Hi friends! March has come to a close, so we say goodbye to another Women’s History Month. I’m very excited to welcome back Katharine Ashe, with this wonderful post.
Disguise or Truth?
By Katharine Ashe
I just wrote a historical romance in which the female protagonist, Libby, dresses as a youth to achieve her dream of becoming a surgeon, a profession prohibited to women in early nineteenth-century Britain. I based Libby’s story on a historical person.
Heroines disguised as boys are a staple in popular historical romance fiction. From the early days of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s Ashes in the Wind (1979) and Johanna Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue (1990), romance readers have adored heroines who are not only comfortable in breeches but revel in the liberty the costume allows.
Why do readers love these heroines? I think it is because they serve our fantasies about history.
We have been taught that in historical eras strict social rules required women to be modest, quiet, self-contained, and unthreatening. Woman who spoke loudly, shouted, cried in public, or quarreled with men got branded brash, shrew, bitch, termagant, hysterical, or insane. A woman whose body did not conform to notions of purity and virginity—notions imposed by men of the church and medicine—was called slut or whore. A woman’s voice and body were instead required to remain at all times passive, unthreatening, pleasing to the male ear, and receptive to the male gaze and male desire. Such women could not speak weighty thoughts, could not engage in debate with men, could not make their opinions known about everything from sports to politics. In this portrait of history, women were without power, without autonomy, entirely dependent on men to permit them to speak, to walk about in public, to dance, to make love.
I’m sometimes told that my strong feminist heroines don’t accord with actual history. Look at Jane Austen’s heroines, they say, who mostly conformed to societal norms. In response I offer the proto-feminist pamphlets and treatises real women were writing during Austen’s lifetime, the records of women who lived happily out of wedlock, took lovers, wrote satire, and worked hard to make the world better for their daughters. To no avail. Our notions of the strict suppression of women’s voices (and bodies) are set in greater stone than the actual historical record supports.
It is into this gender dichotomizing version of history that the cross-dressing romance heroine leaps, forced to secretly dress as a youth to flee danger and to right grievous wrongs. By shucking off the prison of stays and skirts and donning men’s clothing, this heroine enters male society and, rather than waiting for a man to give her leave, enacts her own fate. Readers adore these heroines who seize their destinies by defying convention so blatantly, albeit secretly.
Romance novel heroes adore these heroines too. Much is made in romance novels of the heroines’ lithe legs in tight breeches, the soft feminine bums normally concealed by skirts, and the manner in which a tight waistcoat defines the false boy’s ample breasts. Often disconcerted at first by the heroine’s disguise, the hero swiftly warms to the ruse, appreciating the ease with which he can undress his lover, unwrapping the boy to reveal the real woman within.
As most great stories of literature are, these romances are about deception, about how sometimes it is necessary to don a costume to achieve a goal. In the end, though, the heroine returns to her woman’s body, to reality in which she is free to delight in the love of an actual man.
Cross-dressing heroines are not inventions of modern historical romance, of course. Shakespeare delighted in them, to wonderfully comic effect. And we all know about Joan of Arc, the girl who experienced ecstatic visions of Jesus and saints instructing her to save France in its war with England. Dressing as a man, Joan led the French army into battle, with modest success but with enormous popularity. Soon, however, her friends betrayed her, handing her over to France’s enemies who tried her for heresy in an ecclesiastical court and then remanded her to the secular law to be executed.
Joan was not officially condemned for her extraordinary visions or for her bellicosity. By the fifteenth century Christian holy women and men had been having mystical visions for over a millennium, and Joan was demonstrably holy: a girl of low birth and no education, she nevertheless knew her catechism and was especially clever at fielding the inquisitors’ questions about doctrine. The judges could not decide without a doubt that Joan’s visions had come from the devil rather than God. Likewise, her defense of France was certainly noxious to her English captors, but it wasn’t heretical.
How then to discredit a determined champion who, it appeared, actually might have God on her side?
Joan was condemned to the stake for dressing as a man. After a long trial during which she wore women’s clothing, to escape execution she recanted of her supposed sins. Imprisoned again—apparently to her surprise, for it seems she had believed that by recanting she would be set free to do penance and return to France—she again donned men’s clothing. The court considered this to be strong evidence that her contrition had not been sincere. Condemned again for relapsing into sin, she was swiftly marched to the stake and burned to death.
When Joan donned men’s clothing for the last time, she was in a guarded prison cell. Scholars have pondered on how she acquired the clothing that ultimately led to her execution, and from whom. But the historical record remains silent on that detail.
