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1. Cross-Dressing in Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

The “Ambiguous Sex”: Cross-dressing heroines in Sensation and New Woman fiction



As exemplified by Louisa May Alcott’s “Behind a Mask” (1866), Sensation fiction is a genre preoccupied with questioning notions of Victorian femininity. However, while heroines like Jean Muir have the power to use their feminine identity to suit their own intentions, other Sensation novels, including Albert Eubule Evans’ Revealed at Last (1873), challenge assumptions regarding the inherent binary of gender through their use of cross-dressing heroines. Anticipated by Evans’ portrayal of his cross-dressing heroine, New Woman novels such as Lady Florence Dixie’s Gloriana; or, the Revolution of 1900 (1890) and George Moore’s “Albert Nobbs” (1927) also contested the contemporary conviction that gender was inseparable from anatomical sex, and that masculinity and femininity were two distinct categories. However, unlike Evans’ novel where the ability to alter one’s gender is based on a performance of masculinity, Dixie and Moore suggest that masculinity is biologically inherent in women. By focusing on the figure of the cross-dresser in Florence Marryat’s Her Father’s Name (1876) and Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893), this essay challenges twentieth-century mis-readings of nineteenth-century gender theory, specifically the two-sex model Thomas Laqueur in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990) identifies as holding precedence in the Victorian period. This essay argues that Laqueur disregards the forward-thinking narratives of Sensation and New Woman fiction in which ideas about women and gender are radically challenged.

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1. Femininity as a mask

1Introduced as a “pale-faced girl” (6) with “delicate” (14) features whose femininity, to the outside world at least, echoes her idealistic physical appearance, Jean Muir, the anti-heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s sensational novella, “Behind a Mask” (1866), seemingly embodies Victorian ideals of femininity. Reinforced by Sarah Ellis’ conduct books, Felicia Hemans’ poetry and later John Ruskin, Victorian models of femininity, as represented by the Angel-in the-House, prescribed that a woman should be self-sacrificing, submissive and content to be restricted to the confines of the domestic sphere:

Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure: down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself […]
And if he at last, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers:
And while his love has any life,
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms. (Patmore 125-6)

2The home was viewed as “women’s true place and power” (Ruskin 92) because it was a “place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division” (Ruskin 91). However, as soon as Jean is on her own, moments after implying that the word “actress” is interchangeable with “woman” (Alcott 11) to emphasise the ease with which femininity can be engineered, she disrupts expectations by removing the disguise that reveals her to be a “haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least” (Alcott 12).

3Tara Macdonald argues that the Sensation genre’s “playful engagement with human complications and misconceptions” (MacDonald 139) in novels such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), where Marian Halcombe is depicted as a “masculine” (Collins 35) woman, or The Law and the Lady (1875) where Miserrimus Dexter’s androgyny questions his assumed gender role, demonstrates that Sensation fiction is a genre preoccupied with “disrupt[ing] gender conventions and challeng[ing] stable notions of identity” (MacDonald 139). This is evident in Alcott’s novella as Jean’s power of bodily transformation demonstrates the instability of femininity as she manipulates gender expectations to her own advantage.

4By repeatedly depicting her heroine’s transformation, Alcott exposes the fakery of her beauty and shows it to be the result of masquerade and a clever use of stage props:

Sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several pearly teeth […]. The metamorphosis was wonderful, but the disguise was more in the expression she assumed than in any art of costume or false adornment. Now she was alone, […] her mobile features settled into their natural expression, weary, hard, [and] bitter. (Alcott 12)

5The implication here is that there is a “natural” or original self; however, Alcott later complicates this inference by suggesting that there is no essential self, just masquerade:

Miss Muir’s eyes brightened as she looked, her step grew firmer, her carriage prouder, and a smile broke over her face; the smile of one well pleased at the prospect of the success of some cherished hope. Suddenly her whole air changed, she pushed back her hat, clasped her hands loosely before her, and seemed absorbed in girlish admiration of the fair scene that could not fail to charm any beauty-loving eye. (Alcott 13)

6Jean’s ability to transgress the physicality of her body, as demonstrated by the instrumental role her “expression” plays in the masquerade, implies that femininity is not fixed. Even Jean’s moment of “unveiling” can be seen to perform a role. Rather than reveal Jean’s “true” self, it shows that nothing about her appearance, and hence femininity, is inherent. Jean’s narrative control means she can manipulate her femininity to trick those around her into believing that she possesses a stable and authentic identity when in reality no such certainty is provided. The danger in believing that a person’s exterior reflects their interior, as was the Victorian expectation supported by the pseudo-science of physiognomy, is further enhanced as Jean’s feminine looks and strategies of dissimulation subsequently enable her to make a successful upper-class marriage.

