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1. Cross-Dressing in Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

Camp Transvestism in Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994)



Cet article se propose d’étudier la figure du travesti dans Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, roman d’inspiration néo-victorienne de Peter Ackroyd, qui utilise le motif des travestissements masculin et féminin à la scène comme à la ville, comme moteur et toile de fond d’une enquête policière. Cet article explore la politique du travestissement, qui illustre à travers le roman la notion de « performativité » du genre telle qu’elle est pensée par Judith Butler, avant de se consacrer à l’esthétique camp du déguisement. La dernière partie de cet article traite de l’éthique du travestissement, qui illustre, à travers la notion de la dépersonnalisation, un ethos du care-giver, liant en dernier ressort le déguisement et l’écriture travestie à une dimension sacrée et cathartique, dans un mouvement éthique a priori contradictoire à l’esthétique camp.

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1In Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, Peter Ackroyd draws on the gothic atmosphere of the Victorian past to weave a hybrid narrative web of testimonies, storylines and pseudo archival documents. The narrative is conveyed by various voices, the first one being the autobiographical first-person narrative giving an account of the life of Elizabeth Cree, a music-hall artist known as Lambeth Marsh Lizzie in what seems to be a Bildungsroman describing her formative years, her successful time on stage and her subsequent withdrawal into domestic married life. The second storyline is carried by an omniscient focalizer who seems to be a twentieth-century historiographer chronicling the police investigation into a series of gruesome murders that took place in Limehouse in September 1880, reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s. The third and fourth storylines are respectively reproductions of the minutes of Elizabeth’s trial, convicted for the murder of her husband, and excerpts from said husband John Cree’s diary, describing the murders he committed in Limehouse. The novel, loosely based on the biography of the eponymous nineteenth-century pantomime artist Dan Leno, uses on and off-stage female-to-male and male-to-female cross-dressing as both a backdrop and a dramatic drive for the police inquiry into the Limehouse murders. The outré pantomimic turns of the music hall artists in drag extensively described in the main character’s diary—Lambeth Marsh Lizzie aka Elizabeth Cree—and the graphic display of ghastly murders depicted in her husband’s diary in a Grand Guignol vein, evoke the exaggerated theatricality and bad taste of camp. In her landmark essay on the notion, Susan Sontag defines camp as a “sensibility” (53) rather than a genre or a style, and as a “way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon” (54), whose essence is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (53). Camp sets new standards, where theatricality and artifice are ideals (62), potentially doing away with the notion of morality and substance in favor of form and excessive playfulness. However, Moe Meyer’s critical re-examination of Sontag’s generally admitted definition of camp suggests that the process of excessive parody at the core of camp aesthetics also endows its discourse with a fundamentally political dimension (9-10), aiming at producing more visibility for queer identities (1). In a similar vein, Katrin Horn’s reading of the poetics of camp highlights its potential for producing a politically committed critical discourse, for “at its most basic level, [it] is the inversion of taste in favor of the neglected, the other, the marginalized” (5).

2In the light of this critical re-assessment of camp, I would like to argue that the flexibility of the highly mutable and fleeting camp sensibility is an effective tool to examine the ambiguities of cross-dressing as illustrated in the novel. On the one hand, the motif allows for an analysis of the constructedness of gender categories, quite literally illustrating that gender is “performative”, in the Butlerian acceptation of the term. However, cross-dressing also supposes a form of acceptance of gender stereotypes in order to be functional, paradoxically re-stabilizing the very codes that it purports to debunk. Finally, I would like to demonstrate that the politics and aesthetics of cross-dressing in Peter Ackroyd’s novel entail a spiritual experience of dispossession of identity which ultimately reconnects transvestism with a seminal religious and ritualistic dimension, thus turning the writing into an ethical space aptly welcoming Otherness.

