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‘I should like to see a woman smoking while she was nursing her baby’: The New Woman, Crossdressing, and Humour in Horace William Bleackley’s Une Culotte (1894)

« J’aimerais bien voir une femme fumer tout en allaitant son bébé » : Nouvelle Femme, travestissement et humour dans Une Culotte (1894) de Horace William Bleackley
Mariam Zarif


La Nouvelle Femme a été largement ridiculisée dans la presse du tournant du siècle qui la représente le plus souvent comme une figure masculine destructrice. Les écrivains favorables à la cause des femmes ont alors réagi en tentant de retourner cet humour contre leurs attaquants afin de questionner le statu quo. C’est le cas du roman méconnu de Horace William Bleackley, Une Culotte; or a New Woman, An Impossible Story of Modern Oxford (1894). Cet article examine les contradictions de l’humour dans ce récit et la façon dont l’auteur construit ses personnages de Nouvelles Femmes dans le contexte politique britannique de la fin du siècle. Je montrerai d’abord que l’humour naît des attaques contre une construction rigide des différences de genre. Puis, j’analyserai comment le travestissement féminin est utilisé à des fins humoristiques, d’une part, et pour souligner l’agentivité de la Nouvelle Femme en dehors de l’espace domestique, d’autre part.

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1The New Woman of the popular press was frequently caricatured as mannish and unwomanly and represented as a figure of disorder. Unsympathetic caricatures fuelled her notoriety in reactionary comic journals, including Punch; or the London Charivari (1841–1992), Fun (1861–1901), Judy (1867–1907), and Pick-Me-Up (1888–1909). Sally Ledger argues that the New Woman disrupted the Victorian ‘gender codes’ and that her appearance was symptomatic of the ‘discursive explosion around the subject of sexuality in the Victorian years’ (Ledger 95). The relationship between New Journalism and the New Woman was highly contradictory, as the periodicals market continuously addressed the New Woman while simultaneously disproving her ‘newness and boldness’. Sally Ledger suggests that the New Woman was very much part of the ‘new socialism, the new imperialism, the new fiction and the new journalism’ in the fin de siècle (Ledger 1). More, Margaret Diane Stetz has argued that the periodicals of the late nineties presented ‘themselves as harbingers of change . . . through their representations of women. They advertised themselves as embodying a radical departure from the norm by appropriating or affiliating with the New Woman’ (Stetz, ‘The New Woman’ 273).

2The New Woman had several precursors throughout the nineteenth century, including the ‘modern woman’ and the ‘advanced woman’. The ‘Girton Girl’ equally ignited the anxieties of Victorian society by being educated to the same level as her male counterparts: the name refers to Girton College, the first residential college for women in Cambridge, established in 1869 by Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon. Like the New Woman, the ‘Girton Girl’ was caricatured in Punch, which presented her as a ‘cigarette smoking Fast Woman—a threat to education, men, and marriage, all in one fell swoop’ (Cerasuolo 164). Many New Woman novels featured the Girton Girl to represent women’s intellectual advances, but even in the 1890s, Victorians were wary of higher education for women. The fin-de-siècle versions of the Girton Girl reflect the fears of Victorian society that educated women would be unfit for domesticity. Annie Edwardes’s novel A Girton Girl (1885) reflects the ambivalent attitudes of Victorian society towards university-educated women. Similarly, in Grant Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl (1896), Juliet Appleton is a Girton-educated woman who struggles to lead an independent life in a man’s world. In Bleackley’s Une Culotte, the two girls who disguise themselves as young women in order to go to Oxford and find out a ‘great deal’ about men are also from Girton.

