Gemma Bristow, writer

Offending Adam

In 1712, 13-year-old Constance Boone lives with her mother in a Norfolk village. Constance is isolated and subject to her mother's protective rules. She must study needlework, so she can support herself; she must keep away from other people; she must never bathe in public; and she must not expect to marry. Although Mama presents this life as normal, Constance senses it is not. She's uncomfortable in her own skin, plagued by strange dreams and desires. When she breaks the rules to befriend a local girl, to whom she finds herself attracted, she finally uncovers the secret her mother is protecting. Constance was born an hermaphrodite, and her emerging self is not a girl but a boy...

Offending Adam is an historical novel for young adults, based on the true story of Constantine Boone. It was longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for unpublished novels by women. I'm currently seeking an agent to represent it. Contact me if you want to know more.


From chapter 5, in which Constance/Constantine, awakening to his true nature, dresses as a boy and flees his mother's house.

I woke long before dawn. The only light was a blade of moon over the frosted fields. I moved about in darkness, gathering what I planned to take with numb fingers and a number mind.

Thankfully, the parlour door opened without a sound. I felt my way to the chest at the foot of the bed, listening to Mama’s slow breathing. My father’s clothes were familiar fabric under a stack of woollens and linen. Bundling them under my arm, I closed the chest as carefully as I could while trembling with fright. It made a barely audible sneck.

Did Mama's breathing change? Maybe I imagined it. But in the weeks and years to come I would wonder if she’d woken; if she guessed what I was about, and chose to stay quiet and let me go.

I pulled Mama's box of money from under the bed, cringing as it scraped. By size, I picked out a handful of coins. Stealing from Mama made me sick. I told myself I would need money, that I’d helped earn it, that she would be better off in other ways once I left.

I tiptoed back into the kitchen with my plunder. After shutting the door, I dared to light a candle. Piece by piece, as though following an embroidery pattern, I did what I had to do.

I drew on father’s breeches over my drawers and stockings. He had been, I discovered, not much taller than me. The breeches hung poorly on my frame, but since, it seemed, they were purposefully cut to be loose, they didn’t look too odd once I secured them with his leather belt. It was strange to see my legs exposed while dressed. The breeches ended inches below my knee, not gathered and buttoned, like Mr Lockwood's, but hanging open. Below them, my blue stocking tapered to a slim ankle.

The fabric was rough, and I was glad my linen kept it from touching bare skin. But it was also light and airy; there was so little of it, compared with the skirts of my dresses. I tried walking across the room. Without my even thinking, my strides lengthened because no fabric tangled my legs. My limbs felt free.

Breeches also revealed more than skirts. I caught glimpses as I walked and turned: in the corner of my eye; in the window, which made a rippled mirror against the dark outside. The curve of my buttocks. The bump of my private parts. I knew men showed these things, just as women showed their breasts and arms, but it made me self-conscious as if I were naked.

My father's shirt was wide in the shoulder, but a decent length. My chest felt strangely loose without the hateful stays, while my neck and wrists itched. I was unused to the feel of collar and cuffs.

I put on the coat. It fit me better than the shirt. Better tailored, maybe; a coat could outlast several owners and might have belonged to a wealthier man before my father. Its skirts had deep, flap-covered pockets. I spent several minutes trying to fasten it before realizing it was meant to be worn open. The fabric-covered buttons down the front were just for show.

So far, it was half a guise; there was one thing more.

Taking off the coat again, to keep it tidy, I took the scissors from my workbasket. This was harder. This was not a change that could be taken off; once it was done, it was done. What length would be right? Picturing Mr Lockwood and his wig, I started cutting at my shoulder. Hair fell on the floor around my feet, down my shirt where it prickled me. It wasn’t such a great difference, after all. Three or four inches altogether. But when I was finished, my hair fell in a different shape. It curled more, coiling upward from the clumsy new edge.

In the workbasket, I found a black ribbon. Drawing the short locks back into a tail, I tied a bow and neatly flattened it, just as Mr Lockwood's wig had been tied when he’d last come to the house.

I faced the window-mirror, to see what I'd become.

And drew breath. The face — still mine, the familiar features floating in the bubbled glass, but graver somehow, more angular, framed by the tied-back hair and high collar. Shoulders redefined by the coat's square lines. Long, slim legs emerging from the badly-fitting breeches. Brown hair waving close against my head, curling below the jaunty bow.

The boy who kissed Jessy in my dreams.

Me. All along, it had been me.

I twisted, seeing myself from every angle, seeing in memory the dream-self walk and bend and turn in exact likeness.

When I'd gathered my father's clothes, I'd told myself they would make a good disguise; and since Jessy saw fit to call me a boy, why shouldn't I become a boy and do the things boys did? Watching myself in the mirror, I knew that had been only half a truth. A deeper impulse had made me open that chest.

I laced my boots and stuffed the coat's great pockets with everything I could think to take. My father's spare shirt, wrapped round a hunk of bread and cheese. My small-clothes and stockings. My comb. A couple of needles and a hank of thread. The money, knotted in a scrap of cloth.

In place of a note — I'd forgotten to take pen and paper from the parlour — I left the new gown, laid out on my bed.