1. The instability of identity

3Acts of cross-dressing abound in the text and the comedy of gender identities is played out on multiple levels. On the music-hall stage, Dan and Lizzie appear mostly in drag performances. Leno owes his reputation of “funniest man on earth” (21) to his female impersonations, playing the comedic dame characters of Mother Goose and Sister Ann in traditional pantomimes. Lizzie, first introduced on stage as a female comedic character, “Little Victor’s Daughter” (104) soon turns to male impersonations, creating the role of “Little Victor’s Daughter’s Older Brother” (151). The writing process, focusing both on the on-stage performances while describing the performers’ lives off-stage, gives us a glimpse into the actors’ minds, thus allowing for a reflection on the elaboration of such characters. For Dan Leno, impersonating is a matter of “‘thinking through’ (as he used to put it) an entire a character” (194): “It was not enough to dress as Sister Anne or Mother Goose; it was necessary to become them” (194). Lizzie on the other hand offers a telling account of her patient elaboration of a male character. As she tries on Dan Leno’s leftover costume she realizes: “But what a picture I made in the mirror—I had become a man, from tip to toe, and there might have been a slangster comedian standing there” (150-51). Following this revelation, the actress learns a particular demeanor:

I used to swagger on the stage like a leonine comique, and then somehow manage to have my hat knocked off by a gasman’s pole; that set them roaring because I started to quiver—literally quiver—with rage before very carefully taking the gasman’s cap and flinging it into the gutter. It was all mime, of course, and in the beginning Dan took me through the steps and gestures as if I were about to become a regular Grimaldi. (192)

4This body language is completed by the acquisition of a new language: “I was a good gagger, too, and after a while I developed my own masculine slanguage.” (192). From exterior appearance to body postures and discourse, this description of the birth of “the Older Brother” breaks down the process through which a male character is conjured up into three steps, thus showing that a masculine identity can be constructed and appropriated:

In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency. Indeed, part of the pleasure, the giddiness of the performance is in the recognition of a radical contingency in the relation between sex and gender in the face of cultural configurations of causal unities that are regularly assumed to be natural and necessary. (Butler 175)

5The pantomimic device, by breaking down the theatrical artifice, demonstrates quite literally that gender, being performed on stage, is thus performative:

Drag is an example that is meant to establish that ‘reality’ is not as fixed as we generally assume it to be. The purpose of the example is to expose the tenuousness of gender ‘reality’ in order to counter the violence performed by gender norms. (Butler 342)

6Lizzie’s performance soon exceeds the boundaries of the stage, however. As the male character seems to develop “a life and a history of his own” (149), which she fully believes in when she is on stage, she decides to take The Older Brother “out into the streets of London and see the other world” (153), perfecting the character into a second identity: “Of course he never wore his stage clothes, which were a trifle too short and too shabby, and he had bought for himself a whole new set of duds” (153). Thus, turning the drag performance into a transvestite exercise while passing for male off stage, Lizzie stresses the liberating power of cross-dressing, which allows her to access the shadiest parts of London that would otherwise be too dangerous for a woman: “I could be girl and boy, man and woman, without any shame. I felt somehow that I was above them all, and could change myself at will” (153). The creation of such gendered personae the exploration and the testing of limits of gendered norms it entails, are steady concerns of Neo-Victorian rewritings of the past. Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet similarly features Nan Astley’s transformation into stage character Nan King, and her subsequent life as a male prostitute in the streets of London. After performing for the first time, Nan draws the bitter-sweet conclusion that “whatever successes [she] might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs [she] should enjoy clad, however girlish, as a boy” (chapter 5). Likewise, Patricia Duncker’s James Miranda Barry retraces the adventures of a Victorian transgender surgeon steered toward a life of passing by his uncle and his guardian who intended a better life for their ward: “From now on you are going to be a boy. […] You’d be wasted as a woman. Join the men” (63). Like Lizzie, Nan and James throw a light on the position of limited power occupied by women in society, while underlining the possibility to eschew such limitations through cross-dressing.

