“Moll Frith was the most notable woman in London after the Queen, to whom she was as opposite as a chunk of red glass from a ruby.” The Secret Player, Chapter XII
As Queen Elizabeth was known for her gems and finery, Moll Frith was known for the paste jewel she wore in her man’s hat.
Moll Frith’s birth date is uncertain; some sources give it as ‘c. 1584,’ assuming that she was about 15 when first arrested for stealing in 1600. (See Jennifer Panek’s introduction to the Norton Critical edition of The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cut-purse, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s play of 1608-1611. Moll came into prominence in the early seventeenth century, a rare character to be the subject of a contemporary play, and likely also the inspiration of a pamphlet decrying women dressing in male clothing, Hic Mulier, the Man-Woman, and one in reply, Haec Vir, the Womanish Man, both published in 1620.
Given the doubt about her date of birth and the liberties allowed an historical novelist, I’ve set Mary Frith’s birthday somewhat earlier, making her a near contemporary of Sander Cooke’s in The Secret Player. A woman who blatantly dressed as a man and got away with it cannot be omitted from a novel of cross-dressing!
I picture Moll as an early version of Hubert Page, played by Janet McTeer in the movie ‘Albert Nobbs’, confident in her ‘manliness’ regardless of social mores. Hubert passes for male; Moll dressed like a man but was known to be female. Moll ignored or confronted legal codes as well as social: from that first arrest she had subsequent run-ins with the law but persisted nonetheless. Legal records substantiate Moll’s arrests, and she was a figure of legend and lore even during her lifetime. She fed those legends by her appearance, by sitting onstage at the second performance of The Roaring Girl, and by having a rollicking good time.
Even though Middleton and Dekker’s play and those pamphlets came out in the seventeenth century, well after the timeframe of my novel, cross-dressing was an issue in the previous century as well. By the mid-sixteenth century, male styles were creeping into women’s fashion, to the horror of preachers and commentators. The epilogue of George Gascoigne’s The Steele Glas of 1572 touches on the topic: “What be they? women? masking in mens weedes?/ With dutchkin doublets . . . and with jerkins jaggde?” (Quoted by Mary Beth Rose, Norton Critical Edition of The Roaring Girl 231)
In 1583 Philip Stubbes published The Anatomy of Abuses (reprinted in 1585 and 1595), which, along with abuses such as adultery and drunkenness, condemns these fashions. He describes women’s doublets and jerkins made ‘as man’s apparel in all respects,’ adding that ‘as [women] can wear apparel assigned only to a man, I think they would as verily become men indeed . . . . ’
Like those who inveigh against stage acting, particularly boys playing women, Stubbes refers to Deuteronomy 22:8, “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.” The sexes are meant to be distinguishable, Stubbes reminds us; ‘Hermaphroditi’ are ‘monsters of both kids, half women, half men.’ (Stubbes, Norton Critical Edition of The Roaring Girl 118-119)
Female portraits of the late sixteenth century show few if any masculine influences in clothing: the subjects are, for the most part, noble women. However, I did come across a sketch of the outfit described in this exchange between Sander Cooke and the seamstress apprentice Frances Field about the styles among ladies of the night:
“Gemma teaches me her sewing tricks. I can conceal men’s breeches in a gown. ‘Tis the fashion, you know—among a certain sort of woman,” Frances laughed, and the crone sitting next to the fire joined in. “Not the sort as you will find at Court, or I wouldna’ expect so, but called for in Gemma’s shop at the end of London Bridge. One of Winchester’s Geese, as these working women are called, asked for a codpiece and a reversible skirt with a false seam down the front to display her hose. And her codpiece!” (Chapter XXVII, The Secret Player)
Moll Frith was not a prostitute, though later stories called her a bawd. Drunkenness, thievery, a flamboyant personality, and male dress were sufficient notoriety.
Later in Chapter XII, Sander reflects on Moll after she catches an attempted thief, or ‘nipper’:
“Moll Frith now: an altogether different story. I doubted she ever got caught nipping. But how did she manage in her man’s world, made up of cutthroats and cheats up to who knows what mischief? She had to best them at their game and possess something that made her invulnerable. I needed a touch of that invulnerability: many folks viewed actors as not so very far off cheats and scoundrels.”
Protests against women wearing male clothing rose to such a pitch in the seventeenth century that King James joined in with what amounted to a declaration of war. IOn January 15, 1620, he instructed bishop of London to call together the ‘clergy about this towne . . . and will them to inveigh heavily against the insolence of our women . . . wearing of brode-brimmed hats, pointed doublets, theyre hair cut short or shorne . . . . If pulpit admonitions will not reform them he would proceed by another course; the truth is, the world is very much out of order.’ (quoted by Mary Beth Rose, Norton Critical Edition of The Roaring Girl 232). King James then attempted to follow through with severe punishments.
Soon after, the pamphlet Hic Mulier was published, condemning women’s dressing in male apparel as a sexual and social disaster. Women who wear ‘the loose lascivious civill embracements of a French doublet . . . most ruffianly short locks’ and substitute swords for needles invite ‘a shameless libertie to every loose passion’ (quoted by Rose 234). Besides their sexual looseness, such women destabilize the social hierarchy: one can’t tell a merchant’s wife from a noblewoman when she’s dressed as a man.
Haec Vir, also published anonymously, appeared a week later in the form of a debate between the man-woman and the womanly man. The man-woman argues that women are more than ‘static icons’ . . . unjustly confined to [men’s] perpetual fantasy . . . [which] denies them full participation in the adult world. (Rose 237)
The Roaring Girl, King James’s threats against the female fashion for male attire, and these two pamphlets appeared some time after the third book of my trilogy ends. Although the publically-aired controversy is still in the future, Moll Frith was a notorious personage by the late sixteenth century. Middleton and Dekker’s plot is fictional, but the real Moll clearly influenced the creation of the stage version. In life and in the play, Moll maintained her independence from social norms and refuses to be subservient to men, sexually or otherwise.
Yet there are men who find cross-dressing seductive, as the outraged rhetoric of Hic Mulier attests. The Roaring Girl entertainingly explores this theme.
When the ‘city gallant’ Laxton makes an assignation with the man-woman Moll, he understands it to be sexual. Instead, she shows up ready to duel him. The rapiers associated with cross-dressed women (Moll has a predecessor in the notorious Long Meg of Westminster, both of whom beat up men who even looked at them askance) is, as Simon Shepherd points out, a kind of penis symbol. These warrior women are victorious when they fight men. Men make a big mistake in their assumptions about women, and Long Meg and Moll are quick on the attack. Shepherd quotes Moll addressing Laxton in the play: ‘thou art one of those That thinks each woman thy fond flexible whore.’ (Norton edition 211).
So yes, cross-dressed women were a destabilizing force in conventional society, which in Elizabethan times was straining at its seams. They broke out of women’s traditional subordinate position and asserted themselves in the realms of male privilege and power. Moll Frith is more of a wild card in my novels than the focus, but Sander cannot do without her.