Female Cross-Dressers in 18th-Century and Romantic England

Welcome back, readers! As Managing Editor, I am excited to say that we have an all-star lineup of new bloggers, roundtables, and conferences to share with you this Fall. (For the identities of these mysterious new bloggers, who represent a wide selection of American and Canadian universities, take a look at Our Writers).

In the midst of getting organized for the new semester of NGSC blogging, though, I’m also preparing to give a presentation for my friend Katie Gemmill’s undergraduate seminar at Columbia, which she has brilliantly titled “Miss Behaviour: Transgressive Women in 18th-Century British Fiction.” In response to the assigned primary-source texts on dress, disguise, and gender, I will be providing some historical background for female cross-dressing during this period. Since I think blog readers are just as likely as students to be intrigued by the topic, I’ll introduce to you now some fascinating (and, most importantly, * real *) cases of female cross-dressing and concealed identity — especially in the context of same-sex relationships —  in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Although the conceit is very familiar to us from Shakespeare’s plays, probably the earliest historical case in England of a woman first assuming a man’s identity, then entering into a marital relationship with another woman, occurred in 1680, when a court lutenist, Arabella Hunt, married James Howard, in what seemed a mutually agreeable relationship. After six months of living together, however, Hunt brought a suit against her husband that claimed he was, in fact, female (or possibly hermaphroditic). In 1682, the marriage was annulled on the grounds that Howard’s real name was Amy Poulter, that five midwives had determined that she was a ‘perfect woman in all her parts’, and that the marriage was, in any case, bigamous — Howard was already married to a man! Perhaps the most striking thing about this case is that Hunt apparently did not realize her spouse’s true sex before the marriage —  though one wonders whether she initially participated in concealing the sex of her cross-dressing partner. In any case, this marriage between women was well-known, and it even served as material for Aphra Behn’s 1682 play, The False Count.

A similar case of mistaken sexual identity in a historical marriage occurred later in the 18th century. Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband (1746) fictionalizes the story of a real woman, Mary Hamilton, who, like James Howard, assumed a male identity (Charles or sometimes George Hamilton), and a masculinist profession, as first a physician’s apprentice, then a mountebank. Hamilton entered into a legal marriage with the 18-year-old Mary Price (though more spurious accounts say that he had at least 14 relationships with women who were unaware of his true sex). The marriage to Price was an apparent success, but after two months, Hamilton’s sex was discovered by a third party, who recognized him from a previous relationship. Hamilton was tried as a fraud, and was later imprisoned for six months. In a rather contemporary twist, the legal documents around Hamilton’s imprisonment show his own adherence to his male identity, and the lawyers respond with uncertainty about which pronouns to use for the prisoner: “he or she prisoner at the bar is an uncommon, notorious cheat, and we, the Court, do sentence her, or him, whichever he or she may be…”

Meanwhile, in Italy, Catherine Vizzani adopted a masculine identity (Giovanni Bordoni), apparently in order to seduce other women — whether knowingly or not — into intimate relationships. As Bordoni, Vizzani worked in jobs that were coded as masculine, including as a valet, and developed a reputation as a lady-killer among the local soldiery. Vizzani died in 1743, at age 24, as a result of a wound sustained during a botched elopement; she revealed her sex on her deathbed to a nun, was buried in women’s clothing, and was celebrated by anatomists and religious figures alike for her dedication to maintaining her virginity. Perhaps because of the allegedly titillating details of her life, Vizzani’s postmortem report was translated from Italian into English by John Cleland, the author of the notorious erotic novel, Fanny Hill.

Charlotte Charke
Charlotte Charke

But not all cross-dressing women during this period adopted male garments or personas in order to enter into same-sex relationships; it could also serve a professional purpose. Charlotte Charke (alias Charles Brown), is a case in point. The twelfth child of Drury Lane dramatist Colley Cibber, Charke wore boys’ clothing as a child, and even began to practice medicine upon local residents from the ages of 13 to 16 (running up a large bill at the druggist’s, in the meantime). At 16, she married Richard Charke, and followed her parents onto the stage, specializing quickly in “travesty” or “breeches” roles, and soon after she began to wear men’s clothing continually. After a breakdown of the relationship with her father, Charke left Drury Lane for the Haymarket, and worked with Henry Fielding. By the time she was 24, her husband had died, her family had sold the theater, she had had a baby, and she was living in poverty — so much so, that she was imprisoned for debt. It is thought that Charke, who was already dressing in men’s clothes, adopted the “Charles Brown” identity during this time as a way of evading creditors; it is also known that other actors and prostitutes in London’s theater district paid the bail for “Master Charles Brown.”

