A Chat With Cat Sebastian About Writing Queer Characters in Historical RomanceEntertainment
Of all the longstanding, beloved subgenres of romance novel, among my personal favorites and also perhaps the most specific is the Regency, set around the same time as Jane Austen. Like Austen, the setting has been occupied by everyone from feminists to conservative evangelicals. Author Cat Sebastian uses the setting to write queer romance that she refers to as “Marxist tracts with boning.”
In an interview, Sebastian told me that she wants “to populate history with every possible variety of queer person—which is totally my goal as a writer and a human.” Thus far, beginning with her first book, The Soldier’s Scoundrel, her characters have been gay and bisexual men; the upcoming Unmasked by the Marquess will include a non-binary character. She’s billed it as “sort of a queer Frederica,” which points to one of the things that’s so fascinating about Sebastian’s work. Frederica is a beloved novel by Georgette Heyer, the Regency subgenre’s J.R.R. Tolkien. Heyer’s books paired a formal prose style with a propensity for madcap antics, the result being an ironic hilarity. She was also an incredibly conservative, prejudiced, downright frightful product of the Edwardian era. Sebastian—like several of her fellow modern Regency writers, such as Rose Lerner—has adapted her style of storytelling to more liberal values, writing with an eye toward the actual class realities of England in the early 19th century and incorporating characters who existed in history, but have often been missing from Regency Land.
I talked to Sebastian about how she came to the genre and how she handles her characters sensitively. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length (because I could talk to any romance novelist for three hours).
“Marxist tracts with boning”
JEZEBEL: How did you get into reading romance?
CAT SEBASTIAN: I had three kids in two years, because my younger ones were twins, so I was really not in a good place. Reading cozy mysteries had always been my safe place, but it just turned out that mentally, I could not deal with people being dead or in danger. And I was so upset because I had nothing to read. So I started to read Georgette Heyer and then moved from there to reading Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn and it turns out that historical romance made me feel really safe and optimistic and happy at a time when my brain wasn’t generating those feelings on its on.
And then how I got to queer romance, I actually don’t even remember how I got there. I was reading all the words, all of them, and so I think I stumbled across Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner and I was completely delighted.
You mentioned Georgette Heyer. I think what’s really interesting about your books is that your style is clearly very influenced by hers, and I really enjoy that. But you write with an eye toward class and the realities of the Regency that she would have thrown a fit about.
Oh, I remember that you wrote that Rose Lerner and I were writing stuff about class that would make Georgette Heyer roll over in her grave, and I’ve never been prouder. I was so pleased with myself. And also, being mentioned in the same sentence with Rose is always good.
What if slipping down that rung, or several rungs, is the price they have to pay for being with the person that they want to be with
Somebody else said this better than me, but all the different elements of privilege are tied up together, right? You have whiteness, straightness, able-bodiedness, and wealth, and a bunch of other things are all tied up together. So once you start to pull one out, you’re left with a structure that isn’t totally solid. Once you pull out straightness, or once you pull out being neurotypical, then you almost have to examine the rest of the structure. At least that’s how it feels like to me when I’m looking at how to create a character and what that character’s going to be like and what their life is going to be like. I don’t feel like I could write about rich queer people without class being an element, and without their mental health being an element. For me, it all works together.
And also I like class. It’s just there in Heyer. It’s certainly there in Austen. The characters are so very conscious of it—what will happen if they slip down one rung on the ladder. And so, I want to write about what happens when they do slip down a rung on the ladder. What if slipping down that rung, or several rungs, is the price they have to pay for being with the person that they want to be with, or for being true to themself in some other way? I like looking at class as not always going to go up. Sometimes you’re going to go down, and then what happens? What’s that going to be like?
I’ve read 9 million Regencies and I love them to pieces, but what’s interesting is money almost always solves everything. Almost always, somebody’s rich eccentric aunt from the Georgian era will swoop in and say, whatever, it’s fine, I like you, we’ll fix it. And they do fix it! And they continue to get into spaces like Almack’s, even though the heroine was a governess or whatever. How do you balance the happy ending mandate with the fact that the class system is this brutal machine that does not care about your feelings?
What I’m trying to create with a happy ending is stability, if not wealth. The book that I just turned in, one of the characters owns a pub. He has a viable, solid income stream there. He’s never going to be rich, but he’s doing okay. His main goal isn’t to become rich. He’s black, and what he wants to do is use the money that he makes to give a leg up to other people in his community. And at the same time, the other character has come by wealth through sort of iffy means. As a teenager, he had a relationship with his godfather, and the godfather leaves him a bunch of money, so he feels really not great about having inherited it. For him, the resolution is getting rid of it. So for both of them, their having a happy ending, in a way, is tied up with class and with money, but it’s not having more money. We’ll see if people buy that. That might not be what readers of historical romance necessarily want in their happy ending. But it’s what I’m writing, and I hope they like it.
