In a moment in which trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people have quickly gained increased visibility, the stakes of telling a tale of a person assigned female at birth and living as a man have never been higher. Tales of “male impersonators” existed long before the “transgender tipping point,” but this historic moment calls for critical reevaluations of their stories.
Cat Sebastian’s Regency era romance novel Unmasked by the Marquess begins typically enough for a male impersonator tale. When we meet the protagonist, born Charity Church, she is a former servant who has been impersonating her deceased master and lover, Robert Selby, for several years. She first began impersonating the real Selby, at his request, to attend Cambridge in his place. After Selby’s death, Charity maintains her impersonation of Selby to prevent Selby’s cousin from inheriting his estate, which would leave both Charity and her sister, Louisa, penniless. Charity accompanies Louisa to London to find her a suitable husband, after which time Louisa will be taken care of financially, rendering Charity’s impersonation no longer necessary for the two sisters’ livelihood. In the novel, the protagonist is referred to as Charity with the pronouns she/her/hers when narrated from her third person perspective. (In keeping with this, I will also refer to her as either Charity or Robin, a nickname given in the novel, with the aforementioned pronouns.) Many readers interpret Charity/Robin as nonbinary. While using the male impersonator framework, Sebastian leans into the transgender tipping point admirably, engaging with the protagonist’s identity in ways that the “male impersonator” trope in historical romance novels ordinarily seeks to avoid.
A remarkably enduring and widespread literary trope, the “male impersonator” character has its roots in the ancient world and still retains a prominent place in storytelling to this day. In this construction, a young woman must temporarily impersonate a man in order to rescue her loved ones from harm, returning to her life as a woman regarded by her community as brave, principled and dutiful. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, whose protagonist Viola disguises herself as Cesario, was not only popular in its time, but has undergone many well-received twentieth and twenty-first century revisions, including Just One of the Guys (1985), Shakespeare in Love (1998), She’s the Man (2006), and the Public Theater’s production of the original Shakespeare play starring Anne Hathaway as Viola. As my eyes welled up while the melody of “Reflection” soared in the latest trailer for Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan (1998), I was reacting to an iteration of a story that is likely over a thousand years old. Male impersonator tales gained popularity in the early modern Atlantic world, in part because of its transformations.1 The early modern world was busier, more crowded, and more anonymous than it had been in previous eras. At the same time, less bureaucracy for proving one’s identity made slipping into a new identity much easier to do. For these reasons, more recent historical romance featuring male impersonators, too, often find early modern Europe or America an alluring setting for such a tale.2
And yet, that tailoring pinches in all the wrong places for the early twenty-first century. Male impersonators like Viola and Mulan temporarily lived as a man because they had to, because it was the only way to do the right thing. Perhaps women who impersonated men enjoyed the broader personal freedom, but enjoying the privileges of being a man is altogether different from, in the way many would describe it today, identifying as another gender. It is this difference that Sebastian presents as a significant source of tension in Unmasked by the Marquess. Sebastian employs the usual external forces — money and duty — while also meaningfully delving into Charity’s internal sense of her own gender.
Sebastian’s treatment of Charity’s gender identity takes a hard turn from the well-trodden route of the male impersonator tale. Most male impersonators are relieved to end the impersonation and return to life as women by the end of the story. Charity, however, approaches her impending return to a life of womanhood with anxiety, terror, and mourning, fully illustrated in her romance with a man, Alistair, the Marquess of Pembroke. The two soon fall in love, Alistair affectionately giving Charity the nickname “Robin.” Alistair sees the solution as quite simple: all Robin has to do is go back to living as Charity, and the two can be an ordinary, respected man and wife, even if Charity’s low birth may cause a small stir. Charity, however, is exasperated that Alistair does not seem to understand the gravity of what he is asking her to do. Alistair thinks Charity feels this way because men have more freedom. “She shook her head. He still didn’t understand. ‘It’s not about freedom.’” For a trans man reader such as myself, that line has all the power of a stick of dynamite.
Unmasked also does more to unmoor sexual orientation from gender identity than the typical male impersonator trope. Such narratives have a way of flirting with queerness while still being firmly rooted in heterosexuality. Take, for example, the climax of Just One of the Guys. The high-school aged Terri, who impersonated a male student to prove that her writing wasn’t being taken seriously because of her gender, decked dashingly in a tuxedo, plants a long, sensuous kiss on the lips of her male love interest — who, like the onlookers, does not know that Terri is a woman. There is a similar draw in Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fienne’s steamy backstage makeout scenes in Shakespeare in Love, as well as in Mulan’s infatuation with Li Shang. All present a titillating element of queerness that is safely anchored in the supposed heterosexual reality of the situation. Historical romance novels play with a similar dynamic. A romance that an audience understands to be heterosexual may have the thrill of its brush with queerness, but there is a relief in the eventual reveal. In male impersonator narratives that feature a male love interest, heterosexuality is often like a Weeble: it wobbles, but it doesn’t fall down.
In its treatment of sexual orientation, is Unmasked a Weeble, or a tipping point? The novel sends mixed signals. Similar to Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky’s Stewart Jameson in Blindspot, Sebastian portrays the impersonator’s love interest as a man interested in men and women who attempts to quell his “unnatural” longings for the captivating young man who has come into his life. Alistair is carefully portrayed as the perfect bisexual, without “any preference on that score.”3 Read uncharitably — no pun intended — characters in both Blindspot and Unmasked speak derisively of cisgender gay men, delivered in a way difficult to excuse as a mere historical prop. However, appropriate to a time when the LGBT community recognizes that bisexual, pansexual, trans and nonbinary people are sometimes in relationships that “pass” as heterosexual, Alistair and Robin’s romance seems to flip the script: a brush with heterosexuality rooted in queerness.
So, do they end up together? Does Charity resign to a life of respectable womanhood? The novel does, in its way, get its version of a happily ever after, one that stretches believability of how the scenario could work out in Regency-era Britain, but not to the breaking point.
That this novel comes at a moment in which trans people are under close scrutiny for how they identify, how they express their gender, who they share intimate relationships with, and why, is what makes Sebastian’s framing of the protagonist so powerful. This trans reader gets the sense that when trans and nonbinary people told their stories to Sebastian, she listened. You can hear their voices distinctly in her telling of Charity’s story.
- Daniel Cohen, The Female Marine and Related Works: Narratives of Cross-Dressing and Urban Vice in America’s Early Republic (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997); Rudolf M. Dekker and Lotte C. Van de Pol, The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (St. Martins, 1989); Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women in Popular Balladry, 1650–1850 (University of Chicago Press, 1996); Katie Hindmarch-Watson, “Lois Schwich, the Female Errand Boy: Narratives of Female Cross-Dressing in Late-Victorian London,” GLQ 11, no. 4 (2005): 605–625; Julie Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness (Pandora, 1989). Return to text.
- Two other recent works of historical fiction featuring a male impersonator include Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, Blindspot: By a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise (Spiegel & Frau, 2008); Kate Worsley, She Rises: A Novel (Bloomsbury, 2013). Return to text.
- Cat Sebastian, Unmasked by the Marquess (HarperCollins, 2018), 176. Return to text.