3Horace William Bleackley (1868–1931) published Une Culotte: An Impossible Story of Modern Oxford in 1894 under the pseudonym of ‘Tivoli’. Despite his prolific output, he has become an obscure figure in New Woman studies. Bleackley graduated from Oxford with a second class in History, was a writer by profession and published over nineteen volumes on various subjects, including travel narratives, ‘true crime’ stories, and a biography of Casanova. Une Culotte is the only known New Woman novel by Bleackley and it merits recognition amongst popular New Woman novels as it deals with several topical issues of the period. Arguably, Bleackley’s use of a gender-neutral pseudonym was a strategic choice when publishing his New Woman novel. That New Woman literature was gendered is illustrated by the example of Grant Allen: in 1895, when Allen published The Woman Who Did, Punch produced a cartoon of the author as a masculine woman standing in front of a mirror. Bleackley’s and Allen’s use of pseudonyms reinforces the gendered nature of the New Woman novel, in which male writers struggled to compete with female authors who made the New Woman book market seem a ‘literary coterie’ (Warne and Colligan 23). Not only does Bleackley insert himself into the market of New Woman fiction by using an ambiguous alias, but his narrative foregrounds the heroines’ cross-dressing as a humorous or sometimes farcical element. Bleackley’s disguise unmasks his struggle to introduce himself into a genre written by and directed at women. Whilst the use of transvestite characters allowed Bleackley to present issues of gender and sexuality, his criticism is softened with comedy and conveyed in a non-threatening way. This essay explores the fundamental contradictions of humour in Une Culotte by looking at how Bleackley situates his New Women heroines within the context of nineteenth-century British feminism. It then looks at the role of cross-dressing to generate humour in the novel.

Problematic Bodies and the Humour of Inversion

4Une Culotte is the story of two women who set out on their expedition to Oxford to find out about men and eventually get married, thereby reinstating the idea that marriage is women’s ultimate occupation. The story begins with Helen Murray, the archetypal New Woman, looking at some ‘typical’ young university men while dining at an Oxford hotel with her friend, Carrie Elliot. In the opening scene, entitled ‘the birth of the idea’, the two friends mock the effeminate looking ‘modern undergrads’, wearing their straw hats and wide, flannel trousers. Helen inverts the traditional male gaze by objectifying men, thus challenging the patriarchal metanarratives of femininity that represent women as passive or subordinate to men. Her proclamation that ‘I think the world agrees with me, that a man should be a man, and not a self-created hermaphrodite’ (8) brings to mind the emergent view of sexual degeneracy embodied by the ‘modern’ man whose effeminacy was perceived as a weakness. Helen appropriates the masculine analytic gaze and transforms the ‘modern’ man into a spectacle. There is also an element of satirical mockery as Helen, characterised as mannish, mocks the ‘modern boys’ whose features appear to her fragile and delicate. This double satirical intent is implicit in Helen’s observation. Bleackley’s caricature of the New Woman and Helen’s mockery of the effeminate Oxford boys suggest that Helen fails to realise that her criticism of the men ironically backfires against herself.

5Carrie Elliot’s characterization serves as a foil to Helen’s. Carrie is the conventional woman in appearance, a ‘fair handsome girl, with cleanly-cut and rounded features. The healthy bronze, which exposure to the sun had imparted to her countenance, had but mellowed the rosy hue upon her cheeks’ (5). By contrast, Helen has

no complexion in the ordinary acceptance of the word—a swarthy, gipsy-like hue overspread her cheeks. All her colour seemed to be concentrated in her lips. The broad forehead and massive chin were very masculine, so were her ears (ladies will understand what that means), and her most emphatic nose. It was only when she smiled, and her kind, beautiful eyes and ripe mouth had a chance of displaying themselves, that the true woman stood revealed. At other times you would have thought she was only a plain blue-stocking. (6)

