[First two verses of “The Highwayman” by Alfred J. Noyes, music by Phil Ochs, pronouns adjusted]
Outlaws have been a staple of popular stories as far back as recorded literature. Specific types of outlaw arise out of the society of the times. Laws restricting the hunting of game created poachers. The age of merchant ships crossing the seas spawned pirates. The concentration of cash in banks gave rise to bank robbers. And the establishment of regular coaching routes to carry passengers and commerce on fixed schedules were the temptation that gave rise to highwaymen.
In England, the great era of mythic highwaymen began around the 17th century and continued into the early 19th. The majority of real life highwaymen were male, of course. But a few highwaywomen made their way into song and story and the pages of history as well. Some examples in literature may have simply been an opportunity to turn gender tropes on their head, but throughout early modern history, there have been many women who found the economic temptations of male professions sufficient to trade skirts for trousers.
Not all depictions of literary highwaywomen were particularly feminist in spirit, though. The earliest known highwaywoman ballad, “The Female Highway Hector” from the 17th century, is more of a cautionary tale. After a long series of successful robberies against various stereotyped victims, she tries to rob a “real” highwayman and is defeated and sexually assaulted.
Here’s the beginning of the ballad. The original broadsheet suggests singing it to a tune called “The Rant” and I’ve used a tune with that name that is believed to be the one that was originally used.
The Female Highway Hector
You gallants of every station
Give ear to a frollicksome song
The like was ne’er seen in this nation
‘Twas done by a female so young.
She bought her a mare and a bridle
A saddle and pistols also
She resolved she would not be idle
So upon the pad she did go.
She clothed herself in great splendor
For breeches and sword she had on
Her body appear’d very slender
She show’d like a pretty young man.
And then like a padder so witty
She mounted with speed on her mare
She left all her friends in the city
And steered her course towards the Ware.
We’ll leave her story there, as the rest of the ballad is not edifying.
Real life highwaywomen--those for which we have solid evidence--were rarely romantic figures. But then, neither were most male highwaymen.
Legal records of prosecutions of women for this crime seem to have been rare, though not unheard of. Joan Bracey was hanged in Nottingham in the later 17th century for highway robbery, as was Ann Meders, hanged at Tyburn. Both met their ends at a relatively young age, not surprisingly. Both began their careers in partnership with male companions, as did Nan Hereford, who managed to carry on the profession for six years after her husband was hanged before meeting her own end.
Legend is more likely to view highwaymen--and women--as romantic figures. The early years of the profession corresponded with the political struggles in England between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads during the English Civil War and the dashing cavalier turned highwayman was a staple of popular culture.
Katherine Ferrers was a 17th century Englishwoman whom legend holds to have been the “Wicked Lady”, a notorious female highwayman. Katherine became an heiress at age six, during a period when her family was swept up in conflicts between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and the forces of Parliament. Katherine’s family were Royalists and financial difficulties related to this state inspired them to marry Katherine off at age 14, after which most of her inherited property was sold off. She died at age 26, shortly after the return of King Charles II to the throne. For the last couple years of her life, her husband had been in prison for participating in an uprising. This much is fact.
Legend holds that--like a number of impoverished Royalists--she turned her hand to highway robbery to support herself during her husband’s imprisonment. Legend further holds that, after being shot during a robbery she died of her wounds, being discovered wearing men’s clothing. In this case, legend is unlikely to hold any truth. There are no mentions of Katherine’s supposed exploits in any of the sensational histories of famous highwaymen published in the 18th century. The first mention of her supposed exploits seems to be in the mid 19th century, but the image of a beautiful and daring woman taking to the highway has been irresistible to authors and filmmakers, and The Wicked Lady has been the subject of several novels and films, as well as inspiring ghost stories associated with her residence.
Within the context of this podcast, it must be admitted that--like most legends and ballads of cross-dressing women, the tales of female highwaymen from the 17th and 18th centuries remain steadfastly heterosexual. One notable exception is Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse, a real woman living around 1600 who was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes and rumored to be sexually interested in both men and women. Contemporary records portrayed Moll Cutpurse as a thief, a fence, and a pimp but an early 18th century writer who produced a history of famous highwaymen, decided she also needed to be given a brief fictional career of highway robbery.
