From the publisher’s web site:
Former actress Georgiana Knight always believed she and her brother were illegitimate—until they learn their parents were married, making them heirs to a great estate. To prove their claim, Georgy needs to find evidence of their union by infiltrating a ton house party as valet to Lord Nathaniel Harland. Though masquerading as a boy is a challenge, it pales in comparison to sharing such intimate quarters with the handsome, beguiling nobleman.
I was really looking forward to The Lady’s Secret, and I’m pleased to say it did not disappoint. Joanna Chambers mentioned in a discussion elsewhere that some thoughts I shared about the device of cross-dressing (in an old post on the defunct blog) were relevant to her use of it in this book. For which, yay! Because the device is used well here — and by “well,” I totally mean “the way I like it.” (Note: this is much more a consideration of the use of the cross-gender disguise that a comprehensive review of the book; as such, it contains some spoilers. For a review that covers other aspects of the book, I recommend Janet/Robin’s review at Dear Author.
To me, the joy of cross-dressing as disguise is the light it sheds on the nature of gender construction. So much of what we impute to “male” or “female” in the gender binary of our culture is external — ways of acting and speaking that are taught to us as part of learning the behaviour expected of us as good boys or girls. Standards of dress enforce that in a variety of ways, intersecting with class to create a “correct” way of dressing that reflects our social identity as it is constructed based on gender and class. So an upper-class person generally wears clothes that cost more and take more time, effort and money to keep up than the clothes of people in the middle and lower classes. In an era with servants, especially, wealth is demonstrated in dress by wearing clothes that one can’t even get into or out of without assistance. And in a society where women of the upper class are expected to be ornamental, and not expected to engage in serious exercise or vigorous movement, the standard of dress is one that shows off certain aspects of the figure and restricts movement. By giving a female character a plot reason to disguise herself as a man, an author creates an opportunity to explore those gender/class expectations and allow them to be questioned.
Not all books that use the device choose to use it in this way. There’s almost always a degree of gender commentary, because the very reason a woman chooses to disguise herself as a man is to go places or do things that she would not be allowed as a woman. But that simple level isn’t what I’m talking about — nor do I mean the sexual orientation aspect that often results from the device, where a man finds himself aroused or sexually attracted to the disguised woman. (That does happen in The Lady’s Secret, and it’s one of the better ways of dealing with it that I’ve read.) What I like to see is a deeper questioning of the nature of gender — if assuming a male role, in dress and behavior, gives a woman freedom that she likes, and if she is convincing in this role, then what does that do to the social assumption that dressing and acting that way is “right” for men and “wrong” for women? And what, if any, aspects of gender that are treated as “nature” actually turn out to be things she can take on or put off with the clothing and the role?
Two of my favorite romance novels in this regard are Almost a Gentleman, by Pam Rosenthal, and Indiscreet, by Carolyn Jewel. In both novels, the reflection on the nature of gender is rich and enlightening. Chambers writes about gender disguise in a similar vein. For one thing, she takes time to consider how the deception can be accomplished, and for the male character who first uncovers the deception to consider how and why he fell for it. Because Nathan does not immediately confront Georgy, but instead allows the ruse to continue, there are delightful paragraphs over the course of five chapters where he observes her appearance and behavior as “George Fellowes” and reflects on both.
Nathan remembers his father telling him that “Clothes make the man,” and he agrees.
He’d discovered, very quickly after his arrival in London, that if a young man wore expensive clothes, wandered around with an expression of boredom on his face and generally acted as though he was entitled to ride roughshod over everyone else, he would be assumed to be a fellow of considerable consequence.”
It was the same with Fellowes. Nathan had believed her to be a servant because she was discreet and silent and blended into the background. He’d believed her to be a man because she dressed and spoke and behaved like one, and was accepted as such by all around her.
Of course Nathan then begins repeating to himself that now that he knows she’s a woman, he can totally tell. Of course he can, because the moment he found out, his expectations changed. Now “her features were far too fine to be male” — clearly revisionist thinking, since her features have not changed. He also notices her round bottom now that she’s a girl, something he’d never have permitted himself to notice on Fellowes as a fellow man.
Out for a walk with other members of the houseparty he is attending, with a young woman leaning on him for assistance, Nathan thinks about how even his sister, who was something of a tomboy, developed “the feminine tendency to seek male assistance at every turn.” He thinks of Georgy as different in this regard: “But not every woman was like that. He recalled Georgy, walking along the Serpentine with Lily, running across the path to pick a daisy, vaulting that fence to fetch her handkerchief…” (Chapter 13) He recalls her behavior when dressed as a man and judges her more independent because of it — not because of the choice to disguise herself, apparently, but because while in that disguise she was able to live up to it. This contrast in Nathan’s mind suggests that perhaps “every woman” other than Georgy might be constrained in her behavior by the gender expectations that Georgy shed with her petticoats when she became Fellowes.