Charles Brown
Charles Brown

According to the Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, when Charke (as Brown) was released from prison, an heiress fell in love with him, and they even became engaged, but the relationship ended in disappointment. As Brown, Charke took various masculine jobs as a sausage maker, a tavern owner, a baker, a grocery store owner, and a valet to Lord Anglesey (a bigamist who married his ward and sold his cousin into slavery!), later returning to acting and running a successful Punch and Judy puppet show that satirized the nobility. Later dressing again as a woman, she married twice more, though in her autobiography she remarks on an aversion to her two subsequent husbands. In later life, Charke became a writer, publishing the novel, The History of Mr. Henry Dumont, Esq; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn, and the autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs Charlotte Charke in 1755.

A rather later, very famous example of cross-dressing occurred during the Romantic period, in the case of Dr. James Miranda Stuart Barry, who graduated as a doctor from Edinburgh medical school in 1812 and served a long and distinguished career as a military surgeon in South Africa, the Caribbean, and Canada.

Dr. James Barry, c.1813-1816
Dr. James Barry, c.1813-1816

Barry even performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections in modern history. When he died in 1865, Barry’s body was found to be female by funerary dressers, though his oldest friends from the medical profession refrained from giving any opinion, or even examining the body closely. Scholars have since concluded that Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland sometime between 1789 and 1799, and that her uncle, the painter James Barry, helped her to change her gender, which allowed her enrollment in medical school.  After Barry’s death, Florence Nightingale commented caustically, “After he was dead, I was told that (Barry) was a woman . . . I should say that (Barry) was the most hardened creature I ever met.”

Dr. Barry (L) with his companion, John, and his dog, Psyche, in the 1860s.
Dr. Barry (L) with his companion, John, and his dog, Psyche, in the 1860s.

In turn, the Ladies of Llangollen retained their original identities as women, but adopted some elements of male dress; more importantly, though, they participated in a same-sex lifelong companionate relationship that had the full support of English high society. Born into the Irish nobility, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby ran away together to avoid their respective fates in a convent and in an unwanted marriage. Living on a small stipend from their relations, Butler and Ponsonby set up an idyllic Gothic retreat in Wales, and dedicated themselves to literary pursuits. As time passed, their relationship made their home a tourist attraction: they were visited by Wordsworth, Byron, Percy Shelley, Walter Scott, Lady Caroline Lamb (who was a cousin of Sarah Ponsonby), the Duke of Wellington, and the Wedgwood family.  Even the nobility became interested in their relationship, and Queen Charlotte granted them a lifelong pension. Although they never confirmed to outsiders that their relationship was a sexual one, the Ladies of Llangollen were freely transgressive with their dress, attiring themselves in top hats, riding jackets, and cropped hairstyles.

The Ladies of Llangollen
The Ladies of Llangollen

Finally, though the “Boston marriage” would not be fully described until later in the nineteenth century, the increasingly tolerant attitude towards female marriage that we see in the case of the Llangollen ladies persisted in the mind of our own Mary Shelley, who in 1827 convinced her then-suitor, an American politician, to provide passports for her friends Isabel Robinson and Mary Diana Dods (alias David Lyndsey / Walter Sholto Douglas) to leave England and to move to France as man and wife.  In 1828, after Robinson and Douglas successfully emigrated, Shelley visited the couple in Paris.

In these cases, it’s hard to make sense of each figure’s sense of his or her own identity, and we are left with more questions than answers.  Can James Howard, Charles Brown, James Barry, and Walter Sholto Douglas be considered transgender people in the contemporary sense? Can we read the people in these same-sex marriages as lesbians, or do they have a different model of conceiving of sexual identity? Or, alternatively, are these women who are manipulating gender mores to make the best of a restrictive social environment — in order to practice medicine (as Hamilton, Brown, and Barry did), or to marry other women (like Howard, Hamilton, Bordoni, and Douglas)? Is a “female husband” a man, a woman, both? And how does same-sex female desire in this period square with an assumption of masculine traits — a profession, a name, even a hat?

Many thanks to Katie Gemmill for the opportunity to perform and present this research, and especially for directing me towards Fielding’s “The Female Husband” and Cleland’s translation of “Catherine Vizzani.”