Mary Mudge: Cross-dressing in the 19th Century

The history of cross-dressing is full of fascinating personalities: Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 because she persisted in wearing pants; Mary Read was a notorious 18th Century female pirate; Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a male soldier to fight in the trenches of World War One.

Others like the music hall star Vesta Tilley openly impersonated men as part of a successful theatre act.

Music Hall star Vesta Tilley, ‘in and out of drag’, photos from Wikipedia

Many of Shakespeare’s plays also feature female characters dressing up as men, although the actors playing them in his day were young men. More recently the TV comedy Little Britain featured two men wandering around town in female dress while insisting: ‘I’m a lady.’

Mary Mudge, however, never sought the limelight. Her ‘secret’ only emerged after her death, aged 85, in the market town of Tavistock, Devon, the birthplace of Sir Francis Drake.

Reynold’s Newspaper reported on March 31, 1889:

A MAN EIGHTY FIVE YEARS IN WOMAN’S CLOTHES

There has just died in Tavistock Workhouse an old person eighty five years of age, who was known to the authorities as Mary Mudge, and until some years ago kept a small dairy in that town. On the body being prepared for burial, it was discovered to be that of a man, although previously no suspicion had been entertained as to the sex of Miss Mudge, as deceased had long been called, and had all outward appearance of a woman. No cause has been assigned for the disguise.

Further details were given in The Bury and Norwich Post:

Not even the oldest inhabitant had any recollection of Mary’s childhood and there is no registration to be found. The earliest recollection of her in the village is a full grown young woman, when she was then noticeable for her particularly large size. ‘That girl ought to have been a boy’ seems to have ben a common saying at the time. ‘She seemed a very quiet retiring sort,’ said the old villager. ‘We never suspected anything. I was never so struck in my life as when I heard of it after her death.’ Nobody seemed to have known much about Mary. She had lived by herself since her sister’s death, shut up in her lonely house. The two or three cows supplied her bodily needs, and the village doctor does not remember ever giving her medicine; but sickness entered her house four years ago and found Mary Mudge alone in her lonely dwelling. She was recommended to the union infirmary where she entered in July 1885, and has since remained until her death.

It seems unlikely the newspapers (or the news agency supplying the story) would make it all up. And census records do show a Mary Mudge of the right age living as a dairy farmer in Milton Abbot, six miles from Tavistock, between 1851 and 1881.

In 1851 she was listed, age 48, at the Old House in Milton Abbot, an unmarried farm labourer, along with a 59 year-old lodger called Elizabeth Condon (or possibly Langdon).

Ten years later Mary, now said to be a 56 year-old farmer of nine acres, was still living there with  Elizabeth and three other boarders.

In 1871 Mary Mudge, 66, unmarried, occupation ‘formerly dairymaid’, was staying alone at Cottage No. 3 on the Duke of Bedford’s estate. Her birthplace was said to be Lamerton in Devon.

Finally in 1881 she was living at ‘Green, Milton Abbot’, aged 77, with Richard Northcott, a 31 year-old gardener, his wife and two daughters. Mary was described as an ‘aunt.’

Further confirmation is provided by the registered death of a Mary Mudge, aged 85, in the Tavistock district, between April and June 1889.

The rest of her life remains unknown. Which is perhaps what Mary Mudge would have wanted.

Sarah Brown, 19th Century Supermodel

Moulin Rouge poster from 1891 by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Four years after the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris in 1889, it hosted an event which was so scandalous that four of the performers were prosecuted for outraging public decency.

The Bal des Quat’z-Arts featured a procession of floats, banners and models dressed as famous historical characters from Ancient Rome and Greece. The famous Cancan dancer La Gouloue (‘The Glutton’) was there in the guise of an ‘Indienne’.

But the highlight of the show was undoubtedly the artist’s model Sarah Brown as the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, held aloft by men clad only in white loincloths.

