Historical Intrigue: Women Cross-Dressers

annakareninastillI’ve always found stories with cross-dressing heroines to be quite compelling. To name three works that revolve around this subject: Sarah Waters’ TIPPING THE VELVET(novel), SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE(film) and Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT(play/film). Then there’s also the endless list of historical romance novels with cross-dressing heroines (click here for the list) among which is Georgette Heyer’s THESE OLD SHADES for those looking for a more witty, Austen-esque quality.

I wonder what it is about cross-dressing heroines that so fascinates us?


Women (usually single and of a poor background) turned to cross-dressing to escape their economic and social disadvantages.

Margaret Hunt has pointed out “that in the early modern period women attempted to pass as men in far larger numbers than was at once thought, often precisely for the purpose of escaping their families, supporting themselves independently at higher-paying and more interesting jobs than ones women usually were able to maintain, gaining skills they would normally not have access to and escaping the pressure to marry.”

Many women cross-dressers believed that by wearing trousers and performing the ‘masculine role’ they could claim the economic/social advantages that men possessed and also escape their domestic confines and ‘powerlessness’.

Diane Dugaw comments that for cross-dressing women, “disguise seemed to go hand in hand with breaking out of custodial confinement whether of parents or husbands. Dressed as men they could travel at liberty without requiring masculine guardianship.”


Dr. Barry

A famous cross-dressing woman was Dr. James Miranda Barry (1799 – 1865). In the account of Dr. Barry, Bridget Hill writes: “At the age of ten [Barry] enrolled as a medical student at Edinburgh University. In 1813 She joined the army and became Colonial medical officer. She went to Cape Town, where she became physician to the governor… She was a great flirt with women she found attractive.”

There are also cases of women who went to war by cross-dressing as soldiers or sailors. In England there is a relatively small number of women who, for their own mixed motives, became soldiers and sailors:

Cases of cross-dressing isn’t only confined to England. In Holland, for instance, there are more than a hundred documented cases of young women who in male disguise set out for the Dutch East Indies to seek their fortune.

Among the many reasons why women turned to cross-dressing, there was nearly always some elements of ESCAPE.

Bridget Hill, “Ways of Escape,” in Women Alone: Spinsters in England 1660-1850. (London: Yale University Press), 126-142



P.S. My LONNNGGGG-neglected Period Drama Rating page has been updated. I decided to review each film/series within (approximately) 150 letters. I’ll be dedicating an entire entry to a period drama only if I think it’s worth it and only if I have the time.

My Writing Music:

Women’s Fiction: A Book With No Heroes

tgw_new_1-680x1024I recently discovered Amy Sue Nathan, an author of Women’s Fiction, whose debut novel THE GLASS WIVES will be released on May 14th (that’s tomorrow). I’m relatively new to Women’s Fiction, so when I visited the author’s page (Women’s Fiction Writers), her blog’s tagline sparked my curiosity: “NO HEROES.” I was intrigued but also bewildered. And so I got in touch with the author and asked:


What’s the significance in the absence of a hero?


She sent me a great response. I asked for her permission to share it on my blog, so here it is:

Writing women’s fiction, or book club fiction, to me, means it’s about a strong woman who doesn’t need to be saved by a man, which is traditional in romance novels. In the books I write and like to read, there might be love and a bit of a romantic connection, but it is not central to the story. The protagonist’s goal is to be okay (whatever that means to her) but not to be in a romance. To me, hero=someone who saves a woman. In my books, the main character saves herself! I don’t use the word heroine either, but that’s completely a personal preference. Certainly there are many ways to interpret a hero. There are everyday heroes we see on the news. There are heroes fighting for our freedom overseas. But in terms of fiction, a hero is usually the male character who is the romantic interest of the female main character. It’s very popular, many people read it and write it, it’s just not my forte or interest.