6The narrator’s distortions and exaggerations of Helen, such as her ‘broad forehead and massive chin’, make it a caricature. However, Helen’s kind and ‘beautiful’ eyes also beg for the ladies’ sympathy. The satirical elements in the description evoke the vigorous satire that was directed at the New Women’s appearance, sexual behaviour and unconventional activities. One of these activities included protesting for educational equality. The narrator’s comments address common misconceptions surrounding the New Women’s demands for equal educational opportunities. For example, Helen is called a bluestocking, a term used to describe a group of women notable for their excessive literariness and intellect. The Bluestocking emerged in the 1750s as a group of chiefly single or widowed middle- and upper-class women who rejected the accepted social expectations for women. In addition to their social meetings in London, these women had access to an extensive network of contacts acquired through visits and correspondence (Eger and Peltz 32). Hilary Brown suggests that these women ‘managed to negotiate a public space for the intellectual woman who could easily be maligned as précieuse’ (Brown 114). But by the nineteenth century, the term ‘blue stocking’ had lost its historical specificity and was used as a derogatory term for unattractively learned women. In Bleackley’s novel, the term ‘blue-stocking’ invokes the intellectual advancements of the New Woman. However, by calling Helen a ‘plain blue-stocking’, he reinstates Victorian fears of independent women made abnormal by their resistance to traditional female roles. The narrator’s description of Helen also emphasises the idea that the New Woman was a multi-faceted individual who refused to conform to the traditional feminine assumptions constructed by patriarchal society.

7However, this figure was riddled with confusion, as is evident from Helen and Carrie’s final decision to get married and return to the private realm. Both heroines encapsulate a fluid gender identity through which they reveal that gender is constructed in heterogeneous ways and will always be tied to complex power structures. The New Woman’s desire to cross the domestic sphere did not go unchallenged. Criticism and controversy surrounded her since the public viewed her as sexually perverse and deviant.

8Both Helen and Carrie are witty and correspond to nineteenth-century definitions of the unfeminine. Soile Ylivuori suggests that:

Wit and satire were considered to be privileged arenas of masculine intellect in medieval and early modern times; therefore, words that were considered clever and witty out of a man’s mouth were often interpreted as abusive and defamatory when uttered by a woman. Accordingly, women who demanded immoderate attention with their unruly wit stepped into a traditionally masculine sphere and thus disrupted the social order. (Ylivuori 223)

9Bleackley’s characterisation of Helen and Carrie emphasises the subversive potential of the New Woman, who was feared yet ridiculed by the public. Through Helen and Carrie, Bleackley emphasises how the New Woman at the turn of the century transgressed the gender binaries and disrupted Victorian ideas of femininity. For example, at the beginning of the novel, when Helen and Carrie reflect on the limitations imposed upon their sex, Carrie, who is portrayed as a conventional woman, notes that ‘Liberty is sweet, indeed, and we poor girls generally get very little of it’ (2). Helen, who is older than Carrie and more ‘masculine and squarely built’ asks ‘why shouldn’t a woman see life as well as a man? We’re not fools, Carrie!’ (2) What proves to be most comical about Helen’s declarations is that she is constantly convincing herself and Carrie of the errors of the opposite sex and their gender-role reversal serves as a source of humour. Whilst Helen and Carrie are respectively described as ‘the new woman and the true woman’, Helen’s feminist and sexual transgressions are contrasted with Carrie’s wholesomeness (61).

10Whilst the Victorian ideal true woman embodied the qualities of modesty, submissiveness, and domesticity, Carrie and Helen are full of mischief. In another episode, they are seen as funny and assertive:

‘If men do it I don’t see why we can’t!’ answered Helen, using her invariable argument. ‘There is nothing wrong in it’.
‘I don’t suppose there’s any harm in smoking, but no lady ought to do it’.
‘Why not? I should certainly, if I liked it, but I don’t!’ remarked Helen, sharply. ‘Why should men monopolise all the good things of this world?’
‘I should like to see a woman smoking while she was nursing her baby’, cried Carrie merrily. ‘Supposing she put her pipe into the little thing’s mouth in mistake for—’. (15)

11Here Carrie and Helen seem to be playing with and challenging the Victorian ideals of femininity, especially the maternal body, which is assumed to preclude punting, smoking or the wearing of certain clothes. Furthermore, humour arises from Carrie’s evocation of physical incongruities: the confusion between the baby’s and the mother’s mouths, but also the grotesque (Surrealist) idea that a pipe and a breast can be mistaken for one another. This passage offers a parody of the smoking New Woman that presents the ‘smoking’ New Baby on the same model as the New Woman, so that in effect, this dialogue is parodying the parody of the New Woman. Helen and Carrie’s conversation serves a dual purpose within the novel, driving the majority of the novel’s humour and facilitating a social debate centred on women’s desires, motherhood, and maternal obligations.

