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The Mustachioed Woman, or The Problem of Androgyny in Victoria Cross’ Six Chapters of a Man’s Life

Ana Raquel Rojas
p. 107-122


While Victoria Cross’ novel Six Chapters of a Man’s Life has now largely fallen into obscurity, it has a new relevance in terms of contemporary theories of performativity and gender identity. The novel focuses on the impossibility of seeing androgyny as a coherent gender identity; instead, androgyny is presented as fragmented and illegible. Cross first published an excerpt from this novel in the Decadent journal The Yellow Book, and titled the short-story “Theodora, a Fragment,” which has been reprinted in Elaine Showalter’s anthology Daughters of Decadence. Both the story and the novel focus on the problems of desiring the androgyne. The male narrator, Cecil, finds himself first attracted to and then frustrated by the ever-shifting gender identity of his female lover, Theodora, who secretly cross-dresses as a man, Theodore, so that they may travel together unmarried. Drawing on Judith Butler’s theories of gender and identity, this article explores how androgyny functions as a primary gender tempered by its opposite—either feminized masculinity or masculinized femininity—and the impossibility of seeing androgyny as a coherent identity outside this gender binary.

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En vérité, ni l’un ni l’autre de ces deux sexes n’est le mien; je n’ai ni la soumission imbécile, ni la timidité, ni les petitesses de la femme; je n’ai pas les vices des hommes, leur dégoûtante crapule et leurs penchants brutaux:—je suis d’un troisième sexe à part qui n’a pas encore de nom: au-dessus ou au-dessous, plus défectueux ou supérieur: j’ai le corps et l’âme d’une femme, l’esprit et la force d’un homme, et j’ai trop ou pas assez de l’un et de l’autre pour me pouvoir accoupler avec l’un d’eux.
Théophile Gautier, Mademoiselle de Maupin

I am at heart a gentleman.
Marlene Dietrich

1The allure of androgyny is that it suggests both genders, but in this indeterminacy, is it possible for the appearance of both to exist simultaneously, or, like an optical illusion, must one gender always take precedence, a constant slipping between foreground and background? This problem of how to read gender ambiguity and how this reading affects desire forms the crux of Six Chapters of a Man’s Life (1903), a novel by the British author Victoria Cross (née Annie Cory, 1868–1952). Cross is perhaps best known for her novels The Woman Who Didn’t (1895)—a play on Grant Allen’s then-scandalous novel, The Woman Who Did—and Anna Lombard (1901), but though Cross was a popular success in her day, her works have now largely fallen into obscurity. Nevertheless, Six Chapters, an excerpt of which has been reprinted in Elaine Showalter’s anthology Daughters of Decadence (1993), now has a current relevance, for it was a novel very much ahead of its time in raising questions about the complicated relationships between gender, identity, performance and desire—questions that continue to be of interest a century later. Long before the advent of queer theory and questions of gender performativity, Cross, in Six Chapters, questions the idea of a coherent gender identity that falls outside the rigid boundaries of the gender binary. What her novel presents is the conflict between this coherence and an androgyny that appears fragmented.

  • 1 Butler, Gender Trouble 22.
  • 2 Cross, 9–10. Hereinafter cited parenthetically in the text.
  • 3 While in the twentieth century, Frida Kahlo may have demonstrated the allure of such an appearance, (...)

