Nov 13 2011 11:00am

Chicks in Pants: Cross-dressing Historical Heroines

The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. SouthworthCross-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.

Fool’s Masquerade by Joan Wolf1. 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.”

My Lady Notorious by Jo Beverley3. 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.”

All Through the Night by Connie Brockway5. 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.

The Wicked Lover by Julia Ross7. 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.

To Catch a Bride by Anne Gracie9. 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.

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Louise Partain
1. Louise321
Wow, Janga! I would have listed almost all of those you posted! And now have some titles to search for. A couple of other CIPs would be Maxima Collins in Angel Rogue by Mary Jo Putney and Kit Brantley in Lady Rogue by Suzanne Enoch.
3. Janga
Louise, I did think of Angel Rogue but was tring to avoid using two by a single author. I also considered MJP's China Bride, a different take on the trope. I didn't think of Lady Rogue, which must mean it's time for a reread.
Barb in Maryland
4. Barb in Maryland
Though not strictly a romance, on of my favorite CIP books is Gillian Bradshaw's Beacon at Alexandria. It's historical, gal wants to be a doctor and successfully passes herself off as male doctor--people see what they expect to see. Hero has suspicions, but shakes them off. All is revealed when she is sent to the frontier in her doctor role and is kidnapped by the 'barbarians'. All ends well though and we get a nice HEA. Worth tracking down for fans who are interested in books set in the Roman Empire.
Barb in Maryland
5. brontëgirl
My favorite is West of the Pecos by Zane Grey, in which a teenage girl, Terrill, wears boy's clothes to help keep her safe when she and her father move from civilized East Texas to West Texas after the Civil War. She keeps on wearing boy's clothes after her father's death, but meeting the handsome cowboy Pecos Smith complicates matters. A couple of Brontë heroines might qualify as chicks in pants--Shirley Keeldar, who has that sort of attitude even if she never actually wears men's clothes, and Lucy Snowe, who portrays a male character in a school play and manages to steal each scene she's in even tho' she only wears a man's vest, collar, tie, and cape over her dress.
Barb in Maryland
6. SonomaLass
Three excellent treatments of this device in historical romance are Almost a Gentleman, by Pam Rosenthal, Indiscreet, by Carolyn Jewel, and Marry Me, by Jo Goodman. All three use the heroine's cross-dressing to explore the nature of gender, going beyond the obvious social freedom gained by passing as a man into some reflection on how it empowers and changes the heroine herself, and whether she can take that empowerment with her when she puts her skirts back on. Since cross-gender performance is my scholarly specialty, I have a preference for books that explore the effect of breeches on the wearer as well as on the observers.
7. Janga
Barb, I just put Beacon at Alexandria on hold at my local library. Thanks for the recommendation.
8. Janga
Brontëgirl, you make an interesting point about Shirley Keeldar and Lucy Snowe and raise the question of other characters whose cross-dressing is more metaphoric than literal. I should remember the Zane Gray. My dad was a big fan, and I read stacks of his books ata young age. But I've forgotten details.
9. Janga
SonomaLass, your post sounds as if you have an interesting paper there. Have you written about these three books? I regret that Jo Goodman's Marry Me is the only one I have read.
Barb in Maryland
10. AMG
Barb in Maryland: I second your comment about Gillian Bradshaw. That is one of my favourite books. She is a lovely writer. I highly recommend all her other books. Right now I have a book about Civil War/Commonwealth England in my TBR. Not strictly romances, but there is usually romance in the books.

Another favourite woman in trousers book is High Hearts by Rita Mae Brown.
Wendy the Super Librarian
11. SuperWendy
My absolute favorite is The Seduction Of Samantha Kincaid by Maggie Osborne (and my apologies now, because it's kinda hard-to-find). Heroine is posing as a man, and working as a bounty hunter, to track down the man who raped and killed her mother.