A much more cheerful (though still solidly heterosexual) story is told in a ballad titled “Sovay” or “The Female Highwayman” which was collected in the late 19th century, at a time when highwaymen had long since disappeared. This one is worth performing in full as it introduces a motif particularly popular in modern female highwayman fiction.
Sovay, or The Female Highwayman
Sovay, Sovay, all on a day,
She dressed herself in man's array,
With a sword and pistol all by her side,
To meet her true love
To meet her true love away did ride.
She met her true love all on the plain,
And when she saw him she bid him stand,
'Stand and deliver, kind sir,' she said,
Or else this moment
Or else this moment I’ll shoot you dead.'
Oh, when she'd robbed him of all his store,
She says, 'Kind sir, there is one thing more,
A diamond ring which I know you have,
Deliver that, your sweet life to save.'
'That diamond ring a token is,
That ring I’ll keep, my life I’ll lose;'
She being tender hearted just like a dove,
She rode away
She rode away from her own true love.
Next morning in the garden green,
O like true lovers they were seen;
He saw his watch hanging by her clothes,
Which made him flush
Which made him flush like a red rose.
'What makes you flush at so silly a thing,
I fain would have had your diamond ring,
‘And if you had given me the ring,’ she said,
I’d have pulled the trigger
I’d have pulled the trigger, I’d have shot you dead.’
In the oldest version of the ballad, Sovay only tells her love that demanding the ring was a test, but I rather like the stronger version that I performed. But remember this trope of stealing a love token, because it’s going to come up again.
The era of the rise of highwaymen was also an era when popular media was fascinated with gender disguises and the possibility of accidental homoerotic encounters with women disguised as men. Denise Walen’s extensive study of female cross-dressing in early modern drama doesn’t seem to include any examples where the disguised woman has a homoerotic encounter while acting as a highwayman, but it’s exactly the sort of plot one might find in that context.
Lesbian historical romance, on the other hand, has latched on to the motif of the cross-dressing female highwayman as an excellent way to combine swashbuckling, gender play, and the possibility of accidentally falling in love with a woman who was forbidden to you both by gender and profession.
Within this sub-genre, the motif of the stolen trinket that provides an excuse for further contact almost seems a requirement. In fact, we can lay out a formula for the standard lesbian highwaywoman romance: a respectable young woman (though one with a yearning for something beyond her foreseeable fate on the marriage market) is one of the victims of a highwayman’s robbery, protesting the loss of a piece of jewelry that has deep sentimental meaning. The highwayman, in a change of heart, returns the jewelry prompting (or encouraging) an inexplicable attraction between the two, and the highwayman is (eventually) revealed to be a woman who took to an outlaw life due to a tragic backstory. They, of course, fall in love, struggle with the personal, social, and legal barriers to their relationship, and eventually work their way through to a happy ending.
Here are five stories about female highwaymen finding love and redemption in the arms of another woman.
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I loved the solid historic grounding in Barbara Davies’ Rebeccah and the Highwayman. At the beginning of the 18th century, in the time of Queen Anne, Rebeccah Dutton has a series of encounters with the mysterious highwayman Blue-Eyed Nick, but the secret that “Nick” is actually a woman proves dangerous as both women are drawn together again and again.
The meaningful keepsake in this story is Rebeccah’s family signet ring, which she is allowed to keep in the initial encounter. They are reunited when Kate--in the guise of Blue-Eyed Nick--is wounded in the course of rescuing Rebeccah, who must then conceal the highwaywoman during her recovery. Kate has a brush with the gallows, but we know it will come off well--after all, this isn’t a Sarah Waters novel! I particularly liked the novel’s use of the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (who is conveniently Rebeccah’s distant cousin) to convey understandings and attitudes towards women’s romantic relationships at the time. The story is solidly written with only occasional historical info-dumps. Kate’s eventual change of profession was delightfully true to the times. Unlike several of the books discussed in this show, the erotic content draws the curtain after passionate kissing, though more is clearly implied. This is an excellent book for those who want both good writing and good history.