  • 1 For a discussion of Sensation fiction’s defining characteristics see Winifred Hughes. The Maniac in (...)

7Although the sexual politics of Alcott’s heroine are self-serving, her performance functions to explode Victorian concepts of femininity and authentic identity. “Behind a Mask” serves as an example of how the popular mid-century genre of Sensation fiction constructs and subverts patriarchal definitions of femininity.1 Emerging in the 1860s with the publication of Collins’ The Woman in White, Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Sensation fiction quickly gained public attention with its inclusion of controversial themes, including bigamy and murder, alongside its devious and manipulative anti-heroines who question Victorian definitions of “womanhood”. However, while these heroines, like Jean, typically only have the power to use their feminine identity to suit their own intentions, other Sensation novels contest contemporary assumptions regarding the difference between masculinity and femininity by using cross-dressing narratives to show that their heroines have the ability to “alter” their gender.

2. Cross-dressing heroines in Sensation vs. New Woman fiction

8One such example is the little-known Sensation novel, Revealed at Last (1873) by Albert Eubule Evans. Raised as a boy in order that his/her father may inherit his/her mother’s fortune, Evelyn Montmorency’s “true” gender is eventually revealed by his/her tutor, Mr Hamilton, after he escapes the asylum he has been admitted to in an attempt to prevent him from revealing the secret to Evelyn. Evelyn’s gender-neutral name serves to conflate masculinity and femininity, enabling Evelyn to occupy both binary categories simultaneously. Indeed, I would argue that the reader is ultimately left unsure of Evelyn’s biological sex, which is why I have chosen not to use a gender-specific pronoun in reference to Evelyn.

9Although Evelyn is presented as a cross-dresser, there are hints throughout the narrative that the tutor determines that Evelyn is female only because of his/her “unmanly” (Evans 1.69) appearance. Confused by his “strange inexplicable interest” (Evans 1.80) in Evelyn, Hamilton, it could be argued, rationalises and normalises his love for Evelyn by making him/her female. After it is jokingly suggested to him by a friend “what a pity it is that it [Evelyn] is not a girl that you might elope with her”, Hamilton conveniently declares that “I almost think it is a girl” (Evans 1.120). It is from this moment onwards that Evelyn is viewed as female: “that was not a boy that sate [sic] before him. What boy ever had such a small, delicate, fleshy hand—still more such a microscopic foot?” (Evans 1.127-8). This emphasises the vital role sensational cross-dressing narratives place on a person’s exterior to construct their gender, whilst simultaneously demonstrating the potential for appearances to be manipulated. The novel ends without revealing Evelyn’s “true” gender (significantly, “Evelyn” must die in order to allow him/her to become Hamilton’s wife) meaning that the title itself is, in some sense, also a performance.

10By using his protagonist to oppose Victorian assumptions regarding the inherent binary of gender, Evans anticipates a key intention of New Woman fiction. Cross-dressing narratives are more typically associated with the end of the nineteenth century and the emergence of the New Woman. Coined in 1894, the term “New Woman” entered public consciousness with the publication of “The New Aspect of the Woman Question” by Sarah Grand (born Frances Elizabeth Bellenden Clarke) in The North American Review, and the response by Ouida (the pseudonym of Maria Louisa de la Ramée) who extrapolated the phrase, and with which she titled her essay, “The New Woman”. At the heart of these two essays is a discussion of femininity. Interviewed in 1900, Grand summarised her intended effect in initiating the campaign:

All I meant by the term ‘New Woman’ was one who, while retaining all the grace of manner and feminine charm, had thrown off all the silliness and hysterical feebleness of her sex, and improved herself so as to be in every way the best companion for man, and without him, the best fitted for a place of usefulness in the world. (“My impressions of Sarah Grand” 259)

11However, in her response, Ouida vehemently criticised Grand’s New Woman for wanting “to get the comforts and concessions due to feebleness, at the same time as she demands the lion’s share of power due to superior force alone” (612) in expecting men to remain chivalrous, while demanding a change in gender relations.

  • 2 For a discussion of the difficulty in defining the New Woman see Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Ficti (...)

