Back in April, I presented a paper at Ithaca College’s feminist pop culture conference From Pippi to Ripley on the issues surrounding the perceived “inaccuracies” in historical romance, especially queer historical romance. Since this issue has reared its ugly head again, I thought I would share my paper with you.
Queer Historical Romance and the Reclamation of Identity and Power
In recent years, as media has become more diverse, from Star Wars to romance novels, critics have claimed that portrayals of marginalized characters are historically inaccurate or done to pander to political correctness. What these critics fail to understand is that historical “accuracy” is often far from accurate. As with all wars, to the victors go the spoils and that includes the historical narrative. The narratives found in modern historical romance novels are by and large white supremacist, Christian, and upholding of colonialist values. Following the expansion of LGBT rights and the acceptance of queer characters in media, queer authors have fought to reclaim the history of those who have come before us, whose voices were lost to puritanical scholars and censors that twisted the public’s perception of the trajectory of LGBT lives. By writing historical romances to fill in the missing gaps in queer history, queer writers strengthen the modern community by asserting a history of sexual and bodily autonomy. Modern queer historical romance novels aren’t meant to be a revisionist history but a re-enlightened one that seeks to capture on the page the people and communities that had previously only lived in the margins of history.
If you’ve ever looked at the reviews of any piece of diverse media, you have come across someone spouting that the diversity present is forced or that it was impossible for a homosexual relationship to be semi-public given the time period. Questions of “realism” and “historical accuracy” have been the greatest hindrance to diverse media, but this begs one to consider what is truly historically accurate. In her essay, “Reclaiming Historical Romance,” Elizabeth Kingston posits that often what we, as readers, consider to be historical fact is actually historical fantasy that has been passed down by previous historians and repeated until it morphed into “fact” (Kingston 1). History has been overwhelmingly written by the “victors” or those who have maintained imperialist or political control. For most of the modern Western world, that has been white, Christian, heterosexual men who have espoused white supremacist views in their writings. As Bronski states in A Queer History of the United States, “The writing and reading of history is always, consciously or not, a political act of interpretation” (xiv).
Until the last few decades, queer history has been relegated to the periphery, and those queer figures who appear in the past are seen as aberrations or were viewed as deviants. The language surrounding queer stories in mass media was tainted by white supremacist political views. Despite a large portion of the queer community, especially in the seventeen to early nineteen hundreds being white, they were viewed by the community at large as going against the white supremacist view of sexual purity. This stems from Puritanical Christian views and was widely adopted after the Second Great Awakening (Bronski 89). To deviate from the heteronormative family structure was to go against the entire structure upon which evangelical and puritanical society was built (10). To many, this would mean that queer populations were nonexistent or were so afraid of persecution that they wouldn’t dare act on their feelings, but this is exactly what white supremacists want us to believe. To make a person who is not like them feel isolated or that they should be ashamed of their differences, is a way to keep them powerless. For if they hide who they are, they are less likely to find others who sympathize or understand their situation.
Developing communities of support and creating public sympathy through shared experience is how marginalized populations gain a foothold on power and social autonomy. In the mid-nineteenth century queer communities began to take root in cities and gained visibility. Due to the anonymity of city life and the ease for single people to find same-sex housing, queer relationships could blossom in relative security. Nowhere were these queer communities more visible than in the arts’ districts. Many places we think of as queer communities now, were the same over a century ago. Greenwich Village, Harlem, and Bloomsbury in London became hubs for the arts, which were often dominated by queer voices. Queer voices were consumed by the masses in vaudeville shows, plays, novels, and the visual arts, but as these voices grew stronger, political institutions stepped in to “protect” the public from what they deemed to be dangerous or deviant behavior in flouting their views of sexual purity and gender norms.
As we can see from the Oscar Wilde’s trial, art could be used as evidence against the creator if it contained homosexual or homoerotic themes, but this didn’t stop authors from publishing “scandalous literature” in America and France. While it was illegal to mail sexually explicit material through the mail, it happened and books regarding sexology and those with homosexual themes were increasingly popular well into the first half of the twentieth century (Bronski 126). History has shown that trying to stop publications is like a game of Whack-a-Mole. It was near impossible to stop people from distributing written material, especially since it was protected by the First Amendment, but the government could stop Hollywood from promoting queer or sexually progressive stories, such as Morocco, which featured the first on-screen lesbian kiss. After the US government threatened to create a censorship board, Hollywood adopted the Hays Code (or the Motion Picture Production Code) and began enforcing it in 1934. Among other things, the Hays Code stated that immorality had to be punished on screen, only “correct standards of life” could be portrayed, sexual behavior could not be shown, and “perverse” behavior could not be shown (“The Hays Code”). All of this combined to make it impossible for queer characters or relationships to be portrayed on screen without heavy coding or a tragic ending. The “bury our gays” trope sprung from this code as those who acted “immorally” according to puritanical Christian beliefs had to be punished and in many cases killed as penance for their behavior. Despite that the Hays Code stopped being enforced in 1968, the damage had been done. The general public had internalized years of anti-queer propaganda to the point that fiction became reality and the myth that queer characters could not have happy lives was solidified in Western culture.
