Cross-dressing heroines, or chicks-in-pants books as they are popularly known, are among my favorite reads when they are done well. Twelfth Night has long been my favorite Shakespearean comedy. One of my favorite 19th-century popular novels is The Hidden Hand by Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte “E. D. E. N.” Southworth (1819-1899), one of the most widely read and highest paid authors in America during her period.
The Hidden Hand (serialized 1859; published as novel in 1888) features a heroine whom readers first meet when she is masquerading as a boy in order to survive. When orphaned street waif Capitola Le Noir, also known as Cap Black, realizes that boys are earning money carrying parcels, blacking boots, and shoveling snow on the streets of New York, jobs denied her solely because of her gender, she disguises herself as a boy. She has no regrets: “The only thing that made me feel sorry was to see what a fool I had been, not to turn to a boy before.” Even after she is rescued by a wealthy relative and restored to her female identity, she rejects conventional feminine behavior—confronting villains, fighting a duel, rescuing an imprisoned maiden, and expressing herself without reservation.
The romance novels of Georgette Heyer are far removed in time and place from Southworth’s gothic tale, but Heyer too utilized cross-dressing heroines. In fact, she created three of them, all of which I have read and reread and reread.... Léonie Sainte-Vire of These Old Shades (1926) is the flame-haired street urchin Léon when she meets the Duke of Avon and becomes his page. Two years later, in The Masqueraders, Heyer chose a pair of cross-dressers: Prudence Marriot is disguised as handsome Peter and her brother Robin, who “was made to be a breaker of hearts,” assumes the identity of a fashionable, flirtatious beauty. In The Corinthian (1940), Penelope Creed masquerades as a boy in order to escape a forced marriage.
In all three books, the heroine has a particular reason for assuming a male identity, she experiences a freedom in male attire that she could never know as a woman, and the hero sees through the disguise early in the story. For me, Heyer is the gold standard for such novels, and these elements are essential to my appreciation of other books with heroines disguised as males. My list of favorite cross-dressing heroines includes characters who range from a traditional Regency heroine to the protagonist in a YA book published last year.
1. Valentine Langley, Fool’s Masquerade (1984) by Joan Wolf
Valentine runs away after her father is killed at the retreat to Corunna rather than be sent to her estranged grandparents. Since she has a gift for horses, she disguises herself as a boy and finds work as a groom on the Yorkshire estate of Richard Fitzallan “Diccon”, Earl of Leyburn. Although Diccon discovers her gender easily, the two have time to know each other before Valentine’s identity is revealed.
2. Ellen Grimsley, Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career (1992) by Carla Kelly
Students at Miss Dignam’s Select Female Academy in Oxford study French, watercolors, and embroidery, but Ellen Grimsley longs to study geography, geometry, and Shakespeare at Oxford University. Her brother, in his first year of study at Oxford, wants only to join a cavalry regiment. He persuades Ellen, who bears a marked resemblance to him, to dress in clothing and a scholar’s robe borrowed from one of his shorter friends and to attend a tutorial in order to write his essay on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One essay turns into three before Ellen is discovered, forced to deny authorship of the essays, and banned from Oxford. But all is not lost. She has met her true love, a marquess and a Shakespearean scholar who realized she was female almost immediately and took her to a taproom anyway. Moreover, he promises after their marriage “to stand up every year in the House of Lords and rail on and on about the need for equal education for women.”
3. Chastity Ware, My Lady Notorious (1993) by Jo Beverley
Chastity Ware, disgraced after she refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her and desperate to help her sister and infant nephew escape the control of her brother-in-law, dresses as a highwayman and kidnaps a coach. Inside the coach is a bored Cyn Malloren who realizes that his kidnapper is a woman. For his own amusement, Cyn agrees to help the women but chooses not to reveal that he knows “Charles” is a woman in men’s clothing. Despite the real villainy the heroine is battling, the novel edges into farce when Cyn dons women’s clothing and Charles becomes his footman. Some of the most sensuous food scenes in romance fiction are a bonus as the two defeat their enemies and head toward their HEA.
4. Rosencrantz “Rosie,” The Greatest Lover in All England (1994) by Christina Dodd
An orphan brought up by actor Danny Plympton, Rosie masquerades as a boy playing women’s roles in her foster father’s acting company. When Danny’s life is endangered by his knowledge of a plot against the queen, the company leaves London for the estate of Sir Anthony Rycliffe, the master of the Queen’s Guard. Tony recognizes Rosie is a woman within minutes of meeting her. This one is unusual in its Tudor setting and in the fact that Rosie in disguise as a boy plays a male actor who plays women’s roles, including Ophelia in Hamlet, written by her honorary “Uncle Will.”
