A creature of strength and grace and beauty and softness

Dear Florence,

Her Father’s Name (1876) features the best (and worst) of what a Victorian Sensational novel has to offer: an exotic location, murder, a cross-dressing heroine with whom other women fall in love, a few hints at illegitimacy and extramarital relationships, mystery, suicide, a duel, a lesbian kiss, lost siblings or half-siblings, doppelgängers, children born out of wedlock or secretly adopted, and a hysterical invalid suffering from a mysterious illness. I mean, what else could we ask from a novel, really?

We follow Leona Lacoste, a headstrong Brazilian woman who embarks on a quest to clear the name of her father and solve the mystery surrounding the murder of which he had been (perhaps) wrongly accused.

In the opening scene, Leona is in the woods somewhere near Rio de Janeiro, and is shown to carry a loaded pistol and a knife. She is smoking a cigarette and talking to her childhood friend, the Brazilian-born Spanish nobleman Don Christobal Valera. He is head over heels with Leona (we don’t blame him, who wouldn’t be?), but she adamantly shuns his insistent marriage proposals.

From the beginning, we are told that Leona is an alluring, exotic beauty, and that there is no lack of men willing to do anything to keep her for themselves. When her father is blackmailed by one of those shady men, tragedy ensues, and Leona learns that, rather than being a Frenchman, her father was an Englishman accused of murder who fled to Brazil to escape scandal and hide himself.

Our Leona will not give up until she gets to the bottom of this, even if it means crossing to the other side of the world. Don Valera insists that it is not fit for an unmarried woman to travel alone, and that she should either marry him or remain single and keep his mother company (this must be one of the worst marriage proposals in literature since Mr. Darcy’s first one), but our heroine (thank heavens) is not having it.

She dresses as a man, forges a new identity, and embarks on ship to New York, where her single-minded quest to clear her father’s name is about to begin. From then on, Leona will leap in and out of different male and female disguised identities, and will even have a successful career as an actress who plays male roles on stage, only to drop everything later to travel to London and infiltrate her father’s family, dressed as Don Valera –  eventually making every woman she meets fall heads over heels for her (including her cousin Lucilla, who might be suffering from hysteria).

The novel has a flavor of something between a pantomime, an operatic piece and a Shakespearean comedy. Leona’s power of attraction is similar to that of another of your protagonists, the female vampire Harriet Brandt, who also embodied the Victorian anxieties against independent women, female sexuality, and lesbianism. Both Harriet and Leona are mixed-race, androgynous, and feared by male characters as vectors of some kind of sexual (or lesbian) contagion.

The scene where Leona kisses Lizzie Vereker, while they are acting together in an amateur play, strongly reminded me of early 20th-century novels, such as Wisnloe’s Mädchen in Uniform (1930) or Bussy’s Olivia (1949), where lesbian desire is coded into women impersonating men in school plays. Your Lizzie “lifted up a very bright face so close to Leona’s that it only seemed natural to my heroine to kiss it. The minute she had done it though, she saw by the blush that dyed her companion’s cheek, how imprudent she had been, but it was impossible to explain the action away again. She must let Miss Vereker think what she chose”.

The lesbianism in the book is certainly not overt and many could argue that such a reading suggests homoerotic undertones which (perhaps) have not been envisaged by you. However, having found similar undertones in The Blood of the Vampire (1897), I am more inclined to read them as some sort of subtext that would have been clear to an enlightened reader, while remaining suitably cloudy to the rest; a hint that would have been enough to stir up curiosity but not to raise outrage among your loyal but more conservative readers.

