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  is an aristocrat in disguise and in Powder and Patch  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  - 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  - 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 - 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.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.
"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.
In Faro's Daughter  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  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.