Rebecca S. Buck’s The Locket and the Flintlock takes a Regency era setting and draws on the motifs of that genre as well as the standard highwayman tropes of a stolen sentimental keepsake (as one might guess from the title) and a highwaywoman with a tragic backstory, a heart of gold, and a drive for social and economic justice. A few days after her dead mother’s locket has been taken during a daring highway robbery, Lucia Foxe recognizes the thieves riding past from her bedroom window and sets out after them, bareback on her favorite mare, to retrieve the keepsake in the middle of the night. And there lies one of the major flaws of this work: almost all the characters do something important that breaks my willingness to believe in the story. But if you can overlook plot holes and inconsistencies, it’s a rollicking adventure with a lot of angsty self-examination and the level of steaminess one tends to expect from a Bold Strokes book.
Except for one issue, which I’ll get to in a moment, I loved Lawrence Hogue’s Daring and Decorum. Set in 18th century England, Elizabeth Collington longs for something beyond the life of a respectable vicar’s daughter. Then one day she encounters a highwayman who steals her mother’s necklace...and a kiss. The encounter stirs feelings that must be kept secret, and an even greater secret is that the highwayman is a woman. The book’s strength is its solid worldbuilding and the deliberation with which it builds the relationship between the two female protagonists, making both their attraction and the obstacles to it believable and solidly grounded in the social history of the times. Unlike many stories that plunge the women directly into a relationship, Daring and Decorum provides a realistic pacing for the relationship, though this may cause some readers to find it slow. I loved Hogue’s writing. He has a solid grasp of the flavor of early 19th century novels without resulting in any stilted awkwardness of language. The one thing that got the book off on the wrong foot for me was a mild sexual assault in the opening scene. Nothing more than groping, but I’m not fond of the message that women will, of course, get turned on by assault as long as it’s by the person who ends up being the love interest. It wasn’t enough to put me off the book entirely, but I think the story could have worked just as well with a different opening.
In The Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy, Evelyn Thackeray is traveling to visit friends in advance of her upcoming marriage to a business associate of her widowed father when a band of highwaymen--and one highwaywoman--stops the coach she’s traveling in. Robbed of her money and a locket that Evelyn risked the anger of the highwaymen to try to keep, she’s now stranded penniless in a village. She offers to work at an inn in exchange for a room for the night...and then Bess, the highwaywoman, climbs through her window there, out of the darkness.
The story uses the standard collection of highwaywoman tropes: the soft-hearted thief, the keepsake stolen and then returned as an excuse to meet again, the sudden inexplicable attraction to an outlaw. And it tries to add in a layer of off-balance, constantly shifting loyalties and triple-crosses, but never quite sticks the landing in terms of believability. The plot consists of a non-stop sequence of chases, kidnappings, and escapes, punctuated by emotional confrontations and betrayals. I found it hard to sympathize with either Evelyn or Bess, and the question of how a highwaywoman successfully retires from a life of crime felt glossed over a bit too easily. But if non-stop action is your thing, check it out.
What is a single young woman in the Regency era to do if she must support a household? In Kim Larabee’s Behind the Mask, as an alternative to setting one’s cap for a handsome man with a title or a fortune, our hero Maddie Elverton turns to highway robbery. But her double life threatens to unravel when she encounters Allie Sifton, at first as a victim of her robbery, and then as a partner in her secret. There is a theft and return of jewelry, though not of the usual sentimental keepsake.
This story is largely a light-hearted romp, filled with exquisite writing, and leavened by a small amount of peril from the dogged pursuit by Lt. Bridgewater, who has set his sights on taking the highwayman in hand. Larabee is mistress of the language and conventions of the Regency romance, and turns the usual tropes of the genre on their head to bring Allie and Maddie together for their happily ever after. I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy, however unfortunately it is out of print.
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There are plenty of ideas left to tackle in the female highwayman genre. England isn’t the only possible setting and the field is wide open for a plot that starts out with something other than the theft of a sentimental keepsake.
I’ll take what may be unfair advantage to note that I included a brief highway robbery scene in my novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer”, set in the late 17th century where the crime is planned to cover up the retrieval of sensitive state documents. There is, of course, also a damsel in distress to rescue. There’s a link to the free story in the show notes.
Whether your heroines meet over the theft of a sentimental locket or rob Roundheads in support of King Charles, whether they run off together to enjoy their life of crime or eventually settle down in the guise of lady companions, it’s hard to beat a highwaywoman for swashbuckling adventure!
[Final verse of “The Highwayman” by Noyes & Ochs]