|Jack Lemmon finds high heels a bit difficult to navigate...|
Can a straight woman find a cross-dressed hero sexually attractive? Worthy of love? Two recent romances challenge readers to embrace heroes who perform non-conforming gender not only to hide or to regain power, but because they enjoy the sheer pleasure of taking on a feminine persona.
The traditional cover of Anna Cowan's regency historical, Untamed, published this past May, gives little hint of the gender-bending story inside. Eager to break up the affair between her newly married sister and the rakish Duke of Darlington, Katherine (Kit) Sutherland rashly agrees to the duke's unusual bargain: he'll leave London, and abandon her sister, the Countess of BenRuin—but only if Kit allows him to tag along with her to Sutherland family manor in the country. Kit believes she's got the best of the bargain; more comfortable in her role as axe-wielding pig farmer than society darling (she describes herself as "the dark hobgobling sister. Although perhaps too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree"), Kit is only too happy to abandon the city, a world to which "she would never be made to fit" (Loc 75).
That is, until she discovers Darlington plans to spend his time in the country dressed as a woman, so h/she can share unchaperoned time—and a bedroom—with Kit. Unfortunately for our heroine, the duke's female "cousin" is not played for laughs. Lady Rose makes for just as compelling a woman as s/he does a man:
Even after nine hours she could not stop staring.
Across the table, taking tea, was the most magnificent woman Kit had ever seen. She wore the rigid dress of the previous generation, but instead of looking outdated she made you long for the gorgeous, riotous colours of another age. Yellow poppies burst across the wine-red silk that bound her torso, chest and shoulders. They trailed down the skirts that waterfalled under their modest table. She was tightly corseted, her trim figure accentuated by the flare of small hoops beneath her skirts. She looked out the window, offering Kit her profile—the fine, straight nose, the smiling, expressive lips and heavy eyes. She wore a black wig, one thick coil falling over her shoulder on to the white linen tucked around her neck. (800)
|Dramatic enough for Jude?|
Jude, the Duke of Darlington, finds himself drawn to Kit in large part because of her strength: she's survived the physical abuse of a father, acts as financial head of her family, and wields a mighty axe to boot. Darlington, too, has been the victim of abuse—"You may not have noticed this... but I'm not exactly the manly variety of man. My father was a keen observer of the fact, and his response was to lock me into a particular room under the house with no windows" (1087)—but finds himself as a result not a tower of strength, but a mass of suicidal fear, compelled to inflict pain and humiliation on others to ensure they keep a safe distance. Instinctually, he feels that the sharp-tongued masculine Kit can save him from worst self. But Kit turns the tables, urging him to embrace everything that makes him himself, arrogance, insults, and all.
Cowan does not just create a simple inversion of gender roles (although Kit does make for an arresting cross-dressed man, when she returns to London to pursue the fleeing Jude and publicly stake her claim to him). The masculine but passionate Kit doesn't do all the rescuing; the feminine but arrogant Jude isn't the only one to feel fear:
He had been so closed when he first came, she thought, and then frowned.
She had not wanted to be moved by him. She held herself tightly, and understood for the first time why he did that.
She had been so closed when he first came. (3605)
When the two finally become physically intimate (after weeks of tense longing), there is no sense that Darlington must first shed his womanly garments, that he must shake free of the feminine aspects of his mannerisms and appearance, in order to be a sexually-appealing partner to Kit. In fact, his appeal seems to lie largely in femininity performed by a male body:
She untied the bow of his laces and began to loosen them with practiced tugs. His hands gripped the seat against the movement, and she wondered whether he felt, as she did, that she was breaking into something tender and unseen.
She lifted the bodice away from his body and pulled the chemise roughly down around his hips.
Then she knelt behind him, and traced the red lines pressed into his skin by the bodice and the material trapped beneath it.
She opened her hands against him, so that the whole surface of her palms and fingers could take in the sensation of his skin, finer and warmer than silk. The slim curve of his waist. His ribs. She leaned closer, helpless, her mouth open an inch from him. She felt how he shivered beneath her hands, how pleasure built between them and made him lower his head until his neck was a vulnerable curve that she had to capture in her palm.
Was it possible to die of pleasure just from this? (3694)
romance, starring siblings
Come back next Tuesday for Gender-Bending part 2: Thoughts on L. H. Cosway's contemporary romance, Painted Faces
Some Like it Hot: YouTube
18th Century Dress: Chani et Binou
Masqueraders cover: Wikipedia
Anna Cowan, Untamed
Destiny/Penguin Australia, 2013.