Whatever the era with historical heterosexual fiction, once the hero and heroine have been through the required conflict, warred with their parents, or their countries, found each other, lost each other, found each other again, blah blah blah, they can finally fall into each other's arms, get married, shack up and it is assumed that never a cross word will pass their lips and the happiness will begin.
But--what about two men in love? Writers of gay historicals have to somehow convince their readers that--despite most eras pre Stonewall/pre-Wolfenden being downright dangerous times to be gay--the characters in our books have chosen to take the risk, and wish to stay together come what may. Or that they've managed some way to be together which flies a little under the radar
But how best to do it?
Obviously, we know that there have been homosexual men since men were invented. I'm sure that Ug looked out of his cave one day and saw Ig waving quietly at him and he either lost all interest in dragging any females back to his cave, or realised why he didn't want to. It might not have been too worrisome for Ug and Ig to set up cave together, far away from everyone else, but when you move forwards in history a bit and the Church gets all "burn the unnaturals" it becomes a little harder for a writer of the genre to finish off a story in a neat and believable manner.
Despite the very real dangers for gay men (particularly from the Renaissance to the early 1970s, and depending on where you live, even up to today) there have always been men who have risked all, and there are a few well documented cases of men who have "got away with it."
Two couples who spring to mind are George Merrill and poet Edward Carpenter - and Ralph Hall & Montague Glover who were together for close to thirty years and fifty years respectively. If these four men managed the "Yours until death" endings, then we know that there must have been many others.
But it's still a knotty problem for a writer who wants to base his or her story in the past. Up until the beginning of the 19th century one could still be hanged for homosexual activity, and in fact in the first quarter of the 19th century, more men were hanged for homosexuality than for murder.
How have I dealt with it in my books? (look away if you don't want to be spoiled, but Happy Ever after/Happy for Now endings aren't really secret, are they?)
1. Standish. I dealt with it by simply not dealing with it. I got some criticism for this, as I used a Gone with the Wind kind of ending - and I left it squarely for the reader to decide whether or not the couple would have got back together. As to the practicalities of this, it wouldn't have been too difficult. Rafe was super rich, and it was this that had prevented him from being prosecuted in the first place--so he had that protection, and this, hopefully would have prevented any further problems for Ambrose. They intended to live in Rafe's estate in Wiltshire, far away from prying eyes and the madding crowd. And if things did get hot - they could have retreated back to the continent.
2. Transgressions. The couple are together at the end of the book. Again, I leave it to the reader to decide how they would progress in the five minutes after the book ended. David is a deserter from the King's Army--and Jonathan is a trusted interrogator in Cromwell's army. Not an easy future for them, to be sure.
3. Frost Fair. This was managed by having (similar to Standish) the two men enter into an employer/employee relationship--whereby Gideon becomes the valet to Joshua. This is a device used by many gay regencies and Victorians as the "gentleman's gentleman" had almost unrestricted access to his employer and it would have been easier to be alone together, particularly for men of different classes. Lee Rowan does this admirably in the book which is coincidentally called "Gentleman's Gentleman."
Other methods used: Many of Alex Beecroft's men are officers and gentlemen in the English Navy and thereby are even more under threat, for it is a hanging offence on ship as well as on land. Her (and Lee Rowan's sailors too) snatch what time they can when it's safe to do so, and are pretty much resigned to doing their duty and hoping that they stay on the same ship as each other. Joanne Soper-Cook's homosexual detective Raft "shares rooms" with Freddie, his paramour, and this--in more innocent times--was something that could be disguised as "two friends sharing the bills." No one remarks (and why should they?) when Mr Pip and Mr Pocket share rooms in Great Expectations, or Holmes and Watson do the same in the Holmes series. (although it gives the slash writers a field day!)
Charlie Cochrane uses this device in her Cambridge Fellows series. To all intents and purposes they (at the beginning of the series) share adjoining rooms, and later they move into a house together. Quite normal in those days. No one batted an eyelid!
The important thing is...you can use any method at all, but I feel it has to be believable. Sadly, I’ve read more than one story where the author just threw all realism to the winds and had their homosexual regency couple marry in church. It is true that in around 1810 -1813 there was a vicar --the Reverend John Church—who famously performed homosexual weddings, but of course they were anything but legitimate!
I have to say that I’m often envious of writers of heterosexual historical romance, because they can simply end a book by having the couple throw themselves at each other and promise to marry the other – and it is a challenge to find realistic solutions to the love that dared not stick its head above the parapet, but it can be done, with care!
Erastes writes gay historicals, and her first book for Carina is "The Muffled Drum" (set during the Austro Prussian War) and will be out in July 2011. It's full of soldiers, horses, angsty love, drawers and many many buttons.