The best books about 18th & 19th century crossdressers

Linda Collison Author Of Star-Crossed
By Linda Collison

Who am I?

The custom of Masquerade, of dressing as Other, has long fascinated me. In writing Star-Crossed, I set out to investigate how and why one girl might pass as a boy in an era when gender roles were sharply differentiated. I once crossed an ocean working aboard a wooden, three-masted ship – a 20th-century replica of the Bark Endeavour, circumnavigating in 1999. Sleeping in hammocks and working aloft in the rigging, I discovered this life required teamwork, stamina – and a sturdy, practical costume. Trousers, not petticoats! I have worked as a registered nurse and I earned a degree in History; these experiences combine in Star-Crossed. 

I wrote...


By Linda Collison,

Book cover of Star-Crossed

What is my book about?

Patricia Kelley has been raised a proper British lady--but she's become a stowaway. Her father is dead, and her future in peril. To claim the estate that is rightfully hers, she must travel across the seas to Barbados, hidden in the belly of a merchant ship.

The plan works—for a time. Patricia's secret is revealed, and she is torn between two worlds. During the day, she wears petticoats, inhabits the dignified realm of ship's officers, and trains as a surgeon's mate; at night she dons pants and climbs the rigging. And it is there, alongside boson's mate Brian Dalton, that she feels stunningly alive. In this mesmerizing novel of daring, adventure, tragedy, and romance, Patricia must cross the threshold between night and day, lady and surgeon, and even woman and man.

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The books I picked & why

The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot

By Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy, Mary Anne Talbot

Book cover of The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot

Why did I love this book?

Perhaps the most famous of the 18th-century crossdressers is Hannah Snell. Hannah was a British woman who passed as "James Gray" and became a marine in the Royal Navy, following the death of her infant daughter. During her military career of more than four years she was wounded in battle and later was officially recognized and pensioned for her service. Hannah's is only one of at least twenty authentic accounts of females serving aboard Royal Navy ships, according to editor Tom Grundner, who writes the preface to The Lady Tars; the Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot. Three entertaining, informative accounts in one book.

By Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy, Mary Anne Talbot

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lady Tars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Out of Print for over 200 Years, the original text of three of the most remarkable naval biographies ever written.

We know that women served as sailors in the Royal Navy as early as 1650. Unfortunately, what little we know of these women is based largely on second- and third-hand accounts and deductions. In general, few seamen (and even fewer sea-women) knew how to write. As a result, there exists no first-hand, autobiographical, accounts—with three exceptions.

Three women—three lady tars—left memoirs of their experiences serving as men in the Royal Navy.

Hanna Snell (1723-1792) originally joined the army but deserted…

Book cover of The Perfect Gentleman

Why did I love this book?

The notable Victorian physician, Dr. James Barry, was born female. Aided by her family, she passed as a young man in order to enter the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. Barry's true parentage remains unverifiable, but a good deal is known about the doctor's long career as a British Army Surgeon. Dr. James Barry is remembered for improving conditions for wounded soldiers, reforms in hygiene (revolutionary, at that time), and for performing one of the early successful caesarian surgical deliveries, in which both mother and infant survived. There have been several biographies written about Barry but June Rose's The Perfect Gentleman cuts to the known basics of Barry's life in a straightforward, interesting story.

By June Rose,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Perfect Gentleman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

James Barry was one of the most outstanding doctors of the nineteenth century – a brilliant surgeon, a tireless campaigner for medical reform, and a compassionate Inspector-General of the Army.

But throughout a long and distinguished career an air of secrecy, even of scandal, always clung to Barry. The shrill voice, the diminutive build, the almost ostentatious humanity – all struck a discordant note in the stiff, conventional world of the officers’ mess. Only after the doctor’s death in 1865 did the incredible truth come to light:

Dr. James Barry was a woman.

What was her real identity? How did…

Book cover of Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier

Why did I love this book?

It took Americans a very long time to honor the ordinary foot soldiers and seamen of the Revolution. It took even longer to recover the women of the Revolution, historian Alfred F. Young tells us. The author parses through various historical records to present a realistic picture of the female soldier Deborah Sampson. Deborah was not the only woman to volunteer as a soldier – dressed as a man. Her record was exemplary. Sampson became known only after the war was over, and then only to a few people. This biography is among the most thorough of crossdressing fighting women, and it gives a good picture of colonial life at the time of the American Revolution. 

By Alfred F. Young,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Masquerade as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Masquerade, Alfred F. Young scrapes through layers of fiction and myth to uncover the story of Deborah Sampson, a Massachusetts woman who passed as a man and fought as a soldier for seventeen months toward the end of the American Revolution.

Deborah Sampson was not the only woman to pose as a male and fight in the war, but she was certainly one of the most successful and celebrated. She managed to fight in combat and earn the respect of her officers and peers, and in later years she toured the country lecturing about her experiences and was partially…

Book cover of Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail

Why did I love this book?

This was the first nonfiction book I read that fired up my interest and started my research for my own historical novel. Stark gives a picture of the females to be found aboard ships in the British Royal Navy, most of whom were not posing as men but were wives of warrant officers. One chapter is devoted to women in disguise in naval crews. The last chapter is devoted to the crossdresser Mary Lacy, who passed as William Chandler, and worked as a shipwright. With illustrations and endnotes, Female Tars sheds light on the women who are seldom mentioned in official naval records, but were there, a part of history. 

By Suzanne J Stark,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Female Tars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For a very long time now I have delighted in histories, letters, records, and memoirs to do with the Royal Navy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century; but Suzanne Stark's book has told me many, many things I did not know, and I shall keep it on an honored shelf."--Patrick O'Brian

The wives and female guests of commissioned officers often went to sea in the sailing ships of Britain's Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there were other women on board as well, rarely mentioned in print. Suzanne Stark thoroughly investigates the custom of allowing prostitutes…

Book cover of Monsieur D'Eon is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

Why did I love this book?

Who was s/he – a man, a woman masquerading as a man, or a gender fluid person?

The Chevalier d'Eon was a French courtier and diplomat, decorated military officer, writer – and a cross-dressing spy for Louis XV in a clandestine foreign policy organization known as the Secret du Roi. A well-researched account, Kates' political "thriller" is quite unlike any other crossdresser's biography I've read; it kindles a conception of 18th-century gender fluidity that reflects perception, influence, and political power in a European age when clothes indeed, made the man.

By Gary Kates,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Monsieur D'Eon is a Woman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Born in 1728, French aristocrat Charles d'Eon de Beaumont had served his country as a diplomat, soldier, and spy for fifteen years when rumors that he was a woman began to circulate in the courts of Europe. D'Eon denied nothing and was finally compelled by Louis XVI to give up male attire and live as a woman, something d'Eon did without complaint for the next three decades. Although celebrated as one of the century's most remarkable women, d'Eon was revealed, after his death in 1810, to have been unambiguously male. Gary Kates's acclaimed biography of d'Eon recreates eighteenth-century European society…

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Interested in the British Royal Navy, cross-dressing, and France?

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