12Both heroines are satirising the anti-New Woman rhetoric by exploiting the idea of the smoking New Woman and the anxieties about motherhood. The popular perception of female smoking was that it was a threat to the individual and society, and Bleackley’s heroines satirise Victorian social anxieties around the New Woman’s openly deviant behaviour. Carrie’s proposition reinforces the fear of degeneration around women and its effect on motherhood. She speculates how the image of a mother with a phallic object in her mouth transforms the definition of motherhood. Moreover, to Victorian society, one of the threats of the New Woman was the disruption of traditional feminine roles. The New Woman’s repudiation of motherhood was considered a transgression of the ‘natural’ gender roles. John Lizars argued that smoking led to social and moral decay and that children of smokers would be ‘stunted in growth and deformed in shape: incapable of struggling through the diseases incidental to children and die prematurely’ (Lizars 58). In the nineteenth century, smoking a cigar or tobacco was a common masculine characteristic, a phallic symbol and often associated with bachelorism and hedonism. For example, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Jane is attracted by Rochester’s cigar smoke. However, the smoking New Woman reconfigured nineteenth-century gender discourse and social expectation of women, and smoking was one way the New Woman showed gender roles as unfixed and performative. This phallic symbol previously exclusive to men became an expression of liberation and a symbol for gender rebellion.

The Cross-Dressed Body and the Ambiguous Humour of Disguise

  • 1 The Empire was a theatre in Leicester Square, London, which immediately attained notoriety for bein (...)

13In Une Culotte, humour is also directed against the New Woman, who is often mistaken in her ideas. One night, to prove her theory that women can go to the same places as men, Helen takes Carrie to the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square.1 Helen sees Maurice at this ‘dreadful place’, ‘chatting vivaciously’ to a lady and then giving money to this ‘creature’ (34–35). As a matter of fact, Maurice is doing philanthropic work. These plot elements make Helen’s behaviour ridiculous, and her response to this situation is comically exaggerated.

14Similarly, Maurice’s act of charity is not idealised; instead, it is debunked and made fun of as gendered. Taking this incident as an example of man’s duplicity and supremacy, Helen breaks off her engagement and proposes that both she and Carrie dress as men and enrol at Oxford University. Helen’s repartee contributes to the humour in a novel in which to be funny is to be assertive, aggressive, and forceful. In the novel, Helen protests to her friend, ‘Carrie, I must obey the impulse. I cannot resist it!’ (54). She explains to Carrie: ‘I will not remain a poor blind fool. I will taste knowledge at whatever cost’ (54). Helen adopts assertive behaviour as a counterpoint to the male-dominated politics, and her quick-witted responses serve as a means of social protest. Humour is also mobilised through Helen’s farcical expressions, such as her ‘defiant laugh’ (54), and when Carrie innocently asks about Helen’s plans, the latter ‘burst[s] into a loud laugh; but that which was meant to be gay rang out hollow and repulsive’ (54). Here Helen is presented as unfeminine and frightening. Stetz argues that laughter is a ‘characteristic of male privilege, [a] symptom of masculine hatred of women, and [is] an instrument of female humiliation and entrapment, rather than of female liberation’ (Stetz 20). For Helen, laughter provides temporary relief and an answer to oppressive situations. Through laughter, Helen pokes fun at the masculine ideologies and institutions.