7However, performing her stage character off stage also has a deeper implication for Lizzie:

I was always overwrought after my performance […]but after a while Little Victor’s Daughter would fade away and Lizzie would come back. I had to be careful not to contradict the orphan story I had sold [Doris] when I first arrived in our lodgings, but that was the easy part: I had invented a whole history which made me much more interesting to myself, and I really had no difficulty in sustaining it (107).

8When Lizzie’s stage persona recedes, what she calls her authentic self comes back. However, against all expectations, “Lizzie”, whose background story the speaking ‘I’ must be careful to sustain, seems no truer than the comedic character of “Little Victor’s Daughter”, as if Lizzie were actually perpetually acting, calling into question the very possibility of an authentic behavior. For instance, upon catching her husband and her maid committing adultery, she observes: “In my excitement I echoed one of the phrases from the Northolt Tragedy” (254) and a few lines down, after defeating her cheating husband, Lizzie concludes: “He was, as Dan might have said, utterly squashed” (255). A closer reading reveals that Lizzie’s reactions are mostly dictated by her stage life, in what can be described as a camp attitude. In the words of Fabio Cleto, “the deliberately camping subject fashions itself through self-parody, setting up a pantomime stage in which s/he is fully, and centrally, as at once actor and spectator, part of it” (25). Lizzie, who is in turns imitating Dan Leno, citing her mother or quoting the lines of a play, may be said to have set up such a stage, as if under her stage mask were another mask hiding yet another mask. Those performances of identity both on and off stage literalize Susan Sontag’s view that “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. […] To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater” (56). The process of endless quotation that characterizes Lizzie’s behavior, constantly using the words of others as her own reaches beyond the performance of gender identity and comprehends the notion of identity itself. Indeed, “camp works by emphasizing and demystifying the artificiality that passes for natural” (Cleto 25), calling into question the humanist notion of a core, of an essential or authentic self, postulating that identity is always already an act, or a performative imitation merely creating the illusion of a stable unified self.

2. The ambiguities of cross-dressing

9The camp theatricals of gender are based on a fundamental ambivalence towards their target:

The camp theatricality in itself takes part in the representation of the power it debunks. […] As a highly ritualized and codified space, the camp theatrical reproduces the discursive conditions of its enactment, it stages indeed power […]and it does so […] with a potentially denaturalizing gesture. (Cleto 204)

10The demystifying or critical power of cross-dressing is only a potential component of the camp performance of gender, a point that Peter Ackroyd, in an essay tellingly entitled Dressing Up, similarly makes in his distinction of transvestism and drag:

Instead of implicitly adhering to the prevailing sexual and social codes, as transvestism does, it flouts and breaks them. Drag parodies and mocks women – it is misogynistic both in origin and in intent, which transvestism clearly is not. The contemporary male transvestite wishes to create an illusion of femininity – to ‘pass’ as woman. For him […] female clothes are not a vehicle for satire at women’s expense. (14)

11Postulating that while transvestism implicitly follows the dominant sexual and social codes, drag “flouts and breaks them”, Ackroyd stresses the inherently ambivalent dimension of cross-dressing towards gender stereotypes, a paradox that is coherent with the Butlerian perspective on drag:

The notion of an original or primary gender identity is often parodied within the cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities. Within feminist theory, such parodic identities have been understood to be either degrading to women, in the case of drag and cross-dressing, or an uncritical appropriation of sex-role stereotyping from within the heterosexual practice [...]. (Gender Trouble 174)

