The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer is surely one of the Ur-texts of the romance genre. It is also the very first romance of any kind that I ever read, and was instrumental in launching my lifelong affection for the ‘heroine dresses as a man’ trope. As a bonus, it also has a hero who dresses as a woman and who manages to be EXCEEDINGLY hot while doing so. Just to clarify, there are two couples in this book, and I am SO SORRY to disappoint everyone who just got excited about the idea of a heroine pretending to be a man meeting a hero pretending to be a woman and all I can say is that I, too, am now Very Sad that such a story does not exist – and if it does exist somewhere, please, LEAD ME TO IT.
There’s also another hero who is far more perceptive than he looks, deliciously witty dialogue, and an entire ensemble of people who are as competent as hell at what they do (flamboyance levels may vary). It has adventures and elopements and duels and disguises; it has high romance and highwaymen on the High Toby. It has Lost Heirs and Foul Villains and Unrecognised Genius and a plot that is frankly ludicrous if you actually stop to think about it, all undercut with a dry, ironic sense of humour.
Basically, it’s quite glorious, and is probably the reason I wound up an inveterate romance reader. My copy of The Masqueraders has been sitting on my shelf for the better part of thirty years (on reflection, I think I might be onto my second copy by now, having read the paperback I bought as a teenager until it fell to pieces).
Oh, you want some plot? Very well then.
After the failure of the Jacobite rebellion, siblings Prudence and Robin of no particular surname ride to London at the orders of their father, the ‘old gentleman’, whose whereabouts are presently unknown. The family were Jacobites, and Robin and their father were quite prominent in the rebellion (something that will not surprise you one bit once you meet the old gentleman – it is hard to imagine him doing anything quietly), and it is not safe for them to appear in England as themselves.
Behold, therefore, Prudence, tall, phlegmatic and marvellously competent, garbed as a young man, Mr. Peter Merriot, and escorting his sister, the dainty Miss Kate Merriot, to London. (I apologise for the grandiosity; Heyer’s language is somewhat contagious) Kate Merriot is, of course, Prudence’s brother, Robin, a clever and passionate young man, a brilliant swordsman, and a consummate actor, with ‘more female graces than [Prudence] could lay claim to, even in [her] proper petticoats.’
Here they are, a little later in the book, at home and awaiting visitors.
Miss Merriot was seated in the window, supporting her fair head on one delicate hand. An enchanting profile was presented to the room. There was the straight nose, the beautifully curved lips, and the drooping eyelid. The light curls were unpowdered, and caught up carelessly in a riband of Robin’s favourite blue; there was a locket round the white throat and a fan held in one hand. A gown of blue silke billowed about the lovely lady; the sleeves ended at the elbow in a fall of heavy lace. She did not look as though she could kill a man in a duel.
Mr. Merriot stood in a truly masculine attitude, with a foot on the window seat, and an elbow resting on that bent knee. It seemed he had been riding, as was his wont each morning, for he wore shining topboots, and buff smallclothes. A coat of claret-coloured cloth set off his trim figure; his hand played negligently with the lash of his long whip.
Isn’t that writing beautiful?
Prudence and Robin have lived an eventful life with their scheming, slippery adventurer of a father, who has worn a variety of names and professions, from fencing master to owner of a gaming house to pretended ambassador, and far more. This is far from the first time they have been in disguise, and they are old hands at dissembling, but this is, perhaps, the occasion on which they have had the most to lose.
Upon the road, they encounter Miss Letitia Grayson, a beautiful and romantically-minded young heiress, and extricate her from an elopement that has devolved into a kidnapping. The large and sleepy-looking Sir Anthony Fanshaw, a friend of Miss Grayson’s father, arrives to rescue Miss Grayson shortly after Miss Grayson’s suitor has been dispatched, and our central quartet is thus established. The four finish the journey to London together, and all seems set for a story of disguises, deceptions and discoveries played out in Georgian London.
And then Prudence and Robin’s father arrives with a dramatic flourish at the centre of everyone’s attention, and declares himself to be Tremayne of Barham, the lost Viscount. Is he Tremayne? Nobody knows, not even Prudence and Robin. He is more than capable of making and supporting such a claim regardless of the truth. As he is also not the sort of man to do anything in a straightforward fashion when there is a more melodramatically complicated option available to him, both the reader and our heroes are left wondering right up until the end of the story whether his claim is real or fake.
