Monday, February 9, 2015

When the hero puts on a dress

Note: Over the next several weeks, I plan to devote a series of posts to unconventional instances of cross-dressing in historical romances. I will follow up with some theoretical discussion of the trope’s stakes and thoughts on how fresh ground may be broken by authors of historicals who are interested in gender identity and performativity. Today’s post provides some preliminary remarks and investigates cross-dressing in Eloisa James’s Pleasure for Pleasure.

In her 2008 book Historical Romance Fiction, Lisa Fletcher provides an astute analysis of cross-dressing and gender performativity in historical romance novels. According to her research, cross-dressing is almost always limited to the heroine, who wears men’s attire to disguise her female identity and take on a male role, whether as an adolescent gentleman, a cabin boy, naval officer, cowboy, Bedouin, or valet.

In most novels based on the premise, the heroine is truly masquerading as a man, generally for expediency’s sake within the storyline. Cross-dressing offers either protection—for instance, in situations where a woman traveling alone may be particularly vulnerable to kidnapping or assault—or access to exclusively male spaces such as gambling dens or military barracks. Because the hero generally does not immediately realize the heroine’s identity as a woman, secrecy, confusion, and revelation are hallmarks of the cross-dressing romance.

As a trope, cross-dressing also provides the author with a means to subvert the severe delineation of gender roles in various historical periods, allowing heroines greater freedom of movement and experience than their setting might otherwise permit. Fletcher argues that in spite of any transgression the gender politics of the trope tend to reinforce the male-female gender binary when traditional gender roles are ultimately reestablished, and that cross-dressing heroines “stand uncomfortably between conformity and progression.”[1]

Far less frequent in popular historical romance is elective cross-dressing not intended to deceive others, and rarer still is a cross-dressing hero. However, in the past ten years a handful of romances with these features have been published. They may indicate that it is time to revisit cross-dressing in popular romance and assess to what extent Fletcher’s evaluation of the trope still holds true for more recently published novels.

Open male cross-dressing occurs memorably in Eloisa James’s Regency historical romance, Pleasure for Pleasure (2006). It is an isolated event in the story, but critical nonetheless in configuring the relationship between hero and heroine.

Author Eloisa James (alias Shakespeare scholar Mary Bly) states in the novel’s afterward that the principal intertext for Pleasure for Pleasure is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its device of love-in-idleness. In the play, love-in-idleness is a flower (specifically, a wild pansy) made into a potion to incite love; when Puck mistakenly applies it to Lysander’s eyes, a romantic entanglement ensues. While cross-dressing is not a major motif in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, its aesthetics of enchantment and transformation play out during two important chapters in Pleasure for Pleasure.

In the key scene, the hero, the Earl of Mayne, is attempting to convince his friend’s ward, Josie, that her curvaceous figure is sexually appealing to men. Josie, in the wake of some cruel and very public taunts about her weight on the part of a spurned suitor, has resorted to wearing a draconian corset to squeeze into smaller dresses. In an act of defiance against both Josie’s detractors and her own insecurities, Mayne unbuttons her dress and unhooks the corset, exhorting her to remove both.

He then dons her dress and styles himself Miss Lucy Debutante to model self-assured femininity: “He put a hand on his pink-clothed hip and began to walk across the room toward her. Somehow, like magic, his walk took on the sleek stroll of a female predator, a woman so confident of her appeal that her hips swayed like a ship encountering a swell of water” (94).[2]

It is only in observing the movements of Mayne’s body that Josie gains an inkling of her own sensual appeal. By watching him move in the guise of a woman, she comes to perceive her own potential as an object of desire, and as a subject capable of wielding power through the desire she inspires. In a double-gesture, Josie is attracted to Mayne for his masculinity, and to her own erotic potential through the vehicle of Mayne-as-woman.

When called upon to follow Mayne’s lead, however, Josie initially reacts with skepticism; she is convinced that what appeared graceful on him will only seem ridiculous on her. As she attempts to copy him, she has a flash of insight that underscores the complex dynamic of gender performativity and essentialism in the scene: “She was trying not to think about how wide her hips would look, going back and forth like that. And then she realized that what she’d really like would be Mayne’s body in a female form, because his hips were absolutely flat and of course that was why he looked so sensual when he pretended to be a woman” (94). To Josie’s mind, Mayne makes a better woman than she does.

Eventually, and inevitably for romance convention, Mayne decides that Josie must be kissed to gain true confidence in her sexual appeal. Critically, their first sexual interlude is complicated by the fact that Mayne is still wearing Josie’s pink dress: “Then he was there, in front of her. He was wearing a pink dress with cap sleeves. The glass beads painstakingly sewn on by Madame Badeau’s seamstresses glittered in the moonlight. He should have looked absurd, but instead, Josie felt as if Bacchus himself had indeed wandered into this strange little turret room and was there, with a deep wild invitation in his eyes” (95).[3]

What strikes me as critically innovative in this passage is the use of the straight hero modeling female sensuality, then channeling that sensuality into a sexually charged encounter. During the kiss, Mayne’s performance of femininity remains visible to both heroine and reader, continually pushed to the forefront so that the kiss also seems to constitute a kind of transaction: a transfer of feminine confidence from the hero to the heroine. It is only after the kiss that Josie is able to master the strut that previously made her feel like a waddling object of ridicule.