2In the novel, the protagonist and narrator, Cecil Ray, finds himself attracted to and frustrated by his androgynous female lover, Theodora Dudley, and both his attraction and frustration are the result of her gender ambiguity. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler observes that “‘persons’ only become intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility.”1 Six Chapters demonstrates the truth of this claim. While Cecil, a London aesthete who delights in the unusual, the strange and the queer, initially takes pleasure in the way Theodora’s androgyny challenges the paradigms of Victorian standards of beauty and femininity, ultimately, the fact that Theodora does not conform to a recognizable gender binary renders her illegible to him, creating fissures in a relationship that otherwise seems to fulfill an impossible ideal. Cecil finds the women of London society a tiresome waste of time, but though he is preparing to depart shortly for Mesopotamia, he agrees to be introduced to Theodora at the insistence of his friend Digby. According to Digby, “[Theodora has] the most thundering eyes you ever saw; and then her eyebrows, they start from her nose, go up to the middle of her forehead nearly, and then come down to her ear!”2 Cecil asks, “What’s the use? You know women bore me,” but Digby counters, “Yes, but I should like you to see this one. She’s so queer. . . . She’s got a moustache. . . . It would spoil most women I know, but it doesn’t seem to spoil her” (10–11).3 From the opening pages, the novel underscores the curious androgyny of Theodora’s appearance; not only has she got a moustache, but rather than detracting from her allure, this only seems to add to it. As a result, Theodora appears to be a perfect blend between masculinity and femininity. This exchange between Digby and Cecil establishes the gender issues that will form the central preoccupation of the narrative, since Theodora is defined by her queerness, by the way she escapes definition through standard gender binaries.

3As much as Theodora seems to embody an ideal for Cecil, the practical realities of their romance are more complicated. In spite of his strong attraction to her and Theodora’s clear flirtatious interest in him, Cecil, knowing that he is soon to leave London, decides not to pursue the liaison. However, on the night of Cecil’s departure, Theodora appears at his apartment disguised as a man and ready to run off with him, secretly as his lover, publicly as his male friend and traveling companion, Theodore. What ensues on their travels is a complicated negotiation of their curious situation. While Cecil and Theodora clearly desire one another, the novel is a series of conflicts that erupt from the confusion of gender identity. Theodora’s ever-shifting gender performances ultimately puzzle and frustrate Cecil in spite of his attraction, since they produce an indeterminacy that makes it impossible for him to understand her as being gendered in conformity with the recognizable standards that Butler describes. The only way for Cecil to render Theodora comprehensible as a gendered being is to describe her either as a masculinized woman, or as a feminized man; but the way he shifts between these characterizations throughout the novel illustrates to what degree he forces that which is ambiguous into more coherent paradigms. Theodora’s gender performances never form a coherent or cohesive whole; at least, they are certainly never read this way by Cecil. While Cross’ narrative seems to suggest, along the lines of Butler, that gender identity is (or can be) constructed, it also insists upon the fragmentary nature of such an identity.

  • 4 Mitchell 17, emphasis in the original.
  • 5 Mitchell 3.
  • 6 Knapp 3–4.

4This idea of the fragmentary is central to Cross’ novel, so it is perhaps not surprising that a version of Six Chapters first appeared as a short story titled “Theodora, a Fragment.” While Cross had apparently already finished Six Chapters of Man’s Life (originally and provocatively entitled The Refiner’s Fire) in 1894, it was not published in its entirety until 1903. Instead, part of the third chapter of the novel first appeared in Volume IV of the Decadent journal The Yellow Book in 1895; this excerpt from the novel was Cross’ first publication. Cross’ publisher, The Yellow Book’s own John Lane, appears to have been prepared to publish the novel in 1895, but was persuaded by Henry Harland, editor of The Yellow Book, to let Harland publish the “Third Chapter—that splendid chapter” as a story in the journal. Harland found it a “work of genius” and wrote to Lane: “I am sure it would at once make the author’s reputation as a new writer of almost unparalleled power; I am sure it would attract a greater degree of attention than any other story we have printed has attracted.”4 It is unclear why publication of the full-length novel was delayed until 1903. Certainly by that point, Cross had established a literary reputation, but by then Decadence had effectively died in Britain, making the novel seem at once shocking and passé. As Charlotte Mitchell observes: “It is strongly redolent of the nineties, and perhaps by 1903 its hectic, hashish-scented atmosphere seemed a little old-fashioned.”5 While its subject matter was certainly outrageous, the novel’s Decadent aesthetic was, by the time of its publication, mostly outdated. Shoshana Milgram Knapp writes that the “two texts—the fragmentary story of 1895 and the segmented novel of 1903—show [Cross’] increasingly daring attempts to place at the core of popular fiction a woman who challenged conventions of gender and thought.”6 Knapp’s emphasis on the fragmentary and segmented nature of Cross’ story is significant, since the idea of the fragmentary manifests itself throughout the novel in various important ways.

