Friday 4 November 2011

Cross Dressing: Trying To Be George - by Katherine Langrish

When I was nine I never wore a dress or a skirt if I could help it, and certainly not if my best friend was around - we always wore shorts or trousers (then termed 'trews').  We were tomboys (or we liked to think we were): we were keen on outdoorsy things.  We both had brothers: together we made rafts out of oildrums and bits of wood and tried to sail them on the River Wharfe; we fought the boys in the playground and got told off; we went up on Ilkley Moor with another friend who HAD A PONY: we hid in the wooden hut shelter by Ilkley Tarn and made ghost noises as old ladies went past.  We looked for adventures.

Actually, though, I was really a wuss.  I couldn't manage to climb up into the roofspace of the hut.  I could climb a rope, ride a bike, and do a rising trot on a pony, but I was otherwise useless at all sports.  Despite the raft, I couldn't swim.  (Did our parents have any idea what we were up to?) I did wear skirts if my friend wasn't around - and panicked about what she would think if she happened to see me.  And I was a complete bookworm - and so, I suspect, was she.

We may have been trying to channel George.

Now I assume you all know who George is, but I'll tell you just in case: George is the tomboy heroine of Enid Blyton's immensely popular 'Famous Five' series, 21 books in all, which have never been out of print since 'Five On  A Treasure Island' was published in 1942.  Her real name is Georgina, but she refuses to answer to any name but 'George': she dresses like a boy and has cropped curly hair, she is 'as brave as a lion', never tells a lie, and is also, enviably, the owner of faithful Timmy, the gang's devoted dog.  By strangers (especially stuffy new tutors and shady criminal types) she is generally mistaken for a boy, a mistake she takes as a compliment.

George was a great relief  to my generation.  She was usually in the forefront of the action, even in the illustrations, thus:

If there was a secret tunnel to be crawled down, or a midnight mission to embark upon, George would be there, with Timmy at her side always ready to have the essential scrawled message pinned to his collar: Trapped on Mystery Marsh.  The maths tutor is a German spy.  The submarine will surface at midnight.  Call Scotland Yard!   George was fiery, too.  She had a temper and she used it.  She got into trouble for being rude: yet her instincts were always right.  While Julian, Dick and Anne would shake their heads over the tea-table, George, banished to her room, would be spotting the mystery lights winking from the moor.  Who would not want to be like her? - especially when the alternative looked like this:

This soppy girly is Anne, mistaking a train for a volcano...

"I'm as good as a boy, any day!" was George's defiant cry: and so she was.   But why did she have to dress as a boy to prove it?

I think one of the reasons for the popularity of cross-dressing in children's fiction - and unless for comic effect, it's always girl to boy, not the other way around - is because girls needed so badly to read about adventurous heroines, and for some reason the adults writing for them were unable to imagine the possibility of having adventures in skirts.  The default assumption was that women and girls did NOT have adventures; were hangers-on in history; led boring lives.

Thankfully, this attitude has changed, but I'm talking about my childhood in the 1960's - not so very long ago really, but old habits died hard. You only have to look at the school stories packaged separately, as they were - 'The Bumper Book for Boys', 'The Bumper Book for Girls'.  The boys would get tales of historical derring-do, swordfights, brawls, sea-stories, war stories, plus practical tips on collecting hawk-moth caterpillars, how to make a compass with a cork, a magnet, a needle and saucer of water, and how to find your way in a forest by observing the moss on the north sides of trees.  The girls' books would involve tales about  flower fairies, the Girl Guides and Brownies, rivalries at hockey, lacrosse, and the ballet, how to make a Welsh rarebit, crochet a pretty mat for the table, and fold linen napkins into waterlilies or swans.

No wonder we wanted to be boys. No wonder we wanted to be George.  And since boys also read 'The Famous Five' - in droves - George was our ambassador: incontrovertible if fictional proof that girls could have adventures too.

In spite of the obvious real-life historical examples of women like Grace Darling, Flora Macdonald or Florence Nightingale, writers stuffed their female leads into breeches if they were to do anything exciting.  Geoffrey Trease, a writer of highly popular and well-written historical adventure stories for both boys and girls, nearly always provided a cross-dressing heroine.  There's  'Kit Kirkstone' aka Katherine Russell, in 'Cue For Treason', running away from an arranged marriage, falling in with a group of players, becoming Shakespeare's Juliet, and ending up helping to foil a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I.  There's Angela D'Asola in 'The Hills of Varna' - a young Venetian scholar who - disguised as a boy - assists in the rescue of a priceless Greek manuscript from destruction at the hands of barbarous and ignorant monks. The trouble with these stories - and with Enid Blyton's George - was that they fostered in my mind and that of my friend the unconscious belief that to be adventurous or lead an interesting life, girls had to resemble boys.  Which not-so-subtly suggested girls per se were still somehow inferior.

