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The Cross Dressing Duke by Anna Cowan

The Duke of Darlington is the hero of my debut novel Untamed. He spends most of the novel pretending to be a woman, wearing gorgeous masterpieces in embroidered silk with tight corsets and small hoops. Untamed is set in the Regency, so his fashions are a little outdated, but he knows a high-waisted dress would be difficult to pull off, and he’d rather look spectacular and outdated than silly and fashionable.

Untamed

I first had the idea almost four years ago, when I was talking with a friend about our favourite romances. A cross-dressing heroine came up, and my friend started enthusing about how cross-dressing was one of her all-time favourite romance tropes. I was agreeing in a mild sort of way when my slightly twisty brain played me an image of a man – a rake, naturally – trying to fall asleep in a room with five sisters who all thought he was a woman.

I feel kind of gobsmacked when I read back over that first draft. It’s so naive and exuberant. How on earth did I think that was a romance hero? But he stayed with me, and changed and deepened and darkened, and became something I absolutely adore.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to writing in a historical period is the clear gender roles. From a distance of 200 years the roles of men and women seem fixed and restrictive, in a way I’m sure our society will also appear 200 years from now. This creates clear external conflict (the rules of society make it as difficult as possible for spontaneous romance to occur and flourish) and clear boundaries for a heroine to push against (society is more obviously sexist, so we can clearly see how a woman is restricted and acts out against restriction).

I think these are also the reasons cross-dressing heroines are popular. When a woman dresses as a man she takes on the power of a man – which, as I’ve said, is more obvious in a historical period. This allows her the agency to act outside the restrictions placed on her. It also adds a subtle glamour to her: she is now inhabiting the masculine sphere, and can become a hero.

A cross-dressing hero works very differently. He is moving from a position of power to a position of less power; he is placing restrictions on himself. And where dressing as a man adds a certain heroic quality to a woman, there is still something deeply taboo about a man dressing as a woman.

This taboo is in part why Darlington intrigues me. We know that sexual taboo is often where the greatest thrill is found. Similarly, there’s something about breaking this cultural taboo that electrifies my intellect. It turns Darlington into something complex and unpredictable. He is a man, but he is not easily described as masculine.

Hetero romance deals in ideas of feminine and masculine. There’s a line I’ve read hundreds of time, in a sex scene, that’s some variation of: He was so hard and masculine that it made her aware of her own feminine power.

A line like that doesn’t define what it means by masculine and feminine – it relies on, and reinforces, a traditional concept of gender. Which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s part of what makes romance so emotional and emotionally satisfying to read. We’re socialised to identify with a certain gender – and a powerful version of that gender. So when we read a book that reinforces that version of gender, it can resonate deeply.

In reality, when I get ambushed by moments of feeling that sort of feminine it’s surprising and makes me feel a bit awkward and bashful and grateful. It’s an alien feeling – not something I experience myself as in a lived way. When a heroine feels “soft and feminine” it’s more foreign to me than familiar.

In Untamed I wanted to explore ideas of masculine and feminine that intrigue me, and in some ways resonate more strongly with me.

The first time I workshopped Untamed in a writing class my classmates were perturbed by the idea of a man making a beautiful woman. Many suggestions were thrown around along the lines of, “My, what hairy hands you have, my dear! My, what manly wrists!”

No, no, no. Darlington isn’t confronted by inhabiting a more feminine space. It’s not slapstick. It’s part of what makes him a powerful character to me – the way he does not need to be “masculine” to be a man. He is a person first, a man second.

The Duke gave an elegant shrug and flicked his fan open. A water scene had been painted on to the paddles with exquisite care, and the lazy motion of his wrist seemed to bring it to life. Kit had seen her brother Tom assume theatrical roles in the local, amateur productions – she’d even seen him act the woman more than once, when the number of parts required it. He always remained Tom, acting. The Duke’s transformation was absolute, down to the very marrow of his bones. There wasn’t a single hint of self-consciousness about him. His demeanour, the set of his mouth, the lazy sway of his hand, all belonged to Lady Rose. The ease with which he changed his skin was frightening.