12While Grand and Ouida, albeit to differing extents, perceived femininity to be essential to the success of the New Woman campaign, the polar views presented in their articles establish the “multiple identit[ies]” of the New Woman who could variously be a “feminist activist, a social reformer, a popular novelist, a suffragette playwright, a woman poet [or] a fictional construct, a discursive response to the activities of the late nineteenth-century women’s movement” (Ledger 1). Consequently, the New Woman eludes a simple definition.2

13A controversial figure constructed largely by the periodical press, the New Woman was, as Marie Mulvey-Roberts states, “denigrated in some quarters as a ‘masculine woman’” (79), thus implying that her gender is not singular. The large majority of Victorians believed that gender was inseparable from anatomical sex, and that masculinity and femininity were, and should be, two distinct categories. However, the emergence of an “ambiguous sex” which is “neither the one nor the other, possessing the coarser passions and instincts of men without their strength or better judgement” and the “position and privileges of women without their tenderness, their sense of duty, or their modesty” (“The Epicene Sex” 243), challenged this perception. A middle-class woman’s traditional outlook in life was to marry and have children but the New Woman’s entry into, and active participation in, the public sphere (via higher education institutions and professional employment) as well as her rejection of marriage, threatened ideologies of femininity. It was feared that if the New Woman and the Victorian women’s movement succeeded in remodelling gender roles, men and women would become virtually indistinguishable and the foundations of patriarchal society would be undermined.

14The cross-dressing heroine is a literal figment of this anxiety as both genders are expressed by her body at once, thus preventing her from being contained within one part of the binary. Ann Heilmann claims that New Woman writers used cross-dressing female protagonists to “destabilize the Victorian body politic” by “turn[ing] the body into a site of feminist resistance” (New Woman Fiction 118). This enabled them to use their fiction to contradict gender essentialism by showing that “women could, in fact, become men” (New Woman Fiction 117. Emphasis in original).

3. (Dis)empowerment through dress in Gloriana and “Albert Nobbs”

15A figurative example of women becoming men occurs in Lady Florence Dixie’s utopian New Woman cross-dressing novel, Gloriana; or, the Revolution of 1900 (1890). The novel sees Gloria de Lara disguise herself as Hector D’Estrange in order to be elected as Prime Minister and enjoy a successful political career fighting for women’s rights. Dixie emphasises her female protagonist’s inability to conform to either gender by referring to her heroine as both Gloria and Hector in one sentence: “Gloria, in other words Hector D’Estrange; for the reader must have no difficulty in recognising in this latter, the beautiful girl” (49). Gloria/Hector cannot be defined by Victorian codes of gender and so becomes a hybrid of both, implying that a person has the ability to move between genders at any given moment.

  • 3 This sentiment was also put forward by Grand who, when interviewed in 1896, argued that there shoul (...)

16Furthermore, Gloria/Hector’s dualistic gender identity reiterates that femininity and masculinity are not distinct categories but naturally combined. This is further reiterated as Dixie employs the male pronoun to refer to Gloria/Hector for the majority of the novel. There is one moment however, when both male and female pronouns are employed. Coming just before Gloria/Hector’s parliamentary speech on women’s rights, fixed gender identity is deconstructed by the depiction of two genders in one body: “now he has taken his seat. But she has risen now” (Dixie 126. My emphasis). The dual pronouns serve to destabilise gender binaries and emphasise the volatility of gender as a category. It is also interesting to note that Gloria/Hector’s gender is changed at the moment she gives the speech to parliament, implying that women can fulfil this role better than men.3

17In contrast to Gloria/Hector who is empowered by her ability to disguise herself as a man, Albert Nobbs in George Moore’s 1927 novella of the same name is left isolated as a result of her unconventional gender identity. Feeling like “neither man nor woman, just a perhapser”, Albert is depicted as an “outcast from both sexes” (Moore 198). Instead of creating a gendered identity based on a combination of femininity and masculinity, Albert loses connection to her true gender and “only remembered occasionally that she was a woman” (Moore 193). Heilmann argues that this difference is based on the author’s own gender. She states that, in comparison to female writers who created heroines who were “energised, not traumatised, by their breeches” Victorian male writers “presented the cross-dresser, not as a phallic (empowered) woman or female man, but as a castrated, sexless and sad neuter” (“(Un)Masking Desire” 90). This is evidenced by Albert’s inability to gain power from her gender manipulation. Instead, as represented by the absence of her female name, she loses her feminine identity and consequently her sense of self. In addition, Albert’s inability to “no longer [think] and [feel] as she used to when she wore petticoats [or] feel like a man though she wore trousers” (Moore 64) reiterates that she does not possess any kind of gendered identity.

18Gloriana, and to a certain extent “Albert Nobbs”, serve to demonstrate, especially with Gloria/Hector’s hybrid gender, that New Woman fiction utilises cross-dressing female protagonists to imply that gender is a spectrum. In comparison, although Evans fails to separate masculinity and femininity in his main protagonist, ultimately, given that Evelyn is forced to “[act] the part of boy” (Evans 2.202), this novel illustrates that in Sensation fiction, the ability to alter one’s gender is based on a performance of masculinity. Thus, while in sensational cross-dressing narratives the focus is on a person’s exterior and that person’s ability to stage gender, in New Woman fiction, masculinity and femininity are shown to be naturally combined (although performance is sometimes employed, it is presented as an outward extension of the protagonist’s ambiguous gender). However, ultimately, a tension lies in these crossing narratives, specifically in that they construct femininity as both performative (Gloriana) and as bodily/mentally fluid (Revealed at Last).

