The Lord Pretender is a tale of gender, and specifically, what happens when the “glove doesn’t fit.” In the story, the misfit is the result of a body switch between a man and a woman that thrusts them unwillingly into unfamiliar genders. Many of our brothers and sisters experience a similar sense of not fitting the gender of their physical body, which puts them at odds with millennia of cultural messages aimed at keeping every person in one of two boxes – men who feel like men and women who feel like women. I have heard some folks say with straight faces that gender fluidity is a modern phenomenon brought on by a liberal culture; that in the “good old days” people had no trouble staying in their gender-defined boxes.
Such statements are so problematic that I hardly know where to begin. Let me start with this, then. You can’t stroll through any era of history without encountering multiple exceptions to this so-called rule. I write about the Regency era, a time period spanning 1795 to 1825, give or take. During that period, one of the most famous cultural figures of the west was the Chevalier d’Eon who spent the first half of his life as a man and the second half as a woman. Few questioned d’Eon’s identity – before or after. After the change of gender, she was beloved by London Society, not despised. She rubbed elbows with the kings of France and England – as both a man and a woman. And though d’Eon was the most famous face of gender fluidity of the day, she was by no means alone.
One of the most compelling facets of the Regency era was its concerted efforts to draw a sharp line between the genders on every level and to codify them into law and rules – both written and unwritten. A woman of the gentry class faced a long list of what she was not allowed to do. As long as she had close male relatives or a husband, she barely existed as a legal entity. She often had little say in who she could be courted by or marry. Upon marrying, her assets by law became the property of her husband. She was restricted in where she could go unchaperoned, what she could say in public, how she could dress in public, and what interests she could pursue. Her primary responsibility was to remain virginal until marriage and then produce children thereafter, and as many as possible before she died in childbirth or from some other malady. Society considered these restrictions necessary by repeating an age-old lie – that women were too emotional, unstable, and weak to take care of themselves, so restraining them was an act of gentle love. Men, on the other hand, had few restrictions, and even wink-and-nod permission to sow their wild oats however they chose. How ironic, then, that in this context a person like the Chevalier d’Eon could exist under Society’s good graces. I can’t easily explain it.
Regardless, it is this sharply defined gender compartmentalization that gives rise to much of what makes Regency romance what it is. Regency fiction writers love to explore the edges of the boxes and outside the boxes. And nearly always, even the most outlandish violations of Societal norms captured in fiction have historical precedent. Women who owned land and great wealth. Women who inherited noble titles. Powerful women of color. Women who lived as men. Women who did as they pleased without significant retribution. And so on. As a result, nearly every heroine in a male/female Regency romance is strong enough to challenge the box and even break through it. Just as important, nearly every hero in such stories is willing to become her ally in this endeavor instead of her adversary as Society requires him to be.
Every society from every era features at least these four types of people: the oppressed, the oppressor, the bystander, and the helper. And sometimes, people are more than one of these types simultaneously. Even though the Regency lies 200 years in the past, it represents the continuing story of these four groups. Regency romance, though fiction, begs us to address some urgent personal questions. Who do I oppress? Who do I allow to be oppressed? Who am I helping? The answers to these questions define who we are. And this is the power of the romantic story – that through its lens we can discover paths that lead us to better versions of ourselves.
Three readers who comment will win digital copies of The Lord Pretender.