I plan to pick up a copy of THE GLASS WIVES and some other books within this genre (I’m ALWAYS up for book recommendations!). As a matter of fact, I really don’t remember the last time I read a Women’s Fiction… Anyway, as I explore this genre, I want to get a better grasp of how writers of this genre:

  • Portray STRONG WOMEN
  • What it means to different writers when a woman doesn’t need to be SAVED by a man. And also, if there are Women’s Fiction writers that do create a woman-saved-by-a-man dynamic, then how the author is able to steer away from perpetuating the damsel-in-distress concept.
  • How men are portrayed within this genre and how much/or how little room they take up in these books

On a random note, I don’t think the TRC rewrite will fit into the Women’s Fiction genre… But we’ll see. I need a better grasp of this genre before making any further conclusions.

Romance Novels: What do women want?

Even though I don’t read romances anymore, I’ve always wanted to do an academic research on the gendered experience of reading romance novels but never had the opportunity. This semester in my Readers & Readership course at the University of Toronto I was FINALLY given the excuse to start researching! The following notes on the book I’ve shared focuses on Harlequin romance novels. I know there’s a difference between Harlequin and the “single-titled” romance novels (i.e. novels by Julia Quinn, Teresa Medeiros, Julia London, Mary Balogh,etc.,), buuuuut the romance genre is the romance genre at the end of the day (edit: the notes below are actually based on what seems to be an outdated theory — since the book was published in 1982! Just realized. Nevertheless, it’s interesting how the genre has shifted over time).  As I go deeper into the research,  I’ll continue to share my findings with you guys.

Loving with a Vengence: Mass-Produced fantasies for women
by Tania Modleski

 Rejecting the theory that mass art imposes “false needs” on its consumers and creates “false anxieties”, Modleski argues that these mass-produced feminine narratives are popular in part because they successfuly speak to desires which are all too real in today’s woman but which our culture has found no adequate way of satisfying…

  • In 1793, Susanna Rowson, a writer of the “sentimental novel” remarked I wonder that the novel readers are not tired of reading one story so many times, with only the variation of its being told different ways.” While Rowson’s observation could, with even more justice today, be applied to most popular novels, which are, of course, deeply conventional, it pertains most forcibly to Harlequin Romances, for the company which produces them requires its writers to follow a strict set of rules and even  dictates the point of view from which the narrative must be told. The peculiar result is that the reader who reads the story already knows the story, at least in all its essentials. It will show that this situation both reflects and contribbutes to a mild “hystical” state — using this term in its strict psychoanalytic sense…[A] kind of duality exists….at the very core of romances, particularly in the relation between an “informed” reader and a necessarily innocent heroine (32)
  • The element of fantasy in romance lies less in the character traits of the hero than in the interpretation readers are led to make of his behavior. For the reader, acquainted with the formula and hence in possession of what Wolfang Iser calls “advance retrospection,” is always able to interpret the hero’s actions as the result of his increasingly intense love for the heroine… (40)Male brutality [i.e. moody, cynical, scornful, and bullying] comes to be seen as a manifestation not of contempt, but of love.. (41)
  • Romantic literature performs a crucial function in assuring us that although some men may actually enjoy inflicting pain on women, there are also “bullies” whose meanness is nothing more than the overflow of their love or the measure of their resistance to our extraordinary charms (43)
  • Since in real life women are not often able to reinterpret male hostility in such a satisfactory way, the novels much somehow provide and outlet of female resentment (43)….A great deal of our satisfaction in reading these novels comes, I am convinced, from the elements of a revenge fantasy, from our conviction that the woman is bringing the man to his knees and that all the while he is being so hateful, he is internally grovelling, grovelling, grovelling…. In most of the novels, the hero finally becomes aware of the heroine’s “infinite preciousness” after she has run away, disappeared, fallen into a raging river, or otherwise shown by the threat of her annihilation of how important her life really is…. (45)