What I’m trying to create with a happy ending is stability, if not wealth.
Jane Austen wrote in a wider band of social identities than Heyer did, too, and it’s interesting to me how they often take place in this narrow band of society. There’s so much more of London, much less the rest of the country and the world, and it’s interesting how specific that slice is. Also that that’s such a vivid world that people have been able to set books in it for like 80 years.
With no worldbuilding! As a writer, that’s a huge advantage. To be able to walk right in and not have to explain what a pelisse is and what almack’s is and why it matters. That’s amazing. But at the same time, when I see a world that’s readymade and that rests on a whole bunch of assumptions, the first thing I want to do is ruin it. I want to pull it apart immediately. I don’t think I could write ten consecutive paragraphs set in an un-messed-up Regency world. But there are people who do and they do it really well and I admire that. I just don’t think I’m capable of it.
Austen was writing about a class that’s more middle class than anything Heyer was writing about. I saw a chart somewhere—because, you know, Heyer tells us what everybody makes, and Austen often does. But the person that Maria Bertram in Mansfield Park marries, I think he’s the richest person in Austen, and he’d just be any old person in Heyer. There’s several spaces on the social ladder between what Austen’s writing about and what Heyer’s writing about, and people in Austen don’t have the convenient rich uncle. Well, in Emma, Frank Churchill has the people who conveniently die for him. But that’s not the norm. They usually have to figure it out on their own. Anyway, it is funny that it’s not Austen and her middle class people we’re emulating in Regency romance today. We’re looking at Heyer and we’re looking at people who maybe are even more well-to-do and influential than Heyer was writing about. We really seem to be gravitating almost to the celebrities of this completely fictional slice of Regency London that we like to read about.
I recently saw an article arguing that Regencies are inherently conservative form and setting. Which I thought was interesting because—and obviously part of this is my personal tastes as a reader and what I pick to read—but liberal authors often seem very interested in it. Why do you think that is? What do you think it is about the Regency era that attracts people that don’t necessarily share Georgette Heyer’s totally hideous politics?
I don’t know. I think romance as a genre is—there’s something small-c conservative about it. Obviously we can both name a bunch of exceptions, but generally romance novels, whether they’re historical or contemporary or even paranormal, they reaffirm the social structure, where people pair up and form ties within a preexisting community and often have children. And even in a lot of queer romances, you often have the couple acquiring children, either during the story or in the epilogue. That sense that the romance novel is showing you the building blocks of society, I think that that is small-c conservative. Because it’s not a revolution. You’re not throwing anything over. You’re building within that structure. That said, even as I’m saying those words, I’m thinking of a lot of exceptions. But I do think that the overarching trend is towards that conservatism. And that might make it a safe read. I don’t know.
It’s interesting how it seems to often be doing this very complicated dance, where the happily ever after is about stability in a lot of ways—these two people are paired up. But there’s also something radical about how it expands the sense of how that stability can be achieved, I think.
Yes, or who deserves that stability. Who deserves to be happy. So let’s say you have a spinster scientist in 1810, and she feels like she’s an outcast, where she couldn’t possibly get married, because she has to do botany. However, by the end, she’s married an earl, let’s assume, and she’s comfortable, she has children. She’s been enfolded into that preexisting structure. Romance can give that conventional ending to people who might be unconventional. I think that’s part of the power of the genre. is that it extends that happy ending to people who might otherwise feel undeserving.
When I see burned letters, I just kind of assume everybody’s queer.
Obviously I have a lot of very complicated feelings about Amazon, but for all the stereotypes about self-publishing, it truly has allowed a real expansion in what a happy ending can look like.
Oh yeah, and I share those feelings about Amazon, but I feel like without it, we’d be looking at a totally different landscape. I’m so happy that I can go to Amazon and see a romance novel that gives a happy ending to virtually anyone. That to me is thrilling, that people can see themselves in a romance novels and they can see themselves having a happy ending, whoever they are. I feel like there’s a real power in that.
Queer romance has expanded so much, but it is interesting to me how often that has taken the form of “male/male” romances, many of them written for a female audience. When you sit down to write, how do you approach handling these stories with the right level of sensitivity and thought about your characters and your audience? How do you approach the process to make sure that you land somewhere that’s fundamentally respectful?
Basically, I don’t want to exploit an identity that isn’t mine. That is a major concern as I’m writing. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that even though I’m writing about people who lived two hundred years ago, still I’m writing about gay and bi men, and that’s not an identity I share. So I want to make sure that I’m not obviously doing harmful representation—that’s always key. But I also want to make sure that I’m going to keep alive to the concerns that a gay or bi man would have while reading my books today. I want to make sure that no one’s being involuntarily outed, the idea of found family is really key for queer people of any gender—I want to make sure that those things that are important to the identities that I’m writing about today are present in the right degree in my books. I just want to make sure that people can see themselves in a good way in the books. Even though I’m aware that most of the people who are reading my books are women, still, I’m writing about humans and I want to make sure that i get it right.