15Helen proposes to impersonate men at Oxford, and her gender-role reversal serves as both a bold political statement and a source of humour. Helen exclaims: ‘Like the naturalist, I am going to penetrate into regions unknown—to extend the power of observation of my own particular class—womankind . . . to the land of the Yahoos—an interesting race, whose principal characteristics are vice and cruelty’ (54). Helen’s view of the opposite sex is derived from the misogynistic images of women. Through Helen, Bleackley intensifies rather than blurs sexual difference, and this source of humour provides relief to the heroines as they are able to escape—though momentarily—from the patriarchal constructions of the feminine. Dressed as men, Helen and Carrie engage in playful masquerade and in doing so reveal the constructed nature of gender and how both heroines manipulate those representations in their own interest, theatricalising for their own purposes.

  • 2 Whilst there are no records or sufficient information on Susan Gainsborough, Rosa Bonheur was the F (...)

16Although Helen claims that she will be a ‘naturalist’, she is far from an objective observer since her expedition is about proving her set ideas, and this is where the humour lies. This humour is at the expense of the New Woman, and in this instance, Helen delights in mocking others with her characteristic bluntness. The reference to Jonathan Swift’s brutish Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) suggests that Une Culotte deliberately works as a political satire about contemporary British politics and ideology. Helen uses various elements of Swiftian satire, including irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, and emotional appeals. She supports her proposition by arguing that ‘Miss Susan Gainsborough impersonates the lords of creation upon stage. I will do so in real life. What is there to prevent me? Rosa Bonheur has done the same thing scores of times in the pursuit of her art. I am creating no precedent’ (54).2

17In the novel, there is a link between theatricality and humour as Helen’s bold and sudden adoption of a masculine self-presentation emphasises the performative element of gender. In true farcical fashion, Helen engages in playful masquerade and uses male dress as a disguise in order to get the freedom to socialise with the opposite sex. Male disguise in the novel turns the readers’ attention to the social realities that create conditions and assumptions made by men about women. Gender in the novel becomes a spectacle. In this sense, Bleackley, through his heroines, employs a Butlerian idea of gender performativity that focuses on iterative bodily practices. In the novel, Helen and Carrie attempt to rewrite the cultural script of masculinity and femininity through cross-dressing and expressing their desire for self-affirmation through the appropriation of traditional masculine roles. Marjorie Garber argues that ‘to transgress against one set of boundaries was to call into question the inviolability of both, and of the set of social codes—already demonstrably under attack—by which such categories were policed and maintained’ (Garber 32). The comic treatment of cross-dressing in Une Culotte evokes a displacement of anxieties about the transgressing of gender boundaries.

18Helen’s decision to adopt masculine attire reveals the arbitrary nature of gender and shows her attempt to destabilise the gender binary. Through the appropriation of gender and the reworking of dominant discourse, Helen relieves herself of the burden of gender binaries. However, her parodic performance of masculine gender identity simultaneously reinforces gendered behaviour ideals and suggests that gender identity cannot be effectively dismantled. Cross-dressing is used in the novel to poke fun at female mannishness. Cross-dressing in New Woman fiction, Heilmann argues, ‘emerges as a sophisticated, polymorphous theme which serves to challenge and explode prevalent ideas of gender and sexuality while simultaneously addressing cultural and political anxieties on a wider scale’ (Heilmann 2000, 106). When cross-dressed, female characters cross-gender binaries and unmask the complicated and conflicting views and expectations about gendered behaviour through their disguise. Much of the humour stems from watching Helen and Carrie remember how men are expected to carry themselves, speak, and act, and in doing so, they are consciously examining their own knowledge of gender codes. Whilst Heilmann’s analysis of cross-dressing yields a more positive interpretation of cross-dressing, in Bleackley’s novel cross-dressing is used to reflect both feminist and anti-feminist aims. Through Helen and Carrie’s disguise, Bleackley reconstructs alternative narratives of the New Woman and uses the rhetoric of humour to reshape cultural attitudes towards gender. The act of wearing men’s clothing and performing the masculine role presents the possibility of transgressing and subverting the sex-gender system, but the humour generated through the cross-dressing is antifeminist as it suggests that to transgress the codes of gender is to disrupt the traditional view of the social order. For instance, one morning in Oxford, Carrie, who adopts the disguise of the French Charles Dubois, is about to be roused by one of the scouts carrying a water can. The latter approaches towards the edge of Carrie’s bed, in a panic ‘a half-smothered voice exclaims in terror-stricken accents,—“If you don’t go out of my room I’ll scream!”’ (69). When Carrie looks outside of her window, she sees several undergraduates ‘performing their necessary toilets in their respective chambers around the quadrangle’ (69). Carrie, conscious of her notions of propriety, hastily pulls down the blinds and ‘is even guilty of a blush’ (69). Such gender-crossing scenes make the readers laugh at women’s attempt at impersonating men because in the coarse environment in which men openly express themselves, Carrie retains a properly feminine subjectivity. Carrie plays out the constructions of femininity, and this in turn reinscribes sexual difference and gender hierarchy. However, Carrie’s cross-dressing reflects the notions of difference and reinstates the limitations of a disguised woman. Her self-conscious masquerade also reveals the practical impossibility of experiencing an authentic masculine experience unaltered by the hegemonic and conservation forces of gender representation. Carrie’s blush is conservative humour at the expense of women; however, it is also multi-layered, as it suggests that despite assuming a masculine identity, Carrie remains garbed in the signifiers of traditional femininity. Additionally, this episode mocks the idea of female liberation, suggesting that the New Woman might have moments of autonomy, but the experience is fleeting because we operate in the realm of stereotypes.