4. Fashioning gender fluidity/hybridity in Florence Marryat’s Her Father’s Name (1876) and Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893)

19To further explore the representation of cross-dressing heroines in Sensation and New Woman fiction, the focus in the remainder of this essay will be on Florence Marryat’s Her Father’s Name (1876) and Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893). These two novels serve as examples of Sensation and New Woman literature’s differing portrayals of the cross-dresser. However, in comparison to the examples mentioned previously, they also challenge these perceptions by contesting the inherent binary of gender as well as the social impact of strict definitions of gender on women. While the fear of unsexed woman and gender slippage is typically associated with the fin de siècle and the later women’s movement, in this essay I argue that Sensation literature pre-empts a central aim of New Woman fiction in its inclusion and portrayal of cross-dressing heroines.

  • 4 The suffrage campaign used feminine dress to combat the stigma of women being labelled masculine by (...)

20Although Grand maintained throughout her life that she “greatly deprecate[d] any change that would tend to make women less womanly” (“Illustrated Interview: Sarah Grand” 214), her fiction does not present femininity as a fixed entity. Instead, foreshadowing the method of future feminist activists, Grand manipulates socio-political constructions of gender in order to question whether “femininity is an innate, anatomical essence, or a socio-political construct” (Ofek 181).4 This is particularly evident in her seminal New Woman novel, The Heavenly Twins. Containing one of the best-known Victorian fictional depictions of a cross-dressing heroine, the novels sees Angelica Hamilton-Wells disguise herself as a boy in order to rebel against the limitations of her gender. Known only as “boy” during her period of disguise, Angelica pretends to be her twin brother, Theodore, otherwise known as Diavolo, as she strikes up a friendship with the village Tenor.

21Published seventeen years prior to The Heavenly Twins, Marryat’s lesser-known Sensation novel, Her Father’s Name, similarly employs a cross-dressing heroine to probe Victorian notions of gender construction and question whether seemingly inherent codes of gender are imposed by society. On a quest to solve the mystery surrounding her late father’s murder charge, Leona Lacoste repeatedly disguises herself as a man. While Greta Delpedge claims that by dressing as a man Leona is “granted a freedom without any cultural anxieties about the propriety of a woman travelling alone and sleuthing” (“Sensation fiction and the New Woman” 199), I argue instead that Marryat uses Leona’s cross-dressing not to enable her to transverse geographical and societal boundaries, but to show that gender is malleable. Thus, as I will contend, Marryat anticipates a key intention of New Woman fiction by using her cross-dressing heroine to question the inherent binary of gender.

22The largest distinction between Sensation and New Woman fiction is usually considered to be the introduction of feminist politics in the later decade. Lyn Pykett states that while Sensation fiction reproduced the “anxieties and tensions generated by contemporary debates regarding the nature of woman, and of women’s social and familial roles” (7), New Woman writers directly associated themselves with the Woman Question and the contemporary women’s rights movement. However, parallels can be drawn between the two genres in terms of their examination of socio-political definitions of “woman” and their subsequent exposure of anxieties relating to the century’s shifting gender boundaries.

  • 5 In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill contests the basis of separate spheres as “one of the chief (...)

23As previously addressed, early nineteenth-century theories of gender were founded on the belief that men and women were fundamentally different. Charles Darwin maintained that gender difference was rooted in biology and a result of “sexual selection”. He argued that “man has ultimately become superior to woman” (Darwin 565) because men “generally undergo a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes” (Darwin 565-6). Middle-class Victorian gender hierarchy was largely based on the concept of separate spheres which viewed women as oppositional beings to men and confined them to the domestic world.5 Ruskin, in his essay, “Of Queen’s Gardens” (1865), famously claimed that

The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy is for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle,—and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. (Ruskin 90)

24Replicating these mid-Victorian ideals, Thomas Laqueur, in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990), argues that during the latter half of the eighteenth century there was a transition in the social perception from a one-sex model where the female sexual organs were “seen as interior versions of what the male had outside—the vagina as penis, the uterus as scrotum”, to a two-sex model where female and male genitalia were “constructed as of an entirely different nature” (viii). Laqueur claims that this noted “biological distinction” enables difference to be identified in “every conceivable aspect of the body and soul, in every physical and moral aspect” (5), thus separating men and women on both biological and psychological grounds.

