Jeannelle is here today to talk about Eleanor, her fictional disaster-lesbian from her book The Covert Captain, Dr James Barry, and the women who fought in the American Civil War. And also to be wonderfully effusive about The Flowers of Time, which I am blushing about, but still not editing out.
Hello! Let’s get ready to ramble. By which I mean I have been most kindly invited to guest blog by A. L. Lester, author of the new speculative romance, The Flowers of Time, third (more or less) in their Lost in Time series but a treat on its own, featuring the many charms of Furthest Himalaya, including Mysterious Tigers, Mysterious Plants, Mysterious Codes, and a faithful Tibetan Mastiff. (I love the cover but it would only have benefited from Argo, I’m just saying.) And a pragmatic and tender romance between two people who ought to have been constrained by their circumstances, but it never feels that way while they’re getting together. (I’m trying to be very unspoilery here. You should read it. Also, it is cheap. Speaking of pragmatic people.)
Jones, whom you will meet when you read The Flowers of Time, is a person who is awkward stuffed into a dress, but comfortably competent — and perceived as competent by those in charge, which in Jones’ time and place means those socialized as male from birth — when sensibly dressed in man’s array. Jones’ clothes become part of Jones’ character, yes, but they also dress as they do because it is incredibly damp, hazy, hot, cold, rocky, muddy, and yak-adjacent on this adventure, and folks in breeches are just going to have an easier time.
The same could be said, except the yak part, about the Peninsular War.
It is nearly the two-year bookiversary of The Covert Captain, my own book about a female-bodied person in breeches, and I’ve had time while writing the sequel to deepen my understanding of the ways clothes on a body can entwine with the wearer’s identity. Just to get things out of the way, Eleanor Fleming/Captain Nathaniel Fleming is a woman who only ever thinks of herself as a woman, and she enjoys the romantic company of other people who think of themselves as women — by modern standards, she’s a lesbian. I decided to try to make this clear-cut as I was writing because I am writing in the Internet Age, even though labeling the people of the past is tricky.
Eleanor dresses as a man of her time — more specifically, she dresses in an army officer’s uniform — because she needs the socioeconomic security and the protective coloration that passing as male can give her. She may be risking her life far away from her home in England, but she’s part of a socially accepted profession, she’s in control of her fate, and she’s drawing pay. She needs the pay packet to eat. In her case, the decision to wear men’s clothing is not complex. (And the ladies love a uniform. What can she say?)
Eleanor, my fictional disaster lesbian, came into being from two facts: the life of Dr. James Barry, who through his career and achievements proved a female-bodied person could attain officer’s rank in the British Army and more than make his name in the Peninsular Campaign; and the statistic that at least four women fought at the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. Surely there must have been that many female-bodied folks in the cavalry or the infantry at Waterloo.
By conservative estimate, 750 women enlisted in the American Civil War — dressed as men/dressed as themselves, just-for-now disguised as men, fighting and dying as men. (And some women traded corsets for trousers to follow their husbands, and would go home and put on hoops again and have heteronormative marriages and children; and some people had been wearing traditionally male attire for years before the war and would do so long after the fighting was over.) Without their personal testimony, we can’t say whether they enlisted from patriotism, out of boredom, for money, or for adventure. What we do know is that relatively speaking, it happened all the time. Recruitment officers, regimental doctors, and a person’s peers among a company of soldiers proved surprisingly adept at seeing what they wanted to see. Perception became acceptance. (A very timely Guardian article is here).
Eleanor’s decision to wear men’s clothing is “not very identity-freighted,” to quote my long-suffering first reader. Her Hussars’ uniform ties her firmly into her life as an officer and a member of a regiment, but her uniform is not her inner life. There is, however, a person close to Eleanor for whom every inch of tailoring, from cravat on down, is part of a careful mix of choice and necessity, freedom and concealment; they appear briefly in The Covert Captain — everyone has that one ex — but learning to write them properly has been a wild adventure, and I can’t wait for you to meet them in the sequel.
Today, I am at Drops of Ink, talking about Jones’ thoughts on Gender.