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24 September 2011 @ 03:52 pm
[Review] The Masqueraders, by Georgette Heyer  
(Warning! Spoilers, although mostly of the kind where I tell you who ends up with whom, which you will figure out in the first chapter anyway.)

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?
BB: Apparently.
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-head. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that he really didn't know she was a girl. And, in fact, was rather pleased that she was not, if you get where I'm going with this.

(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 comment count unavailable comments.
 
 
 
misspamelamisspamela on September 24th, 2011 11:16 pm (UTC)
Here's the thing about Heyer. I have had people telling me for YEARS that she is a must-read and yet, still, I hadn't read. Because my tastes are questionable at best and you know, I own that. But I finally read Grand Sophy last week and it was delightful! A romp! Lovely turns of phrase! And then OH GOD BIGOTRY BIGOTRY DON'T LOOK. I was just like....o.O sucked deeper and deeper into the OH HELL NO.

And then it got good again. But nobody warned me about that!
tried to eat the safe banana: Bookthefourthvine on September 24th, 2011 11:22 pm (UTC)
I am always kind of astonished by the recs that don't mention this, largely because it is SO FUCKING BLATANT. My experience of reading Heyer universally goes like this:

Fun!
Fun!
Awesome fun!
SLAP IN THE FACE!
Fun!
More fun!
PUNCH IN THE MOUTH!
Fun!
Delightful fun!
OH FUCK SERIOUSLY AGAIN?
More fun!
Happy ending!

I guess other people are better at forgetting being punched in the face? That has always been my impression from the enthusiastic recommendations that don't mention the critical "author hates you" part.

But the Grand Sophy is fun anyway, right?
(no subject) - misspamela on September 24th, 2011 11:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - aubade_saudade on September 25th, 2011 12:35 am (UTC) (Expand)
Spiderinespiderine on September 24th, 2011 11:22 pm (UTC)
Didn't Blackadder do this story once? *snicker*
Stasiastasia on September 25th, 2011 02:02 am (UTC)
... as you know, Bob.

*collapses in giggles*

Stasia
(no subject) - spiderine on September 25th, 2011 02:32 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 04:46 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - spiderine on September 25th, 2011 05:54 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - fenris_wolf0 on September 25th, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Leni Jess: Chocolate Frog (Wilderness Society)leni_jess on September 24th, 2011 11:41 pm (UTC)
I don't know if it's any consolation, but Heyer herself was, as well as being upper middle-class at most, part of an out-group. Her father was a Russian emigre who wrote, and she herself had writing aspirations (and street cred; she did The Black Moth at 16, and though that shows in some respects, it's quite skilled), but attended a standard school for the ambitious. People who write/want to write are not-one-of-us. Can't have been too much fun.

She may have picked up her attitudes there, or may have been trying to fit into a social group higher than she was born/raised to. See biography stuff. Also, she was perennially short of money (including after she married), and that sometimes straitens the mind. So her prejudices may have been, in a weird way, part of a fantasy life.

And to be a bit fair to her, the Shylock trope is an old one, and a standard plot device; I do wonder if she'd ever met a Jew who was, as it were, "out". It's not as if she was alone in her prejudices (which I freely acknowledge; don't get me wrong); an appalling number of her contemporaries shared them.

Oh, yeah, she did hate readers; they tried to visit, and wrote her letters she didn't like. She just needed them.

LJ ate my ETA, so I'll just say, I loved your review, and laughed a lot.

As a teenager I only saw the danger as well as embarrassment Prudence was exposed to, while her brother, as Kate, risked much less; I thought he was a reckless lout for putting her in that position. It was clear he enjoyed the potential for danger; equally clear that Prudence didn't.

Edited at 2011-09-24 11:53 pm (UTC)
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV dogtagsthefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 05:04 am (UTC)
It's - I mean, it is obvious, even from the little I know about her, that she's not exactly a member of the group she worships; more like a hanger-on. (I mean, I think there's a reason for her deep and sincere love of the "But I cannot let you marry me, as I am not worthy of you" trope - I think that trope tends to hit the id in the place that wants to hear "You are totally worthy. You really do belong.") Does it help? I have no idea. But, hey, I can still enjoy her books. There are ones I can't.

As a teenager I only saw the danger as well as embarrassment Prudence was exposed to, while her brother, as Kate, risked much less; I thought he was a reckless lout for putting her in that position. It was clear he enjoyed the potential for danger; equally clear that Prudence didn't.

Ooo, interesting. That was totally not what I got from it. I wonder if you would think the same things if you read it now?
(no subject) - leni_jess on September 25th, 2011 05:40 am (UTC) (Expand)
undercover-undiscovered-underutilised-underwear: waggle waggle :waggle:_unhurt_ on September 24th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)
this book is the first heyer i ever read (n.b. this was approximately three months ago). and let's say it was not quite what i had been expecting? i enjoyed the cross-dressing almost as much as - well, as robin, i think - though i was slightly concerned by how much their father seemed to enjoy it too...

it's either heavily implied or straight-out stated that pru at least has been dressing as a boy in the name of various schemes for years, isn't it?
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV flowersthefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 05:07 am (UTC)
It's straight-out stated; she cross-dressed for safety, basically, when their father ran the alehouse. It surprised me that it was fairly clear that it was Robin's first time, since of the two of them, he definitely seemed to enjoy it more. (I am still in love with the fact that the very first time he finds his masquerade confining is when he wants to go defend Prudence. Up until then, it was apparently just fun.)
(Deleted comment)
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV glowythefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 07:25 am (UTC)
You should feel flattered! Heyer knew what she was doing with the written word.

