Jilly: Heroines in Disguise

Heroines in DisguiseWhere do you stand on heroines who pass as boys?

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?

Thank you!

13 thoughts on “Jilly: Heroines in Disguise

  1. I thought this was a great post, Jilly. I have read about a few of the women who served in the Union or Confederate Armies as men before, and they are excellent examples of strong, centered, capable women who didn’t want to be left at home for anything.

    Now, as for examples…I have no true-to-life examples, unfortunately. But I do have a book series you might enjoy by Sherry Thomas (she calls it her “elemental magic” trilogy; the three books are THE BURNING SKY, THE PERILOUS SEA, and THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS.) The heroine, Iolanthe Seabourne, poses as Archer Fairfax, a young man at Eton in the 19th Century. Iolanthe is a magician from the Domain, which may as well be in a parallel universe (only magicians can get in or out, though there are non-magical people who seem to live there, too — or only slightly magical people, at any rate). She and her friend (later on, love interest) Prince Titus of the Domain battle intrigue from Atlantis (which the 19th Century British world sees as myth, but Iolanthe and Titus know is frighteningly real).

    The world building here is not as strong as it would be from a primarily SF&F writer, no. But the romance is outstanding and the magic system does work…Sherry Thomas writes well, and she’s always interesting to read regardless of genre IMO. And Ms. Thomas goes out of her way to make it clear that everyone sees Archer Fairfax as male; Iolanthe, as Archer, competes on the cricket team, outdoes the men in Latin and Greek (which she didn’t know before going to Eton at all; she learns fast!), and won’t be second-best to anyone — not even Prince Titus.

    So, it’s a relationship of equals, with a little bit of gender-bending going on. I found them interesting! 😀

    Can’t wait to read your story, BTW…what you talked about sounds very promising. (Remind me when it’s done, and I’ll be glad to review it down the line.)

    • Thanks, Barb! The Elemental Trilogy sounds great. I just looked up The Burning Sky – the cover is stunning, and the blurb outstanding, plus Eton and cricket, both more arcane than any magic system 🙂 . I’m going to buy this now, though I may not read it until later, to avoid any subconscious borrowing.

      Glad you like the sound of my story, and thank you for the offer to read/review when I’m done. I really appreciate it. Will definitely remind you when the time comes!

      • You are most welcome. Glad to do it.

        And I’m glad I could let you know about Sherry Thomas. I hope she writes some more fantasy down the line; I like the way she thinks, and writes.

  2. There is a book I’ve been meaning to read about four women undercover during the Civil War called “Liar, Temptress, Solder, Spy” by Karen Abbott. More fodder for you. I like the woman in disguise bit. Kathleen Woodiwiss has one in Ashes in the Wind, a saga that is also during the Civil War.

    • The Karen Abbott book looks great, Michille. Definitely more fodder for me. I just looked it up and saw she also wrote American Rose, about Gypsy Rose Lee, which I had also intended to buy. I can see today is going to be expensive, but in the best possible way 😉 Thank you!

    • That’s a fascinating link, Jeanne, thanks, I’ve added it to my Alexis story folder. It’s amazing that these women managed to make such a mark, and to keep their secrets for so long – until their death in some cases.

  3. Billy Tipton was an American jazz musician and band leader who was born in the early twentieth century and died in the 1980s. It was not discovered until after his death that he was born female. I read an article about him once that said he never told anyone about the switch and never put himself in a situation where he could be found out, so when he died, the music world was surprised.

    • I’m astonished that (s)he didn’t tell anyone. I’d assumed anyone in this situation would need the help of at least one close confidant. I wonder if it was a lonely life, or whether the satisfaction he found in his music more than compensated for his need to work around so many details of everyday existence.

  4. I love this trope! And I’m writing something similar, although I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom of my character’s identity yet.

    I’ve always loved this trope. As you know, Terry Pratchett had his Monstrous Regiment. And I also have a nonfiction book called something like that (not coming up with my google though). I’ll see if I can find it.

    I see this: https://www.reddit.com/r/booksuggestions/comments/15bgzw/looking_for_books_about_women_passing_as/ Out of all the ones they suggest, Middlesex was a terrific read.

    I think two major things are: 1) figure out how she pees on the go and 2) what happens to her breasts. But women through the ages have done this and “passed” so it shouldn’t be that difficult to find ways.

    I think in some ways, it’s easier for a man to pass as a woman. I remember being totally shocked by The Crying Game’s twist, but a friend of mine who watched it with me was all “Oh, I knew it.” She said the adam’s apple tipped her off. But, judging from the gasps in the theater, I wasn’t the only unobservant one who got fooled.

    • Yes, of course, Monstrous Regiment, and (as my BIL pointed out on Twitter last night), where would Blackadder be without Bob?

      Peeing, breasts and (even more of a giveaway) periods. I think it helps if you have a certain kind of body – no way is Dolly Parton ever going to be able to pass for a guy 😉 . My girl Alexis is six feet tall with strong features and a strong, wiry build. Not as androgynous as the model Rain Dove, who models menswear as well as women’s, but with that kind of flavor (put Rain Dove in a blender with Jamie Lee Curtis, Pink, Annie Lennox, maybe a touch of Amelie Mauresmo). At the beginning of the story Alexis has health problems (because Reasons) which means she’s very underweight/running on empty. I think this would affect her boobs and also would probably mean her periods would stop, at least until she gets help and starts to put some weight on. Peeing is trickier to manage, but clearly many women have managed to finesse it in real life.

      Thanks for the link. Middlesex looks interesting!

      • (-: May I play devil’s advocate? I think Dolly Parton could get by, but she’d have to develop a belly that would camouflage the breasts. And, we don’t tend to think of crossdressers or transgender F->M as being . . . floppy or out of shape. But, I think I could definitely pass as some sort of “gamer guy” in a sloppy t-shirt and sweatpants.

        In general, this trope doesn’t seem to be about hiding. It’s almost about showing off, using the flashier aspects of the opposite sex. Victor/Victoria wore great suits with fabulous hair and accessories when passing as male, and gorgeous outfits with super wigs when passing as a drag queen. Of course, this is a movie.

        Real-life schlubby transgender probably attract a lot less attention; I would love to see some stats and lifestories about that. But, in that case, there’d definitely be a privacy and a hiding aspect, I would think.

  5. I just thought of two other cross-gendered fictional stories, one old and one new: National Velvet, first a book and then a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, in which a girl dresses as a boy to race and win the Grand National steeplechase, and then TransAmerica, in which Felicity Huffman plays a man transforming into a woman, who is found out by his/her son, in fact, by peeing. Huffman was nominated for an Academy Award, but didn’t win. As my coworker said, she was robbed. Oh! And The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Also terrific, with Terence Stamp.

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