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M.J. Pearson's meandering career path has included stints dispatching taxis in Vermont, making pizza in Santa Fe, digging Roman ruins in Israel and studying nationalism in Scotland. Currently residing in Indianapolis, M.J. is hard at work on a third gay historical romance novel.

Ask the Author

Q: How can you justify writing warm, fuzzy gay romances set during an era where sodomy was punishable by death?

A. The thing is, you have to look at both what the laws were on the books and how they were applied--and understand that interpretations of historical data are going to vary. This is mine: Yes, sodomy was a capital crime...one of a whopping 222 offenses for which one could be sentenced to death at the beginning of the 19th century. But while it's sobering to consider that hanging was possible for the "crime" of having sex with another man, the laws of the era seem from our vantage point to be draconian in general: people were also sentenced to death for stealing boots or a looking glass, and juveniles as young as 14 were publicly executed.

In practice, however, how were the sodomy laws applied, and to whom? During the Regency proper (1811-1820), there are only nine sodomy trials recorded at the Old Bailey in London, one of which was an instance of bestiality, not buggery (anal sex). Four of the remaining eight cases returned verdicts of Not Guilty, leaving another four where men were convicted of sex with other men (probably) and received death sentences. At the time, London was a metropolis of over a million people, by 1836 becoming the largest city in the world, so it's certain there were plenty of potential defendants if the Crown had any interest in persecuting men who had sex with each other. Nationwide (and including the London cases), there were a total of 40 executions for sodomy (out of 2,338 total executions) in the extended period 1800-1827 (one of which is noted as being committed upon a 6-year-old girl, not another man). Other offenses show rigorous prosecution: from 1811-1820 in London, 11,137 cases of various types of theft were presented at the Old Bailey, resulting in 7,145 guilty verdicts and 920 sentences of death. Death is never to be taken lightly, but next to those numbers, the 8 trials/4 convictions for buggery pale in comparison.

The specific circumstances of the four convictions in Regency London are not recorded, making it impossible to know, at least from the sources available online, exactly what happened: by the late 1790s, detailed descriptions of sexual offenses were replaced in the proceedings by simple statements such as WILLIAM WINKLIN was indicted for an unnatural crime ; but the evidence on the trial being extremely indecent, the Court ordered the publication of it to be suppressed. Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 15 Feb. 1797 The twenty convictions for sodomy detailed earlier in the 18th century before this silence was imposed may, however, shed some light.

Out of the 20 convictions for which circumstances are known:

--3 are for bestiality (intercourse with an animal, which also fell under "sodomy")

--4 are cases of sexual assault upon an unwilling man or boy, not a consensual partner

--7 consensual acts, where the men were caught having sex in a public place: alley, church, churchyard, "necessary house" (public privy), inn

--6 cases involved "molly houses," which functioned as a kind of public house, sex club, and/or brothel for homosexual activity (in the vernacular of the times, they were "Rooms for the entertainment of Sodomites"). Four of these were tried on the same day in April, 1726, which probably indicates a deliberate crackdown on the establishments. Two concerned the infamous Mrs. Clap's Molly House, described here in the Proceedings by Thomas Newton (who seems to have turned state's evidence, deposing that he had committed sodomy with three of the prisoners):

Mrs. Clap's House was next to the Bunch of Grapes in Field-lane, Holbourn. It bore the publick Character of a Place of Entertainment for Sodomites, and for the better Conveniency of her Customers, she had provided Beds in every Room in her House. She usually had 30 or 40 of such Persons there every Night, but more especially on a Sunday. I was conducted up one pair of Stairs, and by the Perswasions of Bavidge (who was present all the Time) I suffer'd the Prisoner to commit the said Crime. He has attempted the same since that Time, but I never would permit him any more. When Mrs. Clap was taken up, in February last, I went to put in Bail for her; at which Time, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Willis told me, they believ'd I could give Information, which I promis'd to do, and I went next Day, and gave Information accordingly.

It's clear that in the 18th century, and almost certainly in the early part of the 19th century, prosecution for consensual sodomy was statistically rare and only occurred if one had sex in a public place or molly house (which can also be construed as "public," in that they were places of entertainment, not private residences). It wasn't until the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (a.k.a. the Labouchere Amendment) of 1885 that new language specified that men could be charged with any act of "gross indecency" with each other, whether it occurred in public or private. The addition of the words "or private" caused the law to become known as "The Blackmailer's Charter," since it was no longer necessary to be caught in public acts--anyone with a bend toward extortion could now make himself rich ferreting out and exploiting private sexual transgressions.

The small risk of prosecution does not mean that the Regency was a paradise for men with homosexual inclinations. Certainly, then as now the upper classes were freer to indulge their passions (as long as they weren't doing it in the street and frightening the horses). Sodomy was considered shocking and scandalous, but there were degrees of scandal: the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, was known to have enjoyed the favors of both women and men, but it was his incestuous affair with his half-sister that eventually caused him to flee England, not the boys on the side. The lower classes, as always, seem to have borne the brunt of prosecution: you probably don't have sex in a public privy if you have anywhere else to go.

What does this mean for the writer of gay Regency romance? In The Price of Temptation, the aristocratic Stephen is cheerfully "out," at least in the context of the times. He doesn't pretend to court women, and he brings his lover Julian with him to social events. They don't, however, make out in public (although they do once share a kiss late at night in front of Stephen's house). Stephen doesn't get away with it completely: he does say that there are any number of hostesses who won't allow him in their homes, but adds something to the effect that since he's an earl and unmarried, he could roast children for breakfast and still be invited to half the functions in town. His greatest risk is in frequenting brothels: there is a small chance that a raid could occur, or that a prostitute he's hired could turn state's evidence against him.

