My Lady Notorious - Jo Beverley Apologies: this is long and spoiler-ish.

This is the first of the Malloren series by Jo Beverley, and it is one of my favorites. While there have been many historical romances in which the heroine dresses as a boy/young man, this book, written in 1993, features a hero who also takes a walk on his "feminine" side. And he does it confidently, comfortably, and believably. The cross-dressing is presented as disguises for both Lady Chastity and Lord Cynric Malloren, but My Lady Notorious offers a different look at a not so traditional romance hero and heroine.

Lady Chastity is the "notorious" lady of the title of the book due to a scandal in which she was found naked in bed with a would-be suitor and refused to marry him. The incident was engineered by her father as a way to force her to accept her suitor and shows how little choice women had in deciding their mates and their fates. Once regarded as one of the diamonds of society, Lady Chastity is now branded as promiscuous. For her refusal to bow to her father's choice, her father beats her, shears off her hair, destroys all her beautiful clothes, and banishes her to a cottage close to her father's estate. He also orders a procedure in which Chastity's hymen is broken in order to prevent her from claiming her innocence. So it is at least, in part, a further act of defiance that Chastity chooses to dress in her youngest brothers' clothes. Since she has been stripped of her outer feminine attractions as well as her identity as Lady Chastity Ware, it is no wonder she embraces the less restrictive male garb and discovers a bit of personal freedom in the process. It is a way of reclaiming some of the power taken so forcibly from her by her father and Horrible Henry.

Verity, Lady Chastity's sister, married a man of her father's choosing in spite of being in love with and practically engaged to someone else. Now her husband is dead and she has a two-month old child whose life could be endangered by the child's guardian in a ploy to control the estate/money. She joins up with Chastity in hopes of traveling to Maidenhead to be reunited with her first love, Nathaniel, and to prevent her father from forcing her to marry yet another man of his choosing. And so Chastity becomes "Charles the highwayman" to obtain a coach for traveling.

Just as there are hidden depths to Chastity as "Charles,", the highwayman, Lord Cynric Malloren is more than just what appears at the surface. He is described as on "the pretty side of handsome" and has apparently battled against being "cosseted", "mollycoddled", and "hovered over" by everyone not just because of his status as "baby" of the Mallorens but also because "of his damned looks." He is consistently seen as "fragile" because he inherited "his mother's delicate bones" and "lush lashes". (6) Cyn hoped with age his looks, too, would not be so pretty, but despite being 24 and a war veteran, his appearance has caused him to fight several duels to "establish his manhood." (6)

Lord Cynric appeared very comfortable in his skin at the time he meets "Charles" despite a touch of ambivalence about his appearance. Cyn knows almost immediately that "Charles" is in fact...not a "Charles". But he is bored from being fussed over by his family while recuperating from "lung fever" and intrigued by what appears to be a lady disguised as a lad, a lady who speaks in "low-pitched, harsh, clipped" tones as men would, and strides along as confidently as any man. He admits that she makes a "tolerably convincing young man", and that intrigues him even more. While he amusingly notes "Charles" breasts are bound, he is quick to point out that Verity's lushness could not be constrained by iron bands.

Verity, in appearance, is the epitome of what supposedly constitutes femininity - her curves, her gentle manner, her acquiescence to her father's wishes/commands specifically and in general to male direction. Verity is an interesting contrast to Charles/Chastity.

The physical descriptions of Chastity, Verity, and Charles raise some interesting questions regarding expected and accepted forms of masculinity and femininity. Is Chastity less feminine because of her shorn hair? Is Cyn less masculine because he has a face that falls more on the pretty side than handsome? Is Verity more feminine because of her lush figure, her acquiescent personality?

Despite being held up by Charles the highwayman, robbed, and tied to the bed in the cottage, Cyn offers his services as escort to Chastity and Verity to escape Horrible Henry, the guardian who is after control of Verity's child. His plan is to dress as the mother of William, "Charles" will be Cyn's younger brother, and Verity the nursemaid. When they reach Maidenhead, Mrs. Richard Inchcliff will become a Captain Lord Cyn Malloren complete with impressive uniform. Then he will enlist Nathaniel's help to protect Verity and her son. Along the way he has every intention of discovering everything he can about Chastity. Verity and Charles/Chastity are shocked by his offer to disguise himself as a woman. His reply to their amazement is priceless:

"'Unless you insist on the honor.' Cyn fluttered his lush lashes. 'But I
think it wiser this way. I'm prettier than you, and *I* know how to
simper.'" (36)

I loved Cyn's sense of humor no matter the situation. It was clear when Cyn and "Charles" purchase dresses, nightgowns, a lace-trimmed chemise, garters with pink ribbons and pink silk stockings with red stripes that he was completely comfortable transforming into Mrs. Inchcliff. He put so much thought into his choices and he has absolutely no embarrassment or chagrin at choosing garments he knows he'll soon be wearing. Cyn remarks that the pink stockings will do well for a well-turned ankle, and I didn't doubt for a moment that he could rock those pink silk stockings, not to mention the rouge, the powder and the perfume. At this point I was anxiously awaiting Cyn's transformation to Mrs. Richard Inchcliff of Goole, Yorkshire. I wasn't disappointed.

There are three scenes that I chose to highlight the way Jo Beverley flipped around/played with gender roles as usually portrayed in historical romance novels. All three scenes increased the sexual tension in very intriguing ways, perhaps because it read as fresh and unique and were certainly daring for a book written in 1993. First there's the Shrewsbury biscuits Cyn and Chastity enjoy after their shopping excursion. He pops one in her mouth, and as she chews she watches Cyn.