Over the past decade, a new genre of romance has solidified itself as a rapidly expanding subset of historical fiction: queer historical romance. These stories seek to fight against the tide of historical myth that has painted queer relationships formed in the past as impossible or filled with strife. Authors such as KJ Charles, E. E. Ottoman, Joanna Chambers, and Cat Sebastian have sought to not only create works of fiction that uphold the idea that queer characters are entitled to a happy ending but have produced scholarship that upholds that what critics believe is historical fact is truly a political agenda to ignore what doesn’t fit their narrative. The question some of you may be asking is, “Why focus on romance?” Historically, romance as a genre has been treated with disdain by academia because it is portrayed as a genre filled with shirtless men and trope-laden stories about love. Bodice-rippers, as historical romances have often been called, are generally women’s fiction. They are stories written for women by women and act upon the desires and fantasies of women that have largely been ignored by society. The Western canon, despite rising scholars’ best efforts is still largely misogynistic, so the stories that are seen as feminine, such as romances, are shelved as drivel for the masses when in reality, romance strikes at the heart of what oppressed populations truly want: autonomy and power over their own destinies.
In her blog post “Historical Romance: Who Gets the HEA,” KJ Charles explores why readers get hung up on supposed historical accuracy in diverse historical romance. She writes, “And yet there is a powerful strand of opinion that holds that any m/m histrom must reflect the fear of legal persecution,…that marginalised people simply cannot have happy endings,…because history was too cruel” (Charles, “Historical Romance”). We see this on a 2 star review for Cat Sebastian’s A Ruin of a Rake. The reviewer states, “It’s extremely difficult to suspend my disbelief about the relationship between Lord Courteny and Julian Medlock as in 1817, Homosexual relationships were illegal and there were very serious consequences if they had been exposed” (Rodriguez). The reader is correct in that there were sodomy laws on the books in England, but the rate at which people were prosecuted for being in a homosexual relationship is far lower than many modern readers realize. Furthermore we must explore the idea of the legality of something being a hindrance for its occurrence. Gambling, graffiti, and jaywalking are all far more visible than the private lives of two people and are all illegal, yet they occur unpunished with alarming frequency. Readers of historical romance rarely complain that a story is lacking lice, a healthy fear of venereal disease, or the stink of chamber pots, but queer or interracial relationships occurring during earlier historical periods are remarked upon. As Kingston states, “Historical Romance is a shared, collaborative fantasy” that has shut out more people than it has let in (Kingston 4). The greater issue is that the trends within traditional historical romance send the message that “only straight white Christians deserve loving relationships” (4). No matter the amount of privilege the characters have, like Lord Courteny who is titled, rich, and already seen as a rake, it is impossible for certain readers to believe that alone could have afforded him the privacy and social standing to not be prosecuted for sodomy.
A key flaw in historical romance, as a genre, is the definition of a happily ever after disproportionately favors straight, white, cis couples. Generally a happily ever after in romance involves the couple courting, getting engaged, married, and often books end with a pregnancy or hint that a family will follow. For queer historical fiction, there are very few instances where that stereotypical happily ever after is possible. The assumption from romance writers and readers that queer love stories can’t be romances because they don’t follow that formula is inherently homophobic, but the greater question is, do we want that ending? The traditional familial model of date, marry, mate, follows a formula endorsed by the social purity movement. The forefathers of that movement, the Puritans, believed that anything outside of the family unit is forbidden and that to ensure society’s stability, partners must be monogamous and make matches in order to procreate. This “traditional” mode of living has gone relatively unquestioned for centuries, and what queer historical fiction offers is a precedent for more complex social and sexual relationships.
Inherently, the writing of romance stories is the private made public. The lives of those who came before us were often obscured for safety reasons or were written over by scholars who chose to ignore or not see what was truly before them. What romance allows us is to speculate how couples came to be and how they navigated the public and private spheres to find their own version of happily ever after. Queer historical romance deviates from the “norm” out of necessity, but it allows readers to explore how a relationship that doesn’t follow the formula of date, marry, mate was still able to thrive. Further, these stories uphold that women’s lives are not “made whole” by children or a husband to support them. Often, Sapphic historical romance involves women who are working to support themselves through a trade. For male-male couples in historical romance, we see how two individuals can live separate lives and without cohabitation still manage to be a long-term couple.