In contrast, the lower-class characters have a more difficult time. Stephen's valet, Charles, was at his previous employment caught with his lover, and they were both dismissed immediately. Jamie has an extremely hard time finding a job after he leaves St. Joseph House, since potential employers assume (er...rightly) that in sharing the scandalous earl's roof, he also shared his bed, and refuse to hire him.

But there's no reason to avoid a happily-ever-after: as long as a couple keeps to the safety of their own house, no one is going to burst in and drag them from their beds in the middle of the night.

Q: What are you working on now?

A. I have two projects I'm excited about. The first is another novel set in the same time period as Price and DYG, focusing on the love affair between a Frenchman and Englishman against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. But I also love the medieval era, and have a story that's begging to be set on the Welsh borders... I've come to the point in the first where I've had to stop and do some additional research, so to blow off steam while I can't write new material for it, I'm working from time to time on the second.

Q: I read somewhere that your first book, The Price of Temptation, was cut for length. What sort of things were left out?

A. Edits took the book from about 80,000 words to about 72,000, so only about 10% was cut. Most of that was just tightening, removing scenes that didn't advance the plot or could be combined with others that gave similar information. I was fine with all of it--one of the challenges of writing is doing it within certain boundaries, and one of them is fitting a story within the limits of space. However, for the benefit of readers who felt the book ended rather abruptly, I've decided to offer the original epilogue here. I think the book works fine without it, but it does tie up one or two loose ends.

Q: Tell me more about Discreet Young Gentleman! When and where does it take place?

A. As in The Price of Temptation, the historical setting for Discreet Young Gentleman is Regency England. The action, however, takes place just over a year earlier--DYG is set in the summer of 1815, while Price was set in the autumn and winter of 1816. And while Jamie and Stephen never left London, Dean and Rob will be on the road, visiting several different towns and cities along the way.

Q: Will you be selling autographed copies of your books online?

A. Unfortunately, I don't have the time or resources to take orders for books myself. However, I am both trying to find a bookstore that will offer autographed copies for mail order, and will continue to offer autographed bookplates to any reader who wants one. Click here for details.

Q: Ahem. Aren't you finished with that new book yet?

A. Why, yes--yes I am. Expect some news soon... UPDATE: Yes, there's a Discreet Young Gentleman in your future! My second book will be published in the autumn of 2006, again from Seventh Window Publications. Sean Platter will return to do the artwork, and I'm told he's very excited to be doing another cover for us. I'll post the release date as soon as I know it.

Q: I love your cover art! Who's the artist?

A. The concept for the cover belongs to Ken Harrison at Seventh Window. From the first, he envisioned a campy gay version of the Fabio-type romance covers of the 1980s. The artist, Sean Platter, executed the idea brilliantly. You can see more of his work here.

Q: How's the new book coming? What's it about?

A. I'm more than halfway done with the first draft of my next gay historical romance, working title Discreet Young Gentleman. Another in the 'Boy meets Earl' mode, this is the story of Dean Smith, Earl of Carwick, who is tricked into being discovered in the company of Rob, a handsome male prostitute. Now Dean needs to repair his broken engagement to a wealthy heiress, and he needs Rob's help to do it. Only Rob can identify the man who set him up, proving to his fiancée that things weren't as they appeared.

But the road trip turns into a journey of self-discovery, as Dean finds Rob stirring feelings he's long kept repressed... Highwaymen. Ghosts. One hell of a big fish. And at the center, a gorgeous, charming, sensual, and very Discreet Young Gentleman.

Q: Is there going to be a sequel to The Price of Temptation?

A. There's no sequel planned at present--I hope it's not too much of a spoiler for those who haven't yet finished the book to say this, but I'm assuming Jamie and Stephen will live happily ever after. I do have a follow-up book in progress, a new gay romance set during the same era, which I hope readers will enjoy just as much.

Q: In your book, Jamie is particularly fond of Rebecca's almond biscuits. I think of biscuits [cookies] as a contemporary treat--were they really around during the Regency?

A. Yes. Period cookbooks show that our ancestors had quite a sweet tooth, and the Oxford English Dictionary cites a specialty Biscuit Baker advertising his wares in the London Gazette as early as 1707. Elizabeth Moxon's popular English Housewifery Exemplified, which was in print from 1741 through at least 1800 (and thus likely to be on the shelves in Stephen's library), gives this recipe for "Almond Biskits":

Almond Biskits
Blanch a pound of almonds, lie them in water for three or four hours, 
dry them with a cloth, and beat them fine with eight spoonfuls of rose
or orange-flower water; then boil a pound of fine sugar to wire-height,
and stir in the almonds, mix them well over the fire; but do not let
them boil; pour them into a bason, and beat them with a spoon 'till
quite cold; then beat six whites of eggs, a quarter of a pound of
starch, beat and searc'd, beat the eggs and starch together, 'till
thick; stir in the almonds, and put them in queen-cake tins, half full,
dust them over with a little searc'd sugar; bake 'em in a slow oven, 
and keep them dry.

The same cookbook also gives recipes for other almond biscuit-like treats (including macaroons,  ratafie drops, little almond cakes, and almond puffs), but I like this recipe the best. After all, queen-cake tins are usually heart-shaped.

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This site was last updated 01/20/07