Friday, 6 November 2015

Victorian Cross-Dressing and Gaskell’s Cranford

Sex, Gender and Sexuality

Today distinctions are typically drawn between sex (which is considered an anatomical category), gender (which is thought of as a category of self- and/or social identification), and sexuality (a term used to refer to sexual desires and/or acts). (Dreger 183)

1792: Chevalier d'Eon
by Thomas Stewart,
after Jean Laurent Mosnier
When defined on paper, the three terms show clear distinctions between each other as to their contributions and limitations when describing a person. As described above, sex relates to the the physical anatomical attributes of a person (male, female, both), gender describes what the person’s identifies himself as (male, female, both or neither) and sexuality relates to the what gender/sex the person is attracted to (males, females, both, neither, etc.). As it is clear to see there is overlap amongst the three categories though they are meant to be recognised as three separate entities. Alan Sinfield explains while “gender identity is a force in its own right – linked with sexual identity, but experimentally and analytically separate from it – has only recently come into focus.” (Sinfield 154) During the Victorian era, and even up until a few decades ago, the reverse was apparent where gender “has been a prior concept, and same-sex passion has been presumed to be a subcategory of it.” (Sinfield 155)

Molly Houses and Oscar Wilde

One of the best  examples of this claim would be seen with the early 18th century molly houses, the most famous being that of Margaret Clap, more commonly known as Mother Clap. Molly houses were typically bars, taverns or coffee houses with private rooms where men, known as mollies, would meet to socialise with other like-minded men. When using the term men here, it is meant to be understood as the sex of the participants and not the gender. Mollies were cross-dressing men who took on the personas of females. There is a sense of ambiguity as to whether or not mollies were homosexual, transgender or a combination of the both. Because these were essentially the same thing during the Victorian era it is difficult to be able to find a definite answer. It can even be said that these men would not have been able to make the distinction classifying themselves, and they would probably describe themselves similarly to how the general population would.

One contemporary described mollies as:

so far degenerated from all masculine deportment, or manly exercises, that they rather fancy themselves women, imitating as the little vanities that custom has reconciled to the female sex, affecting to speak, walk, tattle, cur[t]sy, cry, scold, and mimic all manner of effeminacy (Sinfield 155)

Sinfield suggests that unlike modern day culture, the Victorians focused gender rather than sexuality ultimately seeing the two categories as one of the same. This can also be supported with a statement made by one of the young male prostitutes in the trial against the Victorian poet, Oscar Wilde, who stated:

I was asked by Wilde to imagine that I was a woman and that he was my lover. I had to keep up this illusion. I used to sit on his and he knees to play with my privates as a man might amuse himself with a girl. (Hyde 7-8)

The fluidity between gender and sexuality is clearly present. However, it is interesting to examine the way the the male prostitute makes his statement. While it is apparent that Wilde sees gender and sexuality as one, the prostitute exclaims that Wilde asked him to imagine that he was a woman during their sexual activity together. It can be argued that while some Victorians tended think similarly to Wilde, being that gender and sexuality are the same, others had a much more modern view of the two being separate, just as the male prostitute did.


British law, during the Victorian era, forbade sodomy, buggery or any sexual interactions between two men with the penalty being death which around until 1861. The law, however, was quite vague about what was considered sodomy and was recognised typically as any sexual act that was performed that did not lead to procreation – commonly regarded as any acts between two men or the act of beasteality. H. Montgomery Hyde explains that “[l]esbian behaviour has never been criminal in England, although an unsuccessful attempt was made in Parliament to make it so in 1921” (Hyde 6). Most theorists suggest that while men practised cross-dressing at molly houses and formed communities, cross-dressing women, commonly known as transvestites, practiced alone. While the term ‘transvestite’ is seen as quite derogatory in the modern age and typically is associated with a man in drag, Rictor Norton explains “that during the 18th and 19th centuries, [transvestites were] persons who passed as members of the opposite sex over long periods of time were mostly women” (Norton) dressing as men, usually for means of pickpocketing or joining male-exclusive professions such as the military.

