In Samoa, boys raised as girls are known as fa’afafine. On Madagascar they’re called sekrata, among the Sioux wintke, and in the loopily Dickensian 1820s England of Wesley Stace’s Misfortune, the primped and petti-coated lad receives the name Rose Old. Infant Rose’s anatomical excesses and unsalubrious environs (he was discovered squalling on an ash heap) don’t prevent his adoption as daughter and sole heir to Geoffrey, the Young Lord Loveall—England’s richest man and no paragon of masculinity himself. Geoffrey takes spinster governess Anonyma Wood into his confidence, and after a hasty marriage ceremony and hastier confinement they announce Rose as the large and happy result of a not-quite-below-stairs liaison.
As Rose has no knowledge of his true sex, he rather likes his corsets. Author Stace, on the other hand, is executing a far more difficult act of literary transvestism. Having performed for nearly two decades as the musician John Wesley Harding, Stace now returns to his given name and his Cambridge first in literature and attires himself as an author. As in many cases of cross-dressing, the results are sparkling, if not entirely seamless. On the whole, Stace has written a very jolly picaresque. But self-consciousness sometimes mires the author’s buoyancy, and passion for his subjects occasionally transmutes into displays of his admittedly excellent research. Stace has investigated English balladry, National Trust homes, and all manner of sex and gender muddles, but he too often flicks his tale aside to reveal his findings.
Stace fares better when he puts aside his research and confidently gives himself over to a scene (a children’s cricket match, some early-adolescent frottage). The description of a teenage Rose, now announced as a boy and condemned to dress like one, is both poignant and mordantly funny. “The starched cuffs were irons strapped to my wrists to keep me from escape, and the trousers . . . squeezed and trapped me like a two-legged cage,” Rose moans. “I endured this torture, however, because I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Misfortune takes its subject and, more or less, its name from the song “The Ballad of Miss Fortune” on John Wesley Harding’s 1998 album Awake. Against a cheerful fiddled melody, Stace’s indelibly masculine voice reveals how he “was found by the richest man in the world/Who brought me up as a girl.” Stace continues, “There are worse things I confess/Than drinking tea in a pretty dress/And I’m here to tell you that it’s not all bad.” But that’s praise too faint. In fact, Misfortune augurs a most auspicious debut.