Cross-Dressing for Safety and Romance: The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer

Heyer wrote The Masqueraders, a cross-dressing gender romance with plenty of sword duels, while living in Africa with her then-engineer husband. (He would later choose the less physical job of barrister.) The book is a testimony to her extraordinary memory; despite having no access to her research library, the book contains almost no historical errors. It tells the story of a brother and a sister who, to prevent the brother from getting hanged as a Jacobite traitor, disguise themselves as…a brother and a sister. It’s best to just roll with this. Under their false names and switched genders, they swiftly enter London society without a hint of suspicion. Again, roll with it. And as if things weren’t complicated enough, their father, or, as they call him, the old gentleman, has returned to London, claiming to be Robert Tremaine, Viscount Barham, with the ever so slight complication that Robert Tremaine is supposedly dead, and another cousin is claiming the title. But never to worry. As the old gentleman reminds us, he is a great man. A very great man.

That claim might even be true.

Also, duels! Daring rescues! Masked encounters!

As it turns out, years of complicated schemes have made Prudence quite adept at cross-dressing and masquerading as a man, aided by her height and experience, which helps explain why most people accept her without question as Peter Merriott. Robin does not seem to quite have her experience—Prudence remembers having to train him to walk and talk like a lady—but his small stature, quick wit and ability to flirt stand him in good stead. Again, almost no one suspects. The one exception is Sir Anthony Fanshawe, described by Heyer as a large, indolent gentleman, underestimated by, again, nearly everyone except Prudence.

Heyer may not have realized it at the time, but in Sir Anthony Fanshawe she was creating a character that she would return to on multiple occasions: the gentle giant of a hero, continually underestimated thanks to his size, which leads people to assume a lack of intelligence. In the case of Sir Anthony, this underestimation is doubled since Sir Anthony is not just tall, but also somewhat fat. Heyer plays on the assumption that a fat man not only lacks intelligence, but also skill at swordplay and the ability to rescue damsels from carriages and participate in wild schemes. Her later gentle giants would sometimes lose the weight (especially as Heyer became more and more obsessed with tight-fitting male clothing), but never the underestimation—or the competence.

Prudence and Robin, however, represented something Heyer would not try again—a man and a woman who successfully infiltrate their opposite genders: so much so that Robin becomes the girlish confident of the young Letty before embarking on a career of desperate flirtation, and Prudence finds herself welcomed at the very male enclaves of gaming clubs generally barred to women. She also finds herself challenged to a duel, which she quietly and competently accepts. I must admit that although I realize Sir Anthony’s reasons—and seeing him able to take down the bad guy in a duel has its moments—I’m definitely disappointed that we never do get to see Prudence wield her sword in a proper duel. It’s all the more disappointing since yes, unlike most Heyer heroines, she is competent with a sword, and Sir Anthony and Robin, who is only pretending to be a woman, do get to duel—with Robin’s duel getting Prudence nearly imprisoned and in need of rescue. Which, given her cool competence elsewhere, is also marginally irritating—although at least she participates—physically— in her own rescue. With a sword cane.

But apart from dueling, Prudence is otherwise fully a man while in London. Heyer had of course had the cross-dressing Leonie before this, and would later have the cross-dressing Pen (in The Corinthian), but both of these entered the male world as boys, not men. Prudence would not be her last heroine to enter a male world as an equal, but she was the only one to do so as a man.

She likes, and doesn’t like it. She is pleased that she can pull of the role so successfully, and, as far as we can tell, greatly enjoys the company of men. At the same time, she speaks more than once of being tired of the masquerade and notes, rather wistfully:

“I believe I’ve fallen into a romantic venture, and I always thought I was not made for it. I lack the temperament of your true heroine.”

True heroines, according to Prudence, do not take up swords and fight duels; they wait to be rescued. This speech and others suggest that Prudence believes that her time spent as a man (not just within this book) has ruined her for a usual gender role. It is one of many reasons why she initially declines Sir Anthony’s offer of marriage. At the same time, it says something that both Sir Anthony and Heyer disagree with this self-assessment. Sir Anthony wants to marry Prudence anyway (although he wants her to return to wearing skirts) and Prudence takes up several more pages, and more of the plot, than the character with the temperament of a true heroine, Letitia.

Here and elsewhere, Heyer demonstrated that in her opinion, some women could be the equals of men and stand in their world, but that did not mean the women necessarily should, or would even want to. Prudence happily embraces her return to a woman’s role, and never suggests for a moment that she will try to be a man again, instead embracing—whatever she may think of the word—a romantic role.

Initially, Robin appears to enjoy his role as a woman, flirting outrageously, dancing, playing with fans, making friends with Letitia—but he chafes in his role, more than Prudence ever does. For a very good reason: as a woman, Robin/Kate is restricted in where she can go and what she can do. These restrictions may not bother Prudence, born to be a woman; they certainly end up bothering Robin, who unlike Prudence, breaks his role more than once to play a (masked) male part. Neither expresses any intention of switching genders again once the masquerade is over.

On a related note, I find myself torn between amusement and mild annoyance at Sir Anthony’s confession that he discovered Peter/Prudence’s true gender after discovering an “affection” for her, since, of course, Sir Anthony couldn’t possibly be attracted to a guy or anything like that—no, the only explanation for his attraction to this cool young man is that the man just has to be a girl. That this turns out to be completely true doesn’t change that I rather miss the Duke of Avon’s ability to see through Leonie’s disguise through perception, not attraction, or that a moment or two of Sir Anthony questioning his sexual orientation might have been amusing, if generally unthinkable for Heyer.