12In the novel, when Dan Leno appears as the pantomimic characters of Sister Ann and Mother Goose, he offers an exaggerated image of stereotypical femininity, thus confirming the ingrained conception of women as being venal or lecherous, features merely overstated for comedic purposes. After describing a scene in which a famished Sister Ann is being trampled on by Bluebeard, following his doctor’s recommendation “to walk everyday on an empty stomach”, the narrator concludes: “it did suggest the extent to which Londoners of the period were eager to see the more forward or lecherous females punished for their behaviour” (171). According to Caroline Radcliffe, from a Bakhtinian perspective, the carnivalesque dimension of the drag performance of gender in pantomime can be read as transgressive, that is to say, as reversing an established social order, but when contextualized, “it acts as a reinforcement of the very attitudes it parodies – and acceptance of the prevailing hegemony” (118). In this perspective, pantomime both destabilizes yet at the same time reinscribes the Victorian patriarchal order on the stage. This paradox might be better understood through John Cree’s point of view, when he reports on one of Dan’s performances as a “dame”:

The season begins earlier and earlier, but I presume that the citizens of London need some diversion from the horrors in their midst. How much more charming to see Bluebeard kill twenty women in his chamber than to think of it being performed upon the streets! (Dan Leno 159)

13To a Victorian audience, the music hall stage is a cathartic space where order can be safely challenged and therefore ultimately restored. As to John Cree, he embodies a more conservative point of view as regards cross-dressing when he concludes:

I am as fond of display as any man, but the thought of him [Dan Leno] dressed as a princess or fishwife disturbs me as much as it ever did. It is against nature and, for me, nature is all. (159)

14The dialogic form of the novel makes room for a thorough examination of the various possible meanings of the pantomimic drag performance through the different points of view that it accommodates, stressing the crucial role of reception in creating and validating gender norms, a process furthered by the historiographic metafictional dimension of the Neo-Victorian genre. The voice of the fourth narrator, a twentieth-century chronicler or historiographer, reframes the pantomimic performance and the sense of humor it deploys as being an “indication of the taste of an age”, acting “as a relief or release” while becoming “an unacknowledged common language by which the worst aspects of a group or society can be made respectable” (Dan Leno 170), allowing for a critical re-examination of the “ritual humiliation” of women performed on the Victorian stage (171).

15Indeed, the dramatic drive of the detective story is also based on a seminal act of transvestism, turning the contemporary reader into the dupe of the comedy of gender that is played at a macrostructural level. The third and fourth storylines of the novel are made up respectively by reproductions of the minutes of Elizabeth’s trial, convicted for the murder of her husband, and excerpts from John Cree’s diary, describing the murders he committed in Limehouse, presenting the reader with two obvious culprits. Readers are thus under the assumption that they have all the answers from the start, which displaces the hermeneutic quest from the identity of the killer to the process of investigation, à la Columbo. But the diary of the perpetrator, apparently providing a unique insight into the killer’s mind, is revealed to be a forgery when, in an unexpected development, Elizabeth Cree confesses to a priest on the eve of her execution that she is the author of John’s diary and the real Limehouse Golem. Such a narrative twist can only function with the reader’s blind reliance on pre-conceived ideas of masculinity, and the belief that such a violent behavior and longing for acknowledgment and fame could only be male features. The revelation of this seminal act of cross-dressing forces the readers into a critical re-examination of the novel and of the gender stereotypes they relied on for its decryption. From her mother, to her roommate Doris, her mentor Little Victor, and her husband, a trail of deaths by poisonous substances seems to follow Lizzie’s path throughout the novel. She is also an aesthete, drawn to fame and recognition. Such clues pointing to her guilt abound in her diary, yet remain ignored by the reader who attributes the numerous deaths that occur to either chance or to the presence of John Cree in her wake. Lizzie’s diary constitutes an instance of what Helene Shugart terms a camp performance of femininity by a female (4), for it overplays stereotypes of femininity, such as innocence, naiveté, purity and fragility, with an excessiveness that obfuscates the presence of the aforementioned clues. The whole plot operates on the assumption that the reader will adhere to the codes of gender displayed in the novel, ultimately forcing them to acknowledge their constructed and cultural nature, and their presence in the mind of the reader.

