Bridgerton [TV Tie-in] (Bridgertons Book 1)

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The Radical Class Consciousness of Queer Regency Romance

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With splashy Jane Austen adaptions and Netflix’s Bridgerton hitting screens, Regency fever is more prevalent than ever. The Regency Era, a period of British history roughly spanning 1795–1837, has long enjoyed an outsized place in the contemporary imagination. Its empire-waist gowns, sprawling manor estates, and deliciously repressed sexualities make for some of the most iconic backdrops for romantic plots. These plots often follow a Cinderella-like arc: not only does the scrappy heroine win her hero in the end, but she marries up, finding economic security for herself and her family through her new role as Duchess or Viscountess. The typical Regency story imagines perfect continuity between emotional and financial needs. Property is transferred and wealth consolidated with a kiss.

But a new subgenre of queer Regency-era romance are turning the manor-house love story on its head. For the protagonists of recent novels by Joanna Chambers, KJ Charles, Alexis Hall, Cat Sebastian, and Olivia Waite, falling in love inevitably leads to economic ruin, and so much for the better. Like Jane Austen and her successors, these writers never pretend that love and money can be separated. But they suggest that queer love may contribute to the erosion of wealth and the strict nuclear family inheritance structures that protect it. It unravels the social fabric, rather than weaving spunky heroines into its cloth.

This emergent genre has become especially resonant as of late, when gay rights feel alarmingly fragile once again. For more than a decade, the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States has made gay love a private matter for those who could afford middle-class respectability, an act that transgresses no laws and presumes no political allegiance. That privacy is now under siege from a Supreme Court abetting minoritarian rule, having articulated its interest in overthrowing Obergefell v. Hodges alongside Roe v. Wade. Within this context, queer intimacy feels more political again, even for middle-class LGBTQ people who don’t concern themselves too much with labor and anti-racist organizing. Since Regency-era romances feature gay love in an era where sodomy was criminalied, they necessarily align the lovers with the most marginalized in society. In consequence, these novels imagine queer love and sex as always political. Rather than repeating the Cinderella dream of marrying up, they invent a new one, no less fantastic: romantic love as a conduit to solidarity.

The woman who popularized the Regency fantasy is not well-known outside of romance circles, but her fingerprints are all over the ongoing obsession with the period. Georgette Heyer helped to invent the historical romance novel during her prolific career; from 1921 to 1974, she penned 32 romances and 22 books of other genres. Heyer was a devotee of Austen and a passionate researcher of the Regency era, filling her books with period details. She was also a terrific snob. Her novels almost exclusively concerned the upper classes and the social machinations of the London ton, or seasonal parade of nobility. When a member of the landed gentry fell for an unworthy ingenue in a Heyer romance, she was often revealed to be of surprise noble birth. Far more troubling than Heyer’s obsession with status is her racism and anti-Semitism; she traded in offensive stereotypes as a matter of course. But her influence on the genre cannot be overstated. When today’s queer romance writers embrace the loss of social prestige, they are writing back to Heyer, with affection and rebuke on every page.

Heyer’s assumptions about what made for a good romance have become embedded in the structure of the genre, defining its rhythms in tandem with its politics. Her heroines often express twentieth century sensibilities and are rebuked by their more conventional associates. Nevertheless, her endings are always conservative. A modern attachment to romantic love never gets in the way of reproducing class hierarchies. As romance scholar Pamela Regis puts it, “The marriage is companionate. It also satisfies dynastic conditions. In this, Heyer has it both ways.” This means that the historical romance novel, like the Shakespearean comedy before it, ends in closure—namely, with a betrothal. The line of inheritance is preserved; the estate is safe. Lively, headstrong young women are incorporated into the ancestral home, rather than disrupting it. This ending still pays dividends in period pieces—take the central romance of PBS’s Downton Abbey (2010-2015), which has a twentieth century setting but what we might call a Regency structure. A Regency romance could describe any narrative in which romantic love preserves and consolidates the existing social hierarchy, with minor additions for spice. In Downton Abbey’s case, heroine Mary falls in genuine love with the one and only person who will inherit her father’s estate, ensuring that it remains in the family. As usual, a traditional ending is awfully convenient.

This genre has continued into the present in heterosexual romance, with meaningful updates. Regency romances of today often challenge the legitimacy of the aristocracy, acknowledging the pernicious, previously silent presence of slavery and colonialism in propping up characters’ wealth. They may also incorporate feminist heroines with their own career aspirations, not to mention elements of kink, such as Scarlett Peckham’s excellent Secrets of Charlotte Street series, albeit in a slightly earlier eighteenth-century setting. However, the educated, kinky heroine of today often still gets her duke or viscount in the end. I have no problem with this; romance is an escapist genre, one that has both embraced and grappled with the problematic angles of desire for many decades. But the recent emergence of the queer Regency romance is attempting something completely new with the genre, something that preserves its pleasures while upending its conservative structure.

Take, for instance, Cat Sebastian’s first novel, The Soldier’s Scoundrel (2017). The relationship between aristocratic Oliver and working-class Jack goes sour when Jack decides their class differences are insurmountable. “No matter what you do,” he tells Oliver, “I’ll be the sordid part of your life.” Ever more determined, Oliver sets off in hot pursuit of disgrace. He learns how to cheat at cards and hires two brothel workers to sit in a private room and play games with him. Eventually this campaign of self-sabotage has its intended effect; Jack comes to retrieve him. The dissipated Oliver tells him, “No matter how often I told you that I want you more than decency or honor or rules, it wouldn’t get through your thick skull. So I decided to show you.” The two men take up suitably shabby lodgings together and resolve to be happy all their days. As it turns out, there is no grander gesture than giving up one’s decency.