The red-haired model Sarah Brown, purportedly in the Bal des Quat’z-Arts costume

Her performance has since been described as ‘the world’s first striptease’ although descriptions of her costume vary wildly – some say she was completely naked while others describe a black velour g-string, stockings and a black shirt. Georges Montogueil, writing in Paris Dansant (1898), says:

The parade covers a long space. Here is part of the triumphal procession of Cleopatra. On a palanquin, she appears, dressed in a few rows of pearls and gold nets, the world-conquering beauty, it is the model Rochegrosse painted in the Death of Sardanapalus, the stunning redhead Sarah Brown. The people cheer. She welcomes the delirium with Oriental nonchalance.

When Sarah Brown was hauled before the court, she said she was only wearing the what she had posed in for the artist Georges Rochegrosse:

‘I had on a belt, large necklaces and sequins.’
‘Did you have on tights?’
‘No, why would I? I was dressed.’
‘Did you walk about the ball with your bust naked?’
‘I only appeared in the procession; during the entire ball I was in a loge.’
‘Who gave you the idea for that costume?’
‘Nobody, I am a model. I’m the one who posed for Rochegrosse’s Cleopatra. I naturally chose that costume.’

Sarah Brown was found guilty and fined 100 Francs or face six months in prison.

A few hours later as many as 2,000 of her student fans marched through Paris in protest wearing a symbolic fig leaf on their hats. The demonstration began peacefully but ended with street battles with the police and four days of riots.

Sarah, still only 24 years old, was celebrated as ‘one of the most notorious women in Paris’. The English painter William Rothenstein later wrote: ‘Sarah was fair, and her figure, small bosomed, had the creamy unity of a Titian’, while the author W.C. Morrow recalled: ‘She was the mistress of one great painter after another, and she lived and reigned like a queen. Impulsive, headstrong, passionate, she would do the most reckless things. But no one could resist Sarah.’

Her exploits were legendary: she asked for an audience with the poet Paul Verlaine only to faint in shock at the sight of his ‘terrifying’ face; she fell in love with a black model called Bamboulo, who claimed he could eat a whole rabbit alive, fur, bones and all; she liked to flounce out of the studio before the artist had finished his masterpiece; she changed her costumes at will and deliberately knocked down the painters’ easels for kicks; she was the model for Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s Lady Godiva and Clemence Isaure.

Clemence Isaure by Lefebvre

Lady Godiva by Lefebvre (1890)

But the Bal des Quat’z-Arts was to be the high point of her career and it is said she lost her looks and lovers as her wild life took its toll. Three years later on 12 February 1896 the Daily News in London reported her death from consumption.

Sarah Brown was once before the courts and everybody wondered at the reputation she won in the studios for in a bonnet and ladylike clothing she looked commonplace and indeed vulgar. Models generally are well-behaved girls and many live like anchorites for fear of spoiling their plastic beauty and losing the power to exact high fees. But Sarah Brown lived the life of a bacchante.

____

Links / Sources:

Marie Lathers, Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist’s Model (2001), p243

Lela Felter-Kerley, The Art of Posing Nude: Models, Moralists and the 1893 Bal des Quat’z-Arts, French Historical Studies, volume 33, number 1, p69-98. Sarah Brown’s performance is said to mark a ‘shift in sexual attitudes’.

Quotations from Paris Dansant (apologies for my poor French translation) and Rothenstein’s Men and Memories. Robert Henri is quoted in His Life and Art as saying ‘Paris has two Sarahs; one is Sarah Bernhardt, the other is Sarah Brown, the model, who is one of the most notorious women in Paris.’

For more on La Goulue (and some very racy pictures of her), see The Burns Archive blog

There is another photograph, said to be of Sarah Brown, included in the book ‘Victorian Life in Photographs’. The caption describes her as a music hall dancer and says she was jailed for indecency. It seems almost certain that this is not the Sarah Brown, and most likely is someone else posing in a similar costume for her own pleasure. See my blog for The Victorianist on Sarah Brown in August 2012.