A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade
When I reviewed The Chevalier back in June last year, I was interested in the life of the Chevalier d’Eon but didn’t know much beyond what I’d read on Wikipedia. Since then, life has played one of its serendipitous little jokes on me. I was recently asked to give a lecture on the Chevalier in my professional capacity, which means that I’ve spent the last month poring over books written both by and about him. My experience has emphasised exactly how inaccurate The Chevalier is (horribly!), but has also revealed the full complexity of this utterly fascinating life. And, if you want to get the facts, this book is the place to start.
The title looks a bit sensationalist on first glance, but give the book a chance. Gary Kates is an academic historian who’s published several books about France at the turn of the 19th century and, most importantly, he’s probably the greatest expert on the Chevalier’s life. He edited the Chevalier’s memoirs for their first publication in 2001 and he has thought extensively and seriously about the social, political and gender contexts of the time. There is a lot of tosh out there about the Chevalier, but Kates goes back to original documents and carefully sifts fact from fiction. This means he can dismiss certain cherished notions about the Chevalier – there’s no evidence at all that he wore women’s clothing before October 1777, when forced to do so by Louis XVI, so you can kiss goodbye to the stories about ‘Lia de Beaumont’ taking the Russian or English courts by storm. They’re just that: stories. But the truth, in many ways, is even more amazing.
I’m not going to give you a potted biography of d’Eon, because you can find the details easily enough online and, if you want to know more, you really should just buy the book. Instead I’m going to mosey happily through some of the Chevalier’s most intriguing moments. It’s true, to begin with, that he was a spy. (Note: I use ‘he’ throughout this post to avoid confusion, but in my talk I use both ‘he’ and ‘she’ relative to the period of the Chevalier’s life. Please don’t hate me.) He was recruited into Louis XV’s espionage network, The King’s Secret, in 1756 when he was sent to Russia. Although he didn’t dress as a woman and canoodle with the Empress Elizabeth, he did send back valuable information to Louis and his intelligence chief. When he was sent to England in 1762, he once again came as a spy (although, on the surface, he was simply the secretary to the Ambassador). His mission was to collect details that might help Louis mount an invasion of England – even though he was officially in London as part of a peace mission. So much about the Chevalier’s earlier career has a strange duality to it – not only in gender terms but in his political duties and allegiances.
As I’ve said, Kates has found no evidence that the Chevalier dressed as a woman before 1777 (and he’s studied the surviving documents of The King’s Secret, where it would have been mentioned). So where did the idea come from, in late 1770, that the Chevalier was a woman in disguise? Kates suggests, very plausibly, that the rumours were started by the Chevalier himself. Since 1762 he’d been buying a lot of books about gender theory, the education of women and strong women more generally. He was obviously interested in what women had to offer a modern state. And he was interested in their moral virtue. From his point of view, a woman had much more spiritual integrity than a man – especially if she was a virgin, as the Chevalier claimed to be for his entire life (and there’s no evidence to dispute this: all those tales of romping with the Empress Elizabeth can be forgotten). Kates suggests that the Chevalier’s desire to become a woman was born from a desire to morally regenerate himself. It certainly didn’t come from his desire to wear women’s clothing. On the contrary, he fought bitterly for the right to keep wearing his military uniform. His conception of himself was intimately bound up with his rank as a Captain of Dragoons, granted in the Seven Years War, and he longed for a way to be regarded as a woman while still wearing male clothes. He only gave up after a struggle. Interestingly, his first woman’s wardrobe was paid for by the French court, and his gowns were made by Marie-Antoinette’s own dressmaker, Rose Bertin.
It’s amazing to read about the negotiations between the Chevalier and the French state between 1772 and 1777. Louis XV’s and Louis XVI’s agents were trying to find out whether the Chevalier really was a woman – there had been frenzied betting on the issue in London – and when one agent came to visit the Chevalier in 1772, he was completely persuaded that this military hero was in fact ‘nothing but a girl‘. One wonders how the Chevalier convinced him, because all the documents agree that – even when living as a woman – the Chevalier behaved very much like a man. Remarkably, this didn’t trouble people: they just accepted that he was a particularly masculine kind of woman, an ‘Amazon’, who had sacrificed some of her femininity through her desire to fight for her country. It’s a fascinating insight into how the 18th century perceived gender.
The Chevalier had one more person to persuade as well: another of the royal agents, who came in 1774 to draw up an agreement with him, which would allow him to come home to France (he’d been making a nuisance of himself in England, threatening to publish certain secret papers). This time the agent was something of a celebrity in his own right: it was the playwright Beaumarchais who, at this point, had written The Barber of Seville and would write The Marriage of Figaro a few years later. Beaumarchais believed the Chevalier to be a woman and managed to infuriate the Chevalier by spreading rumours in Paris that the two of them were desperately in love and planned to marry (this seems to have been a joke at the Chevalier’s expense). I find it rather marvellous that Beaumarchais was flirting with this person whom he believed to be a woman, disguised as a man, who would eventually be forced to dress as a woman. I long to see the Chevalier as some kind of prototype for Figaro’s Cherubino, a boy played by a girl, and at one point forcibly disguised as a girl. The interaction between Beaumarchais and the Chevalier is like a Baroque opera come to life, except that it ends with the two protagonists hating one another rather than being happily married (which, in the circumstances, would have been difficult).
There’s so much fascinating information here. Kates puts the Chevalier in context in every way: he discusses his library, his thoughts on Rousseau’s philosophies, his deep Christian faith and the way that he gradually reinvented his own history to back up the female gender role he chose to fill. He makes good use of visual material, which is plentiful (the reason I was asked to do my talk is because we have such a large collection at the British Museum). Most importantly, he shows great sensitivity in allowing the Chevalier to exist as he was, without imposing any particular reading on him. He doesn’t label him with modern definitions that would risk pigeonholing a figure whose main achievement was in carving out a defiantly individual identity. He isn’t seeking to prove a point or to claim the Chevalier as a standard-bearer for any particular group. He just presents the evidence, from printed portraits to private letters to scandal-sheets, and lets it speak for itself. That’s immensely refreshing. Incidentally, talking of the evidence, it turns out that the vast majority of the Chevalier’s papers are nowadays in the Brotherton Library in Leeds. Leeds of all places! Who’d have thought it?
My only criticism of the book is that its structure is sometimes confusing, because Kates starts his biography with the Chevalier’s death, which is when he was discovered to be a biological male, and then takes up the story halfway through the Chevalier’s life, before going back to the start. It can make it difficult to remember where you saw something. But that’s a minor quibble. The chapters are short and punchy; the writing very accessible; and the whole thing admirably researched. In short, this is the sanest book you’re likely to find on the Chevalier d’Eon and the most reliable.
In due course I’ll be posting on one of the less sane books, which is obviously an enormous amount of fun even though it’s utterly barmy, but I think it’s always good to start with the closest thing you can get to the hard, honest truth.
P.S. I’m rather narked by the cover of my edition. Why on earth did the publishers choose two images that do not represent the Chevalier, when there’s such a wonderful choice of images that do show him in male and female costume? Laziness on the part of the cover designer, I fear.