No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, February 06, 2017

2017/04-06: Society of Gentlemen trilogy -- KJ Charles

Richard's exclusive society of gentlemen gave them a safe place and a degree of private freedom, but sometimes, as their limited company turned in on one another, it felt as though they'd agreed to share a cage. [A Fashionable Indulgence, loc. 1473]

A trio of Regency M/M romances that also address some of the social inequalities of the age: furthermore, these are romances that bear rereading -- possibly because there is so much else going on in each of them.

The basic premise is that Richard Vane, aristocrat, has used his wealth and influence to create a safe place for a small group of Regency homosexuals to meet and socialise without having to pretend heterosexuality. The Society of Gentlemen trilogy focusses on three of these men -- Richard himself, his former lover Dominic (a civil servant), and fashionable exquisite Julius (ex-cavalry) -- and how each of their lives is transformed by the arrival of a rather less gentlemanly sort.

In A Fashionable Indulgence, one of Richard's relatives is plucked from his life as a bookseller's assistant and 'returned' to the aristocracy, from which his parents' reformist tendencies exiled him as a child. Julius is recruited to turn Harry into a gentleman and quash his revolutionary tendencies -- no easy feat when the Peterloo Massacre is being discussed at every dinner table and gentlemen's club in London. It's a typical Pygmalion story: except that Julius, too, has a painful past, and Harry changes Julius as well as being changed.

In A Seditious Affair, Dominic's life focusses on his Wednesday nights, when he heads off to a secret club for a few hours of hot BDSM sex -- 'On your knees, Tory' -- followed by conversation and wine and literary / political argument. Dominic, who works for the Home Office and is involved in rooting out sedition, doesn't know that his Wednesday-night hookup is a notorious agitator. And Silas (formerly Harry's boss) doesn't know that the man he's beginning to think of as a friend is, in a very real sense, the enemy.

A Gentleman's Position is the story of Richard and his valet, David Cyprian -- the latter a notorious fixer who's instrumental in the maintenance of the Society of Gentlemen, and who has managed to survive four years in Richard's service without revealing his feelings for his employer. When those feelings are revealed -- and possibly reciprocated -- which of them will behave better?

KJ Charles excels in picking point-of-view, and in examining those views. None of her characters prioritise romance (or sex) above the other aspects of their lives -- but all of their stories begin with an absence of love, and end with a resolution to that lack. The romance elements are never used to gloss over the iniquities of nineteenth-century life: there are many injustices here, and many characters (not all of them protagonists) who've found ways around the restrictions imposed on them by society. A trans man, a former sex worker with syphilis, people of colour, feminism, domestic abuse, blackmail, murder, treachery ...

Charles' novels are well-written, mazily interconnected, often very funny, and emotionally satisfactory. No, nobody solves those big social problems: but they do find ways to lessen their effects, and to live better lives within the confines of an unequal and repressive culture.

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