The unanticipated effect Darlington’s ease had on Untamed was that it allowed the heroine, Katherine, to inhabit a more masculine space. She doesn’t have to masquerade as a man – she remains a woman, but is allowed, in her relationship with Darlington, to play a role most often reserved for the hero in romance.

Given this gender balance, a big part of developing Untamed was ensuring Darlington would be a desirable hero to female readers. The answer wasn’t, as one contest judge suggested, to “Make him a man most girls would fall for. Handsome, tough looking and can melt butter when he entertains the ladies and a mouth that shoots bullets when talking with a man.”

For one thing, I’m too in love with him to turn his words into bullets. He’s a fairly queer-gendered hero, and he reminds me of some of my favourite m/m romantic heroes. As the hero of a hetero romance he is queer-gendered and also explicitly allowed to be the object of female desire. This is a female desire that’s rarely reflected in romance.

His dress and corset don’t hinder the erotic relationship – they are instrumental to it.

‘Undress me,’ he said.

She came and stood behind him, a hand-span away from him, and plucked the pins from his wig, one by one. She pulled it from his head and hung it carefully from the mirror frame. Then she pushed her hand through his thick black hair, across his scalp. It was a rough, needy touch, and his head rocked forward beneath it.

She stroked down his cheek, down his neck, and stepped into him so that his back was a hard line against her body. She curled over him and began to unhook the front of his dress; he dropped his head back against her shoulder.

On every breath that came from him, there was something uncontrolled. The hint of a moan. Something that made her own breath draw in harsh against her teeth.

But he lay quiescent in her arms. Surrendered. Vulnerable.

She pulled the dress away down his arms and let it fall over the stool, the skirts still trapped beneath him. She came to her knees, her arms around him as she untied the tapes of his hoops and petticoats, until they fell down around his hips, a profusion of material, and all that remained was his haughty form encased in a rigid corset.

She stood slowly, her lips drawing a shiver from the nape of his neck.

She ran her knuckles down the tight laces of the bodice, and her body seized with a feeling so dark that for a moment she couldn’t continue.

She looked over his shoulder into the mirror and saw his eyes blown wide with excitement and fear.

It was far, far too late for doubt.

She had already leapt off some great height with him, and could not wish for solid ground now.

Untamed is my love letter to a certain kind of man, and to the kind of woman he wants to belong to, who wants to belong to him in turn. What kind of female desires do you want to see authors take a chance on?

Anna Cowan

Ms. Cowan’s book is the subject of dueling review to be posted later today.  You can find Anna Cowan at her blog diary of a(n accidental) housewife and on Twitter:  @annacowan.

Guest Reviewer

26 Comments

  1. AJH
    May 14, 2013 @ 04:25:20

    I haven’t read this yet (and, now I’m done with Wrath’s endless erection I’m going to break my schedule especially) and I don’t have anything useful to say whatsoever, but you just kind of made me swoon a little bit…

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  2. Ros
    May 14, 2013 @ 05:26:26

    The way you talk about him, he reminds me a little bit of Billy Crudup’s character in Stage Beauty – a male actor who played female parts before women were allowed on the stage.

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  3. Mike Innes
    May 14, 2013 @ 07:22:39

    Looks like you’re heading to smash the mould with this one! ;)

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  4. Anne
    May 14, 2013 @ 07:28:34

    When does this come out and where can I buy it? I don’t know enough history to know if this was realistically possible, but it sounds really interesting. I loved the excerpt above. The way their roles were switched was intriguing and makes me want to read more!

    I recently read Painted Faces by L.H. Cosway and really enjoyed it. It’s about a man who crossdresses for a stage show and has a contemporary setting. I started it wondering if such a romance could possibly work for me, but it really did.

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  5. Carolyne
    May 14, 2013 @ 07:50:25

    I, too, just want to buy and read this book right now.

    Crossdressing characters are one of my fave tropes too, and I love seeing interesting new ways to approach the idea, setting, plot, discovery, etc. etc.

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  6. Anna Cowan
    May 14, 2013 @ 07:55:48

    @AJH: To the best of my recollection I only used the word “erection” once :-).

    @Ros: I watched that movie again while I was writing Untamed, for just that reason! Crudup’s character definitely embodies the kind of masculinity I wanted to explore with Darlington.