19Dubois’s masculinity is always in question, as he is characterised as a foppish and ineffectual Frenchman, which reinstates the theme of effeminacy ‘onto an adjacent national stereotype’ (Garber 201). Helen proposes that Carrie could easily adopt the disguise of a Frenchman as she has ‘seen many French boys as silly and babyish as any girl’ (56). In writing about the French influence on British literature, Ylivuori observes that the ‘most prominent aspect of alleged French influence was its problematic effect on gender. French influence was accused of making men effeminate and women masculine’ (Ylivuori 32). In Bleackley’s novel, whose title whiffs of French scandal, anti-French rhetoric presents a dichotomy between the English as the affluent and polite and the French as the ‘Other’. French men are characterised as emasculate and contrast with the muscular Englishmen. The dialogue between Dubois and English Oxford undergraduates highlights prejudice against taste and fashionability in France and the Frenchmen. For example, Bleackley writes: ‘“Dubois seems to have his head screwed on the right way, although he’s a Frenchman” exclaimed the captain’ (112). On another occasion, one of the Oxford dons, Fred Willoughby, an antagonist of the story, says that Dubois has the ‘“misfortune to be a Frenchman, and he’s rather a damned little fool”—(laughter and applause)’ (168). The exaggeration of Dubois’s masculinity performance and elements of effeminacy produce layers of satire, thus revealing the complexity of satirical critiques of gender and sexuality in late-Victorian culture. The masculine Englishmen are mocking women disguised as men for being too effeminate. This also reveals the identity crisis within Britain itself, including the decline of the ‘English’ masculinity.