It is worth noting that it was not until 1967 when the Sexual Offences Act repealed the decriminalisation of homosexual acts for men over the age of 21. However, the criminalisation of most homosexual acts were only considered illegal from around 1885 and some a little before 1828 (Hyde 9). During the medieval times there were sumptuary laws which prevented cross-dressing. These laws were actually not directly targeted towards cross-dressing and actually were in place to promote class division. Nonetheless, during these times most men who dressed in drag, typically for entertainment purposes, were exempt from these criminal offenses. All other forms of cross-dressing at this time would have been illegal.


Fanny and Stella, photographed in
Chelmsford by Fred Spalding,
An analysis of Victorian cross-dressing would be incomplete without the mention of the infamous Stella and Fanny. Stella, familiarly known as Thomas Ernest Boulton, and Fanny, known as Frederick William Park, are two of the most famous Victorian cross-dressers. Their fame arose during their trial involving them and their intimate relationship with Member of Parliament and third son of the fifth Duke of Newcastle, Lord Arthur Clinton. H. Montgomery Hyde explains that “Boulton and Park were both transvestite homosexuals, who liked to play female parts in amateur theatricals and frequently appeared in public dressed as women” (Hyde 94). Both Boulton and Park had cross-dressed publicly numerous times and had been watched by police for about a year until their arrest in April 1870 whilst exiting the Strand Theatre. The police officer who had made the arrest stated in evidence:
When we got to the station I saw that Boulton has a scarlet dress and a muslin shawl over it. […] Boulton had false hair and chignon of fair colour, like ordinary hair I have seen females wearing. He had ornaments—bracelets, rings and lockets. […] He wore ladies’ white boots. the bosom was padded to make it appear very full. (Hyde 95)
Similarly, Park is reported to have been cross-dressing in similar garb. They were charged with the intent to commit a felony and were sent to trial without the option of bail. During this time Lord Arthur Clinton contracted scarlet fever and died before being tried himself. The trial was quite popular in the public’s eye and was followed closely through the newspapers. Boulton and Park were eventually released because of a lack of evidence against them supporting the notion that they were involved in acts of buggery. (Hyde 94-98)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford
Because of the unlawfulness of cross-dressing during the Victorian era, it it interesting to find evidence of it in contemporary literature. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s, a popular 19th-century English novelist, second novel, Cranford, examines the social life of the predominantly female-driven town Cranford, which is based on the  Gaskell’s childhood town of Knutsford in Cheshire, England.
In the novel, the narrator, Mary Smith, and her friend Miss Matty Jenkyns are reading through old letters and setting fire to the ones that are no longer important to them. When the two stumble upon a letter from Miss Matty’s estranged brother, Peter, she confides in Mary about her brother’s history of cross-dressing after assuring that her servants were sent away from her house.
As a young man, Peter was an honours student at the Shrewsbury School with the likelihood that he was to attend Cambridge later after graduating, however as Miss Matty recalls
The sole honour Peter brought away from Shrewsbury was the reputation of being the best good fellow that ever was, and of being the captain of the school in the art of practical joking. His father was disappointed, but set about remedying the matter in a manly way. (Gaskell 80)
Throughout the novel there is an evident struggle between gender and sex. Even in the language and ideologies of the women living in Cranford seem to be affected by it. When telling the story Miss Matty slips and uses the word ‘hoaxing’ which she immediately repeals and apologises for uttering deeming that it is too unladylike to use (Gaskell 81-82).
Miss Matty goes on to explain that Peter, due to his comedic behaviour, would dress as a woman and play jokes on their father. Eventually, Peter’s disguise is revealed and he is beaten by their father with a cane.
1917: Miss Matty and her brother Peter
from Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell 
Miss Matty explains that Peter did not always tell her about when he was going to cross-dress but states that “[h]e used to say the old ladies in the town wanted something to talk about; but I don’t think they did.” (Gaskell 82-83) This line allows for a lot of analysis as to why Peter dressed as a woman. On a basic analysis one could assume Peter as dressing in drag just for a laugh because of his eccentric character, however the possibility that he enjoyed cross-dressing because underlying homosexual tendencies or gender misidentity is apparent. This can also be supported with the fact that it is never mentioned if Peter ever marries whilst he is abroad in India. By not showing interest in women and running away after not being accepted for his true identity by his father it makes one question if Peter had ulterior intentions when cross-dressing. It could be said that he is concealing his true feelings because of his patriarchal upbringing in a society which shuns this lifestyle. As it is noted in the novel, Mary Smith states that his stories of traveling appear farfetched and tend to change based on who he is telling the story to. Without definitive support to claim anything about Peter's life abroad, excluding what is told through his stories which can be considered unreliable, it makes one question Peter's character.

