Here's the thing about Georgette Heyer: she hates you. Or, okay, she doesn't hate you, exactly. It's just that unless you are white, English, and upper class (and hale, and hearty, and straight, and and and), she thinks you are a lesser being.
This is actually kind of reassuring to me. See, I read all her mysteries back in my teens. (The only romance of hers I'd read before this is The Grand Sophy, which is on the required reading list that starts with Pride and Prejudice. It isn't second on that list. Maybe 50th. But still. It's there.) I was going through a classic mysteries phase, and I found Heyer strangely refreshing, because at least her antisemitism was only one prejudice of - well, basically all of them. I mean, Sayers (who I also adored) was racist and antisemitic, but totally pro-queer, and it was confusing to proto-me - like, lady, do you hate me or love me? Are we friends or foe? Make it clearer. Whereas with Heyer, I knew where I stood: somewhere way below the bottom rung of humanity. Along with everyone else in the world except Prince William and four of his friends from Eton, which really took away the sting.
But my point is: if you are not that white British upper-class person of good stock and hearty bluffness and a large country estate, the only question for you is which book will contain a grimly bigoted caricature of you featuring every single stereotyped trait ever associated with your particular group. (You have to decide for yourself if really wonderful female characters and great writing are worth the rest of it.) For me, the big ones were The Grand Sophy, featuring a giant festering glob of antisemitism roughly in the shape of a man, and several of her mysteries, which have amazingly stereotyped gay and lesbian characters. (One of them also includes, somewhere around the eighth time the gay guy bursts into girlish tears, an explanation of how childhood asthma causes homosexuality. I am not kidding. And, hey, I'm asthmatic and queer, so maybe she's right!)
But with this as background, you can perhaps understand why I was so riveted by the concept of the Masqueraders. During the Heyer sale, Best Beloved pointed it out to me, and the conversation went like this:
BB: Listen to this one. "...brother and sister flee to London, Prudence pretending to be a dashing young buck, and Robin a lovely young lady."
Me: So, wait. They're brother and sister and they masquerade as - sister and brother?
Me: Why? What possible reason could there be to do that?
BB: Says here it's because of the Jacobite rebellion.
Me: ...Maybe they skipped the drag aspect of that in my history books.
So obviously I made her buy it. But then, in direct violation of established conventions in our relationship, she refused to read it. I suffered the curiosity of the damned for about two days and then gave in and read it myself.
And it is exactly as advertised. Prudence and Robin spend most of the book cross-dressing, and not just, you know, casually. They are walking the walk. Prudence joins a club, attends stag parties, hears smutty jokes, and gets into fights. Robin flirts outrageously and acquires a number of admirers and a lot of petticoats.
This book shows you just how good Heyer was at this writing gig, because she faced a conundrum, here. I mean. There is no actual good, plot-related reason that Prudence and Robin cross-dress. Sure, Jacobite blah blah blah wrong side blah blah treason blah. But here's the thing: if you are, say, Robin, and good enough at disguise to make a convincing lady, you're also good enough at it to make a convincing different guy. (A fact that is driven home by another character in the book, who does just exactly that.) I was left with the inescapable conclusion that Robin and Prudence cross-dressed because they just really wanted to, and if you're not going to seize the day when you're fleeing from a treason charge, when will you?
Which, fine. I am all for cheerful madcap cross-dressing siblings having adventures in historical England! That is a winning formula, as far as I am concerned. But it did leave Heyer with a problem - when you want to write a book about something because it makes your id do handsprings of glee, but you can't come up with a decent reason for it to happen, what do you do? Millions of fan fiction writers know exactly what to do, of course: you start the story with Ray Kowalski already a zebra, or with Erik and Charles already in a brutal space prison, or with Kirk and Spock already tied together by an eternally unseverable eighteen-inch chain. Problem solved! Commence writing your ever-loving id out! But Heyer had to figure this out without the internet. And she still managed just fine. We begin the story with Prudence and Robin already Peter and Kate, and unless you look at it closely - or, okay, think at all - it holds together just fine.
