Fighting women have had a long and legendary history. A troop of Roman soldiers could be ousted by a single Gaul if aided by his wife, who, ‘swelling her neck, gnashing her teeth, and brandishing sallow arms of enormous size ... delivers blows and kicks like missiles from a catapult’. But however massive their arms and however swollen their necks, openly aggressive Amazons were in the end almost invariably defeated by their sexuality: left seduced, raped, abandoned or married. It is not the ‘she-soldiers’ who especially titillate the public – only the most severely blinkered could ever have doubted that women are capable of martial courage – but, rather, those women who dressed themselves up in male clothes and joined armies or societies as men. This masquerading to carry out unconventional roles seems to have fascinated the 18th and late 19th centuries in particular.
There are many reasons. Cross-dressing draws on the erotics of war and military discipline, making a heady combination of female and military narcissism: there are many loving descriptions of the male uniform in the autobiographical accounts of female soldiers. At the same time, it relies on overt theatricality. It is no accident that the fascination was at its height when breeches parts were applauded on the stage: indeed, some female soldiers, like the 18th-century Hannah Snell, returned to civilian life to play themselves in the theatre. The thespian quality adds to the personal power of the cross-dresser in life, for she always has in her grasp the possibility of the dramatic scene of revelation: in the Napoleonic Wars the woman nicknamed ‘Sans-Gêne’ looked forward to the piquant moment when she could, like Myra Breckenridge, lift her garments to settle an argument.
Several undressed cross-dressers admit to using undescribed devices of one sort or another, but nothing quite explains how these physically normal women could live cheek by jowl with men on ships and in tents for years without discovery. When others jumped off their horses and answered the call of nature, did these ladies have iron bladders, or did they invariably need to find a bush in the steppes of central Asia? Did men in fact know the sex of their pretending fellows all along, and if so what did they do with their knowledge? Since a woman dressed as a man looks younger than her years, and most cross-dressers, even mature women, passed themselves off as boys, did another set of dangers assail them in armies not known for their self-control and delicacy?
There are psychological questions as well. In ballads and folk tales the cross-dresser is frequently depicted as following a male lover. But factual accounts suggest that this is not often the case. Women might cross-dress to avoid poverty or creditors, like Colley Cibber’s daughter Charlotte Charke, or to fulfil lesbian desires that could find no other expression in their communities – several cross-dressers married and their wives were often very satisfied with the situation until the law intervened. Some no doubt had an urge to dress as men and carried on doing so long after the immediate need had been removed. Others, probably more comfortably placed in the social scale, might adopt men’s clothing to gain the privileges and freedom of men, to be able to travel where they wanted and see a large portion of life that would have been closed to the middle-class woman. In the last case it is interesting to speculate how much the temper of the times, the excitement of gender ambiguities, the fascination with cross-dressing in the theatre and fiction, might have influenced the culturally-aware young lady.
The theatrical literary quality emerges clearly from the accounts of Nadezhda Durova, a soldier in the Russian wars against Napoleon, known after her initial sortie, by the Tsar at least, to be a woman, although she insisted she was unknown to others, and Isabelle Eberhardt, another Russian from Geneva, who dressed in male (and sometimes female) Arab clothes and involved herself in the politics and religion of North Africa. Durova was steeped in Gothic and sentimental literature, seeing herself in Mrs Radcliffe’s adventures or on the road with Laurence Sterne’s sentimental traveller; the Fin-de-Siècle Eberhardt was lapped in the melancholy orientalising of Pierre Loti, eager to romanticise her extraordinary background as the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic mother and a gloomy anarchist tutor with a passion for cacti. Both women seem to have let cross-dressing exaggerate the sense of role-playing that all life became for them. While still in the Army, Durova frequently listened to fictional accounts of her escapades – she even heard of her own death. Once she had left the Army, she wrote an account in which the notion of herself as a woman uneasily jostles an assumed identity as a young man; later, she became a novelist, often writing close to her own experience. Isabelle Eberhardt dramatised herself in her obsessive, melancholic diaries, and her short life – she was 27 when she died in a flash flood in North Africa – was exoticised for Parisian readers by her editor, while her image as the desert androgyne grew irresistible to the theatre.
