Dublin 1702…and Irish beauty Kit Kavanagh has everything she could want in life. Newly married, she runs a successful alehouse with her beloved husband Richard. The wars that rage in Europe over the Spanish throne seem a world away. But everything changes on the night that Richard simply disappears.
Finding the Queen’s shilling at the bottom of Richard’s tankard, Kit realizes that her husband has been taken for a soldier. Kit follows Richard’s trail across the battlefields of Italy in the Duke of Marlborough’s regiment. Living as a man, risking her life in battle, she forms a close bond with her wry and handsome commanding officer Captain Ross.
When she is forced to flee the regiment following a duel, she evades capture by dressing once more as a woman.
When Kit’s husband, Richard, is forced into the British army, she decides she’s not going to lose him like her mother lost her father, and she sets out to get him back. Disguising herself as a boy, Kit joins the army herself and soon finds herself in Genova where the British are fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession. Kit is lucky enough to be assigned to the Scots Grey Dragoons, serving under the handsome Captain Ross, to whom she eventually becomes attracted.
As Kit fights alongside her fellow dragoons, she finally tracks down her husband but is shocked to discover he has married another woman. With her life spiralling out of control, Kit is arrested for assaulting a senior officer and sentenced to a flogging which she knows will reveal her true gender to everyone so she engineers a plan to escape. Fleeing to Venice, Kit is trying to buy passage back to England when she is taken in by James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde, who wants to train her to be a spy at the French court. Kit eventually accepts his offer and begins the process of transforming herself into a beautiful and mysterious countess. However, Kit soon discovers Ormonde doesn’t have Britain’s best interests at heart and finds herself in a race against time to save Captain Ross and his men.
Kit is loosely based on the real story of Kit Kavanagh, a brewer’s daughter from Dublin, who really did disguise herself as a man to find her lost husband. Leaving her three children in the care of her mother, Kit joined the army under the name Christopher Welch where she was assigned to Captain Tichborne’s infantry. Kit was later discharged after killing an officer in a duel over a woman but she promptly re-enlisted with the 4th Royal North British Dragoons (later known as the Scots Greys) in 1697 to continue her search for her husband. When Kit does finally track down her errant husband, she is distraught to discover him with another woman and promptly returns to the dragoons. Richard agrees to keep Kit’s secret and they pretend to be brothers until Kit’s true gender is revealed when she is wounded in 1706.
Kit was formally discharged from the dragoons, although they continued to support her, and resumed being Mrs Welsh. After her husband was killed in battle, Kit became involved with Captain Ross, earning her the nickname of Mother Ross, although they never married. Kit eventually married another dragoon, Hugh Jones, but he died at the Siege of Saint-Venant in 1710. Once the War of the Spanish Succession ended, Kit travelled to London where she was awarded a pension by Queen Anne before returning to Dublin where she married for the third time. Kit eventually died in the Royal Hospital Chelsea and was buried with full military honours.
Marina Fiorato’s take on Kit’s story is heavily romanticised and while most of the events are completely fabricated, Fiorato mixes in much of Kit’s true story, but it makes for an intriguing tale nevertheless. Having read most of Fiorato’s books, I’ve always appreciated the historical details but often felt her characters were a little overwhelmed and remote as a result. However, Kit fairly leaps of the page and I found her story completely engrossing, although that was probably helped by the fact I had no idea she was based on a true person. When her husband disappears in this novel, Kit has only been married for a short time and there are no children so Kit is free to pursue Richard. Being tall and slender, Kit manages to take on the persona of boy fairly easy and spends most of her voyage to Europe studying the men around her and copying their behaviour. Kit’s education in the finer points of swearing and swaggering are really fun to read, as are her ingenious ways of disguising her female shape and those dreaded monthly courses.
When Kit is enlisted into the dragoons, she realises she is going to have to come up with a more permanent solution to her lack of male anatomy and she consults a silversmith who makes her a fake penis from which she can really urinate. While this part of the book makes for hilarious reading as Kit is introduced to a bewildering array of sex toys, it also has a serious side since the silversmith is a woman and a lesbian. For the first time in her life, Kit begins to realise that love has nothing to do with gender and this is an important message that will reoccur frequently throughout the novel, particularly in regard to Captain Ross. If you are raising your eyebrows about the fake penis, this is actually a true part of the story as the real Kit did wear a fake appendage, although the silversmith’s story is embellished.
Unlike the real Kit, our Kit does not spend time with the infantry but is assigned to the Scots Greys straight away where Kit comes quickly to the attention of Captain Ross. Intrigued by Kit, it isn’t long before Ross is taking on the role of mentor, however Kit soon realises she is beginning to have feelings for him and she is sure he feels the same way despite her male appearance. We are never privy to Ross’s thoughts on the subject but it is clear there is a sense of confusion since Ross is not gay but the situation is further complicated by the arrival of Ross’s friend, Atticus Lambe, who sees Kit as a rival. Kit’s relationship with Ross and her fellow dragoons is a very important one and while it is explored in the context of brothers in arms, it could’ve been fleshed out a little more as we barely get to know any of Kit’s friends. Fiorato explains in the afterword how she chose the names of Kit’s comrades from a war memorial and I think it is a beautiful gesture.
The second part of the novel is a strange one, while part of me loved watching Kit evolve into a female spy, it never really fulfilled its promise as Kit is beset by treachery from the very start. The Duke of Ormonde’s decision to choose Kit for his mission is never adequately explained, relying heavily on her beauty and her ability to speak French. Fiorato has given Kit a French mother in this story to make her transformation from a poor Irish girl to a wealthy French countess all the more plausible. Although this part of the book feels like an entirely different tale, I did love the introduction of Lucio Mezzanotte, the castrato singer, and I would love Fiorato to develop a novel on the Italian castrati singers.
While Kit is convinced she is carrying out a vital mission for the British government, it soon becomes clear she is nothing more than a pawn in Ormonde’s attempt to dispose of his rival, the Duke of Marlborough, and Kit soon finds herself facing charges of espionage for working against the British. Kit is saved when Ross comes to the rescue just in the nick of time but we are cheated out of a confrontation with Ormonde who skulks around in the background. Curiously enough, Fiorato chooses to have the Duke of Marlborough officiate at Kit and Ross’s wedding before they return to London where Kit is granted an audience with Queen Anne. Although the real Kit did marry again, twice, she never married Ross, however the happily ever ending they are given by Fiorato is far more fitting for this novel.
I always find it curious when an author decides to write about a real individual and completely changes their life story to the point it is barely recognisable but I guess Fiorato gets away with it here because few people will know Kit’s story. There is nothing wrong with using true events to inspire a story but I sometimes wish an author would just give their characters new names while crediting the real individual. While I did enjoy reading Kit, I am bit perplexed as to why Fiorato felt it necessary to embroider the truth so much, although I will admit it didn’t really bother me until I read more about the real Kit. I guess the answer is to separate the two in my head and just appreciate another fantastic adventure from Fiorato.