But Heyer wasn't enough of a writer to solve the main problem (from her perspective, I mean; from mine, this is not a problem but a delight) of a romance in which your main characters spend all their time cross-dressing. She couldn't degay it. I mean, if Tony believes that Prudence is actually a guy named Peter, then Tony's love for Peter looks - and in fact is - very, very gay.
The traditional way of getting around this, of course, is to have Tony see through the disguise and realize immediately that Peter is, in fact, Prudence. Heyer has gone down this road in other books, Best Beloved tells me. (Apparently she was trying to win the hotly contested "Most Cross-Dressing in a Single Author's Collected Works Created After 1616" title.) The problem in the Masqueraders is that Heyer wanted Tony to treat Prudence like a dude. It's clearly a big part of the id appeal for her. Tony gets her into his club, invites her to his guys-only parties, and asks her to his house in the country for a week. (Less than a week after they meet, no less. And he pitches a massive hissy fit when she politely declines. There is no actual stated reason why he does this, but my theory is that "visit," in this case, was a euphemism for "fuck.") No guy of that time period - and do keep in mind that Heyer's historical books are "meticulously researched," or so says the bit at the end of my copy - is going to do that with someone he knows is a lady. I mean. Seriously. Not.
But it's more than that. The Big Reveal scene goes roughly like this:
Tony: Welcome to my home, Peter. I invited you to a party, but in fact it's really a romantic dinner for two!
Prudence, tensing up: Um.
Tony: Now let's chat. I know your secret!
Prudence: Yes, okay, fine. I'm a girl. I admit it. You have dragged it out of me with your vicious romantic dining and your sleepy but knowing eyes!
Tony, attempting to control his facial expressions: You're a girl? Seriously? I mean - yes, exactly! I knew it all along!
Prudence: I'm just curious. How did you know?
Tony: Um. Well, you know, various small clues I can't recall now. Mostly it was the way I felt about you. [No, I am seriously not kidding; his entire evidence is the way he felt about her.]
At no point before she confesses, in other words, does he give any indication that he actually knew. And as soon as she does confess - and absolutely not before - his way of interacting with her changes drastically. He stops treating her as an equal and starts giving her orders and making demands and being very, very Tony-knows-best-don't-bother-your-sweet-h
(It is possibly also relevant that once Tony realizes that Robin is really a guy, he keeps right on flirting with him, and in fact does so more than when he thought he was Kate. I - I can only hope they work this all out after the book ends.)
So basically Heyer, who did not like persons of even the vaguest queerness, let her id talk her into writing what amounts to a gay romance. I find this deeply satisfying. (Right up until the point when women's clothes turn Prudence strangely biddable and passive, and the women's clothes on Prudence turn Tony into a raging dickosaur.)
Robin's romance, by the way, is sadly less gay, but also wildly less ethical, largely because he makes friends with his beloved as Kate but woos her in a black mask as the Unknown. (If you're asking yourself what kind of woman would fall for a guy she has seen only for a handful of minutes, who always wears a mask, and who gives himself the name the Unknown, read the book, because the answer is: exactly the kind of woman he ends up with. I correctly predicted to Best Beloved what her response would be to Robin's disclosures about all of this, and it is, basically: "Oh my god that is so awesome let's do it all again except this time can I wear the mask?")
The Masqueraders just might be for you, if you were looking for a romping romance in which a guy thinks a girl is a guy and a girl thinks a guy is a girl. (And, yes, now I am yearning for a story in which both halves of the romantic couple meet while cross-dressing - she think he's a girl! He thinks she's a guy! Surely someone somewhere has written this. Please let someone have written this.) At least until everyone changes clothes. (Provided you don't mind that the author hates you.) But if you were hoping that there really would be a good plot-related reason for all the cross-dressing: sorry, nope. Still, I think you'll agree that it's better that way.
Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comments.