It’s October 30th, and I just found out October is Queer Romance Month.
Why queer romance, you ask? For one thing, maybe if novels like this had existed when I was a kid, my own struggles with sexuality and gender expression might have been a little less tortured. (I read all of the Tarzan series as a teenager; imagine if somewhere along the way the Ape Man had taken a male lover. Huh, attraction to both men and women can be a thing.)
Also, it turns out I have something of an allergy to the traditional, hetero romance genre. Something about those alpha males with their washboard abs and their masterful ways that I just can’t relate to (that previous mention of Tarzan aside). It seems I can only tolerate Cecilia Grant, with her male characters who are as conflicted as I am, especially in A Gentleman Undone. Or Jane Austen, whose male characters seem mostly afterthoughts to her novels’ main concerns, Darcy and his non-canonical swimming scene notwithstanding. But whether it’s two men or two women getting together, in queer romance those concerns fall by the wayside.
So, without further ado, some of my favorite queer romances, only one strictly in the romance genre, and the others ecstatically straddling genre boundaries.
First up, Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin, published way back in the 1980s and billed as the first lesbian Regency romance. It’s actually the first novel I read that was strictly in the romance genre, and it’s better than several straight romance novels I’ve read since. It features a widowed gentlewoman discovering desires she never knew she had when a wealthy single woman with Bohemian tendencies and a taste for men’s clothes moves in next door. Martin’s take on how love between women could pass in the strict society of early 19th-century England—basically, that one could get away with a lot with wealth, impressive titles, and enough friends in the right places—seems realistic. The ultimate solution her characters find in order to make a life together might not satisfy all modern readers, however. You can tell this romance was written in the ’80s because there’s no obligatory sex scene at the midway point (which seems to be a feature of every romance I’ve read since). After this novel, Martin turned to straight historical and contemporary romance, so maybe Pembroke Park was too far ahead of its time.
Also originating in the ’80s, but carrying through to the present, is Ellen Kushner’s outstanding Riverside series, set in a fictional 19th-century(ish), European(ish) country without a name. Comprising three novels (Swordspoint, Privilege of the Sword, and Fall of the Kings), several short stories, and the just-launched prequel, Tremontaine, the world of Riverside exists in an alternate reality where a variety of sexualities are tolerated, though still considered eccentric. The novels feature witty conversation, attention to aristocratic etiquette, and enough political intrigue to require those swords to be frequently brandished, not to mention used to lethal effect. I suppose it’s a bit of a stretch to count them as romance, but there are romantic elements, and Alec Campion and Richard St. Vier are a couple for the ages. Fans of Riverside, such as Malinda Lo (one of the seven contributors to Tremontaine), view the Riverside series as a landmark work that created a space for queer characters in fantasy.
Emma Donoghue is famous right now for Room, but her earlier historical novel, Life Mask, brought to life the theatre, revolutionary politics, and suppressed lesbian lusts of late-18th-century England. It counts as a queer romance because there’s a happy ending for one lesbian couple, though they go through a lot of trauma along the way. (And one way to tell that this is not a genre romance, is that it would be a spoiler to reveal the identity of that couple; in genre romance, the reader generally knows very quickly who will be getting together in the end.) Readers looking for the number of sex scenes (or any, really) expected in a romance novel will be disappointed, but the slowly building sexual tensions more than make up for that.
Following in the tradition of Ellen Kushner is Heather Rose Jones, whose Alpennia series takes a similarly alternative/fantastical 19th-century Europe and populates it with queer characters. As opposed to the omnisexuality of Riverside, the romance here is definitely lesbian. In the actual England and Europe of the period, sexual attraction between women flew under the guise of “romantic friendship;” here it seems okay to be gay as long as you’re labeled an eccentric—an artist, an intellectual, or a widow. The main focus here is on swashbuckling fantasy, with an intriguing magical system based in the Catholic religion and in alchemy. The first novel, Daughter of Mystery, rushed the romantic aspect of its protagonists’ relationship, while the second, The Mystic Marriage, was more fully developed. (As with Life Mask, readers looking for romance-novel levels of sex will be disappointed.)
I hesitate to include this one under the category of romance at all because of [SPOILER ALERT!] its anti-romance ending, but Sedition by Katharine Grant is another novel that opened my eyes to the possibilities of 1790s England as a setting for my own novel. This satire on bourgeois families seeking to marry their daughters into the aristocracy features a lot of sexual hijinks involving a piano tutor, and it does have two young women falling in love. But then it falls into the sad tradition of lesbian love always having to be punished in some way, usually by the death of one of the partners. And the machinations the author uses to achieve that sad ending stretch belief, so much so that I wrote my own fanfictional ending over on Archive of Our Own.
I love everything I’ve read so far by Sarah Waters, and it’s not hard to see why she keeps getting nominations for the Man Booker Prize. Emma Donoghue credits her with creating the lesbian historical genre. I’ve read the bookends of her career so far, Tipping the Velvet and The Paying Guests. Both feature romance to one degree or another, but there’s a lot more going on in each. The first third of The Paying Guests, for example, is a slow-burning romance and novel of manners, but then it morphs brilliantly into a crime drama/police procedural, and finally into a tense courtroom drama. (It’s also a master class in close third person point of view, used to great effect as Frances begins to doubt her lover’s motives.) Waters has an impressive ability to capture the voices of quite different characters (from a Victorian daughter of a fishmonger who goes on the stage to an upper-class woman in post-WWI London in the two I’ve read, with her other novels varying in period from mid-19th century to WWII). Not to mention, lush writing about the female form, like this passage:
But none of them was as handsome as Lillian, she thought. Against the white silk and gauze of her dress the flesh of her arms and shoulders had a solid, creamy texture—as if one could dip into it with a spoon, or with a finger.
Now that’s objectification I can get behind.
And then there are Shakespeare’s comedies. (“Wait, what?” I can hear you ask.) As You Like It has always been my favorite Shakespeare. Straight guy like me, I should identify with Orlando, right? No, I always viewed him as some sort of usurper with all this instantaneous falling in love crap. For a long time I thought I identified or empathized with Rosalind for being driven out of her home and forced(?) to take on the guise of a man. But Rosalind’s falling in love with Orlando also seemed like a betrayal. A betrayal of whom? It was only in answering that question that I realized I identified with Celia. She’s clearly head over heels in love with Rosalind, and gives up her fortune and future to be with her, but is quickly thrust aside in favor of Orlando. There’s a theory that Celia’s falling instantly in love with Orlando’s brother (does anyone even remember that guy’s name?) is just a clever ruse to stay close to her real lover, similar to Mallory Ortberg’s hilarious list of ways she would survive if she were Queen Anne’s lesbian companion. So yeah, I’ll always think of As You Like It as queer romance.
And speaking of Shakespeare (while also moving on to my TBR list), I’m only just beginning to read their work, but the writing duo of Racheline Maltese (who is also a contributor to Tremontaine) and Erin McCrae has a series of m/m romance novels set in the world of Shakespeare summer stock theatre called Love’s Labours. The first title, Midsummer, looks intriguing, switching around that common lesbian romance trope: in this case it’s a widower discovering desires he never suspected he had.
Also on my TBR list is Geonn Cannon, another straight guy writing f/f romance, and winning awards for it from the Golden Crown Literary Society (for Gemini in 2010, among others).
Whether this post has piqued your curiosity about queer romance or you’re already a fan, I hope you’ll check out my own f/f Regency romance/suspense novel, Daring and Decorum, the story of a cross-dressing highwayman, as told by the woman she loves, set in 1790s Devonshire (for which I’m still seeking a publisher).