But we are not left to wonder about his greatness. Oh no, he is very willing to be forthcoming about that.
My lord put up an admonishing finger. “Sir Anthony, I acquit you of a desire to insult me. Don’t cry pardon. I have said that I acquit you. But you do not know me; you even doubt my powers. It is laughable! Believe me, there is greatness in me. It would astonish you.”
“Not at all,” said Sir Anthony, politely.
“But yes! I doubt now that you, even you whom I would embrace as a son, have not the soul to appreciate me! You make it plain. I pity you, sir!”
The old gentleman is the sort of character who is enormous fun to read about but would be an utter nightmare to deal with in real life. He is brilliant, flamboyant, very impressed with his own abilities, and the source of much of the book’s humour. He is also responsible for 90% of the plot, most specifically the needlessly baroque and tortuous parts. He will never take a straightforward approach to a problem when there is the possibility of manipulating the situation for maximum drama and poetic justice, and his sense of ethics leaves quite a bit to be desired. He positively exhausting and when he tells his children that “Not twice in five hundred years is my like seen,” one finds oneself in complete agreement with Robin’s retort that “The world has still something to be thankful for”. One gets the distinct impression that the tight-knit closeness of the two siblings is the legacy of a life spent surviving and protecting each other from their father’s schemes.
…And it is somehow absolutely in character that the old gentleman has managed to push his way to the front of this review despite being neither the primary nor the secondary hero of the story. So let’s return our focus to the four characters who actually do form the centre of the story.
What makes this book really shine is the central quartet of characters, and the relationships between them. Prudence, our chief viewpoint character, is a delight. She has spent much of her girlhood dressed as a boy, and knows how to fight both honorably and – where necessary – dishonorably. She is an expert card sharp, has mastered the art of tossing her wine down her sleeve unnoticed when the drinking gets heavy, and in short is entirely able to hold her own as a young gentleman in Georgian London. She is quick-witted, calm in an emergency (one senses that there have been a very large number of emergencies in her life), courageous, and has the sort of integrity that compels her to refuse an offer of marriage from a man she loves and respects because she believes that he would regret marrying her in the long term. She has a strong sense of the ridiculous, and her relationship with her brother is close and supportive – the siblings protect each other, but also stand by each other’s decisions, even when they don’t necessarily agree with them.
Prudence’s match is Sir Anthony Fanshaw, who is described as large and sleepy, but who is far more subtle than he appears. He falls very much into the mould of the hero who everyone underestimates – Robin characterises him as dull, and is certain that he can run rings around him; Letty thinks that he is boring; Lady Lowestoft finds him respectable but rather stupid. Only Prue fears that he may be more perceptive than the others think, and of course she is correct – he is the only person to recognise that Prue and Robin are not what they seem.
Like Prue, Tony has a strong sense of the absurd about the world and while he is evidently amused by the grandiosity of Prue’s father, his chief concern, always, is Prue’s wellbeing. He is not, by nature, a man of action, but like Prue, he knows how to rise to the occasion when necessary – over the course of the book, our first impression of him as slow-moving, slow-witted and not particularly moved by his surroundings is slowly unravelled, and we uncover a man who is perhaps more perceptive than anyone else in this story, a very capable swordsman, and possessing a depth of emotion that is evident even through his quiet. I especially love the care with which Tony treats Prue – he knows her to be intelligent, resourceful and resilient in the highest degree, yet to him she is also a lady and thus owed care and protection – he somehow manages to treat her as though she is precious without treating her as though she is fragile, and I love this about him.
Now to our secondary pair. Robin is, I think, any romantic teenager’s dream – handsome, clever, loyal, protective and romantic, with a delightfully sardonic streak. Really, Letty never had a chance (and neither did fifteen year old Catherine. *swoon*) He is a hero ever so slightly in the mould of Alan Breck Stuart – passionate, quick tempered, but also quick witted and able to play the long game when he needs to. He is a brilliant actor who thoroughly embodies the character of Kate (I don’t think Heyer was trying to write him as queer, but the reading is there for those who want it). And he is also a peerless swordsman, not afraid to throw off his skirts and corsets and go to a masquerade ball in disguise as his true self, despite the attainder, the better to court his lady.
