Recent historical romances featuring cross-dressing heroines (and heroes) show that bodice rippers can be more than prettified, corset-bound wank material.
Cross-dressing is one of my favorite tropes of historical romance. When a historical romance novel features a woman disguised as a man, I am ON IT like pair of buff-colored breeches on a deliciously rounded female bottom. It’s easy to see why authors and readers find cross-dressing appealing. The heroines can punch, cuss, and shoot, learn Latin and math, practice medicine, talk politics, and engage in business, despite the confines of their historical time period.
But because romance novels also look at why we fall in love with the people we fall in love with, and what makes us sexual beings, cross-dressing stories occupy a unique position to question what constitutes masculinity, femininity, and everything in between. So without further ado, here is a roundup of recent pants and petticoats roles in historical romance novels.
When a scalp massage from his new valet Georgy leaves Nathan, Lord Harland, sporting a cockstand, the hero of Joanna Chambers’ debut Regency romance issues one of the standard responses of heterosexual heroes of cross-dressing tales: My God, am I a gay? (Authentic Regency vernacular, here, people.) This is quickly followed by a standard denial: “An anonymous pair of hands had brought him pleasure—that was all,” he tells himself.
Except, of course, for the fact that Nathan remains attracted to Georgy long after those gender-neutral fingers have ceased to work on Nathan’s head.
Nathan’s relief when he discovers that Georgy is actually Georgiana, is also standard. He laughs at himself for not noticing Georgy’s soft skin, delicate lips, and peachy rear end. At this point, many authors have the hero tug down his breeches and pound the heroine like a jackhammer. And then they never, ever question his machismo again.
But this where Chamber’s story swerves. Nathan does keep thinking about it; in fact, Chambers makes Nathan’s attempt to develop an understanding for himself of gender roles and sexuality and important part of the story. Nathan is not necessarily a “masculine” man. He is an aesthete who loves beautiful clothing and art, while Georgy is athletic and intrepid. She’s undercover in his household to discover the truth about her parents, and Nathan comes to not only admire her but also question the rigidity of his values. The recognition that the qualities that hero and heroine admire in each other don’t have to be gendered makes Chambers’ work stand out.
Duchess by Night by Eloisa James:
Being a manly man takes its toll on the manly men, too. Jem, Lord Strange, is self-made and recently elevated to his current rank. Jem styles himself as a sort of Lord of Misrule, presiding over a decadent and continuous house party where actors and politicians and scholars rub elbows. The trouble begins with Harriet, the dowager duchess of Berrow, inveigles her way into this frat house dressed as a boy.
Even after she’s discovered by Jem (but not the rest of the household) the masquerade frees Harriet. She gets to discover what she likes (fencing, hot sex) and discard what she doesn’t. It’s a pleasure to watch her grow, and James’ writing is droll and worldly.
But poor Jem finds his roles limiting. At first, he tries to give boy Harriet some instruction on acquiring masculine graces, but Jem is distressed to find himself attracted to the youth. He gets a brief respite after Harriet reveals that she’s a woman—he imagines that she’s the widow of some poor country squire—but when Jem realizes that Harriet is of a much, much higher rank than he is, he acts like Harriet has handed him his balls in a velvet baggie. “I didn’t want to love you,” Jem tells Harriet. “Especially when I thought you were a man. And even more when I knew you were a duchess.”
As long as Harriet is a powerless woman, Jem doesn’t feel threatened. As a powerful one, well, that’s a different story. Will Jem choose this douchey ideal of manliness or will he choose to be happy? And really, Harriet, are you going to put up with this crap?
9 Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean:
Lady Callie Hartwell chooses happiness and the possibilities of life over spinsterhood in Sarah MacLean’s endearing Regency romance. Callie costumes up while crossing items off of a scandalous bucket list: she fences, she goes to a gentlemen’s club (no, not that kind, but it might as well be) where she gambles and drinks. If nothing else, Callie’s list of forbidden activities will help readers develop a new and abiding appreciation for first-wave feminism.