  • 7 As John R. Reed argues in his book, Decadent Style, what separates and distinguishes Decadence as a (...)
  • 8 Showalter, xi.

5In The Yellow Book, “Theodora, a Fragment” begins and ends with a row of ellipses, but these and the title are the only clear indication that the story is an excerpt from a longer work; otherwise, the story exists as a complete, discrete whole. Why call such attention to the text’s fragmentary nature? Since this was Cross’ very first publication, certainly she may have wanted to tantalize readers and arouse further interest in her writing, but in that case, it would seem more practical, and more accurate, to title the story “Theodora: An Excerpt.” The title could also be alluding to the fragmentary nature of Decadent narratives as a collection of set-pieces,7 and while this atomized structure forms part of the narrative of “Theodora,” the story also has a clear narrative arc. Showalter, in her introduction to the collection Daughters of Decadence, suggests that the ambiguous ending of Cross’ story “hints that women’s sexual narratives are unfinished.”8 This opens up the interesting possibility that the uncertainty behind Theodora’s gender identity is linked to the structure of the story itself. The subtitle “a Fragment” refers, not only to the text as an excerpt, but to the title character herself and the way in which her identity appears fragmented. The title of the short story emphasizes the potentially unruly nature of the female protagonist.

6Re-titling the published novel Six Chapters of a Man’s Life might initially seem to do away with the question of the fragmentary, especially since the events recounted in the story are now contained within a broader narrative framework. Nevertheless, the fragment remains a crucial aspect of the nature of gender identity as it applies to Theodora. Returning to Digby’s initial description of her—eyes, eyebrows, forehead, ears, moustache—one can see how Theodora is introduced in the text as a fragment, an assorted collection of fetishized body parts. The initial exchange between Cecil and Digby establishes the way that Theodora’s androgynous allure will be linked with the fragmentary throughout the text. This fragmentary androgyny is reinforced the first time that Cecil sees Theodora himself. He and the reader both recognize that she is at once beautiful in the standard feminine sense, and yet she also has an alluring masculine quality; however, these qualities, rather than being synthesized, create the impression of a collection of disparate parts:

And there, coming down the middle of the room, under the full flood of light, was the face I was looking for. My attention was so riveted upon the face that I was not conscious of what figure belonged to it, nor did I see the shoulders that bore it. It might have been floating down towards me on the stream of light. What a face it was, too! White, so that it looked blanched under the pale, changeful, electric light, and lent a curious luster by its gleaming, brilliant, swimming eyes. The mouth was a delicate curve of the brightest scarlet, and above, on the upper lip, was the sign I looked for, a narrow, glossy, black line. It was a handsome face of course, but that alone would not have excited my particular attention. One sees so many handsome faces. But such a tremendous force of intellect sat on the brow, even amongst the fashionably fuzzed curls, such a curious fire shone in the scintillating eyes, and such a peculiar half-male character invested the whole countenance, that I felt violently attracted to it merely from its peculiarity. (20)

