Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Heyer 2009: K. Elizabeth Spillman: 'Cross Dressing and Disguise'

K. Elizabeth Spillman is currently working on fairy tales at the University of Pennsylvania, having completed an MA Thesis in Literature at the University of Wales, Bangor in 2007. This thesis, titled "The Morphology of a Love Story: Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Structures in Romance Fiction," focused on Austen and Heyer. Spillman has also studied the ways in which
Fairy tales have provided a body of imagery adapted by the wedding complex and used to elevate a single day and its rituals to iconic status, at once universalizing the bridal experience by connecting it to familiar narratives, and individualizing it with the promise of the extraordinary. As the mainstream American wedding becomes ever-more extravagant and complex, these intertexts are called upon to provide accessible imagery in the project of constructing meaning for an increasingly commercialized ritual. (abstract of paper presented to the American Folklore Society in 2008)
Whereas modern brides may be choosing to dress themselves as fairytale princesses, a number of Heyer's early heroines choose, or are forced, to disguise themselves as men. In 'Cross Dressing and Disguise in Heyer’s Historical Romances' Spillman observed that disguises may in some ways reveal almost as much as they conceal. If gender is performative, then this is revealed by the act of wearing drag. Spillman raised the question of whether heroines who wear male drag expand or obscure their identities, and she also suggested that drag might be the impersonation of gender.

Disguise in Heyer's novels is certainly not limited to wearers of drag. Spillman noted that the hero of The Black Moth [1921] is an aristocrat in disguise and in Powder and Patch [1923] Philip in a sense disguises himself as a fop. Again this seems to raise issues concerning gender, since Philip believes that being a fop is "unmanly." Eventually, however, his costume becomes his identity, and in performing he has become transformed.

Spillman discussed three Heyer novels which include cross-dressing. These are
  • These Old Shades [1926] - in which Léonie, the heroine, has lived as a boy for years. The Duke of Avon declares that he knew from the beginning that "Léon" was really a "Léonie." She rejects femininity to start with as she feels it is unnatural. For a long time after she is obliged to reassume her female identity she continues to keep a suit of masculine clothes for recreational purposes. She also learns to fence and attacks her kidnapper. Although she gradually learns to be a lady, she does not give up all aspects of her former masculine identity and she retains some of the agency she had as a boy.

  • The Masqueraders [1928] - in which the reader is introduced to the heroine, Prudence, while she is disguised as a man, and the secondary hero, her brother Robin, is disguised as a woman. The Lacey siblings have not been forced into their masquerade to the same extent as Léonie was. Peter and Kate are truly accomplished drag artists. Prudence/Peter begins to feel more like a man than a woman, but she observes her own performance and assesses how good her disguise is. She is thus constantly aware that she is performing. Sir Anthony is perhaps alerted to her true gender by the "odd liking" he feels for her and he admires the courage of her performance. [LV comment: Some time after he has worked out that Peter is female, Sir Anthony reveals that "I've had suspicions of your secret since the first evening you dined with me."]

    Robin/Kate seems more confident in his disguise. Indeed,
    There could be no fault found [...] in his deportment. [...] Prudence watched him with a critical eye. He had several times before donned this woman's garb, but never for so long a stretch. She had coached him to the best of her ability, but well as she knew him could still fear some slip. She had to admit knowledge of him was deficient yet. Sure, he might have been born to it. [...] He seemed to know by instinct how to flirt his fan, and how to spread his wide skirts for the curtsy.
    Perhaps because of this he is also given the opportunity to spend more time performing his male role, rescuing Miss Grayson and, as a masked stranger, receiving her admiration. He masters both genders and moves fluidly between them. Unlike Prue, his disguise is not guessed at by his beloved.