As for the lady herself, Letty is probably the most conventional character in this story. She is very young and romantic, and more than a little foolish, but she is far from stupid, and in the latter part of the book we see that she is also both loyal and courageous, willing to sacrifice herself to save someone she loves from accusations of treason. She is also quick-witted enough to try to save her rescuer from discovery. Alas for Letty, she is fated to make the wrong decisions for the right reasons time and again. Fortunately, this is a romance, and so it all turns out well in the end, and we have, at least, seen enough to hope that her marriage to Robin has more going for it than the romance of the moment.
One thing I loved about this book was the very delicate handling of consent, and the way that both heroes show care for their heroines in how they handle the opportunities for intimacy offered by Robin and Prudence’s disguises.
In the case of Robin and Letty, Letty spends most of the book knowing Robin only as Kate Merriot. She meets the masked man who calls himself ‘l’Inconnu’ (the Unknown) twice, but does not know that he is the same person as her close female friend and mentor. And Robin is very careful not to take advantage of this. As the romantic, masked Unknown, Robin will dance with Letty, sweep her into his arms and steal kisses – this is, after all, fair game at a masked ball – but as Kate he never lets Letty do or say anything to him that might embarrass her if she knew his true identity. He is rogue enough to use his disguise to steal time alone with his ladylove, but that is all he steals – indeed, when she goes to embrace him in his female guise, he instead offers his hands, expressing affection while keeping her at arms’ length. He knows that she would not be offering such intimacy to him if she were aware of his sex, and so he will not accept what is offered unknowingly.
For Tony and Prudence, the situation is a little different. Tony guesses Prudence’s secret relatively early in the story, and immediately proposes to her. She does not initially take his proposal seriously, but when she does:
“I’ve – I’ve to thank you, sir. I don’t understand you. Why do you offer this?”
“Because I love you,” he answered. “Must you ask that?”
She raised her eyes to his face, and knew that he had spoken the truth. She wondered that he did not take her into his arms, and with a fine intuition realised the chivalry of this man who would take no advantage of her being alone in his house, and quite defenseless.
Tony is a delicious combination of unassuming gentleness hiding a bit of an alpha nature. He is, as we see here, very careful not to take advantage of Prudence, and I love that he understands that someone who is not in a position to say no can’t truly say yes, either. But once it becomes clear that Prudence loves him in return and is refusing him out of pride as well as concern for his reputation, he pretty much goes, OK, we’ll do this your way for now, just so long as you realise that you are definitely going to marry me in the end, even if I have to carry you off by force, because we are not going to both be miserable just because you don’t think your birth is good enough for me.
(Yes, I’m afraid he really does say ‘by force’. This should bother me a lot more than it does, and I suspect the reason it doesn’t is threefold. First, Prudence clearly interprets this not as a threat but as a statement intended to show that Tony really does love her passionately for all his sleepy appearance. Second, every single one of Tony’s actions prior to this point (and indeed, afterward) has made it clear that he respects Prudence’s autonomy absolutely. And third, I don’t think he’d stand a chance against the combined talents of Prudence and her brother even if he did try anything of the sort. But yeah – Heyer might have been unexpectedly nuanced in her understanding of consent, but that isn’t to say she didn’t have her Old Skool moments.)
…And having said that, Tony then turns around and is once again absolutely careful to respect Prudence’s person and her integrity, and the family loyalty which drives her to play her role as Peter Merriot with all the risks it entails. After all, Prudence needs to maintain her male persona, which means spending time alone in his company, and his first concern is to ensure that she feels safe doing that – a concern her father brushes off quite lightly, but which both Tony and Prudence take seriously. And she is, in fact, absolutely safe with Tony – he never once tries to change her mind by any means other than words, and remains, as he has promised, simply ‘her friend, Tony’. Indeed, he does not so much as kiss her hand until her role as Mr Merrivale has been fully played out and they are on the way to his sister’s, where Prudence will resume her female identity.
I may possibly have a bit of a thing for Tony. I feel like I shouldn’t love him and Robin so much, but I really, really do.
