A recent visit to Netgalley revealed a host of interesting fiction titles, but the one which excited me most on first impressions was The Chevalier, based on the early life of the remarkable Chevalier d’Eon. My interest in the Chevalier was originally piqued when a fictionalised version of him appeared in the BBC’s Scarlet Pimpernel series, and it was revived when the National Portrait Gallery acquired his portrait in 2012. He is one of the most colourful and intriguing figures in 18th-century history and I’m extremely surprised that there aren’t more novels about him. I couldn’t wait to settle down with this. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to expectations.
We first meet Charles, Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont, at his father’s funeral. With the family chateau taken into the possession of the Dijon Parlément, it looks as though young Charles will have to rely on his training in the law and his own sharp wits to make a name for himself. Fortunately, if there’s one thing our young Chevalier is good at, it’s getting attention. In Paris, after drudging by day in the architectural planning office of M. de Sauvigny, he savours the transgressive pleasures of dressing in clothes purloined from his sister. On his first foray out in women’s dress, to a ball at the Opéra, he meets three people who will change his future forever: the Prince de Conti, spymaster, aristocrat and would-be claimant of the Polish throne; the Prince’s elegant mistress Charlotte, Comtesse de Boufflers; and the beautiful Marie, Madame de Courcelles, whose scarlet gown proves irresistible to Charles.
Unwittingly, the Chevalier finds himself walking into the middle of a political storm. War builds on the European horizon as Prussia, England, France and Russia all jostle for supremacy, and France’s fate depends on the way that Russia chooses to ally herself. In the person of the remarkable Chevalier, equally convincing as both man and woman, the Prince de Conti sees the potential for a very effective spy. Eager to facilitate Louis XV’s desire for a treaty with Russia, he proposes a secret diplomatic mission: the Chevalier will be sent to St Petersburg, in the guise of a French governess, to seek the favour of the Empress Elizabeth and to engineer her favour for the French cause. In return, Conti hopes that Louis XV might support his somewhat optimistic mission to be King of Poland. The Chevalier, equally excited by the prospect of adventure and titillated by undertaking it all in woman’s form, agrees.
But the court is a dangerous place and powerful forces have taken exception to the mission. The king’s redoubtable mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and her pet the comte de Stainville will stop at nothing to thwart the Prince de Conti’s ambitions. Discovering that a governess will be sent to Russia, they suspect she will have secret orders, although they have no way to know exactly how far this young lady – Lia d’Eon de Beaumont – is from what she pretends to be. Spotting a way to sabotage the mission, they replace the ‘lady’s’ chosen escort with a man of their own: none other than the comte de Guerchy, Marie’s guardian. Stuck with a man he swiftly learns to despise, the Chevalier must learn to play a dangerous game, maintaining his female disguise both in public and private, and praying that he manages to deliver his message and make it home in one piece.
Most of the characters are real people and Hobbs has obviously done a lot of research, but it doesn’t lie as lightly as it could. The Chevalier frequently describes castles and towns in considerable detail for one who’s on a urgent mission with good reason to fear malevolent interference. But even so, I never had the sense that I was in these places. There was a kind of narrative sterility about the descriptions: it felt like viewing a series of fine Bellottos or Canalettos rather than actually being in Paris or Warsaw or St Petersburg. On the contrary, there wasn’t quite enough description of our characters, who didn’t have the wit, liveliness or depth to become compelling. The Chevalier himself is delicately but implausibly naive, a kind of Candide in skirts, rather than the shrewd and politically astute character we’re supposed to believe he is. Generally, both heroes and villains are drawn with such broad strokes that one never really doubts good will triumph. While it’s fast-paced and lively, there’s no genuine sense of danger: the Chevalier never truly seems to be in mortal peril and, even when he is threatened (generally by importunate gentlemen), there is always some friendly tavern wench or new friend on hand to help. The one point where excitement did begin to build was towards the end, with the will-they-won’t-they race against time.
As a woman, I also feel it necessary to raise two major points which made the whole novel ring a little false. First, I find it extremely implausible that even a slight, beautiful young man who’s tried on women’s clothes in private would be able to pass unchallenged as a woman on his very first public outing. Think of the training that Elizabethan boy actors, or young castrati, had to go through in order convincingly to emulate feminine behaviour. I don’t believe for a minute that the Chevalier would have been immediately accepted by all and sundry as a woman, simply by donning a dress. There is so much more to being a woman and we are given no sense of his difficulties in navigating the unspoken rules of another sex (except that, halfway through the book, he suddenly remembers that women are meant to have periods). That was one big issue where I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
The second stumbling block was that, as a woman, the Chevalier proves to be irresistible to absolutely everything that moves. In one sense, I mean that his charm and beauty seem to do away with any of the suspicion, inquisition or caution that one might expect a foreigner to face. Instead, he is immediately welcomed, loved and given introductions to all the right people. And, in the other sense of being irresistible… Well. Suffice it to say that too much of the novel was spent on scenes reminiscent of Benny Hill. Poor beskirted Charles – who incidentally, has vowed to remain chaste – is chased around by the priapic Guerchy, only to be rescued by buxom tavern wenches who turn out to have latent Sapphic inclinations. And that’s without mentioning Elizabeth Petrovna’s court, where cross-dressing, sensual massages and orgiastic parties seem to be all the rage. Is this true? Clearly I need to read more about 18th-century Russia. But I frequently felt the wearied urge to point out – much as I would to Murakami – that not all women, faced with a pretty young girl (even if she is in a nightgown!) will try to get under her skirts. Honestly.
It was a puzzling book, in short. I really expected to love it, but in the end I feel as if this fascinating historical character is still waiting for his great novel. For me, The Chevalier doesn’t do justice to its protagonist’s varied talents, nor does it conjure up the true danger faced by a spy in a Europe teetering on the edge of tumbling into war. It feels, unfortunately, like a missed opportunity. And there is much more to be said: the Chevalier’s life only gets more interesting after this period. He came to England as a diplomat in 1763 (as a man), and served as interim French ambassador until he was displaced from that post by the comte de Guerchy (him again!). After that, he unwisely tried to blackmail Louis XV with letters which would expose corruption in the French administration. From 1777, Louis agreed to pay him a pension to keep him quiet – on the one condition that the Chevalier dressed as a woman. The Chevalier accepted this rather odd clause, having been encouraging speculation about his gender for most of his life, and spent the final 33 years of his life living as a woman in England, where he was particularly famous for giving fencing demonstrations in his gowns. Most of the English believed him to be a woman, until a postmortem confirmed that he was anatomically male. They even published a print to prove it.
Given such promising material, I suspect Hobbs’s book may prove to be the first in a series. But at the moment I’m sorry to say that I probably won’t be carrying on. As ever, this is only my opinion and I have no doubt that glowing reviews will surface elsewhere, so please do check what other people think, and don’t let me put you off if you’d like to find out more about the enigmatic Chevalier for yourself.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review
To finish, here are some portraits of our characters, including, of course, the inimitable Chevalier himself, sadly not reflecting the epicene beauty of his younger, fictional self (unless you count the satire which shows him as half man and half woman).