality for same-sex couples as we are for het illegitimate sons, courtesans, poor clergyman’s daughters, or werewolves? If we can look at the past and reimagine it with brighter colours and better endings for women, why not for queer people?
I do understand the feeling that we somehow dismiss or belittle the awful reality if we rewrite it as happy. But I’m not comfortable, either, with saying, ‘the past is too awful to permit queer HEAs’.
I mentioned the terrible litany of the newspapers, of queer women persecuted, men pilloried and hanged. Thing is, though, that’s what newspapers do: give bad news. They reported the court proceedings. They didn’t – couldn’t – report the other lives. The people who avoided the law, whose families didn’t notice, or whose friends knew and didn’t care, or who made their own communities. The people we don’t know about because they didn’t get in the papers.
This is history by omission, of course, a patchwork of holes. But human nature doesn’t change. At a conservative estimate, 6% of people are LGBT; well, 6% of the historical population didn’t get arrested for sexual transgressions. I don’t diminish or deny the horrors and the grotesque injustice. But we know there was a flourishing homosexual subculture in Georgian England. We know there were areas men went to find other men for sex all the time, and where they could mostly go unmolested. It was reported, discussed, acknowledged because it went on, as love always does. There were queer people in the past, and they loved each other, and had sex, sometimes both at once. And many of them believed in their right to love, no matter what the law or the Bible said.
I think there is no Crime in making what use I please of my own Body – William Brown, arrested for ‘attempted sodomy’, 1726.
I think it’s a denial of historical queer defiance and resilience to insist that LGBT history can only be LGBT tragedy. I love the fact that there is a growing genre of historical queer romance covering the past with rainbows, in frothy Regencies, dark war stories, giddy Golden Age or off-the-wall Westerns. I love the variety and quality of queer historicals. And mostly I love the way authors take the challenges of the past and find a way for their characters to rise through them to joy.
Because queer historical romance does what all romance does: it steers characters through doubt and difficulty and conflict all the way to happiness. It tells the story as it should be. And there’s nothing dour or depressing about that.
KJ Charles’ queer historical recommendations
I could do this for hours: hit me up on @kj_charles for recommendations. Here are just a few favourites.
Another Place in Time – This new anthology (disclaimer: includes a story by me) is a great intro to gay historicals. Six stories covering periods from Knights Templar to 1940s small town USA via Regency England. All proceeds from the sale of this book go to All Out.
Song of the Spring Moon Waning by EE Ottoman – A delightful, magical story set in ancient China, this charming fairytale gives us protagonists who are respectively intersex and a eunuch, but mostly sweet, shy and hopeful in their tentative journey to love and acceptance.
Brothers of the Wild North Sea by Harper Fox – A glorious seventh-century Britain setting for a Viking/Saxon monk romance with passion, brotherhood, intense feeling, lyrical description and a mystical edge. And swordfights. If you like this, and you will, go on to the gorgeous Anglo-Saxon gay romance The Reluctant Berserker by Alex Beecroft.
A Delicate Refusal by TT Thomas – Elegantly written, evocative lesbian romance between a married woman and her near-blind lover, mediated by the secretary who writes her letters, set in England 1914 as the country tips towards war.
Throughout October, Queer Romance Month will be publishing a wide variety of articles, stories and essays from the queer-identified, the queer-writing, and the queer-supporting. Please come and join us, and be part of the celebration and the conversation.
KJ Charles is an editor and writer. She lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her latest book is Think of England.
The Past is a Miserable Country: queer historical romance | All About Romance’s Blog
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I *love* historical romance, queer & het! For some reason it’s my above-all preference in het romance; I haven’t read *quite* as many queer historicals , but everything I have read has been wonderful! I’m happy to say I already have most of the books recommended here.
Here’s a thing I always think about stories & realism. It applies to all stories, really, but maybe even more so for historical romance: Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t have to be convinced a scenario could happen 50 times for me to buy into it 50 times. I only have to believe it could happen, possibly, once. Because, to an extent, I look at every story as existing in a vacuum while I’m reading it. So, for me, this isn’t the 50th book I’ve read about a poor girl marrying a Duke or a queer couple getting an HEA in Regency England: It’s the *only* time. And the next time will be too. I like to think this means I have raised suspension of disbelief to an art form ;-)
Um – I didn’t come here to promote, but in my Richard and Rose series there’s an important secondary character who was gay. He has suffered in the past, but the novels cover a later time in his life. However, at the time the novels were published I couldn’t get too explicit or use him as a main character, which I’ve always regretted.
It does annoy me sometimes that “”gay”” often equates as “”erotic”” on many lists when it’s nothing of the kind.
That’s a good point about some of the m/f romance happy endings beings just as unlikely, even if the consequences of them would not have been as severe in terms of life and death, they would still have had consequences for those people.
Would it in some ways have been easier to keep secrets then? Especially if you were wealthy and privileged? A m/f romance I read once mentioned the heroine’s brother who was gay and who lived in Northumberland, with his lover, who was “”undercover”” as the steward of his estate. He avoided coming to London where he’d be under much more scrutiny.
On the one hand the modern concept of privacy even in your own house wasn’t known. In great houses many of the downstairs rooms are only accessible from each other, not via a corridor. You could get a bit more privacy in a bedroom, but only if you lock the door as a servant might well come in without knocking otherwise. Hell it’s a fairly modern idea, for wealthy folks anyway, to carry a key your own house. The servants would let you in when you came home – at any time of the day or night. Which must have been strangely like being a hotel guest in your own house.
But then on the other hand, good staff were discreet and wouldn’t say a thing about anything they might have witnessed going on. Especially when their employment prospects relied so heavily on references. So any secrets about people sneaking out of the “”wrong”” bedroom at dawn, or whatever would remain secret forever.
