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The Past is a Miserable Country: queer historical romance

QRMOver 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.

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