One of the reasons I enjoy romance novels is their consistent happy endings. It’s not just the central romantic relationship that ends well – subplot relationships progress, siblings reconcile, estranged parents and children re-connect, small businesses succeed, and rural towns thrive. Is this realistic? Of course not. Does it show us what is possible, and encourage optimism? Yes.
I don’t need books to tell me how bad things are, or to explore man’s capacity for cruelty. I can read the news for that. This does not mean romance novels are an escape from reality – they are tips on how to improve reality.
In broad terms, until the mid-1970s, the limit of romance novel optimism was that women’s stories mattered. Then the novels started to demonstrate female agency. Female characters not only worked, but had more challenging and non-traditional jobs or ran their own businesses, and might continue to do so after marriage. In other words, women had goals and pleasures apart from marriage. In newer books, regardless of when they are set, it is not unusual for a woman to be the main wage-earner or provider, or for her career and interests to take priority when the couple finally get together. This is both a reflection of changing attitudes, and a recognition that women and marriages have always been more complex than they have sometimes been portrayed.
In recent years, thanks partly to the growth of e-books and print on demand publishing, non-heterosexual relationships have flourished in romance novels. In contemporary and historical settings, and with varying levels of heat, there are romances featuring gay couples, lesbian couples, bisexual characters, threesomes (of various kinds), and larger groups. What is particularly cheering is that in most of these books, the sexuality of the characters is largely accepted by themselves, other characters and their communities. Realistic? Sadly, no. As with women and marriage, love has always taken many forms and been more complex than often portrayed, but acceptance of this is rare. However, these portrayals are definitely optimistic. And Cat’s Sebastian’s Unmasked by the Marquess (from a major publisher) is among the most optimistic I have read.
There are spoilers below, so stop here if you avoid those.
Alistair, the titular Marquess, is bisexual. Not openly, as he is conscious of duty and image, but he has no concerns over his sexuality beyond keeping it discreet. The other main character (heroine does not seem right) goes by Robert, was previously named Charity, and is given the nickname Robin by Alistair. Charity dressed as man to attend university, but found herself more comfortable living as a man than as a woman, and became Robert.
Some reviewers have questioned whether Robin is truly non-binary, or simply a woman dressing as a man to survive in a society with gender roles more rigid than they are now. I feel this is worrying too much over labels. While a woman dressed as a man is an old plot device, the typical story arc has her presenting female at the end. (In Dragonslayer, the gorgeous Caitlin Clarke is initially a male character. Once she is revealed as a woman, her father proudly announces, “She was twice the man of any of them, and now she’s twice the woman.”) In Unmasked, this change does not happen. Sebastian has also been criticized for using the pronoun she to refer to Robin, but in the author’s note Sebastian explains this decision (and I am following the author’s lead).
Alistair finds himself attracted to Robin, and the feeling is mutual. This leads to kissing (in a library – a frequent setting for romantic activities). A few days later, he learns Robin has lied to him about a family connection. When they discuss this, Robin reveals her not-quite-birth name is Charity. Significantly, there is no change in Alistair’s attraction to Robin, though he is angered by the family connection fib. He loves the person.
A part of him, the part he had failed to silence with brandy and righteous anger, shouted that he’d be willing to call this person by any name he or she wanted as long as he got to hear that laughter, see that welter of freckles.Sebastian, Cat. Unmasked by the Marquess (The Regency Impostors) (p. 99). Avon Impulse. Kindle Edition.
As the relationship proceeds, Robin recognizes that part of Alistair’s attraction to her is her presentation as male, but she has no concerns about this. It has been claimed that Sebastian is not fairly portraying bisexuality, since Alistair falls for an androgynous figure (Robin is conveniently small-breasted), and bisexuality does not mean a preference for androgyny. But bisexuality does not preclude that. And though I am calling Alistair bisexual, the term never comes up in the book, and non-binary is used only in the author’s note. The sexuality of the characters is not labelled in the story.
As Robin and Alistair prepare to marry (on the understanding that she can continue to dress and otherwise act as a man while having the title Lady Pembroke), other characters accept her with ease. One says this explains Robert’s oddness, another says he always thought Robert was unusual, perhaps French. As for the staff:
“This is Mrs. Selby, soon to be Lady Pembroke. You’ve met her before as Mr. Robert Selby. Youthful pranks, you understand. She’ll stay in the green bedchamber until the wedding.” Hopkins, not even raising an eyebrow, merely replied, “Quite right, my lord,” and that had been the end of it. Alistair knew the rest of the staff would follow suit, and if they had a problem with the new marchioness, they were free to find other employment.Sebastian, Cat. Unmasked by the Marquess (The Regency Impostors) (pp. 300-301). Avon Impulse. Kindle Edition.
As this passage and a few others make clear, it’s easier to live an unconventional lifestyle and have an unconventional marriage when you are very rich. Despite that, the comfortably queer identities of the main characters, and the widespread acceptance of them and their relationship, is wonderfully optimistic portrayal of love without labels.
The plot, incidentally, has the usual historical romance tropes – scandalous family histories, scheming relatives, inheritance challenges, secret marriages, frantic cross country horseback rides, stays in dubious inns – as well as more general romance tropes such as noble sacrifice for love and miscommunications. There is good character growth and contextually appropriate steaminess. In other words, this is a solid and entertaining romance, regardless of the characters’ genders. Cat Sebastian has become one of the authors I seek out.
My interest in this book was sufficient that I finally researched what a Marquess is, and how they fit into the nobility. The short answer is a type of Earl, or Count. A Marquess ranks below a Duke, but above an British Earl (equivalent to a Count in other European countries). A count’s land is a county (aha!), while a marquess’s land is a march. Marches were historically counties on the border of countries, so managing them was a greater responsibility than counties entirely within the country, and the title reflected that. I still don’t know how to pronounce Marquess.
Romance novels, and associated organizations and publishers, have rightly been criticized for under-representation of minority racial and sexual identities. I’ve been told my male name will make it difficult for me to sell romances, since readers expect the authors to be female. It’s not an equal world. But it’s important to recognize steps being made to promote equality, such as stories that show queer characters finding love and acceptance.