  • The Corinthian [1940]- in which the hero assists the heroine, Pen Creed, in perfecting her masculine disguise. Her disguise is not hidden from him and although the disguise is not very successful in helping the heroine to get the husband she initially wants, she does escape an unwanted husband. There is more comedy in the disguise/cross-dressing in this novel than in the previous two. For example, the novel ends thus:
    The coach lumbered on down the road; as it reached the next bend, the roof passengers, looking back curiously to see the last of a very odd couple, experienced a shock that made one of them nearly lose his balance. The golden-haired stripling was locked in the Corinthian's arms, being ruthlessly kissed.
    "Lawks a-mussy on us! whatever is the world a-coming to?" gasped the roof passenger, recovering his seat. "I never did in all my born days!"
    "Richard, Richard, they can see us from the coach!" expostulated Pen, between tears and laughter.
    "Let them see!" said the Corinthian.
    The breach of heteronormativity is the punchline. The Corinthian is Heyer's last cross-dressing novel and forms part of a move towards comedy in Heyer's later novels.
There is also a rather brief, comic cross-dressing attempt in The Talisman Ring [1936] when Ludovic disguises himself as a clumsy maid. [LV comment: Another brief instance of cross-dressing can be found in Simon the Coldheart [1925] when Lady Margaret disguises herself as a boy in a futile attempt to escape from Simon.]

In Faro's Daughter [1941] the heroine does not dress as a man, but she does long for male agency: "Oh, if I were a man, to be able to call him out, and run him through, and through, and through!" Her aunt sighs and responds that she "can't think where you get such unladylike notions!" Although she does not dress as a man, she does for a short while adopt a different identity [LV comment: that of a woman of a lower social class].

In Regency Buck [1935] Judith Taverner races her curricle in a way that is not appropriate for a lady. Heyer's later heroines thus show independence within a female gender identity rather than by contravening social norms and dressing as male. Spillman suggests that Heyer used cross-dressing to explore how women could appropriate power, but she later taught herself to empower her heroines without resorting to cross-dressing.

[LV comment: Spillman's paper, about heroines who dress as men and thus gain the ability to act and talk like men, reminded me of the discussions we've had in the romance community about how readers relate to the heroes and heroines of romances. As usual when it comes to my thoughts on how people read, what follows is mostly speculation on my part, as I (a) attempt to work through what other people have written about their process of reading and (b) attempt to draw parallels with Spillman's argument.

I wonder if there's a similarity between some of the cross-dressing heroines of romance and some romance readers who, as Laura Kinsale has suggested, imaginatively become the heroes of the novels they read:
I think that, as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace [...], can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (37)
These readers aren't physically cross-dressing but, Kinsale suggests, during the time they spend engrossed in the novel, they are able to dress themselves in a male body in order to appropriate male power. Perhaps, to parallel the development in Heyer's heroines, these readers are thus enabled to integrate into their daily lives as women some of the masculine behaviours and emotions they have learned from their time spent "cross-dressing" as heroes.]


The photo is of a "Robe à la française or open gown with stomacher, 1740s, England," from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Two things occur to me. The first is obvious: During the periods covered by Heyer's books, there was a wide divide between what men were allowed-vs.-expected to do and what women were allowed-vs.-expected to do. Viewed from the 21st century, we can well see the incentive for female characters to cross-dress if that gives them more freedom. (The expectations for males was, in part, work-related. Thus Leon/Leonie in These Old Shades is required to dress as a boy so that she can be exploited as a worker. But after Avon rescues her, she doesn't want to be a girl because it's too inhibiting, which gets back to the issue of freedoms.)

    My second thought is that in the era in which Georgette Heyer wrote these books, sodomy was still very much against the law, whereas lesbianism famously didn't exist. So a Heyer hero has to see his heroine as a female before he can be attracted to her, even if she's dressed as a man. It's okay for the Corinthian to kiss a "boy" because it isn't a boy and he always knew it wasn't a boy.

    The other side of the gender coin, where the secondary heroine doesn't know that Robin is male when he's dressed up as Kate -- that would be okay in Heyer's day and age. Spinsters living together (an arrangement known in parts of the US as a New England marriage) were okay because of all sorts of reasons, including Queen Victoria's persistent ignorance of lesbianism.

    And to marry my two points, Heyer's heroines, particularly Leon/Leonie, didn't mind the extra work associated with the pretense of being male. That fits with the rise in office employment for women in Heyer's era. It wasn't that it was better to be a man, but the extra cost in work was well worth paying to get the extra freedoms.

