Many, many years ago, before I started writing seriously, I used to have a very long commute home, about an hour and a half each way, along a very straight, long road which ran beside the ocean and through a national park on the west coast of South Africa.
Quite often, as soon as I was outside the suburbs of Cape Town, I was the only person on the road.
To keep myself occupied and awake, I used to listen to the radio a lot. On Friday afternoons, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the qualifying rounds of Formula One Grand Prix, and I also used to get to listen to wonderful discussions with a radio interviewer and the author she was interviewing that week.
One such author was Sarah Burton, who'd written a historical reference book entitled IMPOSTERS, a book researching a number of people who had pulled off amazing scams, stunts and deceptions, while pretending to be someone else. This book sounded so amazing, I went straight out and bought it when I was next in Cape Town (my little town up the coast didn't have a bookshop).
One thing the interviewer brought up was how many of the imposters Burton had researched were women passing themselves off as men. Burton's response was that she had been surprised when she started researching the book on what a common phenomenon it was for women to disguise themselves as men in order to better their lives or follow a career path that would otherwise have been denied them. And as women alone in the world, for most of them, passing themselves off successfully as men was the only way to avoid the poorhouse, the whorehouse or the asylum.
Burton gives numerous examples of women who were only discovered to be women when they died, having led extremely high-profile lives. Among them Charlie Parkhurst, famous stage coach driver during the Californian gold rush and Billy Tipton, jazz pianoist and saxophonist. It makes one wonder how many other women, living much more mundane lives, were doing the same.
There were certainly a large number of women who passed themselves off as men in various military campaigns, and Burton gives a number of examples of how Napoleon, when these women were discovered, turned a blind eye and let them continue as they were, especially if they had earned their stripes and proven themselves on the battlefield. Therese Figueur, the de Fernig sisters and Catalina de Eranso are just a few of the women Sarah Burton includes who joined the army or the navy as men and had active military careers.
But for me, the best example of this was the Victorian army doctor, James Barry. He studied at Edinburgh University, joined the army as a doctor, and worked all over the Victorian Empire, in Gibraltar, South Africa, the Crimea and many other places. On his death, he was found to be a woman. Because Barry would have been a contemporary of my characters given the time my novel is set, I even managed to work in a very obscure reference to Barry in my latest release, Daughter of the Sky.
In Daughter of the Sky, my main character, Elizabeth, follows on in the footsteps of this tradition by passing herself off as a young teen-aged soldier in the British forces, marching to war on Zululand. It is the only way she can get into the column of men, as there are no female camp followers, as there sometimes were.
I thought of that journey home when I listened to Sarah Burton talking about her book all those years ago, and even dipped back into it a couple of times while writing Daughter of the Sky, just to remind myself how common an occurrence it was for women to enter the military pretending to be men, and to think how if you'd asked me that day, when I was driving home, if I ever thought I'd use what Burton was talking about in a book of my own, I'd have been sure to say no. :)
Thank you so much to Meg for having me to visit today!
Follow the Rest of the Tour:
Monday, April 8
Review at Reflections of a Book Addict
Review at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Tuesday, April 9
Review, Interview & Giveaway at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Thursday, April 11
Guest Post at The Reading Reviewer
Feature & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Friday, April 12
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Guest Post at A Bookish Libraria
Monday, April 15
Review at Bitches with Books
Tuesday, April 16
Review at Turning the Pages
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Thursday, April 18
Review at A Bookish Affair
Friday, April 19
Review & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
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