To be clear, I am not intimating that Mayne confers femininity upon Josie, or that the scene promotes such a reading. Rather, the romantic interlude allows the heroine to become aware of her appeal and direct it outward. After the kiss, it is as though “she were seeing herself from the outside,” at last able to recognize the grace and attractiveness that have long been apparent to Mayne (100). Josie can both “[listen] to her body” and command it in new, thrilling ways (100). She begins the scene enamored of a single feminine ideal but ultimately learns that there are multiple ways to enact femininity, and how to embrace her own body’s potential.

Cross-dressing when used in this way opens up onto larger notions of transformation and performance, particularly when we take into account the fact that the novel’s primary Shakespearean intertext is not one of the cross-dressing comedies (Twelfth Night, As You Like It) but rather A Midsummer Night’s Dream.[4]

The clothing swap and kiss takes place in a turret tower in Mayne’s home. The ceiling has been painted with stars, and eight high-placed windows—one on each wall facet—allow moonlight to enter the room, making it “utterly magical” to Josie and evoking the woodland setting of AMND (66). Throughout the interlude, words associated with enchantment such as mysterious (66), witch (74, 75, 94), magic (81, 94), transfixed (92), moonlight (95), wild (95), bewitching (97), and spell (97) reinforce the setting as one in which uncanny transformations might take place. Under a simulated night sky, with moonlight pouring in, the two protagonists allow themselves to gradually fall under the room’s spell.

Alcohol helps;  Mayne and Josie finish one bottle of champagne and start a second. The drink makes Josie feel “brave and reckless,” and while Mayne is not visibly intoxicated he declares himself “three sheets to the wind” (76). The champagne may serve as a substitute for the love-in-idleness used in Shakespeare’s play to transform the protagonists’ perceptions.

Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen,
Wikimedia Commons
As noted above, Josie likens Mayne to Bacchus while he is wearing her dress. The designation actually appears three times during their interlude. In the first, as the two are sharing their champagne, Josie reflects that Mayne “looked like nothing in the world so much as a slightly wicked Bacchus crafted by a master sculptor” (74). And just before Mayne dons the pink dress, she reflects that he “looked wild, like Bacchus,” and that he would be “perfectly at home in a shadowy wood, vines wound in that mop of curls, a sleek mat of curls beginning at his waist” (93). This last reference again seems to evoke the woodland setting that was home to Puck, Oberon, and Titania in AMND.

 The name Bacchus is fitting on multiple levels. Bacchus (or Dionysus) was the Greco-Roman god associated with wine and intoxication as well as ritualized abandon and excess.  In sharing his champagne with Josie, Mayne fulfills this god’s role as a provider (and partaker) of libation. It is also worth noting  that Mayne’s lithe form that Josie so covets is in keeping with many portrayals of Bacchus as a youth embodying both feminine and masculine traits; Michelangelo’s sculpture Bacchus is notably androgynous, as is the second-century Roman sculpture shown on the right.[5][6] Either might serve as the inspiration for Josie’s musing that Mayne resembles a sculpture of the god.

And so Mayne is transformed through transvestism, albeit briefly, into both a debutante and an androgynous god, while Josie makes a more lasting change from insecure girl to confident woman. Mayne’s  spontaneous cross-dressing is only one piece of the scene’s richness, but it allows us to delve further into Pleasure for Pleasure’s intertexts and allusions. By channeling Shakespeare and Bacchus in this scene of abandon and transformation, James prepares both her protagonists and her readers to fall under the spell of a little love-in-idleness.

[1] Fletcher, Lisa, Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, Ashgate Publishing, 2008, p. 74. Emphasis in the quote hers.
[2] James, Eloisa, Pleasure for Pleasure, Avon Books, 2006. All of the passages quoted occur in chapters 7 and 9.
[3] This is the second reference to Bacchus in the interlude. Josie and Mayne have consumed a bottle of champagne at this point and are ensconced in a beguilingly fanciful turret.
[4] The cross-dressing trope does occur later in AMND, as secondary characters discuss the staging of Pyramus and Thisbe within the play. Quince tells Flute that he is to play the female lead while wearing a mask and speaking in as high a pitch as possible. And, of course, Mayne wearing a dress in Pleasure for Pleasure echoes the Elizabethan convention of requiring that male actors play all female parts; it is nearly impossible to separate Shakespeare from men in dresses.


  1. Have you read Anna Cowan's Untamed? The Duke of Darlington who is the hero cross dresses as a critical plot element. It is an essential part of who he is

  2. Yes, Merrian, I have! I am planning on giving Untamed a separate post (or possibly two) because cross-dressing is such a huge part of that book -- not just for Darlington but for Kit. So stay tuned!

  3. This was a lot of fun to read. I don't think clearly when I'm writing, but I remember wanting to balance Bacchus against Oberon/Titania (who is essential to the later forest scene). I was teaching Euripides and Shakespeare that semester. So the way Bacchus - -and his wine -- inspires the maenads to an erotic frenzy (minus the part where they rip men limb from limb, obviously. Anyway -- thank you for your thoughtful analysis! All best Mary B (Eloisa J)