Expansion on Trope Sighting! Heroine Disguised as a Male
Unmasking Miss Appleby by Emily Larken features another Regency heroine disguised as a man, however, Charlotte doesn’t cross-dress, she undergoes metamorphosis into a man, after receiving the ability from her “fairy godmother.” I enjoyed the story, but I’ve been considering the adaptation of the trope and its representation of the feminist message.
Yes, mentally, Charlotte is still a woman, and proves to be more than capable of doing a “man’s” job, working as a secretary, but physically she is no longer the “fairer sex.” When Charlotte and Cosgrove get into scraps with his enemies, she fights at his side as a man (or something else she’s turned into). Charlotte proves her mental and emotional mettle, but by transforming, she doesn’t validate that women are physically as capable as men. The Regency era was particularly limiting on women’s rights and critical of their faculties, which makes the female in disguise plots more harrowing.
To go even further, the powers of metamorphosis prevent Charlotte from getting pregnant when she uses them. While she uses this to her advantage at first, she has to promise to cease using her powers so that she can conceive children for Cosgrove. He happily and somewhat enviously suggests she will be able to use metamorphosis once a dozen or so babies have been safely produced. I’m reminded however of all the stories in which witches or gifted women must give up their magic in order to attain domestic bliss. The lack of concurrence was also exemplified by her mother. We already know that Charlotte had no idea her mother had the ability to fly but remembers her parents being happily married and her childhood being blissful.
Once I realized that Charlotte had to give up her literal powers in order fulfill her wifely duties, I realized that all the other Regency heroines in disguise did too. Millicent/Anthony North in Ridiculous, my favorite cross-dressing Regency romance, had planned to maintain her alter-ego and her relationship with Timothy, but in the end had to give it up so that she could marry him. Other wayward Regency heroines, some of whom dressed up as men briefly, have to “settle down” before they could achieve their nuptial HEA. Even though their heroes fell in love with them regardless of their improper nature or because of their vibrancy, the constraints of their society demand that they behave in certain ways to preserve their standing, and they kowtow to the restrictions in the end. The evolution of the heroines more closely resembles Kate in Taming of the Shrew, whatever is in their hearts, they have submitted either to their husbands, or to society.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms,
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown.
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.