By Sita Conde (2023)
A romance trope is a plot device or character trait that helps build a romance novel’s storyline. One particular trope that continually appears in historical romance novels is that of the heroine cross-dressing, or disguising herself as a man, for more mobility. This trope is especially useful in historical romance novels because it allows the female protagonist to interact with her male love interest in environments where it might otherwise be inappropriate, and to interact with him more frequently than would be acceptable without her disguise. As a result, the woman in disguise is typically characterized as being especially rebellious and averse to anti-feminist social norms. In this paper, I will discuss how 1990s historical romance novels featuring heroines disguising themselves as men were described and reviewed, and I will look at how much popularity they gained. Interestingly, the 1990s is the time during which the third wave of feminism emerged – a period of extensive women’s rights activism and an added push for intersectionality (acknowledging the unique struggles relating to race, class, and sexuality). Still, authors and publishing companies in the 1990s continually indicated that those invested in the romance industry were not more interested in the sociopolitical implications of the cross-dressing trope than they were interested in the romance that the trope enabled. Firstly, this paper will examine the first edition back cover copies, or blurbs, written for three different historical romance novels: Johanna Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue (1990), Jo Beverley’s My Lady Notorious (1993) and Virginia Henley’s Seduced (1994). I will use the blurbs written for these three novels to see how their respective publishing houses discuss the cross-dressing trope before looking at some of the novels’ rankings in Publishers Weekly Magazine and the authors’ careers holistically. These sources will speak to the romance industry’s general attitude towards historical romances with cross-dressing heroines in the 1990s.
Back Cover Blurbs
Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey was first published in 1990 by Avon Books, a leading publisher of romance fiction and an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Its back cover displays a blurb summarizing the plot in a way that entices readers to pick up the book. Below the blurb lies a brief introduction of Johanna Lindsey and her success prior to publishing Gentle Rogue. Given that copy writers typically write back cover blurbs in service to marketing and promotions for publishing houses Avon Books is, in actuality, the author of Gentle Rogue’s back cover blurb. In the description of the book, Avon wrote that the female protagonist, Georgina Anderson, “was desperate to return home to America” and “[leave] her sorrows on England’s shores” (Avon Books 1990). As a result, she decides to “defiantly [board] the ‘gentleman’s ship’ … disguised as a cabin boy” (Avon Books 1990). Avon’s choice to describe Georgina as “defiant,” and to assert her journey to America as being a quest for liberation, is certainly worth noting. When picking the most important aspects of the novel to highlight in a brief synopsis – the blurb is only 108 words – they chose to tell readers that Lindsey’s protagonist is not afraid of seeking out a better life, even if it requires manipulating her appearance to get the freedoms granted men. Later in the blurb, Avon writes that Georgina is a “high-spirited beauty” with a “love for freedom and adventure” that rivals the male protagonist (Avon Books 1990). Again, this begs the question of why the publishing house decided to focus on characterizing Georgina as being a woman in favor of mobility, despite that not being socially accepted during the early 1800s.
In an article entitled “Social Position of Victorian Women: Villette and Emma,” the author Aycan Gökçek uses articles about English women’s rights in the early 18th century and Victorian literature to describe the limitations placed on the lack of women’s liberation in the early nineteenth century. According to Gökçek, “domesticity was the sign of excellence for women,” meaning it was of utmost importance for women in that time period to be “The woman at home who blossoms exclusively as wife and mother” (Gökçek, p. 144-145). For Georgina to be described as “high-spirited,” and aspire to be free and adventurous was not a respectable persona for an early 1800s woman, yet Lindsey still wrote a character who defies the expectations of her time.
Avon Books makes it clear that Georgina’s character is meant to disturb the expectations which would have been placed on young women in the 19th century; however, this was undermined when they added Georgina is “forced into intimate servitude to the irrepressible rake Captain James Mallory,” the novel’s main male protagonist (Avon Books 1990). Avon emphasizes that Mallory and Georgina are equals in dauntlessness, and they appear to be equals physically as well since Georgina is in disguise, but they advertised the fact that Georgina submits to Mallory. As a result, the feminist undertones were certainly weakened as they had to share the stage with the novel’s romantic plot. Avon uses statements like “the inescapable tidal wave of passion that threatened to engulf them both” to describe the relationship between Georgina Anderson and Captain James Mallory, which turn attention away from women’s empowerment and towards the love story (Avon Books 1990).