7While Cecil may insist that a handsome face is not sufficient to attract him, he devotes the better part of this paragraph to describing Theodora’s, a face which so captivates him that he initially does not even take notice of the rest of her. Cecil’s description of this first glimpse of Theodora is eerily reminiscent of Gustave Moreau’s paintings of Salomé, where John the Baptist’s head floats in a pool of light before a transfixed Salomé; only in this case, the roles are reversed, and it is Theodora who has been decapitated, as it were, while Cecil’s attention is riveted by the head floating in a stream of light. This reversal is telling, since the entire narrative of Six Chapters will be about troubling and inverting gender categories. Not only is Theodora’s head disembodied in this passage, but like Salomé’s fetishistic descriptions of Iokanaan’s skin, mouth and hair in Wilde’s play, Cecil similarly fragments Theodora into skin, mouth, eyes and hair. In the first part of this description, Theodora sounds like a typical Victorian beauty—pale skin, bright eyes, curving red lips—and yet this beauty is in no way marred by her glossy moustache. What distinguishes this rather banal description of female beauty and what attracts Cecil to Theodora is the peculiar masculine quality of this otherwise feminine face—not only the moustache, but the “tremendous force of intellect” on her brow (which is coded as a masculine quality since it is opposed to her stylish coiffure: “even amongst the fashionably fuzzed curls”) and the fire in her eyes (the tell-tale marker of her active, and consequently, masculine-like mind). These qualities give the lovely, pale, delicate face the “half-male character” that makes Theodora “so queer” and so desirable.

8Significantly, Theodora’s half-male quality intrigues Cecil most—that is to say, he is not simply attracted to her masculinity, but to her highly feminized masculinity. He finds her effeteness spellbinding. As much as he desires her maleness, this maleness is only partial, and Cecil is equally attracted to Theodora’s feminine beauty. He marvels at the delicacy of her appearance and takes pleasure in contemplating her “rounded and supple and boneless” arm, as well as her “soft shoulder and the melting whiteness of [her] neck” (34). He longs to take her into his arms, fantasizing that her body, “resistless and unresisting, [would] lean, sink, melt into them” (35). Theodora, therefore, is not simply a masculine-looking woman. Rather, her masculinity and femininity temper one another. Throughout the novel, Cecil will provide alternating impressions of Theodora’s appearance and identity, at times characterizing her like a man in a woman’s body, but at other times, as a woman in a man’s body. Actually, a woman in a boy’s body would be more accurate, since Theodora strikes Cecil as looking “like a young fellow of nineteen” (54). Cecil can never quite settle on a stable description of Theodora’s gender identity, which fascinates because it is perpetually in flux, but this repeated shifting indicates the untenability of such gender indeterminacy.

9This fragmented gender puzzle becomes heightened as a result of Theodora’s cross-dressing. She first does this when looking at some of Cecil’s artifacts from his travels in the East. Among the objects is a box of clothing, and Theodora playfully dons a Zouave jacket and a fez and parades about the room. Cecil notes: “Digby and I confessed afterwards to each other the impulse that moved us to suggest that it was not at all complete without the trousers. I did offer her a cigarette to enhance the effect” (79). Theodora, eschewing the demure response of a proper Victorian lady, boldly accepts the cigarette. Her seemingly impromptu gesture of throwing on men’s clothes reads like a calculated attempt at luring Cecil, who has confessed his dislike for everything “typically feminine” (76). Until this point, he has been trying to resist his desire for Theodora, but this glimpse of her in men’s clothing makes him succumb: “an involuntary, unrecognized voice within me said, ‘It is no good; whatever happens, I must have you’” (80). The visible manifestation of her androgyny heightens her appeal for him. Significantly, this cross-dressing is not in Western clothes, but Eastern ones. When Theodora pulls up to his door in the carriage, Cecil observes that “amongst the black glossy masses of her hair, sat a small hat in vermilion velvet, made somewhat to resemble the Turkish fez” (63). While this stylish women’s hat seems to appropriate male clothing style from the East, to Victorian eyes, Eastern male dress, with its voluminous, loose fabrics, undoubtedly already resembled Western women’s clothing, so when Theodora arrives wearing this fez-like hat, it becomes difficult to tell whether the role she performs is more like that of an effete man, or a masculinized woman. When she puts on Cecil’s garments, Digby and Cecil both note the absence of trousers; this sense of incompleteness emphasizes the fragmentary nature of her gender identity.