The historical record doesn’t tell us very much, either, about a youth a few hundred years earlier who, fleeing a series of horrible mishaps after her father’s death, dressed as a boy, entered a monastery, and became one of the most celebrated holy men in the community. In a book of stories meant to inspire ordinary people to extraordinary piety, the German Cistercian monk Englehard of Langheim told the tale of this exceptionally devout monk, Joseph, who, after his death, during the preparation of his corpse for burial was finally discovered to possess the body of a woman. Shocking the monastic community, Joseph’s disguise was not however a cause for shame. Instead, the monks responded with awe. How magnificent that God had placed this inspiration in their midst: a woman who, despite her much weaker body and infinitely weaker spirit, had excelled at the monastic practices of humility, obedience, and chastity. In doing so, she had lifted herself far above her natural female state to become more than a woman, even more than a man, instead a saint. To those who read Engelhard’s tale, the only shame a monk should feel was in being given the superior advantages of a male body and spirit, yet not achieving such saintliness.
Joan of Arc’s female origins were not a secret. Her enemies claimed it was her choice to dress in men’s clothing and go to war. According to them, her willful choice led to her death.
Engelhard’s story focuses not on choice but on saintliness, a quality of much greater ultimate value in the medieval world than military might or political savvy. Gold and power meant nothing if the rich and powerful man’s soul did not achieve eternal unity with God.
Every time I read a cross-dressing heroine in a romance novel I think not of famous Joan but of humble Joseph, a character little known outside the circles of students of medieval European history. We don’t know if Joseph actually lived or was a creation of Engelhard or an earlier writer to make an argument about sanctity and gender. But not only medieval readers and I find this tale compelling: every year at least one of my students—always a woman—chooses to research and write historical fiction in which a woman disguises herself as a youth in order to achieve a cherished goal. I love these projects, and I love that university students are eager to tell stories about women breaking rules and seizing their own agency.
That said, I don’t think Joseph’s male garb was a disguise simply to achieve a goal. He lived his entire life in a monastery. Cistercians were the austerest of austere monks. It was not by any means an easy life. What moves me most about this story is not her desperation to flee her former life as a woman but her entirely monkish desire to live a dream that included extreme austerity, thorough piety, and eternity with God. Joseph wasn’t living in disguise. Joseph was simply living.
In 1809 a young Irishwoman acquired two liberal-thinking patrons, dressed as a man, and moved to Edinburgh to study medicine with the greatest physicians of the era. Several years later that student, now Dr. James Barry, joined the British military and subsequently spent a lifetime moving from colonial post to post; healing soldiers, sailors and civilians; quarreling with colleagues and local administrators; and forcing medical reform on hospitals and fellow physicians at every turn. Upon his death decades later, the person preparing his body for the morgue discovered Barry’s female body.
I based the heroine of my novel, Libby, on James Barry’s early history studying medicine in Edinburgh. Unlike Barry, however, who was probably transgender, my heroine identifies with both her sex and gender assigned at birth: she is a woman. A classic cross-dressing heroine of historical romance, she dons men’s clothing and takes a man’s name, Joseph, solely in order to pursue a cherished goal, along the way allying herself with the hero of the novel, Ziyaeddin, to achieve success.
While writing this novel, the real danger Libby faces in passionately loving a man while dressed as one tore me apart. But with equal anguish I felt the desperation of her dream to become a surgeon—the pain of wanting something she simply could not have, that horrible hopeless ache, that longing to become what she is meant to be which, however, remains entirely out of reach because of her gender.
Women in the US today struggle against societal norms that insist they behave in certain ways, against public chastisement for not complying with those rules, and against legal inequities that allow men greater rights than woman—and women of color much more so than white women. We know what it is to be belittled, restrained, harassed, assaulted; to shout in anger and cry out in pain and argue the truth only to be called bitch, nag, hypersensitive, deluded, or simply wrong—as though we don’t know our own minds and hearts and bodies, as though we need to be told how to be complete human beings.
At one moment in my novel, Ziyaeddin challenges Libby about her willingness to lie to live her dream of practicing medicine, and she replies, “Joseph is not a lie. He is the most honest part of me.”
KATHARINE ASHE is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of The Prince, which in its starred review Publishers Weekly calls “gold” and “thoroughly pleasurable,” coming May 29, 2018. Please visit her at www.KatharineAshe.com. For readers eager to read fabulous historical romance heroines dressed as men, and their uniquely wonderful heroes, Katharine recommends Alyssa Alexander’s A Dance with Seduction, Theresa Romain’s Passion Favors the Bold, Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, and for a fabulous nonbinary protagonist, Cat Sebastian’s Unmasked by the Marquess.
Thank you so much, Katharine! What a lovely informative post. Friends, did you know of these historical figures? I knew of some – not all. Do you have any more [cross dressing] historical women to share? What about romances with cross dressing heroines?