The lore behind a great story is often as compelling as the story itself. The Female Marine; or the Adventures of Lucy Brewer was originally published by Nathaniel Coverly in 1815 as a series of pamphlets sold across Boston and advertised as the autobiographical account of Lucy Brewer, lauded as the first woman to serve in the Navy. Daniel Cohen, author of “The Female Marine” in an Era of Good Feelings: Crossdressing and the ‘Genius’ of Nathaniel Coverly Jr., asserts, “For a period of a few years, they must have been among the most widely circulated pamphlets in Boston.” The tale of a gender-bending seafarer and their adventures aboard the U.S.S. Constitution was eagerly consumed by Coverly’s audience, but the authenticity and authorship of this narrative has been hotly debated for decades.
The story of Lucy West, previously Lucy Brewer (and known by their aliases Louisa Baker and George Baker), begins in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As a sixteen year old, Lucy Brewer becomes pregnant by a boy who refuses to marry her. Lucy runs away to Boston, filled with shame and the fear of dishonoring their family, where they suffer a miscarriage. After three years working in a brothel, where they are deeply unhappy and disgusted by the women they work alongside and the men they meet, Lucy escapes by joining the Marine Corps dressed as a man to fight in the War of 1812. They take the name George Baker and serve aboard the U.S.S. Constitution for three years, fighting competently in battles against the British while keeping their true identity–and gender–a secret. They return home to their parents in Plymouth, content in transitioning back into their life as a woman. Tacked onto this narrative and its sequels are “Lucy’s thoughts on vice, morality, and the importance of “parental approbation.”
Here, I’ve referred to Lucy using the pronouns “they, them, and theirs”, but I’d like to acknowledge the nuances of this choice. The assertion of 21st century language on a 19th century character comes with innumerable problems, but my use of gender neutral pronouns seeks to respect the fluidity of Lucy’s experience in the satisfaction they express while embodying both genders. While it would be preferable to ask Lucy what their pronouns are, using gender neutral language prevents having to switch back and forth between multiple sets of pronouns.
The story of Lucy Brewer was published as a real-life account, an autobiography of one person’s experience escaping the confines of their own womanhood to live freely as a man. Lucy’s authorship, however, is highly unlikely—as is their existence. Cohen argues that it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Lucy to keep their gender a secret for three years on board the U.S.S. Constitution, and no record of any marine named George exists from this time period.
Nathaniel Coverly, Jr. is remembered as the printer of hundreds of broadside ballads, many of which celebrate American victories in the ongoing war against England. Nathaniel Hill Wright, Coverly’s supposed hack author, gained notoriety in Boston for “two small volumes of poetry that featured patriotic verses on the American naval exploits in the War of 1812, including a couple of pieces relating to the frigate Constitution.” As readers, this complicates our understanding of Lucy and what they represent—if their interiority is not their own, who does their experience belong to? Perhaps the character of Lucy is modeled after someone Coverly or Wright knew, or perhaps they are merely imagined. Regardless, this story provides a unique opportunity to discuss what gender disobedience might look like in a work of 19th century fiction.
Accepting this story as fiction means considering how its representation of gender fluidity works to positively reinforce the story’s concerns with protecting the innocence and morality of youth. Lucy is deeply concerned with maintaining their virtue, but never describes their male alias as compromising to their values. Their greatest dissatisfaction was their inability to preserve their virtue because of the ways their gender was exploited, and taking on the identity of George Baker allows them to fulfill a desire to “pursue a course of life less immoral and destructive to my peace and happiness.” Lucy delights in their ability to dupe society, frequently reminding their reader how no one has discovered their “true” gender yet. Their “trickery” is never a fact which Coverly shames, but rather uses to showcase the autonomy Lucy has rebuilt through a newfound control over their gender.
The Female Marine explores the troublesome line between gender roles and gender identity, and brings into question which of these constructs Lucy is so desperate to escape. Coverly doesn’t necessarily portray the roles of each gender as flexible, repeatedly reassuring his audience that Lucy continues to “pass” as a man in order to continue performing the duties of one, but he does appear to make an argument that this is an act anybody could pull off–that it is indeed the clothes that make the man. Coverly is disinterested in the ruthless policing of sex and sexuality characteristic of Puritan New England and instead stresses that sin lies within the perversion of morality for both genders, not within the act of gender performance itself.