My Lady Notorious by Jo Beverley was first published in March of 1993 by Avon Books. On this cover, Beverley included a photo of two models embracing with the words “Love’s Dangerous Adventure” written directly underneath (Avon Books 1993). This photo and caption, the blurb itself, the words “An Avon Romance” and a barcode appear on the back. In the blurb, Avon chose to begin by saying that the female protagonist, Lady Chastity Ware, is “desperate to help her widowed sister and baby escape a deadly pursuer” (Avon Books 1993). Then, they explained that Lady Chastity consequently “dresses as a highwayman,” and upon encountering the male protagonist, “she orders him to drive her to a remote cottage” (Avon Books 1993). On one hand, it is significant that Avon mentioned Lady Chastity is on the run for the sake of her sister’s safety, not necessarily because she desires liberation or added mobility. On the other hand, their diction when describing Chastity’s actions was still relatively empowering, like the use of the word “orders” (Avon Books 1993). Avon also called Chastity “‘cocky’ as a young highwayman,” but aside from emphasizing that Chastity is a woman who seems sure of what she wants, Avon did not write a particularly feminism-focused blurb (Avon Books 1993).
Avon Books used the back cover of My Lady Notorious to emphasize the fact that although Lady Chastity is dressed up as a man, she is still undeniably feminine, and the romantic plot of the novel is still prominent. For instance, after mentioning the male protagonist, Cyn Malloren, Avon noted he is “devilishly handsome” and “looking for adventure” – unlike Chastity who is looking for security (Avon Books 1993). Also, they wrote that Chastity was “obviously a young woman in disguise,” meaning they likely wanted readers to know that the interactions between the protagonists had no underlying homoeroticism (Avon Books 1993). They also referred to Chastity’s “lovely sensual presence,” and deemed that the reason Cyn is seduced by Chastity (Avon Books 1993). Again, it was clearly important to Avon that readers know Chastity is still womanly, regardless of her male disguise. This goes into the last sentence of the blurb, which mentions the “passion that drives” Cyn and the fact that their “love will bind them together forever.” Avon continually highlighted elements of the plot that relate to the romantic love shared by Cyn and Chastity, as opposed to elements of the plot that would imply Chastity has feminist motivations.
Finally, the third book being discussed is Seduced by Virginia Henley, a historical romance novel published by Island Books in 1994. In this novel’s blurb, Island Books writes that Lady Antonia Lamb, turned Lord Anthony Lamb when she puts on her male disguise, chooses to cross-dress because she is “desperate to keep the property entailed to her twin brother” (Island Books 1994). Interestingly, they then wrote that Antonia was “trapped – and liberated – by her masquerade.” This line single-handedly sums up the dissonance between the two previous blurbs – while the publishing houses writing these historical romance novels are undoubtedly using their books to push more liberated female protagonists into the romance fiction industry, they are also writing characters who are still trapped by, or submitting to, their love interests in some capacity. For this reason, it is difficult to determine whether the houses that publish these novels are publishing literature for the shifting culture, literature fitting of the third wave feminist movement, or simply pushing literature that will entertain readers looking for an entertaining love story.
It is important to note that Island Books’s blurb is unique in that they made a point to state the male love interest, Adam Savage, cannot even “[guess] Tony’s deepest secret, a masquerade destined to erupt in passionate abandon” (Island Books 1994). Adam actually “vowed to take young Tony to … teach him everything a young heir should know” (Island Books 1994). First, Island Books wanted to let readers know that Adam Savage cannot tell Antonia is a woman at first, meaning her disguise was convincing enough to fool him and she likely earns his admiration without him knowing her gender. Also, Antonia is able to learn as a man would during the 1950s which is unique and empowering as well. It appears that Island Books is telling readers, and others in the industry, that their book is one attempting to deconstruct certain gender norms, which is more fitting of the ongoing third wave feminist movement.
Facts and Figures
The first section of this paper focuses on how publishing houses described Johanna Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue (1990), Jo Beverley’s My Lady Notorious (1993) and Virginia Henley’s Seduced (1994) in the 1990s – what features of the novels they deemed most noteworthy of advertising. In this section, I will look at how readers, or readers and authors, at-large responded to some of these historical romance novels by referencing Bestseller lists and awards they won. Firstly, Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey was in the Publisher’s Weekly list of Paperback Best Sellers on December 14, 1990 (Publisher’s Weekly, 237(50)). It was number 6 during its first week on the list. One week later, on December 21, 1990, the novel went down to number 9, but it spent yet another week on the Bestseller list (Publisher’s Weekly, 237(51)). Then, the following week on January 4, 1991, Gentle Rogue saw its third week on the Bestseller list, as number 12 (Publisher’s Weekly, 238(1)). On January 11, 1991, it was ranked number 13. Clearly, Gentle Rogue was a huge success, and it sold close to 1.5 million copies according to a 1990 Facts and Figures sheet from Publisher’s Weekly (Publisher’s Weekly, 238(2)).