10Although Theodora’s androgyny fascinates Cecil, her intriguing gender enigma simultaneously begins to frustrate him. No sooner does he acknowledge his unexpected desire than he has to begin grappling with its consequences. While Theodora certainly fulfills his fantasies, her androgyny means that Cecil has no available framework for interpreting her or her behavior:

I disliked, in a mild, theoretical way, women in the general term. I had an aversion, slight and faint it is true, but still an aversion, to everything suggestively, typically feminine; but Theodora, with her peculiarity, her apparent power of mind, her hermaphroditism of looks, stimulated violently that strongest, perhaps, of our feelings—curiosity . . . I felt there was no price I would not have paid to have stood for one half-hour in intimate confidence with her and been able to tear the veils from this irritating personality. (76–7)

  • 9 While Cecil speaks of Theodora’s “hermaphroditism,” the issue of her biological sex is never called (...)
  • 10 Butler, Gender Trouble 31.

11Theodora’s allure comes from her “hermaphroditism,” and not only of looks, but also of attitude and personality.9 Nevertheless, while Cecil reflects on Theodora’s unusual attraction, the passage concludes with the statement that she is also irritating, offering an early indication of the problems that are soon to unfold. Cecil confesses that he has an aversion to women, so Theodora threatens to trouble his understanding of his own desire, since he cannot quite account for his attraction to her. The trouble with the androgyne or the hermaphrodite is that s/he undoes the seemingly stable categories that gender binaries afford. Theodora upends the notion of a single, unwavering connection between sex, gender and desire. As Butler observes, the hermaphrodite “occasions a convergence and disorganization of the rules that govern sex/gender/desire.”10 As a site of this disorganization, Theodora appears fragmented to Cecil, a fragmentation that reveals itself in the way he fetishisticly describes her disembodied head, or notices the incompleteness of her cross-dressing. This fragmentation illustrates to what degree Cecil comes to realize that a gendered identity is by no means fixed or unchanging, and implicit in the threat of Theodora’s adaptable gender performances is the fact that they trouble Cecil’s understanding of his own desire. Not only is the hermaphrodite unreadable in terms of a coherent gender identity, but s/he problematizes the way desire is conceptualized, both as a desiring and (potentially) desired being. Cecil, who has a self-proclaimed aversion to everything feminine, finds himself attracted, not only to a woman, but to a woman who, in her “hermaphroditism,” is at once highly feminized and masculinized. He seems irritated less by her personality, as he explicitly claims, than by the way her enigmatic androgyny confuses him and escapes stable categories.

  • 11 Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 312–13.

12Nearly a century before Butler would argue that drag “constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation,” Cross suggests that Theodora exists only as a series of gender impersonations.11 When Theodora dons men’s clothing, it initially seems to be a straightforward drag performance: as a woman, she dresses like a man. However, the complicated relationships between masculine and feminine, and natural and artificial in Six Chapters illustrate to what degree drag is more than just cross-dressing, more than simply donning the costume of one’s binary opposite, since Cecil’s descriptions of Theodora also repeatedly emphasize the natural quality of her masculinity and the artificial quality of her femininity. In the novel, Cross undoes any possibility of understanding gender in terms of an authentic or original that performs its binary opposite, as Theodora shifts between feminine and masculine qualities, both in looks and behavior. Gender is more than just imitation or impersonation in the case of Theodora—it is fragmentation, since she never appears to be wholly female or wholly male. When she dons a Zouave and fez, she is still without pants; while she has a moustache, she also wears her hair in a stylishly feminine coiffure. In these moments, Theodora does not so much approximate another gender as reveal the arbitrary gender structures that create the illusion of a coherent gender performance.

