Misfortune By Wesley Stace

Boys will be girls - and bustles look great with beards
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The Independent Culture

There's a delicious description in Wesley Stace's debut novel, Misfortune, when the principal character returns home after a year's absence. Twirling the ends of his moustache, the young Lord Loveall reflects on how debonair his whiskers look with his new outfit - "an elegant silk chameleon of mignonette green beneath a mantelet of tarlatan trimmed with darker green ribbon". Boys will be girls, and bustles with beards have never looked better.

There's a delicious description in Wesley Stace's debut novel, Misfortune, when the principal character returns home after a year's absence. Twirling the ends of his moustache, the young Lord Loveall reflects on how debonair his whiskers look with his new outfit - "an elegant silk chameleon of mignonette green beneath a mantelet of tarlatan trimmed with darker green ribbon". Boys will be girls, and bustles with beards have never looked better.

Stace - a Cambridge graduate, known also as singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding - has written a whopping, whimsical romp involving cross-dressing, intrigue, incest and murder. Set in the early 19th century, Misfortune presents a world as crazily gothic as Gormenghast and as comedic as Thackeray's The Rose and The Ring.

At stately Love Hall, old Lady Loveall refuses to die until her son Geoffroy produces an heir. Unfortunately, the foppish Geoffroy (''Miss Molly'' to the staff) has only ever loved one girl and that was his little sister Dolores, who tumbled to her death from a tree at the age of five - so no joy there. Things, however, are about to change.

While trundling through London in his carriage, Geoffroy spots a mongrel with a bundle in its jaws. That bundle turns out to be a newborn baby and the answer to his prayers. Here is a replacement for the long-dead Dolores and also a means to secure the family line. The child is named Rose (nicknamed "Miss Fortune'') and given everything she could ever want, from fabulous wealth to affectionate playmates. There's only one small hitch. Rose is a boy.

Protected from the truth by her adoptive mother, Anonyma (Love Hall's librarian and now Geoffroy's wife), Rose is just like any other girl, except that she wields a cricket bat like W G Grace and, at 13, needs to shave. It's all very muddling. But, the loving Anonyma assures her, "All children worry about whether they are right or not, darling.'' If her gentle but eccentric father is in denial, her mother regards Rose as an experiment rather than a freak. Ovid's Metamorphoses is her favourite bedtime reading.

Our hero/heroine starts to work out a solution before she's even aware there's a mystery, as clues propel her towards the inevitable discovery. Someone is carving the word BOY around Love Hall. Dastardly relatives plot to grab the ancestral pile. Faced with undeniable evidence the shocked, defrocked Rose flees to Turkey in order to commit suicide in the very pool where Salmacis became entwined with Hermaphroditus.

Misfortune plays post-modern tricks, beginning with a third-person narrative before switching to Rose's voice ("I have an entirely different style from God''). Another section sees the delirious transvestite reciting verses from ballads such as "The Silk-Merchant's Daughter" and "The Female Drummer", giving a glimpse of what has happened on the journey between England and the Orient. We are left to draw our own grisly conclusions about the bruised thighs and wrists rubbed raw by rope.

Stace provides plenty of pungent period detail while being anachronistic in language and tone. He delights in comic subversion, as when the still innocent Rose shares a bed with her childhood friend Sarah and is alarmed by Sarah's lack of an appendage. ("Had she lost hers? Worse. Had it been removed?'') But, while playful, Stace makes a serious point about the excruciating fragility of adolescent sexual identity. He shows us too the sad consequences of gender-bending for Rose: the guilty need to slip back into dresses and stockings, the young lord's sexual impotence as someone de-sexed.

In this arch and enjoyably preposterous yarn, popular ballads play an important role. Such sentimental songs invoke bold girls who go to sea dressed as lads, siblings reunited and eternal sweethearts. They celebrate the possibility of love triumphing against the odds. Misfortune, with its bearded lady, does too.

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