20Helen, alias Harry Morton, explains to Carrie the codes of masculine language and ‘good gentlemanly swear’ (70). She also tells Carrie that she is still blushing from her conversations with the cricket team’s captain over lunch. Whilst cross-dressing in the novel generates humour and laughter for the readers, it also exposes the dilemma that women face when impersonating the opposite sex. When the New Woman attempts to subvert or challenge the gender ideology, she paradoxically re-inscribes and reinforces the stereotypical gender behaviour. For instance, when Helen and Carrie are joined by other freshmen who are discussing women and the idea of sticking up for the women, one of the freshmen asks: ‘Well, what’s your idea on the subject, Dubois?’ To this question Carrie responds confusingly ‘I don’t believe in it’ (78). Carrie’s response generates laughter amongst the crowd: ‘while the company showed their appreciation of this piece of humour by immoderate laughter, poor Dubois’ face glowed with shame, and Morton bit his lip with vexation’ (79). Carrie’s response might seem natural because of her fear of revealing her true identity, and she refuses to express her opinion on women’s cause. Bleackley’s narrative interrogates rather than supports gender conventions, and his version of the New Women ridicules the rigid gender ideology of the period. However, the ‘immoderate laughter’ of the crowd reinstates the inherently masculine space and emphasises male domination. Sevda Caliskan, in her essay about women’s humour, uses Thomas Hobbes’s theory of superiority to argue that ‘laughter is what Hobbes terms “sudden glory” arising from a feeling of superiority’ (Caliskan 49). Carrie’s masquerade invokes the idea of femininity dependent on masculinity, and it suggests that the masquerade operates within a system dictated by a set gender binary. In this scene, despite being dressed in men’s clothing, Carrie assumes a passive role. During her masquerade, her voice is disempowered, and rather than feeling liberated, she accepts her place within patriarchy. Bleackley’s comical version of strong women suggests that he gently mocks the New Woman and ultimately reinscribes Helen and Carrie within patriarchy. However, he is also in sympathy with the New Woman’s playful disregard for the traditional notions of gender and sexuality and humorously questions the naturalness of the gender hierarchy.

21Bleackley’s heroines challenge and undermine the idea of an essential feminine identity through incongruous analogies. Both Helen and Carrie suggest that one’s gender is inscribed by clothing and mannerisms and is thus not inherent in the body. Cross-dressing becomes a marker of resistance, and many New Woman writers, including Bleackley, used it to exploit the everyday constructions of gender. Bleackley’s heroines blur the differences between sex and socially constructed gender. Gender parody is used in the novel as a mode of criticism for by cross-dressing, the New Women incorporate and challenge the very gender ideology that they are parodying.

22The ‘impossibility of Modern Oxford’ of the novel’s subtitle resurfaces when the reader learns of Helen’s intent to cross-dress. The narrator, in a moment of self-reflexivity, states that:

The reader has, no doubt, lost all sympathy with the author ere this, and the volume has been tossed indignantly aside, for the warning of a title-page is often disregarded, and it may have been forgotten that this is heralded as an ‘impossible story.’ Yet may I beg my critics to remember how the child delights in the puppet show, forgetting the unreality of the performance, and accepting it in the same spirit in which it is represented. Thus, I trust that older children may forgive the preposterousness of my travesty, and bear in mind that allegory seldom deals with possibilities. (58)

23The narrator steps outside the narrative and addresses the readers directly. In this comic performance, the narrator tells the readers that what is about to happen is implausible and comical, thus asking the reader to suspend their disbelief to enjoy this. The topic of cross-dressing, which is emphasised by ‘travesty’, is rendered ‘allegorical’. Nevertheless, this moment of self-reflexivity suggests a curious slippage between reality and the fictional world. The narrator’s intervention is unique as it invokes a sense of dialogue between the reader and author.

24Bleackley’s own disguise was successful since his identity remained unquestioned and unchallenged. In the Saturday Review, an anonymous writer observed that ‘without serious apprehension of error’, the author of this ‘frantically silly’ novel is a woman. Since ‘the descriptions of Oxford life . . . , talk of racing eights “steel prows” can hardly come from a masculine writer’ (665). Furthermore, the book is deemed ‘feminine in its flavour’ and so are the ‘persuasions of the author’ about ‘women to wear male attire as a criminal offence’ (665). The anonymous reviewer concludes that Une Culotte has no merit other than its humour, yet the novel is chiefly pretentious, whether in style or authorial ‘pose’. Just as his heroines adopt male guises—Helen becomes Harry Morton, and Carrie becomes Charles Dubois—to evade public humiliation, Bleackley adopts a gender-neutral identity that fosters a feminine disguise to evade the critics’ attacks on New Woman male authors, who were often seen as effeminate and emasculated. Nevertheless, the narrative voice in the novel is gendered, as the descriptions of Carrie’s and Helen’s appearance suggest an implicit male voice.