16Cross-dressing appears to be both a creative and a destructive act, whereby Lizzie, in this particular instance, usurps her husband’s identity, ultimately problematizing the relationship of impersonation to alterity and the morality of imitation.

3. Writing in drag and ethics

17According to Sontag, camp is an essentially “playful” sensibility that celebrates the victory of “style” over “content” and of “aesthetics” over “morality” (62), by virtue of which camp is “disengaged, depoliticized or at least a-political” (54):

The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to the serious. One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. (62)

18In Sontag’s perspective, camp is a solvent to morality: sponsoring playfulness, it neutralizes moral indignation, a point that has been discussed in later critical re-examinations of the movement. As noted above, when Lizzie cross-dresses, she feels empowered, “above them all” (153). Endowed with the ability to be both male and female, the cross-dresser seems almighty, a feature that appears in many of the myths connected to androgyny, from Plato’s Symposium to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As argued before, this newly gained omnipotence is, in her case, certainly linked with a complete lack of morality and loss of empathy. Conversely, Dan Leno, whose behavior is a reversed image of his female counterpart, exemplifies an ethical practice of cross-dressing. As a response to a bereaved character – Peggy, a survivor of the latest mass murder of the Golem – Dan quotes a line from one of his earliest part as an “infant wonder”, but unlike Lizzie, “as he recited the verse, he experienced the horror of the Gerrard children for a moment” (206). Unfortunately, he cannot comfort Peggy, and the narrator observes that Dan as an actor would have succeeded where Dan as a man failed: “He could find only the most frail and timid words of comfort now, whereas on the stage he could have delivered a great tirade of sorrow before spoofing his own grief” (206). In this passage, Dan’s practice of citation radically differs from Lizzie’s, for, using the words of others, Dan manages both to be present to the other, yet separate from the grief that only the powers of illusion can help transcend, for the “beauty of pantomime” is that “it is believed only while it is being performed” whereas “in real life, things are a bit harder” (206). Very much aware of the powers of theatrical cross-dressing, Leno adds: “And I suppose that’s what we try to do in pantomime. Soften the hardness just a little” (206). Dan as a comedian can provide what Dan as a man cannot: an appropriate language to comfort the other, in the words of others, through a cathartic practice of his art as an impersonator. By doing so, Dan Leno reconciles cross-dressing with its seminal transcendent dimension as displayed in Ovid’s account of Tiresias, the soothsayer’s metamorphosis (III; 323).

19Peter Ackroyd dedicated an essay to such performers, who are in his words “great Cockney visionaries”, or “monopolylinguists”, that is to say, “a type of comedians or actors who play a number of quick-change parts in the course of one performance” (London Luminaries 344). It is my contention that the novel performs this conception of art, and that the narrative is the final great monopolylinguist. Arguably, the neo-Victorian genre itself, using the garment of the Victorian era in a contemporary context, might be said to be a narrative in disguise, while Peter Ackroyd, using a female male impersonator as his main focalizer, could be construed as a cross-dresser himself. Indeed, the noted-above ambivalence of the drag performance towards stereotypes of genders may be transferred to the intertextual parody of Victorian subtexts. Catherine Bernard suggests that Peter Ackroyd, in his practice of playful rewriting, does not aim at radically reconfiguring or subverting the literary canon, but rather attempts to create a “chamber of echoes” where past and present might resonate with each other (1999 - 223). Pastiche as it is practiced by Ackroyd seems to function “as a paradoxical form of creative imitation” (2003, 15):

The text flaunts its stylistic mask instead of erasing the clues to its facticity. Its purpose is thus not to steal a stylistic identity, but on the contrary to leave the breach unhealed and insist that this raising of the literary dead yields but a second identity. […] In that respect, it may be interpreted as some failed work of mourning which endlessly commemorates voices that were once incarnate and vibrant with a sense of presence. (Bernard, 2003, 15)

  • 1 My translation of : “Autre caractère frappant de l’attitude camp: l’incohérence violente de ses div (...)