In effect, this novel imagines disgrace as the fall from both economic and social status at the same time. Giving up one’s decency, or moral good name, has inescapable financial consequences. To live in the truth outside of heterosexist morality means living in light squalor. The stakes for this kind of disgrace are relatively high; embracing it, as Oliver does, makes for a rather affecting commitment to one’s beloved scoundrel. Unlike the traditional Regency novel, these texts perceive love as primarily inconvenient, disruptive rather than coherent, and worth it all the same.

In a recent interview with romance blogger Sam Hirst, Sebastian described her plotting philosophy. “I couldn’t just do the same set pieces, the same tropes,” she said. “Romance, as we’re used to it, it restores order.” Sebastian builds here on fellow romance author Racheline Maltese’s observation that the romance genre at present has a “compliance wing” and a “liberation wing,” in which the protagonist must either “bend themselves” or “bend the world” to find their joy. Sebastian’s work necessarily belongs to the liberation wing. Since the relationships she writes about are illegal, the lovers have to “challenge the order of things. I can’t have them be like, happy and rich at the end.” As Sebastian describes it, queer desire threatens the logic of all forms of social hierarchy.

In Sebastian’s 2018 novel, A Gentleman Never Keeps Score, the protagonist begins the story clinging to his precarious position in London’s polite society. Through his love affair with a free Black man who operates a working-class pub, he gives up his ambivalent and shame-tinged affiliation with aristocracy, befriends his servants, lies to the police, liquidates his wealth to repair the collapsed pub, and takes up rooms above it with his lover, his former servants, and their illegitimate child. In this novel, love and sex are the routes out of respectability and into community.

By rejecting the ominous threat of losing social capital, these novels dismantle the primary narrative tension that has historically propelled the genre. The risk of a property becoming entailed, or of losing one’s creature comforts, is deflated when disgrace becomes a real and appealing option. Alexis Hall depicts this option with comedic aplomb in Something Fabulous (2022), which gives up Heyer’s pretense to realism in favor of a silly, universally queer, and genre-savvy romp through the countryside. The protagonist Valentine, a duke who has a sudden and disorienting sexual awakening, jilts his new lover when he claims he has to put the dukedom first. Everyone else in the novel finds this noble gesture preposterous. When he confesses all to his mother, she calls him ridiculous. “I have to marry,” he protests, repeating the party line, “to secure the line of succession.” “Darling,” his mother replies, “what’s-his-name can inherit. Your uncle William’s son.” She snaps her fingers. “Ernest. That’s it.” In a single blow, Valentine’s mother rejects the menace of Austen’s Mr. Collins and a hundred other inheriting cousins besides. She also advises him to forgive his tenants’ debts and settle money on the young lady he originally intended to marry. Rather than transferring wealth through the closed intimacy of a marriage, the novel implies, an estate can be diffused through a network of social responsibility and affection.

Of course, this reimagined Regency ending is still a fantasy of its own kind. These writers imagine long-term romantic intimacy as inherently compatible with social justice. Giving up respectability never seems to threaten the basic sustenance and happiness of the primary characters. In Joanna Chambers’s Enlightened (2014), love interest Lord Balfour deliberately disgraces himself in a gentleman’s club, an act that, for complicated plot reasons, simultaneously frees him from an unwanted engagement and rescues a friend from her abusive marriage to another Lord. This, too, is a powerful fantasy of convenience. He enjoys his degraded status in domestic bliss with protagonist David, exiled from London but nevertheless cozied up in his quiet Scottish estate. Taking a stand has never been so relaxing.

I note the impossible happy closure of these novels by no means as a critique. Romance is, again, a pleasure genre, one never primarily attuned to verisimilitude. And those of the genre that do devote themselves to collective action above tortured desire and swoony sex scenes can come to feel like eating one’s literary vegetables, which is not romance’s purpose. The best of the genre manages to make class traitorism an essential component of the pleasurable romantic plot. What, after all, is more appealing than a distinguished gentleman in breeches ready to throw over all his privilege for love of you? This emerging subgenre can teach us a great deal about how queer and queer-supporting readers fantasize. Love is no longer a realm beyond politics. On the contrary, we want to imagine a world in which the delicious quickening of queer desire leads us to reconceptualize social hierarchies—and in which that undertaking is successful, with lots of filthy sex and quiet Sundays in the bargain.

As we face an uncertain future for LGBTQ rights, we might learn from these books how to reconfigure our fantasies. In these novels, the success of love consummated and communities reunited always means economic sacrifice, if not outright poverty. A happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean permanent safety or wealth. The queer theorist Jack Halberstam once called this idea the queer art of failure. Sebastian goes a step further. She too advocates for queer precarity, but paints it with such lush detail that it feels like an escapist fantasy, a place we might want to dwell. Along with her contemporaries, she wields underappreciated literary skill to depict fantasy material in the context of precarity and loss. The fact that these books manage to find pleasure—social, carnal, and literary—in such a scene is nothing short of a miracle. We may find them both inspiring and comforting in the fight to come.

Jackie Johnson, Deborah Thurman, and Laura Vivanco contributed many helpful insights to this essay; the author is very grateful. 

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