But maybe what they were really saying was, "You write id fic and I love it. My id and your id should be lovers. I know yours is the correct gender because I'm attracted to it."

THIS EXPLAINS SO MANY THINGS ABOUT MY ID.

He lets Yentl get married and have a happy marriage, and we just don't know if her wife was too naive to notice that she didn't have a penis or was persuaded not to care.

That is so awesome. I'm going to assume that Yentl's wife decided she really did have a husband, no matter what external genitals happened to be present.
The RCKtherck on September 24th, 2011 11:55 pm (UTC)
I read The Masqueraders in sixth grade. One of my friends had discovered romance novels as having sex in them and showed me where they were shelved in the library. I tried several, and it was the ones with no sex to speak of that were most memorable (this one and Juanita Coulson's Dark Priestess). I hadn't quite, at that age, gotten the idea that I could search for more books by a particular author, so it was a few years before I encountered Heyer again.

I haven't reread Heyer in the last several years. I'm too afraid of what I'll find.
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV Katamari Damacythefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 07:27 am (UTC)
I cannot say. And I know entirely too well that feeling of, "Oh, shit, I can't ever read [favorite author] again," so I can't even encourage you to try. Because, seriously, she has her great points, and her really awful ones.
Blindmouse: Alice readingblindmouse on September 25th, 2011 12:29 am (UTC)
She also hates you if you're a girl and not very bright, especially if you're also pretty: there's basically no way to be an appealing or worthy person in that case. (Although, to be fair, if you're a not very bright girl and you're not pretty and also blonde and blue eyed, you don't actually exist.)

I adore The Masqueraders, although mostly for the sister-brother relationship rather than the Prudence/Tony, which she seemed to get a bit mixed up and lost in. I do love the "I knew you must be a woman because I was attracted to you" thing, though. Most ridiculous and amazing.
Fabled Apteryx: Blondedakiwiboid on September 25th, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
Eh?
Lots of her heroines aren't blondes. There are plenty of dark girls, and some aren't ravishing. I just finished Sprig Muslin, which has Lady Hester Threale, who has light brown hair, is 29, "on the shelf", and is apparently just modestly pretty. I remember one heroine with rather a beak of a nose. I think there are redheads here and there I remember girls with tanned skins as well. Green eyes, brown eyes and laughing hazel eyes also play a part.
Re: Eh? - blindmouse on September 25th, 2011 10:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - thefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 06:51 pm (UTC) (Expand)
laleialaleia on September 25th, 2011 12:39 am (UTC)
I don't know about books where both halves meet while cross-dressing, but there are definitely a LOT of manga that have similar storylines.
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV menorahthefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 06:53 pm (UTC)
Oooo! Any recs?
(no subject) - laleia on September 26th, 2011 02:45 am (UTC) (Expand)
Sienamystic: Catherine heartsienamystic on September 25th, 2011 12:42 am (UTC)
I adore Heyer (and yeah, according to the curator of costume who turned me on to her, Heyer's research was a tad on the fanatical side, down to attempting to really work out which inn you could reach leaving London in a certain type of carriage with a certain number of horses) but...yeah. There are certain moments where her kind of blind kneejerkery came right through. I mean, at least Sayers, with all her issues, generally managed to make her side characters into real people, even if they were also Comically Stingy Scotsmen or Childishly Innocent Negro Clergymen.

One of my favorite books by L.M. Montgomery is called A Tangled Web. I love it. It goes along smoothly, and then, whammo - almost the last word in the book is a shocking racial epithet. Nngh.
starfishchick on September 25th, 2011 04:25 am (UTC)
Urg, I so agree about LMM's A Tangled Web! Such a good book, and then, that word. (I generally stop reading at the end of the second-last chapter specifically to avoid it.)
(no subject) - thefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 07:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Filomena: like a dungeon dragonaubade_saudade on September 25th, 2011 01:09 am (UTC)
yeah, it is kinda comforting. it's like when people are rude to everyone and they're rude to you, it doesn't feel personal. yet this is why i can enjoy some of her stuff, but can't love her or anything she writes. to me --inspired by your banana ;D-- it's like putting fruit in your mouth and then biting into it only to discover it was rotten inside.

i guess some people are less bothered by that. they just cut out the spoiled piece and eat the rest.
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV umbrellathefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
it's like when people are rude to everyone and they're rude to you, it doesn't feel personal.

Totally. I mean, it still sucks that someone is rude to you, and you're likely to think that person is basically kind of a jerk, but nothing they say really hurts. That's just how it is.

they just cut out the spoiled piece and eat the rest.