Dreger, Alice. “Hermaphrodites in love: the truth of the gonads”. In Science and Homosexualities of a Lesbian Community New York: Routledge, 1993. Print

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. {Chapter 6, Poor Peter} 2013. Web page. 6 November 2015. <>

Hyde, Harford, The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain London: Heinemann, 1970. Print

Norton, Rictor. Gay History and Literature {Some Thoughts on… Cross-Dressing, paragraph 6.} 2014.  Web page. 6 November 2015. <>

Sinfield, Alan “Transgender and les/bi/gay identities”. In Territories of desire in queer culture: Refiguring contemporary boundaries. Ed. David Alderson & Linda Anderson. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. Print

Spalding, Fred. Fanny and Stella. Online image Essex Record Office. 21 February 2013. Web. 6 November 2015. <>

Stewart, Thomas. “Chevalier d'Eon”. Online image. National Portrait Gallery. 2015. Web. 6 November 2015. <>

Youtube. “Fanny and Stella, The Shocking Truth - Show Trailer”. Online video clip. Youtube. 14 May 2015. Web. 6 November 2015. <>

Wikipedia. “Miss Matty and her brother Peter from Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell”. Online image. Wikipedia. 7 August 2011. Web. 6 November 2015. <>


  1. Hi Jason, what a fascinating subject. I was particularly interested by the details of the Wilde legal case, and the male prostitute's awareness of the nuances between sexuality and gender identities. I wondered if you'd come across any discussion of the cross-dressing used in Shakespeare's comedies such as As You Like It in your research, and if you had any thoughts on how the Victorians received/viewed cross-dressing Shakespeare's plays?

    1. Hi Alastair,
      Thanks for reading. As You Like It and a few other Shakespearean/Elizabethan (and earlier - I'm thinking particularly the 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte) cross-dressing instances did come to mind while researching. I wasn't able to uncover any men I've mentioned being influenced by these pieces but I did find that the correlations were apparent. I am assuming, in particular, that Fanny and Stella, would have been highly influenced by literature and plays. Cross-dressing was not a new idea though in my opinion were the first to start embracing their lifestyles in communities. Thanks for addressing this point!

  2. Hello Jason, I really enjoyed your post, this is a most intriguing subject. I realize this was quite a male dominated era, but I was wondering if you came across any cases about women cross-dressing in your research. The fact that there is so little focus on women in this subject makes me wonder if there were less women cross-dressing or if they were just better at hiding it? The first picture of your post was wonderful! I very much enjoyed it.

    1. Hi Rebekka,
      Thanks for bringing this up! While I predominately speak about men cross-dressing as women, as it is reported by a few of the sources I use in my 'References,' that there were probably more females cross-dressing at the time. The only issue with this is that because it was not seen as an illegal act there are not as many police reports on women in male drag. Because the controversy lies on those born as men dressing as women which is why I wanted to discuss it in this context. It would be interesting to research female crossing-dressing a bit more in depth in a future blog post.

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