While characters in some of our novels adopt the typical clothing of the opposite sex for serious purposes (for example, the title character in Katherine Cecil Thurston’s Max), others – especially gentlemen – disguise themselves solely for the lolz.
Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester famously dresses up as a fortune-teller in order to spy on his guests and have a laugh at their expense – particularly that of the gold-digging Blanche Ingram. Blanche takes the fortune-teller’s surprisingly accurate prophecies (and her unwelcome news about the extent of Rochester’s fortune) at face value, and is grumpy for the rest of the evening. Jane, however, is unimpressed:
“Why don’t you tremble?”
“I’m not cold.”
“Why don’t you turn pale?”
“I am not sick.”
“Why don’t you consult my art?”
“I’m not silly.”
In chapter 39 of Pride and Prejudice, Lydia regales her sisters with the details of a another vintage prank:
Dear me! we had such a good piece of fun the other day at Colonel Forster’s. Kitty and me were to spend the day there, and Mrs. Forster promised to have a little dance in the evening; (by the bye, Mrs. Forster and me are such friends!) and so she asked the two Harringtons to come, but Harriet was ill, and so Pen was forced to come by herself; and then, what do you think we did? We dressed up Chamberlayne in woman’s clothes on purpose to pass for a lady, only think what fun!
Despite Elizabeth’s disapproval, Lydia goes on with her tale of mistaken identity.
Not a soul knew of it, but Colonel and Mrs. Forster, and Kitty and me, except my aunt, for we were forced to borrow one of her gowns; and you cannot imagine how well he looked! When Denny, and Wickham, and Pratt, and two or three more of the men came in, they did not know him in the least. Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter.
In a similar vein, Mr. Clarence Hervey (pictured above) of Belinda lays a bet with Lady Delacour that he can wear one of her outfits without attracting the attention of a short-sighted acquaintance of theirs, claiming that “he could manage a hoop as well as any woman in England”. As we can see, however, the hoops get the better of him, and he loses his bet.
Chamberlayne, we assume, manages better in the loose, flowing dresses of the late 18th century than Mr. Clarence does with his trickier hoop skirt, and maintains his disguise until Lydia gives the game away. Perhaps things might have been different if Chamberlayne had been required to dance…
Happy April Fool’s Day!