"He took a bite of his, still slowly walking backward. She took a bite of
her own. He trapped her gaze and she found herself watching his lips
as he bit again ad chewed. He had beautiful lips, with a perfect bow-

The muscles of his throat moved as he swallowed and his tongue slid
out. He slowly licked a trace of golden crumbs away from those lips,
leaving the gloss of moisture behind.

His eyelids lowered sleepily, sensuously, and he smiled." (53)

How many times have I read a scene in which the hero watches the heroine sensuously enjoy eating something? Many times, but this time the roles were reversed. Chastity is almost overcome with lust by the way Cyn eats a biscuit. Another layer of this scene is the fact that their outward appearance is that of a young man entranced by an older man enjoying a biscuit. I loved how she notices his "bow-curve mouth", and how he plays into that by licking his lips and slowly smiling. Phew!

Then, the scene in which Cyn becomes Mrs. Inchcliff for the first time raises the sexual tension yet again between Charles/Chastity and Cyn/Sarah. There he is in his shift and dress, with Charles behind him fishing under his skirts for the knotted laces to cinch him in.

"She'd pulled his skirts up all the way at the back and her belly
pressed against his buttocks. Her arms encircled his waist and her
hands brushed against him again and again as she worked at the
knots..." (59)

Again, I've read many scenes in which the hero is assisting the heroine either out of or into her dress, but here once more Ms. Beverley has reversed the roles. Even more fascinating is the fact that Chastity is at this point dressed as Charles and Cyn is becoming Mrs. Inchcliff.

Finally, there's the scene in which Mrs. Inchcliff saves Chastity from Horrible Henry after he spots her in a village. It is then that Cyn overhears from Henry the Horrible that Chastity's father shaved her head and made her wear "coarse penitent's garments" and he realizes why she prefers men's clothing. Cyn/Sarah Inchcliff runs to find Charles/Chastity, climbing garden walls in his skirts, and sprinting to get to her before Henry Vernham. When he finds her, he grabs her, "dragged her to the bench, flung himself down on it, and jerked her on top. Then he kissed her. (...) Over her shoulder he watched for their pursuers." (88) When he spots them,

Cyn "made a thorough business of the kiss. He saw her eyes drift
shut, and felt her response - the subtle movements of her body
against the length of his, the clutching of her hands against his
shoulders. He held her close, drowning in the pleasure of pleasuring
her." (88-89)

What ratchets the tension up here is that in Chastity's mind she's laying on top of and sharing a kiss (and enjoying it!) with a man who believes her to be a young man. She is definitely responding to that kiss and so is he.

The way Cyn plays to Henry the Horrible as an older woman having an assignation with a much younger man adds yet another layer to the appearance of something forbidden.

"Cyn gave a shriek and clutched Charles face down to his bosom.
'Adrian! We are discovered! No, dear boy, stay safe in my arms. They
shall not hurt you.' He fixed Henry Vernham with what he hoped were
tragically intense eyes, and declared 'Only death shall part us, sir.'"

Not all of the role playing works as well as when Charles and Mrs. Inchcliff are bantering and interacting. There is a scene at a rather decadent house party in which Chastity creates yet another persona known as Chloe, a lady of rather loose morals, and it is in this guise that she and Cyn make love for the first time. While Cyn knows Chloe is Chastity, she doesn't know he recognizes her. This scene puzzled me because it just would have been the perfect time for all disguises to have been dropped. I wondered if the house party was perhaps a way to show the general decadence in the Georgian era. I also found it a bit off putting that "Chloe" encounters her brother, Fort, and Cyn's brother, Rothgar, and ends up kissing them both in her Chloe persona.

The cross-dressing actually serves a purpose in furthering the relationship between Cyn and Chastity. Chastity has trust issues after her father's treatment, and I understood why Cyn allowed the "Charles" disguise to remain in play for a long time. It gave him time to find out more about this person he found so intriguing. Cyn did an excellent job rebuilding Chastity's trust. Disguises permitted time for Cyn to know Chastity as someone more than the "Notorious Lady Chastity Ware" and for Chastity to know Cyn as a man who would never take choices away from her. This is true in spite of a somewhat problematic timetable of being together for just five days. Cyn is charming, honorable, adventurous and yes, a bit mischievous. His sense of humor really adds to the tension between them. Chastity is strong but not overbearing, loyal, protective of her sister and nephew, brave, and she has a sense of the ridiculous that responds well to Cyn's teasing. These two are truly kindred spirits.

Jo Beverley has written an excellent book that asks the reader to look beneath the surface. Is it a perfect book? No. I've stated I had problems with the house party incidents involving Fort and Rothgar. I also wish Rothgar had not been such an overshadowing presence. I have great difficulty believing "love at first sight" books, and the timeline for Cyn and Chastity falling in love was a bit problematic. Towards the end, Chastity and Cyn's problems were resolved a bit too easily and required too much of Rothgar's machinations. I would have liked that the HEA more if it had been brought about by Cyn rather than his "l'eminence noire". (Although when a character remarks "Your fate has arrived", it's probably a given that he/she is bound to be a bit overpowering.)

But My Lady Notorious resonated with me with regard to playing around with traditional heroes and heroines and raised some interesting questions about how people are judged as "freaks" or "misfits" when they don't conform to some arbitrary standard. Chastity viewed herself as freakish without the hair and clothes that elevated her as a society darling. Cyn fought against appearing as weak or fragile just because his face was more pretty than handsome. What a gift it is to find someone who not only accepts the things about us that some label as different or odd or weird or strange, but who also celebrates and cherishes our individuality instead of condemning it. I think that's why I like this book so much. I believe Cyn and Chastity recognized, cherished, and celebrated the uniqueness in each other and were stronger for it. May all of us be so blessed.