How to Tame Your Duke by Juliana Gray:
Emilie, one of three princesses from an endangered German principality, escapes to England, where she becomes Grimsby, tutor to the son of a noble and scarred duke (the best kind of duke). The setting, at the end of Otto von Bismarck’s push to unite the German states by blood and iron, is unique and Gray spikes her novels liberally with Shakespearean references (her last trilogy was a take on Love’s Labour’s Lost). The trousers component is mainly played for laughs (the son offers to help Emilie/Grimsby gain the Duke’s attention with this speech: “Look here, Pater, have you ever imagined old Grimsby without his whiskers? He’d make a damned prime girl… Make a fine wife, if only he were a she.”) but overall, How to Tame Your Duke is witty and cool when it needs to be, and scorching hot when we need it. The principle reason I mention it, however, is because the trilogy promises two more cross-dressing princesses. I am beside myself.
Marry Me by Jo Goodman:
Runt Abbot is handy with a Winchester rifle and her fists. Until she suffers a miscarriage, most of the townsfolk whom she grew up with in Reidsville, Colorado, believe she’s a boy. Dr. Cole Monroe is a newcomer to their small town who treats her, removes her from her brutal father’s house, and takes her on as a housekeeper.
Set in 1884, Jo Goodman’s Western romance examines with sensitivity Runt’s (now Rhyne’s) struggle with the limits and possibilities she encounters once she starts living as a female. As a woman, Rhyne can’t reside in the boarding house alone. She’s supposed to drink sherry, not whiskey. And of course, there’s all that damned clothing to deal with:
She still struggled with the trimmings of being a woman. The ivory combs that Whitley picked out for her wouldn’t stay in her hair. The corsets were too confining, the heeled shoes barely comfortable. She still wasn’t used to wearing gowns, although she inhabited them handsomely. [Cole] knew that sometimes she wore trousers underneath her petticoats…
What makes this book work is the delicate and insightful depiction of how Rhyne eventually reclaims her sexual desire. Cole and Rhyne’s scenes are by turns tense, and poignant, and frustrating, and hot. When Rhyne tells Cole, “I never much feel like a woman except when you’re holding me. I’ve never made the acquaintance of my own body until you introduced us,” I didn’t know whether to cheer or to cry.
Untamed by Anna Cowan:
Critics and readers generally raved about, or hated this book (a great roundup of the reviews can be found here. Entire academic courses could be taught about this book.
Untamed matches a pig-farming, socially awkward heroine against a bisexual duke who looks great in skirts. Their meet-cute occurs when the heroine, Kit, attempts to warn off the Duke of Darlington, who has been sleeping with Kit’s sister. But the Darlington Kit buttonholes is not the actual duke; instead, his nihilistic minion, who Kit meets during a ball, is the real Darlington. Kit’s bluntness and intensity fascinate Darlington and he follows her to her run-down country estate, posing as a woman—a compelling, sexually attractive woman.
In many romance novels, when a man dresses as a woman, it only serves to underscore his masculinity: in gowns and corsets, the muscle-bound, square-jawed hero usually looks ridiculous. A frocked Darlington is not silly, awkward, or strange. Everyone falls in love with him: the neighbors, Kit’s brother, her mother. Even Kit, knowing his true identity, falls in love. And when the two come together, his dresses form part of the erotic exchange:
She came to her knees, her arms around him as she untied the tapes of his hoops and petticoats, until they fell down around his hips, a profusion of material, and all that remained was his haughty form encased in a rigid corset.
She stood slowly, her lips drawing a shiver from the nape of his neck.
She ran her knuckles down the tight laces of the bodice, and her body seized with a feeling so dark that for a moment she couldn’t continue.
In contrast to Darlington, Kit is rawboned and awkward, even a bit butch. I think that her rawness makes her more real and endearing, especially when she is contrasted with the sophisticated society queens around her (if Henry James had ever taken it in his head to write a steamy gender-bending Regency historical, it would probably come out a lot like this). In the midst of all the dressing and undressing, Darlington and Kit manage to do something very special: they come across as whole and complete people.
Questions for discussion:
Do you have a favorite gender-bending novel/short story/film? What is it?
If you could disguise yourself as anyone in any time period, who would you be?
What are your favorite tropes in romantic fiction and what would Henry James do with them?
Joanna Chambers, The Lady’s Secret (Amazon)
Anna Cowan, Untamed (Amazon)
Jen Hickman is a comic artist and illustrator with a penchant for drawing luxurious hair, arguments, arguments in the rain, and small spats between minor background characters.