Thank you again, lovely Addison, for having me as your guest today! I’m Ellie Thomas, and I write Gay Historical Romance. In this blog, I’m chatting about Held Close to my Heart, my story for the June Hugs or Kisses submissions call for JMS Books.
Apart from a brief trip back to Elizabethan London for the Spice of Life in February and a look at the 1930s Gay Scene for London in the Rain published in April, most of my stories scheduled for this year are Regency Romances, and quite a few of them are set around London.
So for Held Close to my Heart, I thought I’d mix things up a bit and subsequently chose a seventeenth century setting in rural Oxfordshire. Also, as my stories are often about burgeoning romances between men who have only just met, I rang the changes in this one, featuring an established couple.
The story is mainly from the point of view of Luke, agonising over the future of his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Jem. These two young men grew up together and were inseparable until their late teens. But as the story starts, they are now in their early twenties, with Jem spending much of the year in London at the decadent court of King Charles II (which was great fun to mention), leaving Luke in Oxfordshire to work his family farm. Luke feels they have grown apart and over the course of the summer while Jem is at home, Luke agonises jealously over his apparently unrequited love.
As well as checking small but important details about farming in Oxfordshire at that period, I also eagerly raided my bookshelves. It was pure self-indulgence to give Luke an interest in literature because that allowed me to quote from at least one of John Donne’s sublime poems. Also, it gave me the perfect excuse to re-read Graham Greene’s fascinating Rochester’s Monkey, a biography of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the archetypal Restoration rake.
Rochester’s short life was a riotous comet, action packed, full of contradictions and very much a man of his tumultuous time. The son of a Royalist father and Parliamentary supporting mother, this dissonant background was reflected in his actions as he veered between condemning the corruption of the Royal Court and extreme overindulgence in drink and sex, while penning sharply witty and often utterly filthy poetry.
With the example of such a colourful Restoration figure in mind, I couldn’t help but allow my main characters to reflect some of Rochester’s qualities, albeit in a far less extreme way. Luke is my Puritan, serious, clever and thoughtful, the dutiful son who tills the land for the benefit of his family, with no one, not even Jem, guessing at the volcanic emotions beneath his stoic surface. In contrast, Jem is straightforward, sunny, fun loving, pleasure seeking and easy going, seeming perfectly suited to the self-indulgent atmosphere of the Restoration Royal Court.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing about these two opposites attract characters, not only to explore the differences between them but also to reveal, once miscommunications are resolved, that they might be two halves of a perfect and complete whole.
Since their mid-teens, Luke has been deeply in love with his childhood friend and neighbour, Jem, who spends most of the year at the decadent court of King Charles II in London. In the intervening years at home on Twelvetrees Farm in Oxfordshire, Luke has been occupied by helping his disabled father run their small estate, taking on the burden of work to support his family. Meanwhile, Jem has enjoyed all the worldly pleasures available to him at court.
When they are both twenty-one, and Jem returns to Westlecot Manor to spend the summer, Luke’s feelings for him reach boiling point. Luke can no longer cling to the belief he is important to Jem. He is overwhelmed by jealousy at the prospect of Jem’s dalliances with any visitors to the manor house, while aware that Jem is bewildered by his outbursts of disapproval.
Will Luke allow his jealousy to get the better of him? Might he dare to speak his deepest feelings? Or would that destroy their lifelong bond forever?
I cursed myself for allowing my resentment to get the better of me. I should have accepted Jem as a bright and carelessly happy creature and be grateful he still sought my company despite being surrounded by a glamorous throng.
But somehow, as June became July, my sense of grievance gathered. I used the excuse that I was dog tired, working from dawn to dusk, my father’s worries for the coming year burdening me, as I pushed myself even harder in an attempt to allay his anxiety.
Weary as I was by late in the day, I couldn’t refuse to accompany my family to the evening diversions at the manor. It would have seemed churlish to our good friend Sir Harry, and, with so many men present used to casual customs, I was needed to help my mother keep a careful eye on my sisters or be a strong and willing arm to support my father when required.
Repressing a yawn while watching the dancers, I tried not to resent Jem, glowing with health, well-rested, the life and soul of the party, conviviality itself. For some reason, this particular night, he bore the brunt of my frustration, his vibrancy and happiness contrasting painfully with my cares and exhaustion. I cursed his leisure time, his immaculate appearance, his care-free existence. I was heart-sore with wanting him, sick of myself and my ever-present foul mood.
We were about to depart for home, leaving the merrymakers to continue dancing until the early hours. I had fetched my mother’s shawl for her and was walking through the vestibule by the library on my way to the entrance hall where my family made their farewells.
At that very moment, one of the court ladies emerged from behind the library door, flushed and giggling, in the act of retying the laces at the front of her bodice. One step behind her, inevitably, was Jem, an amused smile on his lips as though he had been well-entertained.
“Luke,” he called out to me in good spirits as the lady scurried off to her chamber to tidy herself before returning to the main party. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
The expected polite reply froze on my lips.
“Your father is a generous host as always. But I’d rather be in my bed, and resting up for the long day ahead,” I replied curtly.
“Oh, come now,” he said jovially, patting me on the arm, “after your labours, you should take the opportunity to make merry amongst us all.”
“Take your example, you mean?” I asked sharply.
Jem seemed to perceive my uncertain humour, and his smile faded. “Luke, what’s the matter? Did you not enjoy our party?”
His innocent query unleashed my pent-up bitterness.
“It’s all very well for you to say, without a concern in the world. You don’t have to rise as soon as it’s light, be an extra pair of hands for your father so that he doesn’t fret himself into an early grave or keep watch over your mother and sisters and worry about her portion and their dowries. Those weights are not on your shoulders.”
Jem tried to calm me with a quip, “But they are such powerful shoulders,” he said, running an appreciative hand over the sleeve of my sober jacket. Rather than soothing me, that seductive touch stung me to harsh speech.
“Not that you’d care or notice,” I continued bitterly. “You’re too busy chasing after any available skirt or pair of breeches.”
Jem looked taken aback by my outburst. “But Luke,” he started to protest mildly.
Ellie Thomas lives by the sea, usually in a state of complete chaos. She has an unhealthy obsession with history and loves to both read and write about many historical periods. She comes from a teaching background and, as well as writing, she bakes on demand for next door’s children. When she manages to wrestle herself away from her computer and her kitchen, she loves to dance.
Ellie Thomas mainly writes historical romances.