But if individually Prudence is one of Heyer’s most competent and likeable heroines, and Sir Anthony a model for her later heroes, the more satisfying romance, oddly enough, turns out to be between Robin and that romantic heroine Letitia. This oddly because their romance more or less works like this: “Oooh, you’ve lied to me throughout this book, wooed me using a mask AND used your fake identity to get personal information out of me. And murdered someone right in front of me! How ROOOMMMMMAAAAAAANTIC!” And yet, Heyer actually manages to pull this off—by creating a character in Letitia who actually WOULD find this stirringly romantic and wonderful, and thus, managing to persuade readers that this is, in fact romantic. At least for Letty. (The rest of us will just be over here banging our heads against the nearest convenient wall.) And to be fair, Letty does seem to be the sort of person who is going to need to be rescued, frequently, so it’s just as well that she’s matched up with the sort of person who is going to need to rescue people, frequently. It does, however seem odd that even in a book where Heyer created a heroine who could be a man, she still insisted on keeping this idea of the girl who always needs rescuing.

What makes this book, however, is not the cross-dressing Robin and Prudence, entertaining though their antics are, or their respective romances, but rather Heyer’s creation of my lord Barham, to give him the title he claims so magnificently. In the course of a colorful life, the old gentleman has enjoyed a number of careers: gambler and owner of a gambling house, fencing master, Jacobite traitor, terrible husband (he admits to giving his considerably lower class wife a hellish time), and a father who is convinced his children will never appreciate him. This in turn has given him a sense of self-worth that leaps beyond arrogance and pride. As he constantly reminds everyone, he is a great man. A truly great man. Not that anyone, he complains, truly appreciates this:

“I have never met the man who had vision large enough to appreciate my genius,” he said simply. “Perhaps it was not to be expected.”

“I shall hope to have my vision enlarged as I become better acquainted with you, sir,” Sir Anthony replied, with admirable gravity.

My lord shook his head. He could not believe in so large a comprehension. “I shall stand alone to the end,” he said. “It is undoubtedly my fate.”

Criticism rolls off him (when confronted with his—very few—failures, he assures everyone that they are “forgotten”). Errors in dress and manner do not. He is never at a loss, even when confronted by a blackmailer demanding a rather significant sum of money:

“…But I don’t think you’ll haggle.”

“I’m sure I shan’t,” my lord answered. “I am not a tradesman.”

“You’re a damned Jack-of-all-trades, in my opinion!” said Markham frankly. “You assume a mighty lofty tone, to be sure –”

“No, no, it comes quite naturally,” my lord interpolated sweetly. “I assume nothing. I am a positive child of nature, my dear sir. But you were saying?”

The conversation only improves from here, though my lord confesses to a touch of disappointment that the blackmailer is so easily led into a trap:

“No one knows me,” said my lord austerely. “But might he have descried that in my bearing which speaks greatness? No, he was absorbed in the admiration of his own poor wits.”

These little clips hardly do him justice: my lord Barham is Heyer’s first truly great comic creation, so successful that she later based some of her comic villains upon him. But none of them reach Barham’s greatness, perhaps because they were copies, perhaps because although Heyer allows these later villains to speak with the upper classes, she never allows them to truly enter or dominate beyond the written page, the way my lord does so unhesitatingly.

I have to admit: my first reading of The Masqueraders was somewhat ruined for me by all the praise I’d seen heaped upon it. On subsequent readings it has significantly improved, not merely because I can now see how Heyer was carefully developing plot techniques and characters that she would use in later book, but also because each time I read it I become more accustomed to Heyer’s elaborate language—something she would later drop as she developed the arch tone that became the hallmark of her later work. Here, the verbiage is often too self-consciously antique, the cant sometimes hard to follow, and the plot often just too ludicrous. Nonetheless, the sheer humor of the novel—and the presence of my lord—allowed the novel to sell very well indeed, and I find myself appreciating it more and more on each reread, while decrying the fact that it would be four years before Heyer allowed herself to work in a humorous vein again.

Time to skip a couple of books again:

Beauvallet (1929): Heyer’s attempt to write a novel set in the Elizabethan period while using Elizabethan language, with, bonus pirates! Alas, the book turns out to be mostly proof that Heyer had no gift for writing either Elizabethan language or pirates. (Or, Spanish.) Worth reading only for Heyer completists, despite some decidedly Romantic with a Capital R moments.

Pastel (1929): Another comtemporary novel, interesting mostly for its statements on gender, the roles of women, which greatly mirror some of the thoughts expressed in The Masqueraders: that it is silly for women to view with men, or worse, attempt to pander to men and attempt to be like them: “Ridiculous! Who wants to be a man!” The now (happily) married Heyer also has her protagonist choose happiness over passion, and realize that her marriage can work despite the lack of romantic love, a theme she would take up again in A Civil Contract.

Next up: Barren Corn.

Mari Ness recently spent some time watching the women’s fencing at the Olympics, and remains in awe. Based on watching those women, she’s pretty sure that Prudence could have easily kicked ass in any duel.


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