When looking at the success of Gentle Rogue, it is important to examine Johanna Lindsey’s career in the romance industry holistically. Lindsey averaged two books per year and all of her titles hit the bestseller charts (Maryles 1992). Fascinatingly, the director of publicity for Avon Books, Liz Perl, confirmed that “the first printing for each new Lindsey title [was] larger than that of the previous book,” meaning she had a steadily progressing career (Maryles 1993). Not only was Gentle Rogue not Johanna Lindsey’s first bestseller, it was also not her first book featuring a strong female protagonist. For instance, her 1987 novel Hearts Aflame, published by Avon Books, features a heroine, Kristen Haardrad, who is the hero’s “equal in pride, in strength” and who refuses to be his slave (Avon Books 1987). Similarly, Lindsey’s book Brave the Wild Wind (1984) highlights the female protagonist, Jessie Blair’s, arrogance, defiance, and her stubbornness (Avon Books 1984). Gentle Rogue is Lindsey’s first historical romance with a disguised heroine, but when she published this novel, she had already garnered great success writing about spirited, fiery heroines. This is significant because it shows Lindsey’s books already had a large fanbase, and said fanbase included people who were open to heroines defying gender roles. Gentle Rogue’s positive reception was either the result of Lindsey taking on a new trope that excited and interested readers, or it was the product of Lindsey having loyal readers interested in reading almost anything she wrote.
My Lady Notorious by Jo Beverley was also hugely successful during its time. In 1994, it was awarded the RITA Award for Historical Series Romance (Romance Writers of America). This means that the judges at the Romance Writers of America conference recognized My Lady Notorious for its excellence, as well as other authors at the conference. Prior to publishing My Lady Notorious, Jo Beverley had been no stranger to success in the romance industry. Her book An Arranged Marriage (1991) – published by Zebra — was a RITA finalist, received the Reader’s Choice Award, was named the Romantic Times Best Regency Novel, and it was a Bookrak bestseller (“An Annotated List of Jo Beverley’s Regency Historical Romances”). Additionally, Beverley’s novel Deirdre and Don Juan (1993), which features a headstrong protagonist won the RITA for Best Regency at the 1994 RWA conference, the Bookrak Award for Bestselling Regency, the Romantic Times Award for Best Regency Rake, and it was named as one of Romantic Times best romances of the past 20 years (“Deirdre and Don Juan”). It was also published by Avon Books. Much like Lindsey, Beverley was also a major player in the romantic industry during the 1990s, and My Lady Notorious was one not Beverley’s first book about a heroine who subtly defies norms for women during her time.
These novels were loved in the romance industry, and their ratings reflect this fact. Readers clearly found them worth reading, hence the millions of copies being sold worldwide. It is fascinating that although the novels received so much success, there was not as much conversation about the socio-political implications of the cross-dressing trope as one might expect in the present-day. For this reason, Johanna Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue (1990), Jo Beverley’s My Lady Notorious (1993) and Virginia Henley’s Seduced (1994) were likely sought after because of their authors’ notoriety and writing styles, and the loyalty their readers felt to their work. These authors did not rise to fame because of these books disguising heroines and thwarting gender roles – they had risen to fame years prior. One can conclude that publishing houses like Avon Books, and authors like Johanna Lindsey and Virginia Henley, were interested in how historical romance heroines disguising themselves as men could serve as a testament to the women’s liberation movement, but the extent to which these novels were seen as such does not appear very large.
In conclusion, there was limited dialogue surrounding the politics of Gentle Rogue, My Lady Notorious, and Seduced in the 1990s. The diction that Avon Books and Island Books used in their back cover blurbs to describe these novels, and readers’ attention to novels, leads me to conclude that authors and publishing companies in the 1990s were more interested in the romance that the trope enabled – especially because Lindsey, Beverley and Henley were known for their well-written romance plots — than the sociopolitical implications of the cross-dressing trope.
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