Once he knows that she’s a woman, he treats her differently when they are alone, but the behavior changes are less about gender than about class. He is no longer comfortable treating her like a manservant, but he doesn’t start treating her like a female servant. Nor does he treat her like a lady of his own class, largely because she isn’t dressed like one. Her unique situation keeps him from adopting any of the behavioral codes that he’s used to, so he ends up treating her mostly as a person, a friend, and eventually a lover.
Out hill-walking on his country estate, after they’ve left the houseparty, Nathan is surprised that Georgy can beat him at skipping stones and that she can keep up with him climbing “without seeming difficulty or getting out of breath.” He sees this as more of her uniqueness, while she treats it more pragmatically. When he calls her “strong, for a woman,” she points out that his own cook is very strong. She says, “Of course, you’re thinking of women of your own class, but normal women are quite different, I assure you.” Again, class and gender are interwoven to create expectation. His response, other than to picture how her strength would enhance a sexual experience, continues to brand her as unique, while she sees it differently.
“True,” he said. “But you are definitely more athletic and dextrous than the average woman. Just look at the way you’ve climbed up here.”
“Nine-tenths of that is down to my garb. I would not be finding this so easy in long skirts, I assure you.”
Later in the book, Nathan attributes some of his attraction to Georgy to her willingness to disguise herself and her ability to inhabit the disguise convincingly. Unaware of her background in the theatre, Nathan attributes Georgy’s success in a male role to her personality:
She was like no one he’d ever met before, a virgin-siren who lived like a man, taking what she wanted, scorning the rules of the world. Nothing could have seduced him more. He spent his life watching women try to win him. And here was a woman who personified everything he found most desirable — intriguing beauty, intelligence, independence. How ironic that she should be so immersed in her own mysterious adventure that she had no time for him.
Here, Nathan thinks of her facing life “like a man” not just literally, in men’s clothes, but figuratively, in the way Georgy goes after what she wants and doesn’t wait for someone else to take care of her or resolve her problems. Of course he finds this frustrating, because he wants her to confide in him and let him take care of her; he never really confronts the fact that what he admires about her is the very thing he keeps trying to get her to give up. Later in that same chapter, after a threat to her life, Georgy gives up her determination to keep the details of her problem to herself and tells Nathan her whole story, accepting his protection.
This marks a real turning point in the book. Georgy does have second thought about staying under Nathan’s protection, but when she dresses in her male clothing and tries to leave, she is attacked by someone who knows she is really a woman, and only Nathan’s timely intervention saves her. After that, she agrees to become his lover again (he took her virginity earlier in the book), and she begins dressing as a woman. He buys her clothes, and she scolds him for spoiling her with pretty things. He decides that he will deal with her cousin, who they think is behind the attempts on her life, and ensure her safety. He even thinks that he loves her, but he doesn’t want to say it. Her gender is right, but her class is not:
Should he say it? Was it true? It felt true. But what would she think if he said it? Would she think it was a promise of something? He didn’t want to spoil this perfect moment by talking about the future. If he spoke of the future, they would have to start making arrangements. They would have to come to terms, And before long this would become a transaction. He didn’t want that.
From this point on, there’s very little examination of gender identity in the book. Georgy lives as a woman, and she is almost immediately faced with what the world thinks about a woman being kept by a man who is above her socially. They have a typical falling out over the fact that she loves him but isn’t socially right for him, but he eventually realizes that her lower social standing doesn’t matter, because he loves her. Then the action plot takes over, and once that’s resolved, they work everything out and agree to marry. Not to say that this wasn’t done well, because it was, but there was very little of their earlier relationship or its complex tension in the latter part of the book. Once Georgy reverts to a female identity, it’s as though all the questions and insights raised by her disguise are no longer relevant.
The issue resurfaces in the epilogue, but not in a serious way. When Nathan starts planning for them to return to his country estate, he envisions them together as they were before, and he tells Georgy that he will teach her to ride (astride, not side-saddle) and fish, and that they can climb trees. When she notes that these are “masculine” pastimes, he says, “It’s just that as much as I love you in your gowns, I do have the occasional urge to see you in breeches again.” He equates this with sexuality now, “Lusting after your perfect … bottom,” And yet when she takes his comments sexually, his response might be taken to suggest that their time together before she went back to dressing as a woman had a relationship quality that he hopes to recapture when they return to the country.
“I think I know how we shall be spending our time at Camberley,” she said when she broke away. “And it won’t be riding. Or fishing. Or climbing trees.”
“Maybe not,” he murmured, bearing her back down to the mattress. “But make sure you pack your breeches just the same. There’s a good chap.”
In the end it seems that Nathan’s vision of Georgy as unique wins out here over the larger questions of gender, class and identity (class having been disposed of in the denoument of the plot). Their relationship looks likely to proceed along mostly conventional lines, despite the intriguing differences inherent in its early stages. Not all readers will take the “good chap” reference at the end as a sign that there might be greater equality in the relationship because of her “living like a man” earlier, and the sexual context of the last exchange leaves it ambiguous at best.