- “A Queer-Looking Lot of Women”Cross-Dressing, Transgender Ventriloquism, and Same-Sex Desire in the Fiction of Amy Dillwyn
In her 1992 study of cross-dressing and cultural anxiety, Vested Interests, Marjorie Garber invites us to look directly at rather than through the figure of the transvestite (9). She sees the cross-dressing figure as a “third term,” one that undoes binaries and thereby creates a “category crisis”: “By ‘category crisis’ I mean a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits of border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another” (16).1 In Amy Dillwyn’s The Rebecca Rioter: A Story of Killay Life (1880), gangs of cross-dressed men breach physical boundaries in the name of social justice, class, and nationality. But beyond the dramatic account of men smashing tollgates, The Rebecca Rioter is a text invested in a variety of different border crossings, from the purported translation of the original story (from Welsh to English) to the multi-layered transgender ventriloquism of the text’s narrative. Jay Prosser has convincingly argued that we need to disentangle transgender bodies from queer bodies and transgender identity from queer sexuality, but in the case of Dillwyn’s novel, these are deeply and deliberately intertwined. Indeed, as I shall argue, the queer erotic triangle at the heart of the text’s expression of female same-sex desire is contingent on the transgender construction of Evan, who is both one of the cross-dressing rioters and a character who ventriloquizes his genderqueer creator. This essay draws on recent historiography, newly available archival sources, and queer theory to investigate Dillwyn’s representation of trans Victorian identities and acts. In doing so, it claims the novel as a paradigmatic example of Victorian trans literature.
Published nearly forty years after the popular uprisings of 1839–43 known as the Rebecca Riots, Dillwyn’s novel is closely based on historical events in which large gangs of protesters—mainly men dressed in female costume— destroyed hundreds of tollgates, liberated a workhouse, and conducted campaigns of protest and intimidation. The riots began in the face of an agricultural depression and focused on removing the numerous and costly tollgates run by turnpike trusts, but the movement that became known as “Rebeccaism” expanded to protest elements of the New Poor Law, absentee landlords, and other issues of social justice. There was an element of [End Page 113] nationalist protest in some of Rebecca’s declarations (Williams 192), and historical research suggests that there were also links between the Chartist movement stirring in industrial South East Wales and the Rebecca uprisings in the rural west (Williams 150–57). From the outset, Rebecca and her daughters (as the rioters were known) went about their protests wearing women’s clothing: often a white smock-like garment or a bedgown, bonnet, and shawl in keeping with the attire of farmers’ and labourers’ wives, though they occasionally sported more lavish wigs and dresses. Rebecca, referred to in contemporary accounts in the third person to mean the leader of a particular riot, the wider body of men (who are also her children/daughters), and the movement itself, took her name from the Book of Genesis: “let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” (King James Bible, Gen. 24.60). Another widely circulated folk story is that the burly leader of the first riot borrowed his costume from Becca Mawr of Llangolman.
There were hundreds of successful attacks on tollgates during 1843 (D. Jones 201), the year in which the riots of the novel take place; by summer, Rebeccaism had spread from the rural west to industrialized Glamorgan, where this story is set. The attacks depicted in the novel are based on events in which the author’s father and uncle were directly involved as magistrates summoned to help ambush the rioters.2 Dillwyn’s novel was considered by contemporaries a compellingly realistic account of the riots and was consulted and quoted by historians (Davies 328–29; Evans viii). As one local woman recalled, “such was the accuracy of [Dillwyn’s] portrayal of the rioters, that their now respectable descendants demanded an injunction in court...