  • Romance novel’s “disappearing act”: On the one hand, as readers we identity with the heroine’s anger and frustration. On the other hand, due to our adherence to the rules of the formula and our desire for a happy ending, a part of us wants the man to see the heroine as a pert, adorable creature rather than as a true rebel. Our conflicting emotions as readers would seem to point up a dilemma: the heroine’s expression of resentment, which is the result of and only potential remedy for her belittlement, is felt to be the very means by which she encourages her own belittlement. This can only lead to self-hatred and to more anger against the man for putting her in such an impossible situation. But our awareness of these feeling is prevented because we are prepared for the termination of the process in its logical extension: the fulfillment of the fantasy of ultimate revenge through utter self-destruction (47).
  • An understanding of Harlequin Romance should lead one less to condemn the novels than the conditions which have made them necessary. Even though the novels can be said to intensify female tensions and conflicts, on balance the contradition in women’s lives are more responsible for the existence of Harlequins than Harlequins are for the contradictions…. (57)
  • The reader of romances, contrary to the arguments of many popular literature critics, is engaged in an intensely active psychological process. The energy of women now use to belittle and defeat themselves can be rechanelled into efforts to grow and to explore ways of affirming and asserting the self. Moreover, the very fact that the novels must go to such extremenes to neutralize women’s anger and to make masculine hostility bearable testifies to the depths of women’s discontent (58).

So this is what one scholar has to say about romance novels. I couldn’t help but smile when reading the observation about how the  threat of le heroine’s annihilation is a technique used (and a technique I’ve noticed in many romance novels…along with my own writing) to make the hero have his Ah-hah-I-Love-Her moment. Is this a technique you guys have used in writing and/or observed in this genre? What do you guys think about the revenge fantasy theory?

The Danger of Being Creative?

I read Yellow Raft in Blue Water for my Indigenous literature class (for the millionth time: I’m obsessed with Native American literature) and fell in love with the book—only to learn via the prof that the author Michael Dorris had committed suicide later in his life.

Then I read Bone Games which I grew very, very fond of—only to learn in class that the author Louis Owens had also committed suicide. Learning consecutively of these two deaths disturbed me greatly. It got me thinking about writers in connection to these darker aspects of life—depression, drugs, alcohol, suicide. Even in movies about artists, many depict them as being somewhat psychologically unbalanced–madness subsumes creativity.