25However, Laqueur’s two-sex model disregards the forward-thinking narratives of Sensation and New Woman fiction in which ideas about women and gender are radically challenged. By focusing on the figure of the cross-dresser in Marryat’s Her Father’s Name and Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, this essay will challenge twentieth-century mis-readings of nineteenth-century gender theory and show that in late-Victorian fiction both masculinity and femininity co-exist in the female body. Consequently, I argue that by using their cross-dressing heroines to deconstruct the conflation of sex and gender, Grand and Marryat foreshadow Simone de Beauvoir’s later recognition in The Second Sex (1997) that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (295).

  • 6 This is a strategy reminiscent of Sensation novels such as Lady Audley’s Secret where readers are n (...)

26In Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, the Tenor, along with the readers who are also first duped by Angelica’s disguise, observes Ruskinian ideals of gender by separating masculinity and femininity into two distinct categories: “there was never any devilment in the girl’s face; it was always pale and tranquil, almost to sadness. In the boy, on the contrary, there was no trace of that graceful attribute” (The Heavenly Twins 374). Gendered assumptions regarding a person’s manner and morality are demonstrated to be so ingrained that the Tenor is unable to see Angelica’s transgressive nature reflected in her feminine appearance or identify the boy and Angelica as one person. Grand contests the contemporary perception of gender that separated masculinity and femininity by showing that it is not Angelica’s morals that differ, but the Tenor’s perception of gender-inherent characteristics. Like the Tenor, Grand’s readers are also forced to unlearn stereotypes as she fails to disclose Angelica’s identity until the moment the disguise is discovered by the Tenor.6

27Strict categories of gender are further destabilised in The Heavenly Twins as Grand uses fluctuating pronouns. Employing the male pronoun during the period in which Angelica is disguised as a boy, Grand reverts back to the female pronoun when the Tenor discovers the boy’s “true” gender and identity: “‘how dare he’—he stopped there, realising the absurdity of it, realising that there was no boy” (The Heavenly Twins 435). This linguistic deception encourages readers to reflect on how they identify gender and whether masculinity and femininity are entirely distinct. Victoria Flanagan contends that the extent to which gender is elevated to a “level where the fact of biology becomes less significant, or temporarily irrelevant” is accomplished by “the choice of pronoun which is used to identify the cross- dressing character” (108). Thus, the use of dual and shifting pronouns in Grand’s novel serves to illustrate that both men and women have “feminine” and “masculine” attributes.

28Like Grand, Marryat also employs dual pronouns to deconstruct binary gender in her cross-dressing Sensation novel, Her Father’s Name. During a period in which she is disguised as her friend Christobal Don Valera, Leona

Locked the door behind him, threw off his fashionable new habiliments with a sigh of relief, and felt that for a few hours at least he might cast aside the restrain that galled him, and be what he was—Leona Lacoste. ‘So far, so good’, she thought, as she stretched herself upon her couch. (Marryat 147. My emphasis)

29Marryat’s change of pronouns here suggests that clothes have the power to alter Leona’s gender. After all, as G. Bolich states, “without dressing there is no crossdressing” (Bolich 172). Whilst wearing male clothes Leona is “turned into a man” (Marryat 50), but once these garments are removed, the female pronoun is reinstated to establish the complex role costume and body play in determining a person’s gender. Given that Leona must first remove the props of her disguise to expose a different gender, Her Father’s Name initially appears to conform to the characteristics of other sensational cross-dressing narratives by depicting masculinity as a performance. However, the relief that Leona is portrayed to experience at no longer having to convey a stable gender identity illustrates that, like Angelica, her gender is not singularly masculine or feminine. As Catherine Pope argues “through Leona, Marryat is keen to show a character who embodies the best of both masculine and feminine characteristics, rather than simply a woman who seeks to behave like a man” (118). Indeed, it is only when Leona embraces her dualistic identity that she can truly realise herself.

30Despite the significance of Leona’s dress in constructing her gender, in contrast to New Woman fiction, it does not have the power to override her “feminine” instincts. In the light of her inability to control her emotions after she has shot a man during a duel, Christobal warns Leona that “if you do not show a little more reason in the matter, your sex will become apparent to the whole company” (Marryat 61). As the narrative acknowledges that the “effeminacy of many men in the southern climates much assisted” (Marryat 47) Leona in her disguise, Greta Depledge argues that Marryat’s novel questions whether “clothes alone can make a man to fool other men” (“Introduction” xv). Even Leona’s masculine clothes are shown to have limitations, as Dr Hastings retorts that the disguised Leona “looks more like a woman stuck into boy’s clothes to me” (Marryat 145). In undermining the power of physical performance to produce gender, Marryat implies that some elements of femininity are biological and thus inherent in women. Ultimately, Leona is only able to “mimic” (Marryat 51) masculinity, not feel like a “genuine boy” (Grand 443) as Angelica does.

31Although like Marryat, Grand recognises the role clothes play in the construction of her heroine’s masculinity by emphasising “just how important dress is” (The Heavenly Twins 439) in the social construction of gender, in comparison to Her Father’s Name where gender is at times shown to be a physical masquerade that can be taken on and off, Angelica’s masculinity is presented as more than a performance. It is significant that Angelica is performing boyhood as opposed to manhood because, as Tina O’Toole argues, the boy occupies an intermediate position between femininity and masculinity: “for New Woman writers, the Boy was one avenue through which they could access male privilege, as least temporarily” (110). As Angelica “moved like a boy, and felt like a boy until she was her own brother in very truth”, she becomes “mentally and morally exactly what you thought me” (The Heavenly Twins 443). Thus, Angelica can be viewed as a Victorian version of Jack (previously known as Judith) Halberstam’s female man. Halberstam discerns that masculinity is, “at least in part, a construction by female- as well as male-born people” and therefore does not necessarily bear any relationship to a person’s biological sex (13). Angelica notes that “having once assumed the character, I began to love it; it came naturally; and the freedom from restraint, I mean the restrain of our tight uncomfortable clothing, was delicious” (The Heavenly Twins 442-3). As Heilmann argues, this suggests that “dressing as a man, and enjoying a man’s freedom of movement, had a profoundly masculinising effect on her psyche” (“(Un)Masking Desire” 90). Yet Grand does not portray Angelica as unsexed.

32Instead, Angelica retains her femininity whilst cross-dressing, thus making her a hybrid of both genders. This echoes Mona Caird who rejected the notion that in the nineteenth century women were either “good, beautiful, submissive, charming, noble, and wise” or “bad, ugly, rebellious, ill-mannered, ungenerous, and foolish” (182). Instead, Caird maintained that femininity was an increasingly unstable category during the mid to late-Victorian period, in part because it was based on “individual experience” and from “the bias with which that experience is met” (183-4). Thus, in using cross-dressing heroines to undermine the stability of femininity, New Woman writers such as Grand can be seen to look back to Sensation fiction by creating heroines whose physical appearance questions the conflation of femininity and morality.

33In addition to revealing the freedom of mind that Angelica simultaneously gains when she puts on male clothes, Grand, through the Tenor, shows that gender is constructed in the eye of the beholder. Angelica relishes her ability “to convert a substantial young woman into such a slender, delicate-looking boy as I make” (The Heavenly Twins 439. My emphasis). The word “convert” illustrates that although Angelia’s physical body does not change, apart from the artifice she employs to appear more slender than she really is, she mentally becomes a boy emphasising that individuals are psychological compounds of both genders. This is reiterated in her confession to the Tenor:

I assumed his [Diavolo’s] manner and habit when I put these things on, imitated him in everything, tried to think his thoughts, and looked at myself from his point of view; in fact my difficulty was to remember that I was not him. I used to forget sometimes—and think I was. (The Heavenly Twins 440)

34Flangan contends that the “cross-dressing heroine’s role is one which explicitly involves the successful assumption of a masculine subjectivity to the extent that the biologically female subject is considered to be a male by secondary characters” (108). Angelica’s disguise is shown to be so convincing that even she begins to forget her biological gender. Illustrating that masculinity is imbedded in a woman’s psyche, Angelica, like the Tenor, fails to separate masculinity and femininity into two distinct categories. Angelica’s androgyny contradicts the pre-conceived inherent relationship between sex and gender to reveal the “political possibilities” (Mouton 204) by which the women’s movement could counteract gender stereotypes and illustrate that, as Michelle Mouton states, “gendered attributes can be attached to any bod[y]” (203). Thus, as well as destabilising gender boundaries, Grand demonstrates that anatomical sex does not equal gender.

35As in The Heavenly Twins, Leona’s admission that “she had acted a boy’s part so long that she sometimes almost came to think she was one” (Marryat 172) challenges early nineteenth-century theories of gender by demonstrating that gender is not fixed. Leona’s confession evokes the argument Judith Butler put forward two centuries later to show that femininity is not necessarily based on biology, but culturally determined and sustained by iterative performative acts. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1900), Butler argues that “gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (191). Like Angelica, Leona comes to forget her biological sex as other characters fall for her charade.