What I especially like is Osborne takes some cliches that can crop up with this theme and turns them inside-out. The heroine CUTS HER HAIR - so no long, flowing locks stuffed under a hat ::eyeroll::. Also, when she walks into a saloon, the hero finds it odd that nobody notices that she's a woman. I mean, she's dressed like a man, but he thinks it's rather obvious. So readers aren't subjected to a hero who thinks he's caught "the gay" because he's suddenly attracted to a man/boy.
12. Janga
AMG, I can see that I need to look at Gillian Bradshaw more closely.
13. Janga
Wendy, Maggie Osborne's heroines merit their own essay. She stands on their heads many conventions of what a heroine should be, and often she does so by allowing her heroine to usurp male perogatives. I wish she would join the current rush of authors self-publishing their older books as e-books.
Barb in Maryland
14. Barb in Maryland
@AMG--I quite enjoyed Bradshaw's 2 English Civil War setting books--London in Chains and The Corruptible Crown. Our heroine, Lucy, is marvelous--makes her living as a printer! And the politics and rhetoric are great! But Beacon remains my all time favorite-with Horses of Heaven and Wolf Hunt coming close behind.

@Wendy--Yes! Cut that hair!! Why don't all the gals do that? But most disguised heroines are only sometime playing men (like Sabrina in Moonstruck Madness by Laurie McBain--daring highwayman by night, demure young lady by day).
Barb in Maryland
15. brontëgirl
Thanks! I'd never thought of it that way before--metaphorical. In her youth and her first-written, last-published novel The Professor, Brontë did some literary cross-dressing as she wrote from a man's point of view.
Tolkein created a chick-in-pants character in The Lord of the Rings: Eowyn. Being in uniform enables her to be on the scene to do great things.
I just remembered another Grey chick-in-pants character: Bess in Riders of the Purple Sage.
16. Janga
@Brontëgirl, Riders of the Purple Sage I do remember--the book and the George Montgomery movie too. Rereading it would be interesting since I'm sure my perception would be quite different now. And I don't think I've ever thought of Eowyn as a chick in pants. That's interesting too.
Darlene Marshall
17. DarleneMarshall
You might enjoy Sea Change with its heroine disguised as a young man as she practices medicine during the War of 1812.
Barb in Maryland
18. Marfisa
If you like Shakespeare's crossdressing heroines, you might be interested in "Romeo x Juliet," an anime (Japanese animation) adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet." This is set in a fantasy alternate world in which Romeo's evil father has usurped the throne of Neo-Verona from the Capulets and killed the entire family except the then-toddler Juliet. Juliet was spirited away by a couple of supporters and has been living in male disguise ever since with a troupe of actors whose resident playwright is a Shakespeare lookalike called William. The tyrannical Lord Montague's troops are still trying to hunt down the vanished Capulet heir, but the courageous Juliet adopts a Zorro-like third identity as a masked freedom fighter who keeps showing up to save various hapless girls accused of being her by Montague's goons. In fact, she and Romeo (who has little sympathy for his father's ironfisted rule) meet when he saves her life by catching her on his flying steed as she's desperately fleeing from Montague's soldiers in her masked Crimson Whirlwind guise. (This series is particularly noteworthy in the "mysteriously concealable long hair" department because, despite having effectively lived as a boy since she was three or four years old, Juliet still has hair down to her waist that she can let down when she wants to sneak into a ball, etc., dressed as a girl, even though her hair looks pretty short when she's disguised as a boy. When an audience member asked the Japanese director about this at an anime convention, he just smiled, shrugged, and answered, "Magic wig?")

There's also a manga (graphic novel) version of the story, though it was released in the U.S. a couple of years ago, so it might not still be on the shelves at all stores that carry manga.
Barb in Maryland
19. TFTGirl
Sounds like I have some books to add to my reading list.... One of my favorites is "The Spy" by Celeste Bradley. It is book 3 in a long series. She is a quick, easy read, but the books make me laugh out loud!
Barb in Maryland
20. brontëgirl
@Janga, I haven't seen the adaptation of Riders of the Purple Sage w/ George Montgomery; I'll have to look it up. Thanks@my comments on Eowyn. I think a case can be made for her chick-in-pants-ness being metaphorical as well as literal--she saw serving as a soldier as an escape--and then when she had a chance to go with the soldiers, she took it. I need to reread LOTR though.
Barb in Maryland
22. Annelie
Dear Janga,
stumbled across you blog post while doing background research on the history of women in science. Lots of very cool chick in pants there.
But! I wrote a Victorian mystery novel that is about a woman who disguises herself as a man to practice medicine. Its a gruesome crime novel so maybe not so much you genre. But if you are interested, I'm happy to send you a free copy.
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