Kathy Lynn Emerson here, stealing this title from a program fellow historical mystery writers Sharan Newman and Miriam Grace Monfredo used to present to debunk the idea that women in the past all fit into a neat stereotype. Fictional female sleuths in series set in the past are often accused of being “too modern” and there’s always someone who will claim that “women didn’t act that way back then.” While it may be true that most women didn’t, there have always been exceptions.
Since I’m once again writing historical mysteries with a female protagonist, I’ve already encountered a few readers who still buy into a limited view of history. The truth is that some sixteenth-century Englishwomen were extremely well educated. More than a few managed their own businesses or ran estates on their own behalf or for absent husbands. A number even pursued careers in the arts, several as portrait painters and a few as writers, although much of what they created has now been lost.
In a society where, under the law, a woman passed from the control of her father or guardian into the custody of her husband, it seems obvious that some women would resent being treated as chattel and find ways to rebel. They weren’t feminists in the modern sense, but content with their lot? I don’t think so.
In my new series, I gave Mistress Rosamond Jaffrey financial independence by having her husband settle an annuity on her. Of course, the annuity came from what was her inheritance to begin with but sixteenth-century English law decreed that everything a woman possessed became her husband’s from the moment they said their wedding vows. In cases where a marriage had failed, the courts often had to force the husband to grant his wife money to live on, but there is no reason why one couldn’t willingly do so. Once she has the wherewithal, Rosamond buys a house near London, determined to live on her own. A similar financial arrangement in my Face Down series accounted for Lady Appleton’s independence in the first few mysteries. Once she was widowed, of course, she gained complete control of her property and finances.
This independent widow is the one who raised and educated Rosamond, her late husband’s illegitimate daughter. In fact, she spoiled Rosamond, who is already willful by nature. Is it any wonder that she grew up to resent any sort of restriction? She’s wise enough not to flout society outright, but she’s also clever enough to find ways to work around the rules of proper behavior. When she wants to attend plays in a nearby inn yard, rather scandalous behavior for a respectable young woman, she disguises herself to appear older and pays well for the privacy of a room overlooking the stage. A little later in Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe, it occurs to her that she would have even more freedom if she were to disguise herself as a boy.
Yes, I can see you shaking your head. That old cliché! Just because Shakespeare’s heroines put on male clothing doesn’t mean real women did. After all, the parts of women on stage were played by men, so those weren’t really females in disguise in the plays.
Turns out, art was imitating life. There were quite a few women living and working as men in medieval times, especially in Holland, Germany, and England, but no one really took notice of them until the late sixteenth century. It was even more common for women to dress in men’s clothing for specific, short-term reasons—travel, festivals, flight, to accompany a spouse into battle or on board ship, and for erotic stimulation. In 1573, a woman dressed as a man led the defense of Haarlem against Spanish forces and was hailed as the Dutch Joan of Arc. An Italian woman took part in the battle of Lepanto as a sailor. The disguise of another woman was only discovered after her death on a battlefield in 1589. She and her lover were both serving as soldiers in the Dutch army when they were killed.
In England, the majority of records of women wearing men’s clothing come from court records, both civil and ecclesiastical. Dorothy Clayton, for example, a prostitute, was arrested in 1575 for wearing men’s clothing in public in London. She was found guilty and committed to Bridewell and also required to do public penance by standing in the pillory for two hours in the same “men’s attire” that had been the reason for her arrest. Public penance was the usual punishment for women who were caught. It was meted out to one Joanna Goodman in 1569 when she disguised herself as her husband’s male servant in order to accompany him to war. In 1596, Joanna Towler of Downham, Essex was a bit more audacious. She was taken to task before the church courts (otherwise known as the bawdy courts) for going to church services on the Sabbath dressed in men’s clothing.
According to one of my sources, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (1989), the recorded cases of women disguising themselves as men are many and varied. Some disguises failed within hours. Others successfully deceived all and sundry for more than ten years. I think I can justify letting Rosamond put on her boys’ clothing every once in awhile, especially on those occasions when she needs to travel but doesn’t want the bother of a sidesaddle and an escort.
NEWS FLASH: The hardcover edition of Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe is now available in the U. S., at least at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Release date for the Kindle and Nook editions is still listed as March 1st.