01 November 2018

A Curious Romance about a Closeted, Corseted, Petticoated Poet and His Masculine Twin Sister

Enid Cushing [and Andre Norton]
New York: Fawcett, 1981
221 pages

Twins Lady Jennifer and Lord Jonathan Welland are alike in body, but not in mind. Jenny's chief interests are guns, horses, and war. As a little girl she would sneak out of bed to eavesdrop on her grumpy guardian, the Duke of Burghley, as he regaled dinner guests about his fight against Napoleon in the Peninsular War. Jonnie never joined her; his interests lay in poetry, the pianoforte, and petticoats. Throughout their young lives, the twins would secretly trade identities. Jenny, as Jonnie, joined the men on a fox chase, while "a skirted and beruffled Jonathan toyed with tea and cakes and exchanged titters with delicately nurtured maidens at the Manor."

The one person not taken in by their masquerade was Lord Rufus Randall; Jonnie aside, he knows Jenny better than anyone alive. Randall first met Jenny when she was a newly orphaned girl of eight – he was eighteen – and they've been jolly good friends ever since. Twelve years have passed, and the first of this novel's twenty-four chapters finds Lady Jennifer in a nostalgic mood:
"Rufus, do you remember the time Sir Peter Davies over at the Lodge had that party three years ago? They all played those forfeit for a kiss games – or maybe you don't remember, because you stayed off in the trophy room with Sir Peter – anyway, Jonathan was the belle of the party and was always being caught on purpose. You must have heard about it"
     "I also recollect that the Jonathan of the evening also made quite a name for himself as well," Lord Rufus said dryly. "Fine pair up to no good – that was the two of you."
     "We used to have fun," Jennifer nodded at the memories of mischief successfully carried through. "Nobody could ever tell the difference."
     "The only noticeable difference was that fair Jonathan displayed a fine sense of more maidenly conduct than his sister appears interested in showing," Lord Rufus pointed out.
     "I should have been a boy," Jennifer sighed, not for the first time.
Jenny gives expression to her desire in midnight rides through the English countryside dressed in male drag: riding boots, black breeches, dark shirt and black jacket. She never forgets to carry a gun.

Does Jenny's twin think he should have been a girl? Jonnie doesn't say, but the Duke of Burghley has long been concerned about interests he associates with women. Fearing his ward is getting to be a "damned sissy," he hunts him down in London. "Gad, do you know where I found this brother of yours, my dear?" the Duke says to Jennie. "At Lady Ashbury's salon, listening to a fop reading poetry. Poetry! And he was ready to spout off verses, too. Imagine that for your brother! I tell you, at that point I had enough. I told him to come with me. I'm not going to have my ward behaving like a pampered pimp, reeling around in ladies' salons and boudoirs, listening to poetry."

The Duke decides to make a man of Jonnie through military service. He purchases a commission in the Rifle Brigade, and makes certain that the newly-minted Captain Jonathan Welland will be posted far from Lady Ashbury's London salon.

Where exactly?

Jonnie tells Jenny:
"Halifax," he said gloomily.
     "Halifax? Where's Halifax? she repeated blankly. "What on earth are you going to do there?"
     He made a sweeping, oddly feminine gesture. "Place's in Canada – I'm for garrison duty."
Jenny manages to convince their guardian – she calls him "Guardie" – to let her accompany her brother; it helps that Lord Bradbury, the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, happens to be one of the Duke's old war pals. The very next week, the twins board the Cambria, bound from Liverpool to Halifax. Sadly, predictably, they're not two days out when delicate Jonnie collapses in Jennie's bunk from mal de mer. There he remains for the remainder of the voyage "rolled in one of her dressing gowns." Meanwhile, hardy Jennie dons Jonnie's military uniform – "fortunate, she considered, that padded fronts to an officer's uniform had become a recent military style" – so as to pass as her brother and be allowed on deck in rough weather.

View of Dartmouth and Halifax (c 1850)
L. Crepy
The twins' arrival in Halifax poses a problem in that Jonnie, under guise of Lady Jennifer, remains deathly ill. So as not to arouse suspicion amongst the other passengers, he disembarks in whalebone corset, petticoats, bell-skirted dress, and bonnet, and is whisked away to the Colonial Hotel. Once there, however, he declines to take up his commission. Jennie is annoyed, but at the same time all too willing to take his place as a captain in the Rifle Brigade:
"I'll make a deal with you, Jonathan, and you'll abide by it. Your place for my place; my skirts for your trousers."
     Jonathan fiddled with the arm of his chair. "Jennifer, I don't think..." he began hesitantly, but his sister cut in.
     "You're quite right, Jonnie, you don't think. You make a choice, now. Either you promise to stay in my skirts, most of the time anyway, or you get into this uniform right away. Which will it be? One or the other Jonnie. There's no other choice. You're a Welland, and I don't propose to have to blush for the name."
     "Oh, all right," Jonathan was goaded by beyond his endurance. "I'll be Lady Jennifer and you can go on playing soldier."
What could go wrong? I expected plenty, particularly after Lady Bradbury, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor, insists "Lady Jennifer" reside at Government House.