People must have figured out ways to live as close to the way they wanted to as they could manage then, and we can’t look at the past as if it had the same culture of exposes and of everyone in the country knowing the slightest move anyone a bit famous made. There was no Daily Mail Sidebar of Shame in the Regency. (Though now I want to mock one up… “”Emma Hamilton flaunts her trim figure in daring new Empire Line gown.”” “”Shock as Beau Brummel disses Prince Regent. ‘Fat friend’ remark condemned.”” I’ll stop now…
Becky, we didn’t invent the social network. “”Gossip sheets,”” “”scandal sheets”” and so on would transmit gossip – not all newspapers were respectable. Hacks who scrabbled for a living in Grub Street would make stuff up.
When Elizabeth Gunning’s shoes were displayed at a cobbler’s shop, the man got extra money for charging a penny a peep, and in a week most of England got to know about it. Poets like Lord Rochester, Swift and Pope (a generation or two apart!) wrote thinly-disguised satires about the scandals of the day. “”Robinson Crusoe”” contains attacks on politicians, for instance.
Every town of any size had a print shop or two, which displayed scurrilous cartoons by the likes of Gillray and Rowlandson. They’re shocking even by today’s standards.
But privacy was certainly easier to achieve, especially if you tried to keep out of the public eye. Near instant communication in London was possible, with the coffee house and drawing-room network, and hand-delivered notes, but only in London. Anything else took time.
Fascinating stuff, Lynne! Also interesting that just like now, how things happen in London is often quite different to the rest of the country.
Yes, all this is so important to remember. If you want reality read non-fiction. I started writing M/M historicals because I saw a plea from a gay man on a fiction forum – he was depressed that gay people in hist roms were always persecuted or killed and where never allowed any happiness. Where, he asked, were the gay heroes who were strong, competent, funny and were allowed to fall in love and have at least a HFN? Luckily he’s got K J Charles to read now.
I actually just finished a gay historical romance over the weekend – Discreet Young Gentleman by M.J. Pearson (http://amzn.to/1v3HWFh). From the cover, it’s incredibly campy and explicit – which it really wasn’t. It may not be high literature, but it was fun and fast. I don’t know about you, but I like romances to be fun – that’s why I read them in the first place.
Yes, I think this is one instance where it was easier for women. Men could have secretaries, and they were usually male, and there were “”bachelor residences.”” But a man had to marry and beget heirs.
Was it a bit easier for Female/female couples, especially in the monied classes? My impression from reading fiction set in the period (at least in the British realm) is that having a “”companion”” or being a “”companion”” was an accepted practice/profession. Does your research bear this out?
What a good point, well made! For those who would like other recommendations: Think of England by the author of this article, KJ Charles, which is a marvellous take on the Boy’s Own world of H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines), and the Enlightenment trilogy by Joanna Chambers. The first book is Provoked, set in 1822 Edinburgh.
Actually she’s nineteen and he’s forty.
(in These Old Shades)
Oops, my bad! Thanks.
I preferentially look for romances with humor. Years ago I searched for all the books I could find by Michelle Martin, author of the very funny traditional Regency book The Mad Miss Mathley. One of those books, Pembroke Park, is a queer Regency with quite a bit of humor.
In many ways I agree with you. Certainly gay couples did have happy endings. Look at the Ladies of Llangollen. But with your other points, about illegitimate, poor, etc, you bring up another point.
There’s the impossible, and there’s the improbable. Authors thrive on the improbable, that’s where many of us work. But for me at least, it has to be credible. “”These Old Shades”” isn’t a book I’m fond of, but not for the many historical inaccuracies, it’s the age difference. It creeps me out, however well Heyer sells it.
An illegitimate child could not and never did inherit a title. However, he (and it would have to be a he) could have won a title of his own. That’s just one example. A whore or a poor woman could marry a duke, but they’d be ostracised from society, and their children would probably suffer, too.
So if you use one of those themes, follow it through and accept that happy ever afters had limitations.
Gay couples could be happy together, but they could never do it openly and they could never marry, except in an informal way. Until the 1960’s, being gay was a crime punishable by hanging, and it was acted on. (usually where another factor was involved, like spying).
The most straightforward way of working through this is to find real life examples. So yes, a duke did marry a dairymaid (once), but they were never accepted into society. That didn’t stop them being very happy together and having a long, fruitful relationship. Gay couples did live together, but they would be “”bachelors”” or they’d have a woman to act as a “”beard.”” Look at all the cases and see what happened. If you stray too far from the truth, and the way things worked out in real life, you risk moving away from the historical feel that makes a historical romance so wonderful.
On the other hand there were never any peers (actual title holders rather than their relatives) who took to the high seas as pirates, or to the roads as highwaymen, and no illegitimate child ever inherited a title.
There was the Harleian Miscellany, where a child who was not the child of his father ended up inheriting the title (Lord Melbourne) but in that case the husband of his mother (!) never disowned the boy. On the other hand, when Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire got pregnant by another man, her husband sent her away and had the child fostered out when it was born, so there was no chance the baby would ever be taken for one of his.
Yes, I feel too that historical heterosexual romances that work well tread a fine line between what you’ve described well as the impossible versus the improbable. I look back on the progressive thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries and know that happy and fairly democratic unions between men and women did exist and therefore they could exist too in a romance, as long as the author captures the general tone and voice of a period. I do still like when authors give due diligence to the gender politics of the day rather than whitewash history. In that respect, I suppose I want a hero and heroine to be more modern in their thinking about fairness and equality in their relationships. Gay couples too had this hurdle, among additional ones of severe sexual discrimination. But I don’t doubt that gay couples found happiness together and a good author could capture this possible, albeit challenging, life together.