    @Mike Innes: Thanks Mike! Jury’s still out on whether I’ve smashed something into pieces, created something new, or am just hanging out on the back porch dropping terracotta pots onto the pavement *g*

    @Anne: The official release is tomorrow, but Untamed is currently available to purchase. You can find links on my blog here: http://wp.me/P2VL9w-e8 Painted Faces is on my TBR, and I’m really looking forward to reading it.

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  7. Q
    May 14, 2013 @ 08:06:24

    It’s already available on Amazon UK for £1.99. I’ve downloaded it and have started reading it. So far very good!

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  8. Cherri Porter
    May 14, 2013 @ 08:08:17

    This is so true what you say about regency gender roles.

    “One of the reasons I’m drawn to writing in a historical period is the clear gender roles. From a distance of 200 years the roles of men and women seem fixed and restrictive, in a way I’m sure our society will also appear 200 years from now. This creates clear external conflict (the rules of society make it as difficult as possible for spontaneous romance to occur and flourish) and clear boundaries for a heroine to push against (society is more obviously sexist, so we can clearly see how a woman is restricted and acts out against restriction).”

    I teach Jane Austen novels at the community college level. I think one of the reasons students enjoy them (when they do) is the rigid social expectations the characters exist within. Austen’s characters always exist within the defined gender roles even as they are attempting to find out who they are and explore/grow their characters. Because of society’s expectations, their choices and actions have meaning and weight.

    Often, I think young people today, as they are trying to figure out who they are, will do anything and everything, but since, in many ways, all things go in our society (or at least parts of it), their personal explorations and sacrifices are relatively meaningless. They are exploring in an open see of possibilities and humans really function better against some sort of boundaries.

    It’s easy to think of cross dressing as a “silly trope” for comic relief, especially when it’s set in the regency period, but as you say, the rigid gender roles allow for more exploration of character and offer an interesting set of parameters.

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  9. Jane Davitt
    May 14, 2013 @ 09:10:38

    This has really captured my interest; look forward to reading it. Your hero sounds confident, unusual, and very aware of what he wants and unafraid to reach out and take it and I’m so glad your heroine appreciates that and gets a lot of out of it herself.

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  10. rose
    May 14, 2013 @ 09:17:10

    This sounds really interesting. I am quite new to romance (I used to believe the myth that the genre is all bodice-ripping, antifeminist, purple prose). One thing I am really enjoying is seeing how certain novels challenge and deconstruct gender. I agree that historical romance in particular is a perfect backdrop for exploring gender, because the social roles are so clearly defined and as modern readers, we have the benefit of hindsight (I do think contemporaries ALSO have great potential to deconstruct gender, but I’ve not come across many titles which do this in any substantial way (recommendations are welcome!))

    Anyway, I’m quite partial to femme-y heroes, but it seems they’re only found in m/m. So I’m very interested in checking this book out.

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  11. Jane
    May 14, 2013 @ 09:26:13

    @Cherri Porter – while it would be great if there are no boundaries in today’s society that’s clearly not the case. There are still segregated proms, not just for race, but for sexuality as well. Cross dressing or transgendered people are still viewed as Other and Different. So there may be pockets where defined gender roles are more fluid but I’d argue that the boundaries are fairly rigid in a lot of locales. Minnesota passed gay marriage yesterday. It’s the 12th state out of 50.

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  12. Cherri Porter
    May 14, 2013 @ 09:30:17

    @Jane:

    I agree completely. However, the idea that when we look at things from a distance–like 200 years–the lines seem more distinct b/c we aren’t privy to the nuances of behavior we would be if we were living in that time. Today, we exist within all of the many nuances of our time and figuring out who we are and what our own “boundaries” are is somehow messier than analyzing the past through the lens of a novel.

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  13. hapax
    May 14, 2013 @ 09:50:52

    This isn’t a criticism but a request for clarification:

    When I hear “cross-dressing” I think “transvestitism”. But your discussion of this novel sometimes implies “transgenderism.

    I know that the two are often confused, but they really aren't the same thing. Which one were you going for here?