  2. Fascinating, wonderful post. I think you know I have a particular interest in this topic.

    I'd add to your list, The Quiet Gentleman which features another aesthete/fop of a hero who is actually a lethal swordsman.

    There are numerous historical examples of men and women who lived undetected as the opposite gender. I've read that in societies where there is a clear differentiation between the way men and women dress, it is easier to pass as the opposite sex - because people see and more readily accept the external signals of gender.

    I think a cross-dressing storyline can function in a number of ways. As with other 'disguise' storylines it can be the lie through which the truth emerges (since the undisguised protaganist gets the opportunity to 'see' the disguised protaganist's qualities free of their usual assumptions).

    As you've said, it can also confer liberties and access usually denied heroines. I think that is quite a significant thing in a male-centred world and although most of these stories crop up in historicals, I think the contemporary reader gets the same 'thrill'. A common element of these stories is the 'let down' when the heroine has to go back to being a woman. This is because the heroine has generally been admitted into another, arguably better world, from which she is later excluded again (though admitted to a new partnership to the hero which is her consolation prize. Often the sop to Cerberus for the heroine is the suggestion that she will be allowed to dress in breeches on special occasions).

    I've never read The Masqueraders but now I must because there is a male pretending to be a female, a very intriguing notion. Immediately this does not have the imediate connotation of a character being admitted to a secret and powerful world. My immediate (and shameful) reaction is that this character is not being empowered as the male impersonator, but is being lessened.

    Fascinating stuff with interesting cross over with your last post.

  3. "That fits with the rise in office employment for women in Heyer's era. It wasn't that it was better to be a man, but the extra cost in work was well worth paying to get the extra freedoms."

    Re women and work, I don't know much about the history of the period, and I also haven't been able to get hold of Kathleen Bell's "Cross-dressing in Wartime: Georgette Heyer's The Corinthian in its 1940 Context." War Culture: Social Change and Changing Experience in World War Two Britain. Ed. Pat Kirkham and David Thoms. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1995. 151-60. However, Lisa Fletcher's described Bell's argument as follows:

    In her essay "Cross-Dressing in Wartime: Georgette Heyer's The Corinthian in its 1940 Context" Kathleen Bell [...] sees the heroine's costume as a reflection of "a time when the suitability of women in wartime work, as well as femininity itself was the subject of political debate" (464). (70)

    Another article about Heyer, by Sallie McNamara, "Georgette Heyer: the historical romance and the consumption of the erotic, 1918-1939." in All the world and her husband: women in twentieth-century consumer culture (London: Cassell): 82-96, discusses fops, masculinity, femininity, the social context in which Heyer was writing and looks at the cross-dressing novels. Quite a bit of that's available for viewing via Google books. Her analysis of "gender-benders in Heyer's fiction" begins on page 85. She concludes that in the inter-war period, when Heyer's earlier cross-dressing novels were published,

    within a period where emotional restraint characterizes representations of identity, with anti-romanticism being a feature, I have argued that Heyer's texts can offer a space for private consumption which could be transgressive and/or challenging to moral codes. Heyer's texts place women in spaces/situations outside the norm with the possibility of playing with identities outside the domestic sphere. Further, while histories argue it was expedient for women to construct themselves as prudent, realistic and restrained [...] within popular culture it is possible to see sites of challenge and contradiction to the stereotypes being represented. (94)

    McNamara has interviewed some women were young during the inter-war period and who explained their love of dancing and going out for entertainment (the section titled "Forbidden Places") and I think McNamara would agree with Tumperkin that this is perhaps reflected in these novels, because cross-dressing can, for a heroine, as Tumperkin said, "confer liberties and access usually denied heroines."

  4. @Tumperkin - with reference to your guess that Robin (heroine's brother in The Masqueraders) is lessened by transvestitism - I think in fact he acquires his own kind of glamour and charisma from his androgynous persona - he's a daringly proficient female impersonator and seems to enjoy the role. I think this is true of other male cross dressers - eg David Bowie or Franknfurter (sp?) as played by Tim Curry in Rocky Horror. Both seem charismatic and actually very dominant, if a bit - unusual!