5. Anne Wilder, All Through the Night (1997) by Connie Brockway
There is nothing typical about this dark, intense romance. Anne Wilder is known to society as a gentle, wealthy widow who is chaperoning a debutante. No one knows she is Wrexall’s Wraith, a cat burglar who dresses in black and moves unseen along London rooftops at night in order to steal from the wealthy for the charities they ignore and to experience the sense of truly being alive only when she risks losing her life. When she is caught in an act of theft by Colonel Jack Seward, Whitehall’s Hound and England’s greatest spy, she uses her body to distract him and escape. He is shocked to learn that the Wraith is a woman, one who has humiliated him and one he cannot forget. Thus, obsession begins.
6. Alys Weston, The Rake (1998) by Mary Jo Putney
Strickland, the estate that Reginald Davenport has just been given, is a model of agricultural production and contented tenants, thanks to the practices instituted by the steward, A. E. Weston, who is thought to be a man. Alys is an unusual cross-dressing heroine in that although she wears men’s clothing on the job, she makes no attempt to disguise herself as man. The tenants address her as “Lady Alys” and Reggie’s first view of her brings an immediate appreciation of her long legs and the fit of her shirt. He promises to “treat her like a man,” but it soon becomes clear he is unable to keep that promise.
7. Sylvie Georgiana, Countess of Montevrain, The Wicked Lover (2004) by Julia Ross
Robert Dovenby returns home to find his mistress burning his clothes and a young man tied to his bed. The young man claims to be George White who has stolen into Dove’s home to steal a cravat on a wager. Dove realizes “at second glance” that George White is a woman, but he forces George to become his secretary. In that guise, she accompanies him to masquerades and coffee houses. George is actually a spy working for a man bent on destroying Dove. The story is a perfect set up for trust issues to war with the wild attraction that exists between the two.
8. Harriet, Duchess of Berrow, Duchess by Night (2008) by Eloisa James
Tired of her uneventful life, Harriet accompanies her friend Isidore, Duchess of Conway, to the home of the scandalous Lord Strange whose ongoing house party includes guests from powerful politicians to actresses. Isidore is courting scandal for her own purposes, but Harriet, to protect her reputation, is disguised as Harry Cope, a young relative of the Duke of Villiers, whose invitation gives this odd trio entrance to the party. Villiers is still recovering from a serious illness and turn Harry over to Jem, Lord Strange for instruction in manly pursuits. It takes Jem a while to realize that Harry is Harriet, and the interval before recognition is played for laughs with Harriet enjoying the freedom of a young man and dealing with an actress interested in more than flirtation and Jem disturbed by his attraction to this feminine young man. Harry’s response to riding astride for the first time is a particularly funny scene.
9. Ayisha, To Catch a Bride (2009) by Anne Gracie
For six years, since her father’s death, Ayisha has disguised herself in male clothing to evade the men to whom a young virgin is a valuable commodity to be sold to whoever will pay the highest price. With the help of a big-hearted, childless widow, she survives, just another street urchin in Cairo. Rafe Ramsey, younger son of the late Earl of Axebridge, arrives in Egypt to search for the missing granddaughter of Lady Cleeve, a friend of his grandmother’s. When Ayisha steals into the house where Rafe is staying to rescue a friend, Rafe catches her. She fights so ferociously that Rafe is forced to punch her, a blow that knocks her cold. Looking at her unconscious face, he is struck by the delicacy of her features and he wonders. A flat chest fails to answer his question, but a more intimate examination proves the urchin is definitely not male. A closer look at her face persuades him that she is the girl he has come to rescue, and another battle begins.
10. Elizabeth “Bet” Smith, The Education of Bet (2010) by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
The illegitimate, orphaned daughter of a maid, Bet is brought up by Paul Gardner, who rescues her when he comes to the aid of his grand-nephew, Will, whose parents perished in the same epidemic that killed Bet’s mother. Will is a poor student who dreams of being a soldier. Bet, bright and ambitious, is relegated to learning needlepoint and other domestic skills. She comes up with a plan that will allow her and Will to achieve their goals. She will take Will’s place at his boarding school, and he will be free to enjoy military life. But Bet is unprepared for the bullying and violence that are part of public school experience for boys in Victorian England, and she’s unprepared for the feelings awakened by James, her good-looking roommate, who is just as unprepared to discover that his roommate who is surpassing him in academic standing is a girl.
Who are your favorite chicks in pants in historical romance?
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.