25Helen and Carrie’s ploy is finally discovered by two young men who choose to save them rather than disgrace them. The two women quickly change into their womanly outfits before Carrie is almost pushed into the river. In the end, order is re-established and the two heroines are presented to the drunken St. Chad’s crowd as the fiancées of Maurice Lonsdale and Frank Gilbert—Oxford dons. One gets a sense of the carnivalesque in the narrative because an audience is present to witness the character’s return to proper gender roles. Bleackley only transitorily muddles the gender categories in a carnival of misrule followed by a return to order. Whilst both heroines momentarily enjoyed freedom of expression through cross-dressing, the element of humour is used to confront gender issues pertinent to the period.


26Bleackley’s novel comically explores serious feminist issues in a conservative way. In the novel, humour does not represent a social threat but rather allows the playful subversion of cultural norms. In the end, both Helen and Carrie ultimately reinscribe themselves into patriarchy by marrying stereotypically masculine Englishmen. Like many New Woman writings, Une Culotte uses popular stereotypes of the New Woman, with her strident sentiments and aggressive style, advocating for emancipation and equality. When Carrie and Helen perform ‘gender’ by reiterating conventions they are relying on the practice of repetition, which produces an illusion of gender. Likewise, cross-dressing in Une Culotte reveals the anxiety that the New Woman experienced as both genders are expressed in one body.

27Bleackley draws on the serious elements outside the boundaries of comedy, commenting on the social structures that produced gendered ideas of masculinity and femininity. There is also a dramatic dimension to this novel, which is invoked by cross-dressing. To a certain extent, Helen and Carrie’s parodic performance destabilises rigid notions of male and female behaviour, allowing characters to appropriate various preconceived gender roles with the ease of putting on a dress. Bleackley’s New Women perform the part of defeminised womanhood but, reassuringly, they finally conform to Victorian feminine standards of behaviour.

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1 The Empire was a theatre in Leicester Square, London, which immediately attained notoriety for being a centre of moral contaminations. It featured an opulent promenade behind the dress circle, where prostitutes would regularly await their customers. As Nicholas Freeman remarks, the Empire ‘promenade was a moral anomaly, its clientele permitted to engage in activities which would have risked arrest if pursued outside’ (Freeman 21). George Bernard Shaw similarly observed that it was ‘notorious for revealing costumes of its dancers, its titillating “living pictures” and the expensive prostitutes who congregated in its promenade’ (Shaw 79–86).

2 Whilst there are no records or sufficient information on Susan Gainsborough, Rosa Bonheur was the French artist who was one of the first women to have an official permit to wear men’s clothing, or to use the authorities’ words, s’habiller en homme. The new French decree allowed women to obtain a cross-dressing permit, which was valid for periods of three or six months and could be renewed. But there were certain restrictions and these were indicated on the official form, indicating that a woman in men’s clothes could not appear in social gatherings and public places: ‘aux Spectacles, Bals et autres lieux de réunion ouverts au public’. (Cited in van Slyke 321).

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Mariam Zarif, « ‘I should like to see a woman smoking while she was nursing her baby’: The New Woman, Crossdressing, and Humour in Horace William Bleackley’s Une Culotte (1894) »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mariam Zarif

Mariam Zarif has recently completed her doctoral research at King’s College London. Her thesis looked at the role of male editors in women’s penny weeklies in the late nineteenth century. Her research interests include women’s magazines, penny weeklies, and editorial strategies. She is also interested in less canonical women writers in the nineteenth century. She has recently contributed a chapter on Netta Syrett in Women’s Human Rights in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (August 2020).
Mariam Zarif a soutenu une thèse de doctorat à King’s College (Londres) qui portait sur le rôle des rédacteurs en chef et éditeurs masculins dans la presse populaire destinée à un lectorat féminin à la fin du xixe siècle. Sa recherche s’intéresse plus largement aux stratégies éditoriales, à la presse féminine et aux autrices dites mineures du xixe siècle. Elle a récemment publié un chapitre intitulé “The Making of the Professional Woman in Netta Syrett’s Writing” (in Women’s Human Rights in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, Lexington Books 2020).

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