I’d also just like to note that this novel was written in 1928. For all the commentary we hear periodically around sex and consent and about it having been ‘a different time’ back then, and even allowing for Tony’s unfortunately worded remark above, this is a pretty nuanced and even modern understanding of consent.
I suppose I should probably talk about weaknesses, though it’s very hard to do so with a book that I love this much. I will say, the first few chapters of the book are very confusing to read. We are introduced to Prue and Robin as Peter and Kate, and then all of a sudden they are talking unobserved and have swapped names and genders, and honestly, the first time I read this I had no idea what was going on. I believe The Masqueraders was one of Heyer’s earlier works, and this might account for it.
Now for the hard bit.
One cannot review a Georgette Heyer novel now, I think, without noting some of her really terrible attitudes to race. While I devoured her novels as a teenager, there are some of her works that I can no longer read because they are so painful.
Essentially, if I am going to read a Georgette Heyer novel, I go in with open eyes and the knowledge that Heyer never met a racial stereotype that she didn’t embrace. Her French people are charming, flighty, pragmatic, elegant and fastidious. Her Italians are dramatic and flamboyant and have funny accents. Her Black people are… invisible. And the less said about her Jewish characters, the better. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. She is the very model of a problematic fave.
(In a related vein, I was amused by Robin’s not-infrequent retort of ‘But this is England!’ in response to his father’s claims that of course he can pull off this or that outrageous plot because he has done similar things before when abroad. I am mostly certain that Heyer was joking. But only mostly.)
One may very well choose not to enter Heyer’s world at all, and that would be an absolutely fair and reasonable choice. There are plenty of amazing books out there where you don’t have to hold your breath every time someone ‘foreign’ steps onto the page. It may be easier for me to love Heyer even as I wince at some of her statements. It’s not my bruises she is dancing on.
So just how bad is The Masqueraders?
Well, we have a total of four ‘foreign’ characters in the story: Pompi, the Black page, who is referred to twice in passing and doesn’t speak a single line; Galli, the Italian fencing master with a ‘sharp little brain’; Lady Lowestoft, who is so charmingly French that you can almost taste the baguettes, and Lady Lowestoft’s maid, Marthe.
Of these, I would say Pompi is the most egregious example, though he appears the most briefly. He’s clearly there as a prop, to show how fashionable Lady Lowestoft is, and has no life of his own. Galli gets one scene, and while he is patronised by the story, he is not villainised. Lady Lowestoft is a rather more significant character, and she, too, is somewhat patronised by the story (though not by Prue or Robin), but she is also one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Marthe labours under the disadvantage of being both Foreign and of the servant class, but in fact, she probably gets the least racial stereotyping of the lot, because she’s pretty much taking the Old Family Retainer role (and also, she isn’t around a lot).
Does this make the book unreadable? Obviously, to me it doesn’t. Galli makes me roll my eyes (I’m half Italian), but I don’t find myself recoiling from him as I do from the Jewish moneylender in The Grand Sophy, with whom I also share a heritage. Having said that, the portrayal of Pompi is a problem, and I don’t know what to do with that.
Heyer has been called the grandmother of historical romance, and in The Masqueraders, I can see why. So many of her tropes have found their way into modern romances, and she really is a wonderful writer. She has a gift for witty dialogue, ludicrous plots that hang together against all probability, characters who are enormous fun to spend time with, and romance with a capital ‘R’. And it’s not often you get both a super competent heroine in trousers AND a sexy hero in a dress. This is my catnip, and I cannot lie.
The trouble is, sometimes your darling granny whom you love very much opens her mouth and says something astonishingly racist over the Christmas turkey, and she’ll say it in the most matter of fact way and you don’t even know where to start.
And that’s Georgette Heyer too.
I love this book. It really is one of my all-time favourites of the genre, and I think it still reads well even 91 years after its first publication. But I can’t pretend it doesn’t have issues.
P.S. – One thing I didn’t address in this review was the cross-dressing / queerness of the text. That’s because I don’t feel very qualified to address it, and also because honestly, despite the set up (and a veritable plethora of highly convincing fanfic on Archive of Our Own), Prudence and Robin read pretty cis and straight to me. But if this is something that interests you, Jodi McAlister has written an article about queerness in romance, comparing Anna Cowan’s book Untamed with The Masqueraders, and it’s really fascinating.
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