You don’t want to write something that anybody’s going to pick up and be like—no.
Right, and especially when you’re writing about people who would have feared for their lives if they were outed. I want to make sure that I respect that, because there are people alive today who have that same concern. I want to make sure that I respect that. But at the same time, I don’t want that to cast a huge shadow over the story that I’m telling. That’s the major balancing act that I do as a writer. I want to be respectful of the hardships that queer people faced then and face now, but I want to also make sure that they’re as thoroughly happy as they can be.
There’s such a large audience of women for romance featuring two men. What do you think it is that readers see in that?
I don’t know, and I think about this all the time! First of all, I don’t know that there is an answer that we can access. This is just me guessing. I do wonder if it’s something about seeing a man through the male gaze. Maybe we are used to seeing women through the male gaze. Maybe the experience of seeing men as beings who are desired by other men is freeing, or novel, or attractive in some other way as readers. I feel like that could be it, and that might explain why F/F doesn’t seem to have taken root, which is a huge source of frustration for me. I don’t understand—where are all my lesbian historical novels? Give them to me! There aren’t nearly enough of them out there, and everybody who’s written one assured me that the reason is because there’s just not a huge audience, and they like to eat food and make money, which is totally respectable. Maybe it’s because in a novel with two women as protagonists, maybe as readers, we don’t know how to look at them without the male gaze. I have no idea, and it’s been so long since I have been in a women’s studies class, but I do feel like that’s got to be part if it.
I don’t know! I would like for somebody to write a dissertation on that.
I also don’t understand. Like, Fingersmith is one of the best books ever.
Also, if you look at how people could hide queer relationships around existing structures—two women could live together really easily in the 19th century.
Yes! And forever. It’s never been hard to hide a lesbian relationship. And I don’t know if that’s because we expect women to live together, or we expect single women to team up, or if it’s just because no one’s thinking there’s anything sexual behind it, so they can do whatever they want. Even if they’re married to other people, they can do whatever they want, and no one looks twice.
What it is that appeals to you about writing queer romance? Obviously it’s a more open field than it used to be, but the books that go on the shelves at the Walmart, it does still tend to be the heterosexual stories.
I think part of it is that when you read Austen or when you read Heyer, or when you read almost anybody who was writing almost anything, you wonder where the queer people are. Or at least I do. Sometimes there’ll be a character that I feel is queer, but I don’t know if the author knows. Anyway, as a queer person with many queer friends, it is hard for me to look into any historical world and not wonder where the queer people are. And so, when I’m thinking of stories to tell, those are the stories that I gravitate to, because it feels so missing from the narratives that we already have.
it is hard for me to look into any historical world and not wonder where the queer people are.
So much of history is written in that way that’s names and dates and battles and prime ministers, and you have to work hard to recover other stories because it’s not on the paper.
And also, it’s been deliberately erased. It’s not an accident that first-person testimonials are missing. I’m writing an author’s note for Unmasked by the Marquess, just because I wanted to show that the idea of a nonbinary or trans person or the early 1800s isn’t a far-fetched idea. That in fact this happened, and it happened a lot. I guess everybody knows the story of James Berry, who was assigned female at birth by a doctor, then went to medical school and lived his entire life as a man. It’s almost impossible to read that story and not conclude that James Berry was a trans man. And James Berry was buried under a headstone that said “James Berry.” Okay? James Berry wasn’t living a lie. James Berry was James Berry. People at the time seemed to grasp that, and after James Berry died, there were many people who were like, yeah, I kind of thought there was something going on there, but I didn’t want to say anything and be rude. It wasn’t just like, what a mystery, how did nobody know? People knew, they just kept themselves to themselves. It turns out there’s a bunch of other stories like that, too, that basically follow the same pattern, where you have someone who’s assigned female at birth, dresses as a man for a reason—maybe to go to medical school, maybe to enlist. Then they get sick, go to the hospital, call a doctor, the doctor “discovers” their secret, and then doesn’t tell anyone, and then the person dies and is buried under a headstone with their adopted name. That’s a pattern that repeats itself again and again. And yet, people act like being trans is a new thing, where there are all of these stories.
That’s part of what draws me to writing them. A lot of these stories are in plain view, it’s just that we’ve been trained not to look at them like that.
Were you the one who was talking on Twitter about burned letters? God only knows what was in all those letters!
When I see burned letters, I just kind of assume everybody’s queer.