36Finding herself alone with Lizzie Vereker, one of the many young women who declare themselves to be in love with the disguised Leona, Leona momentarily fails to remember that she is a woman:

[Lizzie] lifted up a very bright face so close to Leona’s that it only seemed natural to my heroine to kiss it. The minute she had done it though, she saw by the blush that dyed her companion’s cheek, how imprudent she had been, but it was impossible to explain the action away again. She must let Miss Vereker think what she chose. (Marryat 172)

37While critics such as Pope have argued that this episode signals emerging homoerotic tensions within the novel, Leona’s decision to kiss Lizzie without considering the consequences suggests that as a woman it comes “natural” to her to kiss her best friend. Despite acting in a way usually associated with heterosexual masculinity, Leona’s actions reflect middle-class women’s friendship patterns in the nineteenth century. Sharon Marcus argues that these relationships between women frequently “worked in tandem with heterosexual exchange and patriarchal gender norms” (21). However, she also notes in relation to Sophia Jex-Blake’s account of a kiss with her friend Octavia Hill that these friendships opened up space for the development of lesbian relations (Marcus 46). Indeed, it is only after Lizzie’s flushed response that Leona realises the sexual connotations of what she has just done.

38In The Heavenly Twins, after the revelation of her cross-dressing antics, Angelica contends that because men are “educated deliberately to think of women chiefly as the opposite sex”, she was forced to cross-dress in order to enjoy “the benefit of free intercourse with [the] masculine mind undiluted by [the] masculine prejudices and proclivities with regard my sex” (The Heavenly Twins 444). Angelica achieves her desire as, while disguised as the boy, her friendship with the Tenor flourishes as he treats her as his equal. However, upon the revelation of her “true” gender after a boating accident, their friendship comes to a sudden end as gender stereotypes disrupt their relationship. The Tenor acknowledges that “it was curious how the new knowledge already affected his attitude towards her” even though “it was only a change of idea really, the boy was a girl, that was all; but what a difference it made” (The Heavenly Twins 435). Unable to separate the boy and Angelica, the Tenor cannot “drop either of the two individualities which had hitherto been so distinct” (The Heavenly Twins 436). Echoed in the readers’ adjustment to this revelation, the Tenor’s response emphasises the difficulty in realising that gender identities cannot be differentiated into binary categories but rather that gender represents a scale which individuals can negotiate. It is also worth noting that it is the Tenor’s “idea” which changes, not Angelica’s sex, reinforcing Grand’s message that to be human is to have attributes of both femininity and masculinity.

39Although the endings of both The Heavenly Twins and Her Father’s Name see Angelica and Leona give up the freedom that cross-dressing affords them by marrying, their submission to patriarchal bounds is not so straightforward. Firstly, it is Leona and Angelica who, in a role-reversal, propose to their respective husbands. Moreover, Angelica’s marriage is founded on the “bargain” that her husband “should let me do as I liked” (The Heavenly Twins 445). Leona and Angelica enter into marriage only once their autonomy has first been established, both to their own satisfaction and in the eyes of the man they are marrying. Thus, this enables them to retain the independence cross-dressing offered them.


40By portraying the artificiality of gender categories, Grand and Marryat, along with the majority of the other authors discussed within the course of this essay, demonstrate that a person’s gender is not based on their anatomical biology but is instead culturally determined. Angelica and Leona construct their own gendered identity that, reinforced by their outward expression of masculinity, has attributes of both genders. However, neither resembles the masculine women portrayed in the popular press. Rather, in combining masculine and feminine characteristics, Leona and Angelica serve, as Mouton argues, to “challenge readers to interpret [… people], not as men or women, but as androgynes” (185). Yet, Leona and Angelica are not genderless. Instead they occupy both binary categories simultaneously to illustrate that masculinity is inherent in women.

41To further oppose the contemporary rhetoric that associated femininity with domesticity and passivity, Grand and Marryat expose the potential artificiality of appearance by presenting gender as a spectrum that, at times with the ease of a costume change, can be engineered and used by women to generate power. Leona and Angelica’s masculine disguise is accepted because they successfully subvert socio-political expectations of gender. By having their heroines disrupt stereotypes of gender, Marryat and Grand demonstrate the artificiality of socio-political constructions of gender and illustrate the ease with which they can be inverted and exploited. This enables both Grand and Marryat to use their cross-dressing female protagonists to make a wider statement regarding the inherent malleability of gender and its ability to be manipulated, as well as, in the wider political sense, the untenability of withholding rights from woman on the grounds of their essential difference from men.

42As addressed in relation to Evans, Dixie and Moore’s cross-dressing narratives, in Sensation fiction gender is typically shown to be achieved through iterative performative acts, whereas in New Woman literature femininity and masculinity are shown to be part of the human spectrum. However, Her Father’s Name contests this by depicting Leona to have inherent traits of both masculinity and femininity. Consequently, given the similarities between Grand and Marryat’s portrayal of cross-dressing female protagonists, Heilmann’s statement that New Woman writers used their cross-dressing narratives to imply that “women could, in fact, become men” (New Woman Fiction 117. Emphasis in original) can also be applied to Sensation fiction.

