Queer historical fiction where nothing terrible happens
April 19, 2018 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books set before 1950 where the A or B plot follows queer characters who live, work, fall in love etc. and where I am better able to understand what being queer would look like in this historical context and where NOTHING SUPER TERRIBLE HAPPENS TO THE CHARACTERS.

I just finished White Houses (Love story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok) by Amy Bloom and I really enjoyed it. I also enjoy Sarah Waters. I want to read more books with queer characters set in not-the-present-day where nothing particularly terrible happens to them because of their gender or sexual orientation, but where I am able to better understand what being gay/lesbian/queer/loving people of your own gender looked like in this time period.

I don't care what the time period is or the exact form that the not-straight-ness takes as long a) it's not now, b) nothing too terrible happens e.g. no sexual violence directed at the characters, c) the writing is pretty good, d) the historical context matters to the story and life experiences of the characters.

Whaddya got for me!
posted by jeszac to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
To be clear, I recognize that many, many terrible things happened to queer people during many, many historical periods up to the present day. I just...can't right now?
posted by jeszac at 7:39 AM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


I love Mary Renault's The Mask of Apollo . It's set in Ancient Greece, 4th century BCE, and the main character is an actor, who is what we today would term gay, though of course that wasn't a category then. The society he lives in has social structures and room for men-loving-men, whether physically or passionate-but-chaste. He ends up meeting and pairing off with the love of his life, another actor (an actual historical figure). The writing is excellent, the historical context superb.
posted by theatro at 7:45 AM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


P.S. In The Mask of Apollo, we also meet a girl (a historical figure) who studies with Plato, and who eventually becomes lovers with another girl who also studies there. They're minor characters, but Niko (the main character) becomes good friends with them.
posted by theatro at 7:48 AM on April 19, 2018


You might enjoy Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. It's a novel about two lesbians in 19th century New England. They both face some hardships related to their sexuality and gender but I don't recall anything violent. The writing is great.
posted by prewar lemonade at 8:02 AM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


There's a novella by Ellen Klages called Passing Strange which, upon googling to verify the exact time frame, seems to fit the bill -- with the caveat that it dips slightly into the fantastic, but I believe the heart of the narrative isn't about the fantastic, if that makes sense. (I have seen readers complain that it wasn't fantastic enough to be marketed as spec-fic, but honestly, I think it's fine taken either way.) I also can't confirm the accuracy of the historical details, not being a historian myself nor far educated in it otherwise, but it felt very grounded, you know?
posted by inconstant at 8:07 AM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Check out Gail Carringer. Steampunk alt Victorian England. Gay werewolves, genderqueer lesbian mad scientists, bi teenagers. Her Victorian England is biweekly a little more accepting than the real thing was, and there are times where people's queerness is remarked on, but for the most part they're just there and doing their thing.
posted by joycehealy at 8:50 AM on April 19, 2018


There's a novella by Ellen Klages called Passing Strange which, upon googling to verify the exact time frame, seems to fit the bill -- with the caveat that it dips slightly into the fantastic, but I believe the heart of the narrative isn't about the fantastic, if that makes sense. (I have seen readers complain that it wasn't fantastic enough to be marketed as spec-fic, but honestly, I think it's fine taken either way.) I also can't confirm the accuracy of the historical details, not being a historian myself nor far educated in it otherwise, but it felt very grounded, you know?

Seconded, I found the fantastic mostly related to the framing narrative, all the 'period details' are significant and nothing seemed out of place. Nothing terrible happens but it does have an overall aura of sweet, wistful melancholy.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 8:55 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


Maurice by E.M. Forster. Or you could just watch the Merchant Ivory adaptation.

It's not exactly what you asked for, but you may want to dive into How Long Has This Been Going On? by Ethan Mordden, which covers decades of American gay lives, from the 1940s to 1990, on both coasts, with a fairly varied cast of characters. Obviously with that sort of narrative sprawl, some of the characters are going to come to bad ends. But I do remember being sort of dazzled by the whole thing when I read it twenty years ago.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:47 AM on April 19, 2018


If historical fantasy is OK, Heather Rose Jones's Alpennia series is all about queer women who end up happy together in a Regency-period alternate Europe and I find it pretty delightful.
posted by therewithal at 10:47 AM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Tipping the Velvet. Set in England in the early 1900s, it follows the story of two lesbian drag kings, which in itself is an interesting bit of history to learn about -- drag queens actually grew out of these 'females dressed as males' performances, which started because most of the men were fighting in the war, so women were hired to play male roles.