Durova and Eberhardt had the same childlike faces, the same fascination with male dress and uniform, and similar desires to travel and act at will. Both were encouraged to wear boys’ clothes as children, Durova by a military father who judged that her good qualities would have honoured a son, and Eberhardt by her (probable) father, who valued the freedom male dress could give in the world, while rigorously crushing any liberty within his family. Both had unsatisfactory – although curiously unknowable – mothers who provided no domestic focus. Durova’s mother was so disappointed at bearing a daughter instead of a son that she entirely repudiated the baby: she once even threw her out of the window, to be picked up bleeding and half-dead by her soldier father. According to her biographer, Eberhardt’s mother had no motherly feelings, although Eberhardt bizarrely transformed her into a great spiritual force against which in later life she could measure and judge herself. Both described the sense of freedom in cross-dressing, the possibility of being an observer (even a voyeur) not simply the observed, of escaping compulsory femininity with its delicacy and enforced life of needlework, and, above all, of being a wanderer, with the power to roam in graveyards at night for the romantic Durova, or in brothels and bars for the Fin-de-Siècle Eberhardt. Durova spoke of the joy of being saluted, while photographs of both women show them sitting at ease like men. Both confounded genders but retained a definite sense of class. ‘It would be odd, indeed,’ Durova primly insisted, ‘if my commanders could not distinguish me from soldiers taken from the plough.’ Eberhardt, too, was concerned to describe herself as the daughter of a noble Russian mother.
But there the resemblance ends and the different temperaments and contexts come into play. Where Eberhardt appears to have been flamboyantly and uninhibitedly sexual, at least in reputation, Durova, writing in the early 19th century, was careful to avoid any sexual suggestion and to discourage speculation about the ambiguities of her situation. And more than the self-obsessed Eberhardt, she implicitly interrogated aspects of the male role, suggesting the silliness of some macho attitudes, although she herself was caught in them: ‘Brandishing the heavy lance – especially the completely worthless manoeuvre of slinging it over my head – makes me deathly tired, and I have already hit myself over the head several times. I am also ill-at-ease with the sabre; it always seems to me that I will cut myself. I would more readily suffer a wound, however, than display the slightest timidity.’ At the same time, as a promotor of herself, she could not be entirely unmindful of the image of femininity. When she gave her account of her part in battles she tended to describe not tactics and assaults but everyday events and moments of compassion; though obsessed by the idea of courage and appalled at cowardice, she was careful to indicate that she never killed – except a goose, and its blood remained to haunt her. With the exception of the Tsar, to whom she was devoted, it was only animals that called forth her emotion: her most feeling moments were spent by the grave of a horse.
In their journals, both women raise psychological and practical questions. Mary Fleming Zirin’s Introduction to Durova’s Journals and the biography of Eberhardt by Annette Kobak largely avoid answering them. The Durova Introduction contains little of the psychological speculation that would surely have been appropriate in dealing with a mature wife and mother who passed herself off as an adolescent boy – Durova continued the pretence of maidenhood and youth even in the memoirs she compiled later. In the Eberhardt biography there is much psychological comment, but of a rather unsubtle kind, so that the characters rarely come alive and the domineering, egotistic Isabelle lives mainly in her quoted words. Indeed, this new biography, although pleasant enough to read, seems to have little to recommend it over the more novelettish The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt (1951) by Cecily Mackworth, who had the advantage of sharing her subject’s fascination with the Sahara. In the biographical accounts of both Durova and Eberhardt the mothers remain shadowy. Eberhardt’s, although said to be so dominated and weak, sets off to North Africa and converts to Islam; Durova’s, so monstrous in her daughter’s account, bears child after child before realising her husband’s infidelity, and preaches to her daughter both the necessity and the horrors of femininity.
Yet both biographers are to be commended for drawing attention to the writing of their subjects, the Journals of Durova and Eberhardt’s novel, which has been translated by Annette Kobak. Though reticent in many areas, the Journals are full of fascinating day-to-day experiences: the odd sense of hierarchy in weapons, the love of horses, the importance of different uniforms – the hussar’s or the uhlan’s, with so much braid and certain numbers of plumes – or the excitement that the female author cannot share when a languid countess makes a whole regiment spray themselves with perfume, wash in milk, jingle their spurs and pull in their waists to attract her attention. Eberhardt’s Vagabond is a haunting fragment, indicating pains and problems of humanity beyond cross-dressing and gender. It is a psychological fable in which the hero, like an early figure of Camus, time and again comes up against the pointlessness of everything he experiences. He tries on, as Eberhardt herself did, various clothes – of student, worker and legionnaire – to see if real freedom could be found in any, or whether all were in the end simply entrapping uniforms. Often an awkward book, especially in the early sections, which aim more clearly at realism and pit the love of a pure woman and work for revolution against degradation in the form of sex, drink and squalor, it becomes more physically precise as the hero leaves his student revolutionaries to become a worker in Marseilles, a vagabond and, at last, a legionnaire. In these later sections the book occasionally catches something of the seduction of the vagabond life and its violence – murder and rape arrive as ‘simple virility’ – and the charm of repeatedly leaving lovers and homes, of seeking exile and separation, as well as the hatred of work routine and of ‘moral collectives’. In the end, both hero and author seem to have found such a vagabond freedom incompatible with any uniform, whether man’s or woman’s.