  5. Sarah - this is going to be difficult to express, but I'd draw a distinction between what I think of a particular character impersonating a woman and how the wider idea of male characters impersonating females *feels*. As I stated in my earlier comment, at a gut level, my feeling is that there is something empowering about the idea of a woman impersonating a man. The reverse doesn't strike me as true, and I think that possibly says something about our society which remains very male-centric in terms of where fiscal and political power is located.

    And this has made me think of the writings of Jean Genet.

  6. I have to accept on faith that it's possible to base these ideas on what may be found in Heyer's works, because I've read only one. However, I doubt they accord with Heyer's intent, which most likely was to amuse by using an age-old plot device which allows doubling of possible meaning in dialogue and scene. As for the transvestite character who dressed who successfully deceived: There is always some degree of empowerment in disguises.

  7. "I've read only one. However, I doubt they accord with Heyer's intent"

    I think that if, instead of only having read one of Heyer's novels, you'd read all three of These Old Shades, The Masqueraders and The Corinthian, you would notice differences in the ways in which each of these novels deals with cross-dressing. The tone of each novel, and the circumstances of the protagonists and their reasons for their disguises, are very different.

    I'd agree that "Heyer's intent [...] most likely was to amuse" in The Corinthian. As I mentioned in my summary of Spillman's conclusions, "There is more comedy in the disguise/cross-dressing in this novel than in the previous two. [...] The Corinthian is Heyer's last cross-dressing novel and forms part of a move towards comedy in Heyer's later novels."

    I also think that Stillman is right in pointing out how some of Heyer's later non-cross-dressing heroines appropriate certain masculine behaviours and attitudes. This is something that is quite explicitly referred to in the text of The Grand Sophy (1950).

    Sophy's aunt is rather stunned: "What kind of a niece was this, who set up her stable, made her own arrangements, and called her father Sir Horace?" She is even more surprised when Sophy discloses that she wants to visit a bank: "My love! Young ladies never -! Why, I myself have never entered your uncle's bank in my life!"

    Sophy also uses language unsuitable for a young lady: "It comes of living with Sir Horace," can shoot, buys a "high-perch" phaeton which "really ain't a lady's carriage" and drives so well that Mr Wychbold "told her that if they would but allow females to belong to the Four-Horse Club he should certainly support her candidature." In addition, her ideas about honour are contrasted with Miss Wraxton's thus:

    Eugenia! You are a female: perhaps you do not understand that a confidence reposed in you must - must be held sacred! [...]
    [...] 'I collect that Miss Stanton-Lacy - I presume she is also a female! - does understand this?'

    However, as stated rather pompously by Lord Bromford, "Any doubts that might have been nourished of the true womanliness of Miss Stanton-Lacy's character, must, I venture to say, have been lulled to rest" by her nursing of her little cousin.

    The mixture of masculine and feminine in Sophy's personality is perhaps symbolised by her choice of riding habit:

    made of pale blue cloth, with epaulettes and frogs, à la Hussar, and sleeves braided half-way up the arm [...]. Blue kid gloves and half-boots, a high-standing collar trimmed with lace, a muslin cravat, narrow lace ruffles at the wrists, and a tall-crowned hat, like a shako, with a peak over the eyes, and a plume of curled ostrich feathers completed this dashing toilette. The tightly fitting habit set off Sophy's magnificent figure to admiration.

    The military aspects of the outfit are clearly reminiscent of masculine attire, but there are many feminine touches and the whole displays her very female and "magnificent figure" (she is "a long-legged, deep-bosomed creature").

  8. But if one were to assign all of Heyer's works to a class, wouldn't it fall most readily into the class "comedy of manners" delivered via a romance? What better way to examine "manners" and the comedy in them than to change the surface of the participants in a romance, to reverse expectations? Admittedly, those reversals may comment on the what are considered the norms of male/female behavior, but isn't such comment incidental to the intent to entertain? Shouldn't that intent greater emphasis?

  9. I don't think one can "assign all of Heyer's works to a class" because she wrote various different types of works.

    She wrote four contemporary novels. I haven't read them, but from what I've heard of them they can't be classified as "comedies of manners." In one of them the leading female character commits suicide.

    She also wrote twelve detective novels.

    Then there are her works of (mostly biographical) historical fiction: The Conqueror, An Infamous Army, Royal Escape, and The Spanish Bride. They do have romantic elements, but the emphasis is on retelling actual historical events (respectively the story of William the Conqueror, the Battle of Waterloo, Charles II's escape after the Battle of Worcester, and the lives of Harry and Juana Smith during the Peninsular War and up to the end of the Battle of Waterloo).

    Even when it comes to classifying her historical romances, the earlier works are probably not best described as "comedies of manners." As Helen Hughes has written in her The Historical Romance:

    Heyer's work can be seen as marking a point of transition: when she began to write in the early 1920s she produced 'cloak-and-dagger' romances of the type popularized by Sabatini and Orczy. Before the end of the decade she had developed a new kind of romance, relying much more on social comedy and centering on a love-story rather than upon adventure. (10)

    I think both These Old Shades (1926) and The Masqueraders (1928) fall into what one might, following Hughes, call Heyer's "cloak-and-dagger" period of historical romances. The Corinthian is a much later work, published in 1940.

  10. If anyone is interested, I have some rather extensive notes on female cross-dressers in the first half of the 17th century (Catalina de Erauso, Mary Stuart O'Neill, etc.) that I would be happy to supply to others.

    Catalina de Erauso was a career soldier. Grace O'Malley cross-dressed for purely practical reasons (she was a pirate). Unlike Erauso, who pretended to be a man, O'Malley's associates knew that she was a woman. She married twice and had children.

    It was, suitably for Thanksgiving, an era very favorable to letting women succeed at this. Think "pilgrim father pants" -- the full, bloomer-like, trousers of the era.

  11. "an era very favorable to letting women succeed at this"

    It had crossed my mind that the first two Heyers with cross-dressing are Georgian, rather than Regency, and that perhaps the more voluminous Georgian clothes for men made the disguise easier than it would be in the Regency period.

    I also recently read a post at the Two Nerdy History Girls' blog in which Susan Holloway Scott writes about the evolution of the riding habit:

    By [...] 1770, the fashion for military-inspired habits for women was firmly established, and continued well into the 20th century.

    But in the 1660s, it was a cutting-edge style, and a controversial one, too. Inspired by Louis XIV's taste for almost non-stop warfare, the fashion came from Paris (of course), and was quickly adopted by young English ladies as well. [...] Tailored to fit as snugly as possible, the habits were not only flattering to youthful, well-corset'd figures, but also viewed as seductive and teasingly androgynous.

    She's got a quote from Samuel Pepys, who thought the fashion made the wearers look like men: he didn't approve.

    And to conclude this rather scattered comment, I remember that Jo Beverley included a real male cross-dresser, the Chevalier d'Eon, in Devilish. She's written a bit about him at the Word Wenches blog.

  12. Male cross-dressers (who maintained a female identity over a long period of time) have been most successful in eras in which feminine clothing involved hoops that held the skirts well out from the lower part of the body and stays above the waist. Stays or a stiff stomacher combined with a loose fichu could be easily stuffed to provide the illusion of a bosom.

    It was also important that the styles of the early modern era always covered a woman's upper arm from shoulder to elbow, which is one of the more betraying elements of the body.

    It would have been far more difficult for a male cross-dresser to wear fashionable Regency clothing successfully.

  13. But those books of Heyer's cited in the article on cross-dressing fall into the class "comedy of manners/romance" don't they? In that class, a character disguising him/herself as a member of the opposite class can't really be considered cross-dressing; i.e., they do it for some other reason than that usually assigned to the practice. Agreed that those who do disguise themselves must perform as whatever gender the disguise requires, but it would seem to that Heyer's intent in having the characters do so was for comic effect rather than to reveal some underlying psychological quirk.