20As mentioned earlier, Dan, Lizzie, and all of the characters in the novel constantly echo other voices, other texts or quote the words of others, among which De Quincey’s Of Murder as One of the Fine Arts, or Marx’s The Capital. Standards from popular culture, pantomimes and melodramas or Cockney slang limericks are also put forward. The jarring variety of the cultural references used in the text can read as playful random name-dropping, but according to Patrick Mauriès, the very eclecticism and gratuitousness of the references is one of the main features of the poetics of camp (110-11). The camp aesthetics uses irreconcilable languages and forms of knowledge, and cultural references that cannot be subsumed under a central theme that they would purportedly ‘extend’.1 Such a camp practice of intertextuality aims at reviving forgotten cockney artists of the time, in keeping with the idea that “camp – at its most basic level – is the inversion of taste in favour of the neglected, the other, the marginalized” (Horn 5). In this imitation or re-presentation of cultural and literary history, the ackroydian text produces what Best and Robson name a “remainder”, a residue “which is open to reinterpretation, which may ethically, spectrally, demand revision for the sake of significant voices which have been forgotten” (5) enabling fiction, writer and reader to perform an ethical act, in the Levinasian acceptation of the term. Leno and Grimaldi are put on an equal footing with canonical authors such as Wilde and De Quincey, in order to reinstate them as an inherent part of the British tradition. The text turns into an echo of past voices, giving female characters, mostly excluded from history, a spectral presence in the story, through the passing appearance of wives and daughters of ‘great men’, such as Nell Gissing, Eleanor and Jenny Marx, and references to female actresses Fanny Kemble and Sarah Siddons (235) or male impersonator Bessie Bonehill (76). According to Jean-Michel Ganteau,

[Kitsch] – certainly transformed into camp – is put to uses other than the conventionally playful. It is meant to defamiliarize and to teach, it acquires an edifying, almost ethical function by pointing at new ways in redefining a literary canon. (248)

21The camp use of references that seem incompatible, and might even appear as gratuitous name-dropping, coupled with quotations, imitations of different genres and writing styles, from newspapers to official court reports and diaries, the reproduction of popular scenes from traditional pantomime, verbatim citations of entire rhymes and couplets (195) – all testify to a will to make the text an ethical site welcoming otherness. Namely, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem restores the dynamism of the lower classes of Victorian society by bringing both individual and anonymous voices and the significant influence of cockney culture back into the limelight. In the words of Christian Gutleben and Julian Wolfreys,

By reviving a comparative approach to the present and the past, the known and the unknown, the self and the other, neo-Victorian fiction can be said to have answered Levinas’s call for excendance. (58)

22While Leno the monopolylinguist, reconciles cross-dressing with its original transcendent dimension as displayed in Ovid’s account of the soothsayer Tiresias’ metamorphosis, the narrative becomes the site of an ethical prosopopoeia, performing the conception of the artist as witness, as spokesperson for the voices of past, bearing witness to the vulnerable other.

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Ackroyd, Peter. Dressing up: Transvestism and Drag: the History of an Obsession. Simon and Schuster, 1979.

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1 My translation of : “Autre caractère frappant de l’attitude camp: l’incohérence violente de ses diverses références. …. Le camp brasse des savoirs inconciliables, des langages que ne peuvent pas s’entendre, ni être ramenés sous l’autorité d’un thème central dont ils seraient le ‘développement”‘ (110-111).

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Justine GONNEAUD, « Camp Transvestism in Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) », E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Avignon Université
Justine GONNEAUD is senior lecturer at the University of Avignon and a member of ICTT research team. Her research focuses on issues of ethics and gender and, more recently, on the development of a contemporary mode of urban art and ethos in contemporary British literature in the works of authors such as Will Self, Jeanette Winterson, Brigid Brophy, Angela Carter or Peter Ackroyd.

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