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  14. rose
    May 14, 2013 @ 10:16:43

    @hapax

    I just read the article again, and there is nothing in there to suggest that the hero identifies as a woman (which would make him transgender), rather he is simply pretending to be a woman. It says that right in the first paragraph of the post.

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  15. hapax
    May 14, 2013 @ 10:32:24

    @rose:

    Yes, I understood that the hero identifies as a man, and as a strictly heterosexual man.

    But the post later talks about how the hero is “genderqueer” and both protagonists cross / subvert “gender boundaries” and it is my understanding (emphasis because of my limited knowledge of the subject) that transvestitism (which is what this hero seems to do) “works” because it *reinforces* gender binaries — something that also seemed hinted at in the “dueling reviews” post.

    But I want to reiterate that I am NOT suggesting that this is the author’s understanding or intent. I was not criticizing; I was asking for clarification.

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  16. AnnaCowan
    May 14, 2013 @ 18:36:43

    @hapax: thanks for asking for clarification. The cross-dressing is transvestitism. He’s genderqueer in the sense that he’s bisexual (this is clear in the book). I may possibly also have been crossing over into some idea of transgender without realising it – so thanks for pointing that out!

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  17. romancereader
    May 14, 2013 @ 21:38:32

    Great to see an author brave enough to explore gender roles (I’ll skip attempting to navigate the correct terminology!). I’m not sure that this particular hero will be my ‘cup of tea’, but I do like the idea of a less rigidly masculine ideal. One of my favorite authors has some Japanese heroes who have that feline grace implied here.

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  18. hapax
    May 14, 2013 @ 21:49:17

    @AnnaCowan — thanks for answering!

    I think I will try this one out; I do love the idea of doing something different with the expected gender roles.

    I just didn’t want to do this one the disservice of heading into it with the wrong set of expectations.

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  19. AnnaCowan
    May 14, 2013 @ 22:13:44

    @hapax: I wrote that reply first thing this morning and have just realised that of course bisexuality is a sexual orientation, not a gender orientation. It was evidently too early in the morning to be tackling a complex question! So to clarify further – his gender is a fairly fluid thing, but he identifies as male. :P

    I’m glad you’re going to give the book a go!

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  20. Kaetrin
    May 15, 2013 @ 04:43:18

    @AnnaCowan: Did you mean to say:-

    “his sexuality is a fairly fluid thing, but he identifies as male”

    ? Or am I just confusing myself?

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  21. AnnaCowan
    May 15, 2013 @ 18:13:00

    @kaetrin: both are fluid LOL, but there I was talking about gender. I guess it’s like if Darlington had access to a gender studies class, and if we take gender to be performed behaviour, he would be pretty interested in the idea of identifying as queer.

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  22. Kaetrin
    May 16, 2013 @ 00:50:19

    @AnnaCowan: I don’t understand *wails* :(

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  23. Anna Cowan
    May 16, 2013 @ 04:17:54

    @kaetrin: If we see gender as something that you perform – that’s separate to the sex you’re born as – then I am born biologically female and I also identify as female gendered. However, I could also identify as male gendered or queer gendered. I think if Darlington had access to these terms he would be interested in the idea of queer gender. I hope that makes sense :P. As I haven’t studied this stuff in depth I’m not really qualified to try and explain further – which possibly means I shouldn’t have used the term in my essay! I used it in the sense that Darlington’s identity isn’t wrapped up in performing male gender.

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  24. Kaetrin
    May 16, 2013 @ 04:27:42

    @Anna Cowan: Thx for trying Anna :) I understand the concept of cisgendered for example, but I’m a little (a lot) unclear on what “queer gendered” means. I don’t expect you to answer all my questions or anything – I’m merely confessing my ignorance. :)

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  25. Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency | Badass Romance
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 21:44:42

    [...] author takes risks, and so did the publisher. Here’s Anna Cowan’s kick-ass feature post for Dear Author about her motivation for crafting a sort of  ’social experiment’ of a [...]

  26. sue
    Feb 13, 2014 @ 18:25:44

    I really enjoyed you book, esp. the family relationships and dynamics, seemed very realistic to me
    thanks!

    ReplyReply

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