I love reading Austen and the Brontë sisters. Jane Eyre is a favorite, even if Mr. Rochester is the worst and definitely killed his wife. But reading period romances used to remind me, in the back of my mind, that those stories weren’t written for people like me. It wouldn’t have been historically accurate for two queer people to get together and not be shunned by society, right? Or…maybe not.
Gentleman Jack has been a breath of fresh air, with a main character based on an actual real life 1830’s lesbian (can we please convince HBO to change their minds about cancelling that show?). And a slew of queer period romances are out there now, if you know where to look. (I recommend Lucas by Elna Host, a continuation of Pride & Prejudice that focuses on Charlotte, who married Mr. Collins, but soon realizes some things about herself.)
A Lady and a Duke is a classic period romance, with the simple twist that the female protagonist is trans. When she and her best friend (the Duke) fight in the battle of Waterloo, she is presumed dead. She seizes the opportunity to finally live as she always knew she was meant to: as a woman. But in doing so, she has to allow the dearest person to her to believe her dead.
Years later, living as a ladies companion to her sister-in-law, she meets him again, but as herself. Viola and her sister-in-law are ostensibly visiting the Duke’s estate to help his younger sister out of her country estate isolation and into society, but Viola soon finds herself trying to help her old friend through the grief he is still encompassed by, while being unsure how to tell him that she is the very friend that he grieves. As they get the know each other at a deeper level than ever before, a potential romance begins to grow.
In an interview I read with the author, he stated that while he wanted to write a trans character, he didn’t want the central conflict to be that she was trans. I was so glad for that, because it removed that tension that the Duke might react in a horrible way to discovering that Viola is his old friend, or that he’s falling in love with her. Instead, we also get to work through the classic Austen-like conflicts of their class difference, societal expectations, and the hijinks involved in introducing a beautiful young woman (the Duke’s sister) with somewhat odd manners into polite, posh society. It doesn’t shy away from the unique challenges of Viola’s trans identity, but they are one part of her journey, and it’s all incorporated so beautifully into one complete story.
If you like historical romances, please read it. And then talk to me about it, because I don’t know anyone else who has yet!