This month’s TBR Challenge was historical – I regularly read a LOT of historical fiction and historical romance, and I do have a few unread on the shelf. I chose to read two traditional Regency romances that were gifts from my friend Janet Webb. Janet knows that I’ve made a study of cross-gender performance, so she kindly gave me some books featuring “girls in pants.”
Madalena, by Sheila Walsh, is a Signet Regency Romance from 1977; Minuet, by Jennie Gallant, is a Coventry Romance from 1980. Both of the heroines are French. They dress as boys to allow them freedom to go where they could not as young ladies and, in the case of Minou in Gallant’s book, to escape from France. This is a familiar pattern in Regency romance, going back to Léonie in Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades.
As trouser stories go, Madelena is a little more typical. The hero is not fooled by her disguise, and he is the one to step in and rescue her when she is taken captive in her boy’s disguise and her captors realize that she’s a woman. Devereaux, the dark and mysterious Duke (of course!) of Lytten, has a reputation for keeping beautiful mistresses but never taking romance seriously. He keeps many secrets (particularly about his involvement with smuggling and espionage) and early in the book she is prone to jumping to conclusions and frequently thinks the worst of him. But that changes when she stows away on his boat to France. Upon landing, they are attacked, and Madalena kills the man who is about to kill Devereaux, staunches his bleeding from a gunshot wound, and ends up being the one to remove the musket ball from his shoulder. Together they bring her father to safety in England, by which time he has learned to admire her strength and other less “feminine” qualities.
Minuet follows a different tradition (also familiar to readers of Heyer). Lord Degan begins the book horrified by Minou and her scandalous French ways; he’s stuffy and boring, but gradually he comes to admire her and to appreciate the very qualities he originally disparaged. (He’s not as wise and omniscient as many of Heyer’s heroes, though.) About two-thirds of the story takes place in France, where Minou, her secret half-brother Henri, and Degan have gone to rescue her mother and brother from Paris under Robespierre. Degan’s French is awful (he’s arrested as a spy almost immediately), and for much of their travel in France he is dependent on Minou and Henri’s wits to keep him safe and keep them all out of trouble. Once Henri falls into the hands of the Revolution, however, Degan comes into his own, and he and Minou work as equals to rescue all of her family members.
Both heroines take charge in their love lives as well; after their respective rescues are accomplished and they are about to return to England, each initiates sex before going back to their role as daughter/proper young lady. France serves as a place where they are more free to be themselves, throwing off social conventions along with their skirts.
I felt that both heroines had agency and were equal partners in their relationships, due in large part to their cross-gender role-playing. They were willing to disguise as men when playing a woman’s part would have kept them in the background and out of the action, and that gave them opportunities to act more directly on their own behalf as well as to take active part in rescuing their relatives and the men they loved.