13The cross-dressing performance that Theodora coquettishly delivers in front of Cecil and Digby becomes much more naturalized when Theodora runs off with Cecil disguised as a boy. While Theodora donned drag in order to flirt with Cecil, hence the appeal of emphasizing the fragmentary nature of her performance, when they run off together, the success of their plan depends upon Theodora delivering a convincing performance for others as a man. In fact, this performance is so successful that when Theodora first shows up at Cecil’s door, he does not recognize her. Theodora seems so natural dressed as a man, that Cecil does not even think to examine her appearance until much later, when they are waiting at the station for the train: “While we stood waiting I looked at her critically for the first time. The disguise was perfect, as she said. Both face and figure yielded completely to the character given them by the dress . . . and it would have been difficult for any one to believe that the pale, brilliant face with its straight features and dark line on the upper lip, was not that of some handsome boy of nineteen or twenty” (113–14). When cross-dressing, Theodora no longer seems to be pretending to be a man; rather, the clothing seems to bring out what is already there in her. Her moustache, of course, is an integral part of this, but more than that, as Cecil describes it, Theodora’s face and body yield to the costume, suggesting that the clothing reflects something essential about Theodora, to which the rest of her conforms.

14Theodora’s gender identity strikes Cecil as being at once innate to her and performed for his own benefit. Recognizing that Cecil is attracted to masculinity, Theodora tries to embody or suggest it, performing masculinity by cross-dressing, a performance done as much out of necessity as out of an attempt to please Cecil. As long as these performances remain private, Cecil remains generally pleased with this ambiguous, androgynous relationship. However, when Theodora dons this masculine persona for others or even potentially to please herself, it disrupts Cecil’s fantasy of an exclusive, private performance. Throughout the novel there are moments when this fantasy slips from Cecil’s control, when Theodora does not perform according to the script of Cecil’s erotic desires. In these moments Cecil becomes jealous and attempts to assert his masculine dominance over Theodora by re-casting her as a female object of desire, a natural woman who merely impersonates or appropriates masculinity. In moments of frustration, Cecil casts Theodora, not as a man in a woman’s body, or even a woman in a man’s body, but as pure femininity. With her intoxicating scarlet lips, Theodora is transformed into a skilled seductress, a category far more recognizable to Cecil than androgyny, as he attempts to render her fragmented and unstable identity “in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility.”

15Cecil becomes jealous in those moments when Theodora’s performance as a man is too successful or convincing, when others, thinking that she is a man, treat her as one. The untenability of Theodora’s ambiguous gender position, the impossibility of establishing a coherent gender identity is exposed during their stay at a hotel in Marseille. One night, Cecil returns at three in the morning, fully anticipating that Theodora will be sitting up waiting for him. She is not, and when Cecil discovers this, he becomes furious:

I was annoyed, of course, at not finding her there; but the annoyance only stimulated a fierce desire to get her there. I had fully counted upon her being there; been absolutely confident, though half unconsciously so, of seeing a submissive, patient figure sitting at the fire, and had this been realised, the expected greeting kiss would then have warmed but not disturbed the fatigued and peaceful tenour of my feelings. But now, in the shock of her absence, alone in this room, with these things of hers to recall her position, all the keen, jealous emotions of these relations broke into flame. (163)

16Suddenly, he hears “Theodora’s high-pitched, effeminate, and somewhat affected tones” coming from down the corridor (164), and he finds her in another room, playing cards with a group of men, with Theodora resting her head on another man’s shoulder. Back in their own room, Cecil angrily tells her: “But when I come back at three in the morning I do not expect to find you half-drunk in another fellow’s bedroom, with your arms round his neck!” (168). Theodora bursts into angry tears and replies: “as for the room, what objection could I make to that? If I were the man they think me, nominally there would be nothing in it” (168).