43However, while both novels challenge the singular binary of femininity, neither Grand nor Marryat offer the same direct challenge to the concept of masculinity. Nevertheless, it is important to note that both Angelica and Leona are aided in their cross-dressing by the limitations of masculinity in the men who surround them: Leona in the natural femininity of Brazil’s native men and Angelica by Diavolo’s sensitivity and feminine appearance. This suggests that archetypal masculinity is likewise a patriarchal construct designed to enable men to maintain their dominance.

44As Leona and Angelica expose the instability of femininity, Her Father’s Name and The Heavenly Twins emphasise the role of Sensation and New Woman fiction in the formation of modern ideas of gender, in particular that gender is a social construct. These two novels also serve to uncover Laqueur’s twentieth-century mis-reading of nineteenth-century theories of gender and demonstrate that in the forward-thinking cross-dressing narratives of Sensation and New Woman literature, ideas about women and gender are radically contested. By illustrating that a person is concurrently masculine and feminine, Marryat and Grand simultaneously refute the nineteenth-century notion that women were biologically inferior to men and demonstrate that masculinity and femininity are not distinctive categories, but co-exist in the female (and also male) body.

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Alcott, Louisa May. “Behind a Mask, or A Woman’s Power.” Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, edited by Madeleine Stern, Perennial, 2004, pp. 1-104.

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Beller, Anne-Marie and Tara MacDonald, eds. Rediscovering Victorian Women Sensation Writers: Beyond Braddon. Routledge, 2014.

Bolich, G. G. Crossdressing in Context: Dress, Gender, Transgender, and Crossdressing, volume 1: Dress & Gender. Psyche’s Press, 2006.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “What is ‘Sensational’ about the ‘Sensation novel’?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 37, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1-28.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2010.

Caird, Mona. “A Defence of the So-Called ‘Wild Women’” Nineteenth Century, vol. 31, no. 183, 1892, pp. 811-29.

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Depledge, Greta. “Introduction.” Florence Marryat, Her Father’s Name, edited by Greta Depledge, Victorian Secrets, 2009, pp. i-xxxii.

Depledge, Greta. “Sensation fiction and the New Woman.” The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, edited by Andrew Mangham, Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 196-209.

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1 For a discussion of Sensation fiction’s defining characteristics see Winifred Hughes. The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s. Princeton UP, 1980; Patrick Brantlinger. “What is ‘Sensational’ about the ‘Sensation novel’?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 37, no. 1, 1982, pp. 1-28; Lyn Pykett. The Sensation Novel: From The Woman in White to The Moonstone. Northcote House, 1994; and, Anne-Marie Beller and Tara MacDonald, eds. Rediscovering Victorian Women Sensation Writers: Beyond Braddon. Routledge, 2014.

2 For a discussion of the difficulty in defining the New Woman see Sally Ledger, The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siècle, Manchester UP, 1997 and Ann Heilmann, New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism, Palgrave, 2000.

3 This sentiment was also put forward by Grand who, when interviewed in 1896, argued that there should be a separate House of Ladies with political power to redress social ills: “it has often occurred to me that a chamber composed of women qualified to watch legislation as it affects their own sex, and to report their ideas to the House of Commons, would be doing more useful work on behalf of the general community than the present House of Lords” (“The Woman’s Question: An interview with Madame Sarah Grand” 224).

4 The suffrage campaign used feminine dress to combat the stigma of women being labelled masculine by anti-suffragists. As Christine Bayles Kortsch notes, this method served to draw “the public’s attention to the suffragists’ beauty and respectability, and perhaps public censure” and so, “the more radical their message, the more feminine their clothing”. Christine Bayles Kortsch. Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy, Textiles and Activism. Routledge, 2009, p. 91. For more information regarding the use of feminine performance in the suffrage movement see Lisa Tickner. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-1914. U of Chicago P, 1988.

5 In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill contests the basis of separate spheres as “one of the chief hindrances to human improvement” because it was enforced simply to permit men ultimate control. He argues that “what is now called the nature of woman is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others” (Mill 22).

6 This is a strategy reminiscent of Sensation novels such as Lady Audley’s Secret where readers are not privy to the “secret” until the climactic revelation scene.

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Electronic reference

Katherine MANSFIELD, The “Ambiguous Sex”: Cross-dressing heroines in Sensation and New Woman fictione-Rea [Online], 16.2 | 2019, Online since 15 June 2019, connection on 24 February 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author


Cardiff University
Katherine Mansfield holds a PhD in English Literature from Cardiff University. Her thesis explores the relationship between Sensation and New Woman fiction to investigate the extent to which Sensation literature is a forerunner to the early development of the New Woman novel; and consequently how the two genres blur, or cross, temporal and conceptual boundaries.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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