"A woman in the guise of a man is the ultimate symbol of deception or metamorphosis, and since fairy tales, located in the realms of the improbable, have always been an ideal medium for allusion to the subversive, she facilitates manageable, sometimes hilarious reference to subjects that are generally taboo." from the introduction
The title of this book caught my attention immediately. I've always been interested in Shakespeare's cross-dressing female protagonists, far more than any of his other female characters: Viola/Cesario from Twelfth Night, Portia from A Merchant of Venice, Rosalind/Ganymede from As You Like It. They ride to the rescue, say outrageous things, tease and taunt, extract confidences from men. They strike bargains and win their way. And they just seem to have a whole lot of fun in the process! In Handsome Heroines, Shahrukh Husain, noted folklorist, has collected and retold twelve more tales of cross-dressing women, drawn from folklore and fairy tales around the world.
There's Miao Shan, a Chinese princess whose father tortured her for her refusal to marry, because she desired to travel the path to Divine Perfection. She returned from Paradise in the form of a priest physician to heal her father of a wasting disease, before going on to become Kuan-Yin, goddess of compassion and mercy. Then there's the ballad of Mary Ambree (circa 1640), who traveled with her soldier lover and took his place in the battle at Gaunt when he died. Or Eugenia, a young Roman noble-woman, said to have died around 258, who disguised herself as a monk and went on to become an abbot. Or the princess from a pan-Islamic fairy tale who dresses as a young man when her husband is exiled, becomes a king's body guard, defeats ogres and rescues princesses dodging their infatuations and finally comes to the rescue of her exiled husband. Or the wife of the tailor in a Spanish fable, who teaches her bragging husband a lesson in humility by dressing as a highwayman and accosting him on the road.
The most interesting of these stories to me (not surprisingly, considering my above-mentioned love for Portia) is "A Gown of Moonthreads," which is based on a Jewish folktale about a princess who rescues a young man whose uncle demands a pound of his flesh in payment of a debt. The princess disguises herself as a lawyer and tells the uncle that he must take neither more nor less than exactly a pound of flesh, or his own life will be forfeit. Husain is certain that Portia's famous scene in A Merchant of Venice is based on this old tale.
This book is slightly different than it seems at the outset. I expected to read the folk tales themselves, with perhaps some exploration of their themes, symbolic motifs and historical background. Instead, Husain has re-written the original tales as stories of her own. While I found her retellings interesting, and in some cases intriguing, they lacked force for me, coming across curiously flat. The six pages of notes at the end of the collection, in which Husain talks about her sources for each story, were far more lively and fascinating! I wondered why this might be the case, since Husain is a decent storyteller and the heroines are all energetic, bright and strong. I found a hint in something Husain says in her introduction:
"In my versions of the stories I decided to try in some way to articulate the internal processes of the metamorphosis from dependence to independence. There was never any doubt in my mind that the heroines for my collection would come from legend and tale, but as I wrote I found that often I was serving my muse more than my discipline. As a folklorist I felt impelled to preserve the structure and content of the tales as I had first heard or read them. As a writer I wanted to leave myself free to develop the characters beyond their mere function, examine their motives, ponder on their problems, exult in their resolution."
Perhaps it is this conflict between folklorist and storyteller that makes the stories lurch in some places and lose their urgency. I'll go even further and say that Husain lets her inner psychotherapist (she also practices psychotherapy professionally) take the front seat a mite too often. Frequent descriptions of the heroines' inner conflict with their feminine natures and their struggles with their roles in life couched in "psycho-speak" seem out of place and sluggish, more like diagnoses than important character development.
Overall, I'd recommend this collection as an important addition to the libraries of folklorists, whether amateur or professional. But as a starting point for the study of the roles of cross-dressing women, or women in general, in folklore, the last six pages are the only really useful part. And as stories in and of themselves, these are of only moderate quality.