Government House from the S.W. (1819)
John Elliott Woolford
Surprisingly, things go quite well for the twins. Jenny proves to be an excellent soldier, and is quite popular with the men under her command, and Jonnie has no difficulty in passing as a woman while staying with Lord and Lady Bradbury and their two daughters. This is not to suggest Jonnie is altogether happy; he complains about corsets, but his chief source of frustration lies in not being able to live the life he'd enjoyed in England. "You've always liked the female's role better than the man's," observes Jenny. "Oh yes, I've heard stories of your London exploits – don't worry."

This depiction of Jonnie as someone who has never "flirted with the girls" changes abruptly with the arrival of Lord and Lady Bradbury's English niece, Miss Matilda Markham, at Government House. Jonnie is immediately smitten by her feminine, yet dominant ways, and longs to end his masquerade so that he may court her.

Why the change in Jonnie? I suggest this note appended to the novel's page at Andre-Norton-Books.com may provide an explanation "Andre Norton's name is Not On This Book – however she did complete the story for Enid Cushing when Enid became ill."

Of course, being a romance novel, Maid-At-Arms is more Jenny's story than Jonnie's. She may be the less interesting character, but this is not to suggest that she isn't loved. Remember Rufus Randall? You know, the English Lord who befriended Jenny when she was a girl of eight? Well, Rufus isn't fooled by stories of Lord Jonathan's success in soldiering coming across the pond, and so he sets out for Halifax. I'm sure I spoil nothing in reporting that Rufus rescues Jennie from a situation that she can't handle. In fact, he saves her life.

And then church bells ring.

Jonnie does not serve as maid-of-honour.

About the author(s): Maid-At-Arms marks the beginning of what I've described as Enid Cushing's second act. Her first consisted of five mystery novels, stretching from Murder's No Picnic (1953) to The Girl Who Bought a Dream (1957). What accounts from the twenty-eight-year silence that followed is a real life mystery, as is how she came to collaborate with Andre Norton.

The contract signed by Cushing and Norton can be found here, courtesy of Andre-Norton-Books.com.

In 1983, the year of Cushing's death, she published one last novel. This time, Norton's co-authorship was acknowledged on the cover:

Bloomer: You knew there'd be one. Coming in the very first chapter, it provides a good example of the novel's poor writing and editing:
"Tell me, Jenny, did your guardian ever become aware of the numerous occasions on which you, er, diddled him. I believe such was the term you used – in the past?"
Object: A typical 'eighties mass market paperback, complete with five pages of adverts for other Fawcett titles. Bil Keane's Daddy's Little Helpers"More laughs from the Family Circus Crew" – appears under the header "GREAT ADVENTURES IN READING."

As far as I've been able to determine, there was no second printing.

Access: WorldCat suggests that not one Canadian library holds Maid-At-Arms. The good news is that used copies are plentiful and cheap. Do not be taken in by the Massachusetts bookseller who describes the book as "Very rare," and claims it is by Norton "Writing As Enid Cushing." He's out to make an easy fifty bucks, but is not so bad as the New Hampshire bookseller who asks US$85.97, adding a further US$24.99 for shipping.

I purchased my copy for one American penny.

Well worth it, I think.

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  1. Oh. My. Goodness.

    Why do I want to read this? I know, because your review is so darned funny.

    I wonder if I can smuggle this in unnoticed? Because I'd have to read it in secret, to avoid unkind comments from my nearest and dearest. They do let themselves go on occasion...

    Thanks, Brian. (I think.)

    1. I had good fun with this one, Barb - and there's so much that I left out. For example, my favourite scene, in which a tipsy Jenny, as "Captain Welland," very nearly ends up in bed with Monsieur Lecompte, the graceful dancing teacher.

      "The names of no ladies of either high or low station where ever connected with his, nor could even the most suspicious parent learn that any lady had ever been at his lodgings night or day, unaccompanied, that is, by a chaperone, for Lecompte gave instructions at his rooms as well as in the homes of his wealthier patrons. Certainly he entertained, but young gentlemen mostly, collectively and individually. But, after all, there was nothing wrong with that, was there?"

      As I say, good fun.

      Hide it under your mattress!

  2. I wonder how Fawcett would've marketed it if Norton hadn't Straightened things out by the end...

    1. Ha! Very good... and you do raise an interesting question. Thinking back to the year Maid-At-Arms was published, I wonder if a gay main character would've been accepted by the editors of a mainstream romance line.

    2. Way too early, I fear. THE CATCH TRAP had only been published in 1979, and then as a mainstream novel rather than as a romance. To this day, I don't believe any of the mainstream romance publishers has a line of LGBT romances.