The first literary cross dressing I came across was in Stratford upon Avon. I’d been taken to see a performance of Twelfth Night. On the stage a woman called Viola successfully passedherself off as her twin brother Sebastian. The simple act of changing her clothes seemed to fool the other characters. But even I, a seven year old boy, could see through the disguise.
Something was wrong.
I may have expressed this opinion at the time because my father chose that moment to relatean even more astounding fact – the law in Shakespeare’s day forbade women fromperforming on stage. Thus the original audience watched a male actor pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.
Fast forward from 1601 to 1998. The theme endures. The Oscar-bedecked movieShakespeare In Love sees Gwyneth Paltrow acting the part of a woman who so desires to perform on the Elizabethan stage that she disguises herself as a male actor and ends up playing the part of the girl, Juliet.
“It’s Paltrow!” I shout at the TV screen. “The false beard isn’t fooling anyone.”
But it is. Other characters are incapable of seeing through the disguise.
I would have taken this as a conceit of fiction, but history tells us otherwise. Many women have been successful in passing themselves off as men. Sometimes for many years.
Take the case of Mary Read the pirate. Born in England in the late 17th Century, she was introduced to the mutability of gender from a young age. Whilst her brother lived, the family would receive financial support from a relative. When the poor child died, Mary was dressed up as a boy to stand in his stead. The money kept rolling in until she was into her teens. She later found employment on a ship, something that would have been out of the question hadshe presented herself as female. It seems the deception might never have been discovered but for a woman taking a shine to her in the belief that she was a handsome young man.
The events do sound like something Shakespeare might have written. Perhaps parts of it weremade up to create a pleasing story. But there are many similar accounts more recent and more reliable.
Dorothy Lawrence was a journalist who disguised herself as a soldier so that she could report on the First World War from close to the front lines. When eventually forced to reveal herself she was taken and interrogated as a spy. At one point six generals and approximately twenty other officers were engaged in questioning her.
Men, on discovering they have been fooled, have sometimes reacted with anger and sometimes with embarrassment. Another response is to laugh, as if the woman has made herself ridiculous. Or to claim they knew it all along.
Chromosomes may be a binary of X or Y but gender is infinitely mutable. Perhaps it is thisvery mutability that causes societies to impose strict gender codes on the way we dress, the colours we can wear, the cut of our hair, makeup, ornamentation, even the way we move or sit. Transgression is seen as a taboo and transgendered people are ridiculed by certain sections of the media.
My novel, The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter, taps in to the tradition of women passing themselves off as men. The protagonist, Elizabeth Barnabus, lives in what appears to be Victorian England. She is so hemmed in by social convention that she invents for herself a brother who can do the things that are forbidden to her. Presenting herself as a man she can accept a contract as a private investigator. But it is as a woman that she does her detective work. Her investigation proceeds and we start to realise that the Victorian age has in fact long passed. Something has caused technological and social progress to stall. The mystery of what happened will loom larger the further she goes.
I have been asked why I chose a female protagonist. The simple answer is that a man would have been less interesting in that setting. And why should it be a surprise? Novelists areconstantly imagining themselves into the minds of characters different from themselves. We are all psychological cross dressers.
The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter is the first in a series, so I will be working with Elizabeth for some time to come - imagining myself into the mind of a woman who is pretending to be a man. Now what does that remind me of? Ah yes - Twelfth Night.
An engrossing steampunk series which takes a divergent turn and becomes Alternate History instead of embracing the more common steampunk trope of a twisted background of Victorian and/or Edwardian England (specifically London), THE BULLET CATCHER'S DAUGHTER inaugurates an all-new series. Much world-building goes into the story, but the author starts with a sharp and catchy reader's hook, and interweaves the background world gradually. I found the novel fascinating, and eagerly await the next to follow.