The Odyssey, by Homer
Odysseus arrives back at his island of Ithaca disguised as a beggar. He is recognised only by his old dog Argus (animals always see through disguises), which dies of joy on the spot. In his disguise, our hero is able to see who has been loyal to him and who has not.
Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare
The Duke who governs Vienna wants to see what his underlings will get up to in his absence. So he asks his friend Friar Thomas for some monkish garb: “Supply me with the habit and instruct me / How I may formally in person bear me / Like a true friar”. It works, and not even his most devoted courtiers recognise him until he finally unveils himself.
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis
Another monkish disguise. Sexy young Matilda lusts after Father Ambrosio, the most pious monk in Madrid. So she dresses up as a young novice monk and finds her way into the monastery. In her cell she reveals herself to Ambrosio, who cannot resist her charms. It turns out that she is in fact a demon.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
One of the great episodes of transvestism in literature comes when Rochester togs himself up as a Gypsy woman to read the palms of the guests he has invited to Thornfield. Blanche Ingram, Jane’s rival for his affections, gets uncomforting news, but Jane is told “the cup of bliss” is going to be offered to her.
East Lynne, by Mrs Henry Wood
Lady Isabel Vane loses her happy home and family when she conducts an adulterous affair with the utterly caddish Francis Levinson. Having learned the error of her ways, she returns to be governess to her own children, disguised by blue-lensed glasses, hair turned white from shock after a train crash and a scarred mouth.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens
Dick Datchery arrives in the town of Cloisterham, apparently a detective in disguise (he wears a wig). He (or she?) keeps watch over John Jasper, choirmaster and secret drug addict. Drood has disappeared: is he disguised as Datchery? Or is it another character, investigating Drood’s murder? Dickens did not finish the book, so we will never know.
“The Man with the Twisted Lip”, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Watson visits a squalid London opium den in search of genteel addict Isa Whitney. Watson finds his man and notices an old man, “absorbed” in his drug-taking: “very thin, very wrinkled, bent with age, an opium pipe dangling down from between his knees”. Of course, it is Sherlock Holmes, conducting field research!
Charley’s Aunt, by Brandon Thomas
In the Victorians’ favourite farce, two Oxford students, Charley and Jack, persuade their friend Lord Fancourt Babberly to impersonate Charley’s aunt from Brazil. With “her” as chaperone, they can entertain Amy and Kitty, the two girls they fancy. Jack’s father and Amy’s father both fall for the fake aunt, before the real one turns up.
Third Girl, by Agatha Christie
False identities proliferate in Christie’s novels, but Third Girl satisfies by being peculiarly dependant on wigs. The plot turns on the capacity of Norma Restarick’s stepmother Mary to assume different identities by changing wigs. Her disguise is so successful she manages to pose as Norma’s flatmate without her stepdaughter noticing who she really is.
Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine
Unemployed actor Daniel Hilliard dresses up as a woman and applies for the job as nanny to his children, who live with his estranged wife Miranda. The elder two of his three children recognise him immediately, though his wife is completely fooled. When she discovers his ruse, she agrees to give him more access.