To name a few other writers who committed suicide…

Sylvia Plath
Louis Adamic
Arthur Adamov
Francis Adams
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
Jean Améry
Raymond Andrews
Hubert Aquin
Nelly Arcan
Reinaldo Arenas
José María Arguedas
Takeo Arishima
James Robert Baker
R. H. Barlow
Rex Beach
Gertrude Bell
Victoria Benedictsson
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein
H. S. Bhabra
Samuel Laman Blanchard
Ernest Borneman
Menno ter Braak
Henry Joseph Steele Bradfield
Richard Brautigan
Frederick Hazlitt Brennan
Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić
Eustace Budgell
Andrés Caicedo
George Caragonne
Don Carpenter
Camilo Castelo Branco
Konstantin Chkheidze
Samson Cerfberr of Medelsheim
Ana Cristina César
Nicolas Chamfort
Iris Chang
Thomas Chatterton
Charles Clegg
Charmian Clift
Danielle Collobert
Charles Caleb Colton
Courtney Ryley Cooper
Branko Ćopić
Cláudio Manuel da Costa
Elise Cowen
Hart Crane
Thomas Creech
James Ashmore Creelman
René Crevel
Harry Crosby
Géza Csáth
Will Cuppy
Zo d’Axa
Osamu Dazai
Aldo De Benedetti
Roy Andries De Groot
Gilles Deleuze
Penelope Delta
Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey
Thomas Disch
Tove Ditlevsen
Chris Doty
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
K. Sello Duiker
Tristan Egolf
Carl Einstein
Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev
Fan Changjiang
Ham Fisher
John Gould Fletcher
Vsevolod Garshin
Romain Gary
Helen Palmer Geisel
Peter George
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Guy Gilpatric
Richard Glazar
Spalding Gray
William Lindsay Gresham
Paul Gruchow
Juan Carlos Gumucio
Stephen Haggard
Kenneth Halliwell
St. John Emile Cavering Hankin
Tamiki Hara
James Harden-Hickey
Horace Hart
Walter Hasenclever
Rashad Hashim
Beatrice Hastings
James Hatfield
Sadeq Hedayat
Thomas Heggen
Carolyn Gold Heilbrun
Ernest Hemingway
Leicester Hemingway
Jarl Hemmer
Iva Hercíková
James Leo Herlihy
Ashihei Hino
Marek Hłasko
Jane Aiken Hodge
Merton Hodge
Robert E. Howard
Robin Hyde
Evald Ilyenkov
Kaan İnce
William Inge
Charles R. Jackson
Philipp Jaffé
Morris K. Jessup
Orrick Glenday Johns
B. S. Johnson
Maurice Joly
Ingrid Jonker
Philippe Jullian
Sarah Kane
Yasunari Kawabata
Bizan Kawakami
Anthony Paul Kelly
Douglas Kenney
Heinrich von Kleist
Jochen Klepper
Fletcher Knebel
Arthur Koestler
Sarah Kofman
Hannelore Kohl
Nikola Koljević
Jan Potocki
Lucien-Anatole Prévost-Paradol
Gert Prokop
Dragoş Protopopescu
Qiu Miaojin
Horacio Quiroga
Jean Joseph Rabearivelo
Alexander Radishchev
Ferdinand Raimund
Richard Realf
Liviu Rebreanu
Liam Rector
Cale Young Rice
Jacques Rigau
Roger-Arnould Rivière
Amelia Rosselli
Berton Roueché
Mário de Sá-Carneiro
Emilio Salgari
Thomas Parker Sanborn
John Monk Saunders
Runar Schildt
William Seabrook
Seneca the Younger
Anne Sexton
Gennady Shpalikov
Eli Siegel
Edward Stachura
Frank Stanford
George Sterling
Adalbert Stifter
John Augustus Stone
Alfonsina Storni
Michael Strunge
Mikhail Sushkov
Hidemitsu Tanaka
Rudolf Těsnohlídek
Hunter S. Thompson
James Tiptree, Jr.
Ernst Toller
John Kennedy Toole
Julien Torma
Felipe Trigo
Kurt Tucholsky
Peter Tyrrell
Dorothy Uhnak
Reetika Vazirani
Louis Verneuil
Vsevolod Kochetov
David Foster Wallace
Albert Wass
Gary Webb
Otto Weininger
Ernst Weiss
Lew Welch
Edward Lucas White
Gustav Wied
Charles Williams
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
Alfred Witte
Wally Wood
Virginia Woolf
Shōji Yamagishi
Francis Parker Yockey
A. P. Younger
Unica Zürn
Stefan Zweig

In an article called “Exploring Artistic Creativity And Its Link to Madness” by Kate Stone Lombardi I came across some interesting facts:

  • Research has revealed disproportionately high rates of mood disorders — particularly manic depression, or bipolar disorder, and chronic depression — among creative people. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, concluded in her study ”Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” that among distinguished artists the rate of such depressive illnesses is 10 to 30 times as prevalent as the population at large.
  • Dr. Felix Post, a British psychiatrist, studied more than 100 writers, but concluded — to his surprise — that prose writers were prone to even more depressive bouts than poets though both were inclined to instability.
  • Artists appear to be mentally disturbed because both madness and creativity are rooted in the unconscious, Dr. Barten said. She added that the secret and threatening emotions of the inner life — aggression, sexual fantasy and other unwanted impulses — are repressed in everyday life but expressed by the artist in raw form, devoid of defenses and in a sense, therefore, in a ”mad” form.

There’s those facts and theories.