There is, of course, some inter-relationship drama, and some broken hearts along the way, but overall it meets all your criteria and has a lovely ending.
posted by ananci at 10:53 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


To go in a rather different direction, there is a recurring lesbian couple in Doctor Who, Jenny and Vastra. They originate in and their adventures with the Doctor take place in Victorian England.
posted by WCityMike at 1:35 PM on April 19, 2018


Seconding Heather Rose Jones! In addition to the Alpennia books (which are excellent), she has been posting linked short stories about lesbian women in the seventeenth century, and she often talks about lesbians in historical fiction on the LHMP podcast.
posted by yarntheory at 4:24 PM on April 19, 2018


Ooh, have you read K.J. Charles's books? Most of them are MM pairings; one has a character who thought he was gay falling in love with a genderfluid character. There's also sensitive treatment of neurodiversity and other issues. I love her stuff and am on a one-click pre-order policy at this point.

In Hamilton's Batallion, two of the three stories are queer (one MM, one FF).

I just read The Covert Captain: or, A Marriage of Equals and liked it a lot. One of the main characters is a woman who's been presenting as a man to fight in the Napoleonic wars, who falls in love with another woman once she's back in England.

Cat Sebastian's author bio: "Cat Sebastian writes steamy, upbeat historical romances. They usually take place in the Regency, generally have at least one LGBTQ+ main character, and always have happy endings."
posted by Lexica at 8:23 PM on April 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


If you read YA, I just edited an anthology called ALL OUT for HarlequinTEEN that was *literally created* because I wanted a collection of queer stories that weren't about misery or coming out. All kinds of representation, all historical, but with a variety of genres, and no trauma!
posted by headspace at 8:53 PM on April 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


Seconding K J Charles! I loved Wanted, A Gentleman. Cute, funny, diverse, well written romances with a bit of sex and the obvious happy ending.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 2:41 AM on April 20, 2018


Elana Dykewomon's book Beyond The Pale is fabulous and although the characters experience plenty of tragedy it's never because of their sexuality (i.e. the book includes things like pogroms because it's about Jews in Europe at a time when there were pogroms.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:43 AM on April 20, 2018


Set in the 1960s so I’ve already failed you, but if you haven’t read fun lesbian fiction classic The Swashbuckler, you definitely should. It’s a funny, sweet portrait of a 4’11” butch lesbian heartbreaker in New York and Provincetown. Her inner monologue about her masculine identity in opposition to the heteronormative world around her is fascinating, and even more so when it is troubled by her falling for another butch.
posted by lieber hair at 5:13 AM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Came in to recommend KJ Charles as well. She is interviewed in today's Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast. I haven't read any of her books yet, but they sound great, and fit your criteria from what I heard on the podcast.
posted by catatethebird at 9:11 AM on April 20, 2018


Oh good, another chance to recommend my all-time favorite book, Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. One of the main characters is a female flyer in WWII and (spoilers!) falls in love with a fellow female flyer. It's a very sweet story and nothing bad happens to them because of it. (I should say that there is some hinted-at sexual violence in the book because it's about war, and some sex that really toes the line of consent, but the author is very much a feminist and handles it well) There are some other queer characters in the book as well and while they don't all meet good ends (again, war book), none of them has terrible things happen to them because of their queerness.
posted by lunasol at 12:05 PM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Seconding Mary Renault, above, for M/M relationships in historical contexts.

The Charioteer is about a hospitalised WWI soldier recovering from a wound who has to choose between two male love interests.

The Last of the Wine is probably a good read as a prequel to The Mask of Apollo. The Last of the Wine is about two young men who become disciples of Socrates, fall in love, and serve together in the war with Sparta. There's no sexual violence, but the characters do live through a war, so a certain amount of war-related terribleness comes into their lives. It's about the level of The Song of Achilles, if you've read that.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:20 PM on April 20, 2018


I'm surprised no one has mentioned Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, which was filmed as Carol a few years ago.

Also, Ann Bannon's Beebo Brinker books. These are lesbian pulp fiction, but were groundbreaking in their time and are regarded as critical to the formation of lesbian identity (per Wikipedia).

Both Highsmith and Bannon's stories take place in the 1950s, I believe. I don't believe there is much physical peril in them, though I haven't read all the Brinker stories; emotional upset is another matter.
posted by lhauser at 7:30 PM on April 20, 2018


Apologies, I missed the part of the question that said before 1950. It's been a long week.
posted by lhauser at 7:31 PM on April 20, 2018


The autobiography The Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso, a 1500s Basque novice nun who escaped the convent, assumed male identity and dress, joined the army, fought duels, flirted with women, and traveled to the Americas as a conquistador.
posted by nicebookrack at 12:31 PM on April 24, 2018


Sarah Water's The Paying Guests is one of my favorite books from the past few years. It takes place after WWI and the war, as well as the suffragette movement in England, is a huge part of the story. Note that there is a violent crime but none of the queer characters are the victim of that crime.
posted by Brittanie at 9:27 PM on July 21, 2018


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