“Stories in Plain View”: Cat Sebastian’s Revolutionary Queer Historical Romances

It’s no secret that I love romance novels. At its best, the genre challenges traditional narratives by offering emotional and sexual agency to characters who are so frequently denied both; not only women, but gay, lesbian, nonbinary, and queer characters. In a world that continues to wrestle with equity, bodily autonomy, and consent, romances are often downright revolutionary in providing characters and readers with models of healthy, equitable, and emotionally fulfilling relationships, as well as emphasizing that consent is not only necessary, but downright sexy. It’s in the spirit of exploring and extolling just these kind of revolutionary romances that I wanted to introduce you to Cat Sebastian.

(Courtesy Cat Sebastian)

Sebastian made headlines in 2016 when Avon Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins, picked up her gay regency historic romance. A Soldier’s Scoundrel, the first in her Turner Series trilogy, became the first queer historical romance to be published by one of the “Big Six” publishers. While kudos are due to Avon for making these stories mainstream, Sebastian’s work speaks for itself, and emphasizes the power of queer romances to challenge current and historical assumptions about the way we tell stories, and who gets to be the protagonists of those stories.

Sebastian’s romances are, first and foremost, delightful reads. Rather than reinventing the romance genre, she wisely references familiar tropes and themes, emphasizing that the love stories she is crafting are not new. They fit beautifully into the various genres she utilizes — romance, yes, but also historical fiction and mystery, as well. Take, for example, her latest work, Hither, Page; this novel features a country doctor dealing with his traumatic memories of service in the Second World War who teams up with a spy (who he’s encountered once during the war) to solve a murder in his tiny village. The premise itself recalls some of the most well-loved crime-solvers in British mysteries, including the shell-shocked Lord Peter Wimsey and the immortal partnership of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

But even as she takes inspiration from the best, Sebastian is able to craft a pair of protagonists who cross barriers of gender, class, ethnicity, race, and propriety to stay together in ways both wonderfully unique and consistently impressive. Many other romance authors create “odd couples,” with different tastes and preferences, whose lived experiences, gender embodiment, or sexual orientations actually aren’t at all dissimilar. Sebastian isn’t afraid to explore the challenges and risks of loving someone across wide social or cultural divides, or who are moving towards becoming a fully-realized and fulfilling version of themselves. Unmasked by the Marquess, for instance, features a servant who explores their nonbinary identity while falling for their aristocratic bisexual employer. In such a case, the social, economic, and cultural risks and ramifications of this relationship are enormous, but Sebastian’s deadpan sense of humor emphasizes how absurd those barriers really are in the face of empathy, friendship, and true love.

Conceptually, Sebastian’s romances do important work in challenging stereotypes about queer love, embodiment, and normativity, both in the context of the historical romance and in the readers’ evolving relationships with the characters in that romance. Catherine Roach has described how, in traditional heterosexual romances, happy endings occur when a woman has found acceptance and safety within patriarchal society by winning the love of a man who represents all the key qualities of that patriarchy — money, physical strength, intellectual capability, aggression, sexual drive and appeal. The “happily ever after” that heroines find in heteronormative romance novels offers a fantasy of stability and safety in a world that is both inherently unsafe and unsettling for women. All too often, however, these novels seldom challenge the structures that underpin the real world, or question whether alternatives exist.

Cat Sebastian has written ten historical romances featuring LGBTQ+ people. (Courtesy Cat Sebastian)

In contrast, Sebastian’s novels (and, indeed, many other queer romances) pull apart the structures of heteronormative patriarchy in subtle but revolutionary ways. On a broad scale, they expand the notion of who deserves a “happily ever after.” They defy the problematic “bury your gays” trope so frequently found in literature and film by showing gay, lesbian, queer, and nonbinary people finding happiness and emotional stability through fulfilling and equitable relationships. Sebastian’s novels also expand the notion of who deserves to be the hero/ine of a story by presenting us with characters who come from different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. They are not wildly affluent. For example, one character in A Gentleman Never Keeps Score is a pub owner who is hardly a member of the moneyed gentry that we’re so used to seeing in historical romances.

Moreover, Sebastian’s works challenge assumptions about disability and neurotypicality by featuring characters who deal with anxiety and behaviors that might be described as autistic (Lawrence Browne, of The Lawrence Browne Affair), long-term trauma (Jack Sommers in Hither Page), and mobility issues (Oliver Rivington in The Soldier’s Scoundrel), to name just a few. In her romances, these characters are not ‘cured’ by love, because through love they (and we, as readers) come to realize that they are whole and deserving of love precisely as they are. It is through their love that they manage, to borrow from Sebastian herself, “to structure [their lives] so [they] can thrive.” Finally, these works also question the traditional, conservative model of romance novels that end with a happily-married couple, or one on their way to marriage, often with the promise of children on the way. In her books, protagonists assemble chosen families and kin who support and love them, without needing the traditional power structures and hierarchies that are typically part and parcel of patriarchal families.

That she accomplishes all of this within the bounds of a recognizable romance novel is significant as well. By using a familiar genre that frequently upholds heteronormative society, and a heteronormative vision of history, Sebastian’s work, along with the work of many other authors of queer romance, normalizes their characters’ existence across time. As Cat Sebastian herself has noted in an interview with Jezebel, “A lot of these stories are in plain view, it’s just that we’ve been trained not to look at them like that.”1 By turning her focus on those who have been obscured by and written out of the historical record, Sebastian is reclaiming a past for members of the LGBTQ+ community that validates their quest for emotional and sexual fulfillment, dignity, and respect, and insists on their rights to claim those things. It’s not often that something that is so much fun to read can also succeed in being such a force for positive and revolutionary change. This is precisely why Cat Sebastian’s work is so critically important, not only in the heady world of romance, but for storytellers across genres who are seeking to tell more complex, challenging, and fulfilling tales.

Notes

  1. While insightful, this article also confuses Dr. James Barry, who was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, with Dr. James Berry, whose gender and sexual identity did not change over the course of his life. Return to text.

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