I was interested to read the author's notes at the back of my copy of  'The Hills of Varna' - which is still a blooming good read, by the way.  Trease claims his characters

... are no stranger than the real people who lived in the Italian Renaissance.  One has only to think of girls like Marietta Strozzi, who broke away from her guardians at the age of eighteen, lived by herself in Florence, and had snowball matches by moonlight with the young gentlemen of that city; and Olympia Morata, who was lecturing on philosophy at Ferrara when she was sixteen.

Stirring stuff!  I thought I should look them up.  And if the whole truth is not quite as romantic as Trease makes it sound, it's more complex and in some ways far more interesting.  Here is Marietta Strozzi, in a bust by Desiderio da Settignano: she looks a cool and self-possessed young lady, who was said to be the greatest beauty of Florence.

You can find an article about her here: and despite the snowball fight (which wasn't a spontaneous street-corner affair between a gamine and a group of boys, but a piece of elaborate pageantry with political undercurrents) her life was bounded by the necessity to marry, and the limitations of being fatherless and "therefore" probably "stained".  The young man who wished to marry her was dissuaded from doing so.

As for Olympia Morata, whose picture is here, it's true she was a remarkable woman. Her father was tutor to the dukes of Ferrara, and - aged about twelve or thirteen,

already fluent in Greek and Latin, she became the friend and companion of the the young princess Anna D'Este. The court had protestant sympathies, and by sixteen Olympia was lecturing on Cicero and Calvin, writing books and translating psalms. In her early twenties she married Andreas Grunthler, a German Protestant who had come to Ferrara to study medicine. Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to Schweinfurt in Germany to evade the Roman Inquisition, but were caught in the middle of war. Schweinfurt was occupied by the soldiers of the resplendently-named protestant Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, Albrecht Alcibiades: and Olympia and her husband lived in dangerous conditions, at one point taking refuge in a wine cellar. Ultimately, the city was sacked and burned by Albert's enemies. In a letter to Cherubina Orsini, written on August 8, 1554 from Heidelberg, Morata describes her difficult escape from Schweinfurt:

Vorrei che aveste visto come io era scapigliata, coperta di straccie, ché ci tolsero le veste d'attorno, e fuggendo io perdetti le scarpe, né aveva calze in piede, sì che mi bisognava fuggire sopra le pietre e sassi, che io non so come arrivasse.

I wish you had seen how dishevelled I was, dressed in rags, because they had taken away our clothes, and in fleeing I lost my shoes and nor had I socks on my feet, so I had to flee over the stones and the rocks - I do not know how I made it. 

(Translation courtesy of Michelle Lovric.)

Shortly after arriving in Heidelberg, her husband accepted a position as professor of medicine at the university and the indefatigable Olympia began tutoring students in Greek and Latin. However, a fever that she had caught in Schweinfurt never really subsided, and a few months later she died. She was not quite 29 years old.

Which is sad, but not unusual for that place and time. What was truly unusual about Olympia was her intellect, which would have marked her out in any age. I think my point, however, is that these two sixteenth century women lived, by any standards, colourful, adventurous and energetic lives - and neither of them had to dress in boys' clothes to do it.

On a totally different historical subject, I'm also to be found blogging about Saint Brendan this morning on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles


Leslie Wilson said...

Really really good post, Kath!
I used to have 'tartan trews' which I adored, and I do think that in the social meaning of trousers is to be found the crux of the matter. Once women had the choice of what to wear, trousers became the option of choice for active work. I know many women did garden, climb mountains, etc, in skirts, but I think Mrs Bloomer was someone we should be celebrating a lot more than we do. And I don't think many women climb mountains in skirts nowadays, or do other active sports - unless you count tennis dresses!
At this point, the cross-dressed woman ceases to aspire to maleness, and simply becomes - a woman in trousers. Ditto the swordswomanship, etc (though The Grand Sophy did quite well with her pistol, in a skirt).
We have a long way to go - or years and years to keep fighting the feminist battle and restore the F word to respectability - but at least we can wear trousers without arousing scandal - at least in the West. Or are trousers OK in strict Muslim countries, because they cover the legs?

adele said...