17Theodora understands that delivering a successful performance as a man relies upon behaving like one, and this justifies being in another man’s room at three in the morning—Theodora functions as a de facto man, so there is no impropriety in her behaving like one. However convincing this performance may be to others, Cecil in this instance sees Theodora as a woman merely costumed as man; in fact, he had been fantasizing about returning home, not to “Theodore” waiting for him, but to Theodora as a “submissive, patient figure sitting at the fire.” Cecil’s anger results from Theodora failing to recognize her position—both as a performer and as his (female) lover. He insists on reducing her to the category of being a real woman who only masquerades as a man, emphasizing her “effeminate” and “affected” voice, however much he might elsewhere marvel at how much she resembles a man and fantasize that Theodora essentially possesses a masculine temperament in a feminine body. For Cecil, Theodora’s drag performance is only properly a private performance for him as a response to his desires. While the success of their arrangement depends upon Theodora delivering a convincing public performance as well, once it is public, it becomes disconcerting for Cecil, who is forced to confront the fact that he is no longer the sole audience for Theodora’s masquerade. Cecil’s jealousy is only appeased by “the rain of hot salt tears and the tremendous sobs” that wrack Theodora when she claims that her actions have been perfectly reasonable (169). Cecil can be soothed by her feminine response of tears, more so than by any masculine appeal to reason. Theodora is thus placed in an impossible position vis-à-vis Cecil, since the very androgyny that first attracted him to her is now the source of tension between them. Theodora’s fragmented gender identity elicits all sorts of questions for Cecil, who no longer understands his own feelings, now that this “irritating personality” has come along and disrupted his sense of self-mastery. He asks himself: “why did I feel so angry with her?” (183). What appears to be a fixed and coherent gender identity to others only underscores for Cecil how unstable Theodora’s gender identity really is.

18The more that the categories of natural and artificial, authentic and performed become fragmented, the more frequently Cecil begins to recast Theodora in the seemingly straightforward role of feminine flirt, reducing all her gender ambiguities to the level of performance, attributing her artifice to the natural inclinations of woman. Attracted to her maddening enigma, but unable to craft a coherent narrative of desire in the face of her “hermaphroditism,” Cecil attempts to understand Theodora in terms of the calculating—or simply reckless—female, only to find that this characterization is equally problematic: “And at times she was inconceivably insolent to me—an insolence that did little more than further inflame my love for her, not the tenderness of love, but—well the rest. Perhaps she knew this, and deliberately used her insolence as she did other arts, but I think not; I think it was rather the outcome of her natural recklessness” (185). Theodora’s insolence, according to Cecil, is the result of her inability “to restrain her careless, insubordinate spirit from saying and doing exactly what it pleased” (185). By describing her as insolent and insubordinate, Cecil accuses Theodora of believing her own masquerade, of thinking that because she looks and acts like man, she is in a position to engage with him as one, an assumption Cecil clearly does not share. His response each time Theodora exceeds the boundaries of her masculine performance is to de-naturalize it by feminizing her, accusing her of using her arts to inflame his love for her, reminding himself that hers is nothing but a masquerade.

  • 12 Rivière, 306.

19This attempt at neutralizing Theodora’s threat by making her more intelligible as a calculating woman results in its own set of confusions however, since behind this performance of masculinity is the suggestion that Theodora’s femininity might itself be a performance. While Cecil concludes that her behavior is likely the result of “her natural recklessness,” he cannot discount the possibility that she might be deploying her arts deliberately and that artifice constitutes not only her masculinity, but her femininity as well. The idea that femininity is something that a woman performs evokes Joan Rivière’s argument in her essay, “Womanliness as a Masquerade”: “The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the “masquerade”. My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing.”12 Theodora frequently resorts to characteristically feminine behavior, such as crying and sobbing, when confronted with Cecil’s displeasure; while Rivière suggests that womanliness, or the appearance of womanliness, can serve as a means of fending off potential attacks for asserting any kind of parity with men, Theodora does not deploy this womanliness as a preemptive attempt to avert Cecil’s reprisal, so much as a palliative after he has become jealous. Whether calculated or not, Theodora’s acts of femininity are a direct response to Cecil’s displeasure. If womanliness is a masquerade that a woman can adopt, then this raises the possibility, as Rivière suggests, that there is no difference between the two, that “genuine womanliness” is itself a performance; the fact that Cecil wonders whether Theodora is aware of the effect she has and acts deliberately attests to the possibility that Theodora may be no more really a woman than she is really a man—she is, ultimately, an androgyne.

