Out of nowhere in particular the Girls in the Basement decided that Alexis, the heroine of my current WIP, was brought up as a boy and is passing as one when the hero and his posse first meet her, because of Reasons deeply rooted in her backstory.
This is, of course, a classic trope, and not only in romance – where would Shakespeare have been without it? I’m fine with that except it means I have to work extra hard to avoid borrowing from the canon, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how Alexis could have done it and what it would take to sustain the deception over a long period. I love fictional heroines like Prudence Merriott, the cross-dressing Jacobite adventurer from Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders, but I’m even more interested in learning from real life.
I knew there were women who fought as men in the Civil War, but I never dug into the details until this week. Check out this article and the great photos that accompany it.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the article, here are some salient snippets:
- Frances Clalin, a mother of three from Illinois, enlisted alongside her husband in 1861 as Union cavalryman Jack Williams. She fought in eighteen battles, was wounded three times and taken prisoner once.
- Sarah Edmonds served for two years in Company F of the Second Michigan Infantry as Franklin Flint Thompson. She wrote a memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (link to Amazon here).
- Sarah Pritchard joined the Confederate army and fought in three battles alongside her husband, Keith, using the name Samuel ‘Sammy’ Blackstock.
- Jennie Hodgers enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry as Albert Cashier. She’s said to have fought around forty battles and when the war ended she decided to remain a man and worked as a farmhand, church janitor, cemetery worker and street lamplighter.
I also looked up legendary pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Link to Wikipedia here, or as a taster try this fabulous paragraph, describing events aboard the armed sloop William, stolen from Nassau in 1720 by Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and Anne’s lover, Calico Jack Rackham:
Read’s gender was revealed when Bonny told Read that she was a woman, apparently because she was attracted to her. Realising this, Read revealed that she too was a woman. However, Rackham, as Bonny’s lover, did not know this and suspected romantic involvement between the two. To abate his jealousy, Bonny told him that Read was also a woman. The only other crew member who knew Read’s true gender was the father of her child, an unnamed passenger from a captured ship. Mary Read passed convincingly for a man.
Next week I plan to balance my historical enquiries with a powerful present-day autobiography – Maria Toorpakai’s A Different Kind of Daughter. The book will be released on May 3 in the US, but it’s already on sale in the UK, and I’m eagerly awaiting my copy. The author was born in the 1990s in North-western Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. In a highly conservative society, she was a tomboy who at the age of four burned her pretty dresses and took to wearing her brother’s shorts and t-shirt to play with the boys of her valley and roam far and wide. Later, supported by her progressive family, she became a weightlifter, competing as a man using the alias ‘Genghis Khan’, and then a professional squash player. Eventually her secret was discovered. She was bullied by her fellow players, her life was threatened by the Taliban, and she relocated to Canada where she now lives. I can’t wait to read her story.
I’m glad to say that after a week of google-fu I’m feeling good about my heroine, Alexis, who’s six feet nothing of fighting skills and attitude, whether she’s in boys’ attire or girls’, but I’m always looking for ideas, comments and suggestions.
What would make you believe (or not) in a girl passing as a boy/man?
Do you have any favorite examples, from fiction or from real life?