A wonderful post, Kath! I too fancied being George and I was about as far from being a tomboy as you're ever likely to see. I think I resented Anne for being a pretty girl and YET so soppy. I didn't see any reason why pretty girls in nice dresses couldn't be just as clever and adventurous....I wanted both worlds: the dresses and the starring role in whatever was going on. Those books are amazing though, aren't they, the way they've coloured the views of several generations of children. And made avid readers of a whole lot of kids along the way.

Juliette said...

I had the same experience as a child! (In the 80s - not much had changed). I so badly wanted to be a tomboy, and I didn't wear a dress or skirt for 10 years because I was teased about them (I actually still feel horrifically self-conscious every time I put on a dress - that might be some weird 80s thing). I ran off excitedly with the boys to climb a tree, then couldn't get any higher than the first branch because I was scared. I actually like reading, embroidery and ballet, but I felt like I ought to like sports and outdoors things and climbing because that's what the interesting female characters did. Great post!

Jo Treggiari said...

Such a great post. I, too, dressed as a boy and when I was 11 my two greatest friends were also tomboys mistaken for boys. I had the edge since Joanna could be shorted to Jo, and they were saddled with 'Emma' and 'Rachel'. I may have been the only one of us who had read The Famous Five. I grew up to embrace the punk rock movement which allowed me to wear short skirts with big combat boots- a nice way to be 'girly' without being 'weak' but I never really questioned why I wanted to be a boy so much as a child and look like one too, so this has given me much to think about.

Mary Hoffman said...

Lovely post, Kath, and thank yu for those two Italian women!

A propos of a post further back on this topic, the Guardian has a list of ten men dressed as women:

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm hoping you'll do something with one or other of those women, Mary!

Anonymous said...

Like Adele, I resented Anne for being "the girl" and therefore soppy. As a kid, I loved wearing skirts and dresses, and my mom made me pantaloons so I could still climb trees and be modest. I've always hated the thought that girls had to be one or the other - tomboy or weak. I liked to have vicious swordfights with my boy cousins, and then come inside after they left and sew on my doll quilts. Why should one have to give up on something one enjoys for fear it will mark one as "girly" and weak - or on the other hand, wear trousers simply to be taken seriously?

Caroline Lawrence said...

I loved this post, Kath!

I, too, HATED wearing dresses, and I still do today. I loathe prickly, scratchy, lacy garments and I adore jeans and comfortable shoes and stretch fabrics. As a kid, I was always the leader of our gang and the fiercest fighter, too. I loved playing Tom Sawyer, Man from Uncle, Children of the Damned (Beware the Eyes that Paralyse) and James Bond. I think the first time I wanted to dress in girly fashion was when I read about cool, empowered, convertible driving yet fashionable Nancy Drew, teen detective extraordinaire!

At last, a girl who was brave, bold and feminine! What a role model.

Katherine Langrish said...

AHHH - Nancy Drew. Now there's a whole other post! And you know some publisher rewrote the books to make them more modern - and nothing like so good as the old ones? I was trying to read them to my daughters when we were living in the states 12 years ago and couldn't understand why they seemed so insipid till I realised they'd been modernised.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Its astonishing how many of us wanted to be George! From her I graduated on to wanting to be Jo in Little Women... who was adventurous, thoroughly unladylike and swore. Marvellous post Kath and loved the Italian girls. Do I sense a story from you in the form of Olympia Morata?

none said...

It's funny you should mention Grace Darling, because she featured in a book I had as a child called Adventure Stories for Girls. I can't remember who else was in it, but they were all real life women.

That book might well still be around somewhere.

As for skirts...hate them!

Katherine Roberts said...

Strangely I've never liked wearing trousers, but I wasn't a "girly" girl. I spent most of my free time building tree houses, rockpooling on the beach, and riding ponies. I had to wear trousers for the ponies, of course, but really wanted to ride them bareback in a tutu... maybe I should have joined the circus?

Linda B-A said...

Really thought-provoking post, Katherine. I didn't relate to George a a child but, later, in spoof form, I loved the famous five in Comic Strip's THE FIVE GO MAD IN DORSET. I think I wanted to be Lucy in the Narnia Chronicles or Roberta in the The Railway Children. In an age of Youtube and MTV and X Factor it all seems ludicrously nostalgic. I look at images of young women now through the defensive eyes of a mother and feel that contemporary culture is not generous to our daughters.

Freyalyn said...

Fascinating post - and thank you for the Italian girls. I had a similar childhood to yours, just over the moor (Baildon), and only a few years later. I always felt a bit mixed about George - feeling that she copped out a bit by being so anti-girl. But Anne was so irredeemably wet! Thank you for sharing.