Marina Fiorato is the bestselling author of historical fiction. Her charming book, Beatrice and Benedick, about Shakespeare’s fabled lovers, was reviewed on The Mitford Society. She has written a guest-post on gender, a major theme in her forthcoming book, Kit.
Gender and what defines it seems to be more in the news than ever. Across the pond Caitlyn Jenner has hit the headlines, while here in the UK Grayson Perry is becoming almost an establishment figure. Well before transgender surgery was an option, cross-dressing has been a way for men and women to experience the world of the opposite sex.
The Roman Emperor Elegabus had his whole body depilated, French spy Charles D’Eon became the handmaiden of a Russian Empress, and Queen Christina of Sweden abdicated in order to dress as a man for the rest of her life. But my imagination was caught by a woman who entered the ultimate man’s world: the battlefield.
Kit Kavanagh was a redheaded Irish beauty who happily ran an alehouse in Dublin with her husband Richard. In 1702 the regiment came to town; when they left the next morning Kit’s husband had disappeared too. Discovering that Richard had been pressed into service, Kit promptly cut off her hair, dressed in her husband’s clothes and enlisted in the army under the name Christian Walsh. She travelled to Continental Europe in search of her ‘brother’ and fought four campaigns under the Duke of Marlborough’s command, before taking a musket ball to the hip. Subsequent operations in the field hospital gave her away, but not before she had been decorated for her bravery and commended by the Duke himself. She even accepted the paternity of a child in order to conceal her gender.
Did she find her husband? Well, that would be telling. But that’s also not really the point. The point is that Kit was an extraordinary woman in so many ways, but what was perhaps most incredible about her was that she was also an extraordinary man. Her male clothes gave her the opportunity to not just imitate ‘male’ skills but to excel at them. By any standards, Kit Kavanagh was one of the most successful soldiers in the British army. On her return to England she was given a pension by Queen Anne, and a special dispensation to return to the army as a sutler. Her wish to continue serving demonstrated one of the problems that has always faced those who choose to cross-dress – that once you’ve experienced the freedom that a change of dress gives, it is hard to go back. What happens if you prefer life through the looking glass? In my novel I explore the two sides of Kit Kavanagh, and how her male dress allowed her to live much more fully than she ever had as a woman.