As in The Blood of the Vampire (1897), where mixed-race characters are seen as a threat, racism is a major letdown of Her Father’s Name (1876). Characters are praised and seen as “superior” for being “European”; there is a huge prejudice against Portuguese characters, which are seen as “inferior” to the Spanish ones; and the treatment of black people in this book is appalling (the book basically naturalizes slavery). The scenes in Brazil, which is taken to be a jungle, are also odd: the characters keep exclaiming expressions in Spanish, and it sounds as if you didn’t know that the language that is spoken there is Portuguese…

While the novel’s denouement does bow to convention and we do see Leona getting married (oh well), you did a better job at challenging Victorian fears in Her Father’s Name (1876) than in The Blood of the Vampire (1897). Although it is certain that Leona yields to marriage and gives up the freedom that crossdressing had afforded her, it is less clear whether she has submitted to a conventional marriage or to male authority. In a role-reversal, it is Leona who proposes to her future husband; furthermore, she is resolved to return to her career in New York and to continue working as an actress and playing male roles (at least, on stage). We have a feeling that Leona enters into marriage only after her independence and her equality has been established in the eyes of her future husband – much like Barret-Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856). We know that Leona will always get her own way no matter what, and that now she will be able to have, as a woman, the independence that only crossdressing was able to offer her in the past.

I particularly liked the way you created an unapologetically protagonist who refuses to conform to accepted notions of “femininity”, and the way you used crossdressing to challenge such notions, as well as to challenge the binarism of Victorian ideas regarding gender. Your Leona is no “Angel in the House”: she not only rejects marriage, but also is intent on having a career and taking active participation in the public sphere. Further, Leona can manipulate gender expectations and stereotypes to her own advantage: by taking a stroll through the gender spectrum, your protagonist not only breaks the conflation of sex and gender, crosses geographical and social barriers and lifts the cultural limitations to the free expression of her personality, but also blurs the gender boundaries. Everything is performance for Leona, and there is no “essential self” beyond her uncompromising choice of remaining free to decide: Leona is the queen of the masquerade.

Yours truly,

J.


Una and Lion, Briton Rivière

“There was no light, springy gait about this girl. All her actions were slow and solemn, yet eminently graceful. She reminded one of nothing so much as of that to which Valera had likened her—a panther—a creature of strength and grace and beauty and softness, until it is offended. And even then, though its revenge is quick and its spring fatal, it is still beautiful, perhaps more so in its anger than its play. But when man has at last succeeded in taming one of these apparently untamable creatures, how much more faithful and loving and submissive it becomes than the lesser animal who fawns on everybody.” – Florence Marryat, . Her Father’s Name

*

“You do not love Christobal, my girl?” demanded Lacoste anxiously. “I do—dearly! He is the best friend I have, after yourself, father. If Tobal were my brother I could not esteem him more.” “Ah! I did not mean that sort of love, Leona. I meant that love that leads to marriage.” “I love no one in that way,” replied his daughter. “I wish to love no one in that way. I have no desire of marriage—no intention of marrying. I have never seen the man to whom I would submit my will, and I never expect to see him.” “But, Leona, whatever your private feelings may be, it is expedient from a public point of view that you should think of marriage. A woman without a husband is thought little of by all nations; in this country she becomes a nonentity—almost a disgrace.” “Then I prefer to be a nonentity and a disgrace. “But for my sake, Leona—to allay my anxiety—to make me happy,” he said entreatingly. (…) “How could it increase your happiness to make me miserable, father?” “How can you be sure it would make you miserable?” “If I am not sure for myself, no one can be sure for me. I am quite determined, father. I shall never marry. Marriage is slavery, and I was born free. I will never be such a fool as to barter my birthright for any man.”” – Florence Marryat, . Her Father’s Name

*

“You are still determined to be nothing but an actress?” “What else is there for me to be? I want to make money, Tobal, and the opportunities for a woman to make money are so few. All I have to sell is my beauty. Can I sell it any other way?” – Florence Marryat, . Her Father’s Name

*

“So many a one or, as may be written with greater truth—so, almost everyone walks through this world a sealed book to his neighbour, who looks at him and sighs, and envies his placidity, comparing it favourably with the turmoil that rages in his own breast.” – Florence Marryat, . Her Father’s Name

*

“She was fearless as a lion in a cause of her own adoption, and utterly careless to what others said.” – Florence Marryat, . Her Father’s Name

*

At this juncture had Lucilla Evans been a gentleman she would certainly have used a naughty word. It is very hard that there should be no naughty words that a woman may use with impunity in the time of need. Why should one sex be legally permitted the privilege of safety valves, whilst the other must explode without caution? – Florence Marryat, . Her Father’s Name


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