That isn’t to say that all queer historical works involve monogamy. In KJ Charles’ Band Sinister, we meet a group of friends who are for the most part queer, ranging from gay or bisexual to transgender. Three of the men in their hellfire club have had an ongoing relationship with each other for decades. When Sir Philip becomes involved with his new lover, Guy, he makes certain Guy understands how deeply he feels for his two friends. Philip states, “that may not be the kind of love about which the poets write, nor the kind I feel for you, but it’s still real and true as anything in the world” (Charles, Band Sinister 3010). Queer historical fictions allows for greater exploration of different types of love, especially those that have generally been seen as lesser in modern society. We see this blurring of queer/quasiplatonic relationships in many other queer historical works, including KJ Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series, Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series, and Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise.
Within queer romance, we’re given an intimate look at love that defies labels. Queer stories are “places for individual and collective explorations” that allow us to “[understand] the self through the larger fabric of culture and history and relationality” (Royster). Writing inherently requires us to pull from our own experiences and fears, and by writing within a historical setting and with characters who don’t fit our exact specifications, it allows writers to navigate the difficulties of their own world in a controlled environment and through a lens that allows enough distance and difference for exploration. In a way, we get to know “the self as other and the self as same” (Johnson 429). It is often through writing queer romance that people discover their sexuality or gender identity is more complex than originally thought, and for those who know, it allows a deeper exploration of queer identity than is often possible in real life.
Ultimately, writing is a performative act, and through the creation of images, action, and insertion of the self onto the page, the writer has self-actualized a moment in time (Rogerson 3). Much like photography, writing seeks to create and suspend moments. For queer writers, the images created are somewhat speculative since much of queer history has been erased, ignored, or purposefully left off the page for their own protection. By putting the actions and feelings of queer characters in queer relationships on paper, that missing history is being reasserted and physically actualized where there had once been a gap. Just because that moment or those people didn’t truly exist doesn’t really matter. The perception of history is itself as much fantasy as reality, but what is true is that no matter the rules, people have acted upon queer desire and others have been complicit in affording them a peaceful life. In an age of renewed fervor in the social purity movement, queer writers are digging in their heels and reasserting their sexual and bodily autonomy by reweaving the roots of history that were torn asunder decades and centuries past. By writing the past, they cement themselves in the present.
Queer historical romance aims to blow the dust off history by uncovering those who lived in the margins and reassert that history has been far less heteronormative than it has been portrayed to be. In recent years, queer historical romance has grown into a major subgenre of romance novels, and this assertion of sexual autonomy through the written word has come as a counterstrike against the white supremacist ideology dominating politics and romance novels. Despite what detractors might believe, queer relationships have always existed in America, and queer historical romance is not fiction in the way they think. Romance novels are the private made public, and queer historical romance is a reassertion of identity and sexual autonomy, a reminder that, no matter what social purists might say regarding queer relationships or non-heteronormative relationships, they have always existed and will continue to flourish.
Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2011. ReVisioning American History.
Charles, KJ. Band Sinister. E-book, KJC Books, 2018.
—. “Historical Romance: Who Gets the Happy Ending.” KJ Charles, 10 Oct. 2018, kjcharleswriter.com/2018/10/10/historical-romance-who-gets-hea/?fbclid=IwAR2wHOz1DzIW2gP9IFfRcSRSXS9GQgEjjmcCFbh4cbbm8CYSTv7SDyXQ5s4.
Johnson, E. Patrick. “Queer Epistomeologies: Theorizing the Self from a Writerly Place Called Home.” Biography, vol. 34, no. 4, Summer 2011, pp. 429-46. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.
Kingston, Elizabeth. “Reclaiming Historical Romance.” Elizabeth Kingston, Dec. 2018. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.
Rodriquez, Cecilia. “Masculine Pygmalion.” Review of A Ruin of a Rake. Amazon.com, 16 Mar. 2018, http://www.amazon.com/Ruin-Rake-Cat-Sebastian/product-reviews/0062642537/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_hist_2?ie=UTF8&filterByStar=two_star&reviewerType=all_reviews#reviews-filter-bar. Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.
Rogerson, Stephanie. “Without Words You Spoke: Early Snapshot Photography and Queer Representation.” Afterimage, vol. 36, no. 1, July 2008, pp. 10-13. EBSCOhost. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.
Royster, Francesca T. “Introductory Notes: Performing Queer Lives.” Biography, vol. 34, no. 3, Summer 2011, pp. v-xii. Academic Search Premier. Accessed 20 Apr. 2019.