20The affair between Cecil and Theodora ends tragically when Cecil inadvertently exposes Theodora’s masquerade before a group of other men. Theodora’s punishment for violating the conventions of gender stability returns her to the category of the purely feminine, for she is consigned to the worst of all fates that can befall a woman: the fate worse than death. In Six Chapters of a Man’s Life, the authentic, the performed, the masculine and the feminine become so many moving pieces in a gender identity that is never fixed. Theodora disrupts any possibility of locating an essence behind her gender performances. Cecil understands her either in terms of possessing a masculine femininity or in terms of possessing a feminine masculinity; in both cases, androgyny is described as a primary gender that is tempered by its opposite. Cecil, however, cannot hold both perceptions in his mind at once. Theodora becomes like the optical illusions where a drawing can appear to be one thing or another (an old woman or a young one, a vase or two faces, a duck or a rabbit) depending upon how one sees it, but one’s eyes must constantly shift between them. While Cecil is initially attracted to the way Theodora troubles the seemingly stable categories of gender, this fragmentary identity cannot function outside the enclosed world of their own private desire; the rigidity of gender binaries are too deeply entrenched. Nevertheless, in her resistance to offering a totalizing or coherent reading of Theodora, Victoria Cross continues to hold out the possibility that such an indeterminacy of gender identity can be sustained, if only in art and not in life.

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Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307–20.

Cross, Victoria. Six Chapters of a Man’s Life. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1903.

Knapp, Shoshana Milgram. “Revolutionary Androgyny in the Fiction of ‘Victoria Cross.’” Seeing Double: Revisioning Edwardian and Modernist Literature. Ed. Carola M. Kaplan and Anne B. Simpson. New York: St. Martin’s, 1996. 3–19.

Mitchell, Charlotte. Victoria Cross (1868-1952) A Bibliography. Victorian Fiction Research Guide Ser. 30. Australia: Victorian Fiction Research Unit, The University of Queensland, 2002.

Rivière, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10, 1929. 303–13.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. Daughters of Decadence. London: Virago Press, 1993.

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1 Butler, Gender Trouble 22.

2 Cross, 9–10. Hereinafter cited parenthetically in the text.

3 While in the twentieth century, Frida Kahlo may have demonstrated the allure of such an appearance, Theodora clearly departs from the standards of nineteenth-century feminine beauty.

4 Mitchell 17, emphasis in the original.

5 Mitchell 3.

6 Knapp 3–4.

7 As John R. Reed argues in his book, Decadent Style, what separates and distinguishes Decadence as an artistic movement is stylistic decline: a preoccupation with finely-wrought detail, privileging the parts over the whole. The Decadent text is marked by atomization and it creates a coherent whole by developing highly wrought, carefully crafted individual “set pieces.” See: John R. Reed, Decadent Style (Athens, Ohio; Ohio UP, 1985).

8 Showalter, xi.

9 While Cecil speaks of Theodora’s “hermaphroditism,” the issue of her biological sex is never called into question in the novel; Theodora’s hermaphroditism is always described in terms of secondary sex characteristics, which is why I refer to her as an androgyne rather than a hermaphrodite. Descriptions of their sex-life are markedly absent, but since Cecil worries that Theodora may one day want children, we are left to assume that there is no doubt that Theodora is in fact biologically a woman.

10 Butler, Gender Trouble 31.

11 Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 312–13.

12 Rivière, 306.

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Ana Raquel Rojas, « The Mustachioed Woman, or The Problem of Androgyny in Victoria Cross’ Six Chapters of a Man’s Life », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 107-122.

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Ana Raquel Rojas, « The Mustachioed Woman, or The Problem of Androgyny in Victoria Cross’ Six Chapters of a Man’s Life », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 14 octobre 2014, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1339

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Ana Raquel Rojas

The University of Scranton.
Ana Raquel Rojas is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania. She specializes in representations of the femme fatale in Decadent literature, particularly the differences and connections between how male and female authors treat this figure. The article included in this special issue of CVE grew out of her graduate research at Cornell University and is adapted from her doctoral dissertation, « Designing Woman: Reimagining the Femme Fatale in Fin-de-Siècle Literature ».

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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