And then there’s this interesting take on creativity:

A brief overview of some of the questions she raises and answers:

  • What is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us worried about the writer’s mental health?
  • We have come to internalize collectively the idea that creativity and suffering are inherently linked. Are we cool with this idea? Are we comfortable with this assumption?
  • It is dangerous to start leaking down this dark path of assumptions. Writers need to learn how to create a protective, psychological construct between the author as he/she is writing and his/her very natural anxiety of what the reaction to the final product will be.
  • How do we tap into our inspiration without letting the inherent emotiona risks harm us?

On a lighter note (!!!), here’s the trailer for a book written by the awesome M.M. Bennetts!

HISTORY!!! Now that I have your attention…

Note: If you don’t care to read about my Oliver, scroll down to check out the movie poster of an upcoming period movie!

1) I’m researching for a major paper and came across one of the many rare books at my university (can’t wait to touch ’em all *creepy laughter*!). It contained pages so brown with age that I had to be careful as I flipped through, as the paper would literally break between my fingertips. I was enchanted.

The thought that I was holding within my bare hands a book published in 1852…meaning that 158 years ago another person had held this very book… To be exact, that other person had been OLIVER. My heart fluttered reading this name. I became curious about the hand, the MAN, who scribbled down his name. With a quill pen.

Quill pen *swoons* 

1852….that’s like….that’s around when North and South takes place!!! Maybe this Mr. Oliver gentleman was a Mr. Thornton? Hmmmm. *Caresses book* 

  2) Books I’m dying to get my hands on after the deluge of essays and readings comes to an end. Maybe during the winter break:

  • M.M. Bennetts’ Of Honest Fame (It’s by one of my favorite novelist & historian whom I had the honour of interviewing)
  • Michel Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White (Read the first few pages. A very unique voice. And I mean…quite, quite unique)
  • Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin (Why do I want to read this book? It’s about a prostitute in 18th century. Go figure)
  • James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last Mohican (I loved the movie)

Yes, they’re all historical  fictions. And yes, I’m having a Historical-fic-fetish of late.

While I was in search of supporting evidences for my analysis of this one historical movie, I came across a very interesting passage in Rosenstone’s article “The Historical Film as Real History”. He discusses the difference between historical romance movies and historical movies—and I realized his points very much clarified for me the major difference between the two book genres: historical romance (HR) & historical fiction (HF). So, for anyone interested in a simple and  clear explanation as to the differences in these two genres:

To be considered historical, rather than simply a costume drama that uses the past as an exotic setting for romance and adventure, a film must engage, directly or obliquely, the issues, ideas, data, and arguments of the ongoing discourse of history. Like the book, the historical film cannot exist in a state of historical innocence, cannot indulge in capricious invention, cannot ignore the findings and assertions and arguments of what we already know from other sources. Like any work of history, a film must be judged in terms of the knowledge of the past that we already possess. Like any work of history, it must situate itself within a body of other works, the ongoing (multimedia) debate over the importance of events and the meaning of the past.

3) Check out this poster for the upcoming movie WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011). “Lindsay Lohan campaigned for the role [of romantic heroine Catherine Earnshaw] but...” another actress replaced her. And then that replacement was eventually replaced. And replaced again. And now I’m not quite certain who the role was given to. Anyway…uhh….thank goodness Lohan didn’t get the role? I can’t imagine her playing the lead role in a PERIOD MOVIE. Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to so much bad press about Lohan on tabloids while waiting in line at grocery stores. So if I saw her on-screen as Catherine Earnshaw…I would not see Catherine Earnshaw but the celebrity-in-rehab-and-in-court-and-in-court-again. Gee, I remember the good old days when she was in Parents Trap….

I digress. 

Here’s a photo of Mia Wasikowska (she played Alice in…Alice in Wonderland) from the new JANE EYRE (2011) adaptation! Another adaptation that’ll hit theatres next year. I can see a bit of Alice in Ms. Eyre, peeking into the room without knowing that she’ll soon be tumbling down into a world of romantic madness!



Listening to: