For Books’ Sake talks to Deanna Raybourn

16th Feb 2011


Deanna Raybourn gives good romance. Her historical mysteries, set in the Victorian era, have won her both acclaim and a RITA (the Romance Writers’ of America’s answer to the Oscars) thanks to the sizzling chemistry between Lady Julia Grey, a widowed aristocrat, and Nicholas Brisbane, the private detective investigating her husband’s death.

She’s even turned her hand to vampires in The Dead Travel Fast, with brooding (and possibly-undead) Count Andrei Dragulescu meeting his match in Theodora Lestrange.

But her love stories aren’t just reserved for the plucky heroines and Byronic heroes – the lady-loving-ladies get a look in too. Fans of her Lady Julia series won’t be surprised to hear that Julia’s feisty, fabulous sister Portia elbows her way into her spotlight in her latest novel, Dark Road to Darjeeling, along with her erstwhile lover, Jane.

To celebrate LGBT History Month, Deanna Raybourn is on hand to give For Books’ Sake the low-down on a lesbian love story that would make Sarah Waters weep with envy:

(Note: This interview contains minor spoilers for Portia and Jane’s relationship up to and including Silent on the Moor)

FBS: Did you do much research about life for gay women in the late 19th century? What do you think about historical fiction that deals with it in a more sensational manner, such as Sarah WatersTipping the Velvet?

DR: I actually did very little reading; I relied much more on my personal experience as a woman who has been in a stable, happy relationship for a long time. I happen to be straight, but I suspected that my relationship with my husband wouldn’t be terribly different from a typical gay marriage.

Every gay couple I’ve ever known has the same experience, so I simply tried to touch on what was universal. And honestly, since I’m not gay, I don’t have the right to sensationalize it.

If anything, I feel a moral obligation not to. I am always tremendously conscious of the fact that the world is more accepting of my lifestyle than that of my characters. I’m approaching these questions from a position of undeserved privilege, and the most I can do is try to tread with respect.

FBS: Although we don’t tend to think about the Victorians as having any kind of sex, let alone between two women, it certainly wasn’t unheard of for two women to live openly together, especially if they had the financial means to do as they pleased. Was it important for you to include that kind of historical diversity in the series?

DR: It was important to me, but not simply for the reason of historical diversity. I had an interesting chat with a historian during a book club discussion over this novel. She related that she approaches history looking for the differences between us.

My degree is in history, but I do precisely the opposite. I’m always looking for what links us, for the motivations or experiences that cause a twenty-first century reader to look at a character and say, “Yes, I get that. That is precisely what it’s like.”

For me, if fiction isn’t relatable, then it isn’t relevant. I think it’s particularly important in historical fiction. If we’re not careful, the characters become caricatures and then we lose the reader completely.

FBS: Do you have a clear idea of how their relationship began?

DR: Jane was the cousin of Portia’s late husband, a poor relation who happened to fall in love with her cousin’s wife. I’ve always imagined the relationship as a coup de foudre, taking them both rather by surprise, but in a way that was completely irresistible.

I always imagined the relationship to be the first for either of them with the same sex. Portia is very attractive to men—particularly the men who lack the imagination to understand her for what she is! But she is devoted to Jane.

FBS: When we first meet her, Lady Julia is self-conscious about her eccentric family. How do you think she handled finding out about Portia and Jane? What about the rest of her family?

DR: Julia is pretty imperturbable about some things and Portia’s relationship is one of them. So long as Portia is happy, Julia has nothing to say on the matter… Julia is self-conscious about the little oddities, but this relationship strikes the core of who Portia is. Julia would defend her to the death.

FBS: Have you had any negative responses for including a lesbian relationship?

DR: Not one. In fact, I’ve had a number of very touching emails from gay men thanking me for providing a relationship that is just rather ordinary and unremarkable considering what everyone else in the books gets up to!

I dearly love the fact that the relationship that some people would consider shocking or sinful or somehow wrong is actually the healthiest and most functional for most of the books.

FBS: Although your books are historically accurate, a lot of the struggles the characters go through are ones we face now, specifically Jane’s desire for a child and how she goes about fulfilling that wish. Was this inspired by contemporary events, or did you feel it was just a natural progression of Jane’s character?

DR: Most long-term relationships have a few crisis points where the couple simply has to work through an issue or break up. It felt very natural to me that they had reached one of these crisis points, and it also felt natural to me that society would bring pressure to bear on them in some fashion.

And given their ages and the time they had spent together, it was logical that the question of a family would come up. It’s a difficult issue at times for straight couples, but it seems monumentally more complicated for a gay couple.

Just the logistics of creating a child can be almost insurmountable when you know that biologically you cannot supply everything required. So whether you are a gay couple or a straight couple with fertility issues, you have to look outside of yourselves for a solution, and that creates vulnerability.

Vulnerability creates conflict, and conflict can either strengthen you as a couple or it can wreck you. . For me, society simply patted me on the head when I wanted a baby and said, “Oooh, how lovely.” But how heartbreaking it must be to have that gnawing need for a child and no way to satisfy it.

FBS: We’ve been talking in terms of both women being lesbians, although that wasn’t necessarily a term that was used at the time. Do you think that’s how they’d label themselves now – and for that matter, do you see them both as gay rather than bisexual?

DR: Quite right—Victorians recognized the acts themselves, not necessarily the sexual identity behind them. But if they did, Jane is a lesbian and Portia has the potential to be bisexual.

She fell in love with Jane and Jane happened to be a woman, but Portia has had some attraction to men in the past. I don’t expect her to act on that in the future, though. The love of her life was a woman, and if she were to fall in love again, I suspect it would be with a woman.

I feel an obligation to be very careful with Portia’s love life in the future. Whatever happens to her has to be authentic to her character and not just something I do because it’s expedient.

Want more? Have a nosey at Deanna’s website or check out last week’s review of the first in the Lady Julia series, Silent in the Grave.

Interview by Kaite Welsh