I am sometimes better at that, sometimes worse. I AM INCONSISTENT.
fryadvocategirl_wonder on September 25th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
The thing about Heyer is that it's totally clear if she'd lived during the internet, she'd have written fanfic and become a BNF. She always hits so many of my kinks so hard - CROSSDRESSING TWINS! COMPETENT WOMEN (until they always fall into the hero's arms)! AWESOME FAMILIES!
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV bluethefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)
I really think she would have. She'd have written GREAT het and every fantastic cliche we have, and her participation in wank would have been EPIC.
aly Says \ ألينramble_corner on September 25th, 2011 02:16 am (UTC)
ahaha
re:request
The only one that I could think of that might fit is W Juliet manga

Ito the girl character is tomboyish and everyone know she's a girl though but Mako have to fulfill a requirement set by his father ♥
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV brownthefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 07:31 pm (UTC)
Ooo. Thank you!
The Gauche in the Machine: WC Diana mischievouschina_shop on September 25th, 2011 02:27 am (UTC)


This made me laugh so hard.

ETA: And the next thing on my flist was a Princess Bride vid, so now of course I want the Princess Bride AU where instead of promising to marry the prince, Buttercup cuts off her hair and runs off to be the Dread Pirate Robert, and Wesley is a maiden she happens to rescue, etc.

Edited at 2011-09-25 02:32 am (UTC)
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV dogtagsthefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 07:33 pm (UTC)
I would read that SO HARD. Oh. Oh. Please tell me you're signing up for Yuletide and requesting this. OMG PLEASE.
(no subject) - china_shop on September 28th, 2011 11:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
stranger: Gwen's Dressstrangerian on September 25th, 2011 02:45 am (UTC)
Have loved Masqueraders for many years, although you are sooo right about Tony and Prudence/Tony. The cross dressing is delightful, especially when about half the romances that use this device (not quite my only kink, but a big one) drop it after a chapter or two, usually as soon as the designated hero twigs to it.

The classism (and the rest) in Heyer can't be denied. My main argument here, which is by no means a real defense, is that the books are quite consciously *about* the upper crust's romantic problems, and are therefore framed to exclude everything else. I suspect Heyer, with her research, was well aware that life in the Regency was nasty, brutish and short if you didn't happen to be a London miss with titled relatives, and anything outside the charmed circle of wealth and privilege just inevitably clashes. If structuring the books like that stems from her aspirations or social training to hate everyone who wasn't white and rich, well, that's an explanation if not an excuse.

I do like the constant presence of women as strong characters. It's not only the ingenues, by the way -- Heyer is full of awesome aunts and grandmothers whose morals and vocabularies were formed during the more freewheeling Georgian period. This leads to one of her few over-used plot devices, the introduction late in the game of an awesome and respectable great-aunt who solves all the third-act problems that wouldn't have *been* problems if she'd been visible in the storyline before then.
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV flowersthefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 10:12 pm (UTC)
The cross dressing is delightful, especially when about half the romances that use this device (not quite my only kink, but a big one) drop it after a chapter or two, usually as soon as the designated hero twigs to it.

I know! That's one of the great things about the book - Heyer's id made her own the trope, use it like she meant it. That doesn't happen often in published books, or at least I don't find it often in the ones I read.

I do like the constant presence of women as strong characters. It's not only the ingenues, by the way -- Heyer is full of awesome aunts and grandmothers whose morals and vocabularies were formed during the more freewheeling Georgian period.

Yes, absolutely. It's one of the more disorienting things about reading classic mysteries - the women are so awesome! And yet there's classism and racism and bigotry everywhere. Or you can read, say, modern American thrillers, where there might be somewhat less antisemitism, at any rate, but misogyny rules the day. Arg.

This leads to one of her few over-used plot devices, the introduction late in the game of an awesome and respectable great-aunt who solves all the third-act problems that wouldn't have *been* problems if she'd been visible in the storyline before then.

Oh god yes. I mean, I love the great aunts or whatever, but. They are a singularly inattentive bunch, letting things get so out of hand before they fix them.
But what if I'm a mermaid?: Queen of Wands - readdeepbluemermaid on September 25th, 2011 02:58 am (UTC)
I have a very clear recollection of a 90s movie (I think) where a queer woman goes to a pride parade or something dressed as a man, and meets a very femme girl who turns out to be a cross-dressing guy. They get it on, maybe in a car, and both get a surprise. I'm pretty sure they wind up together at the end.

Unfortunately, I can't remember what movie (or maybe even TV show) this is from - hopefully it rings a bell for someone else! I think they were side-characters, and that the movie/show was mostly about lesbians...the other characters seemed surprised that the woman ended up with a man.
tried to eat the safe banana: TFV glowythefourthvine on September 25th, 2011 10:14 pm (UTC)
I hope it rings a bell for someone else, too, because that sounds fascinating.

*stares yearningly at the internet and HOPES FOR MAGIC*
(no subject) - deepbluemermaid on September 30th, 2011 08:33 am (UTC) (Expand)