The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

The Chevalier d'Eon

I mentioned in my post on Monsieur d’Eon is a Woman that I’d been asked to give a lecture in my professional capacity about the Chevalier d’Eon. I’m pleased to say that it went very well and feedback suggests that the Chevalier’s story exerts just as much fascination today as it did back in the 18th century. Since there’s a lot of misleading information about the Chevalier online, and since this remarkable story deserves to be known more widely, I decided to turn my lecture into a blog post. What follows is, therefore, considerably longer than my usual posts but is amply illustrated. The British Museum has almost sixty prints and other documents relating to the Chevalier’s life in London, many of which I reproduce here. So let’s delve in to a tale of espionage, secrecy, swashbuckling and remarkable self-fashioning.

We start at the end of the story. The Chevalier d’Eon died on 21 May 1810 at the age of 82. Although in recent years she had lived near to the poverty line, her story was well known in London. Everyone knew that she’d been born biologically female to parents who had wanted a son, and raised her as a boy. She had famously served as a diplomat in Russia at the court of the Empress Elizabeth and as a captain of Dragoons in the Seven Years War. Her sex had been discovered in the early 1770s and, since then, she had been obliged to live as a woman, although she’d made herself even more notorious by giving fencing demonstrations in female costume. She was also a prolific author and one of the most highly regarded intellectual woman of her age.

european-mag-1791-copy

Portrait print of the Chevalier d’Eon (here called the Chevalière d’Eon) by John Condé. Published in the European Magazine, 1791 (detail)

This was all common knowledge. So you can imagine the reaction of the Chevalier’s old friend Mrs Cole when she came to lay out the body for burial and discovered incontrovertible proof that the Chevalier was biologically male. As we’ll see, the question of the Chevalier’s sex had been of considerable public interest back in the 1770s and Mrs Cole knew she needed witnesses to this astonishing discovery. She called in a group of surgeons, anatomists, lawyers and clergymen, who signed their names to a declaration stating that the Chevalier was in fact male. The anatomists even dissected the relevant parts of the Chevalier’s body.

Suddenly, after twenty years of relative insignificance, the Chevalier was big news again. Numerous obituaries were published and a posthumous portrait was printed, based on the Chevalier’s death mask. But another print was also published, which nowadays we find it harder to stomach. This gave graphic visual proof of the Chevalier’s biological sex. I don’t know how many impressions of this print were made, or how many people were meant to see it, but nevertheless it strikes us as a gross invasion of privacy, especially for someone who had so successfully created her own gender identity. It also had a major impact on the way the Chevalier was remembered – not, as she would have wished, as someone who spent the latter half of her life as a virtuous Christian woman, but as a man who’d spent more than thirty years pulling off a remarkable gender hoax.

Before we follow the story further, I think this is the point for me to say a few words about my own choice of pronouns in this talk. This wasn’t a decision I took at all lightly, and I’m grateful to several people who very kindly gave up their time to advise me. Ultimately, I feel that we have to be very careful about projecting 21st-century attitudes back onto an 18th-century life and so, to avoid as much anachronism as possible, I’ve chosen to refer to the Chevalier as others did at that time. So, for the 49 years that the Chevalier lived as a man, I refer to him as he, and for the 33 years she lived as a woman, I refer to her as she. This also reflects how the Chevalier referred to himself or herself in letters – as most of these are in French, there is very clear gendered language.

Let’s begin in London in 1762. The Seven Years War had been raging across Europe and the French government had overextended itself both militarily and financially. Louis XV needed peace, and so he sent a diplomatic mission to negotiate a treaty with the British. It was headed by the Duc de Nivernois and among his staff was the 34-year-old Chevalier d’Eon. The earliest portrait that I know of the Chevalier dates from this period. Now, his presence on this mission had a dual nature. Officially, he was the Duke’s secretary, reporting to the Foreign Ministry, but what even the Duke didn’t know was that the Chevalier was also a spy. He’d been a member of the King’s Secret, an espionage network, for six years and had already acquired valuable information during his time in Russia. Now he was in London to find out how plausible it would be to launch an invasion of England – despite the fact that he was also part of an official peace mission. As we’ll see, this tension between his official post and his secret employment would cause him problems.

But that was all in the future. At first everything went well: the peace treaty was concluded in 1763 and the Chevalier was given the honour of taking it back to Paris, where Louis XV awarded him the distinction of the Cross of Saint-Louis for his bravery in the Dragoons during the War and his subsequent services in Russia and England. From this date, the cross appears prominently in all the Chevalier’s portraits: he valued it very highly as a visible sign of his courage and honour. Further distinction was to follow, when the Duc de Nivernois announced that he wanted to leave London, citing the miserable climate. While the French government found a replacement, the Chevalier was appointed Plenipotentiary Minister, which effectively meant that he was interim ambassador.

This was a great opportunity for the Chevalier. He became a fixture on London’s social scene and built strong relationships in court circles, largely thanks to his generous gifts of wine from his native Tonnerre in Burgundy. Indeed, the Chevalier was notorious for his wine imports – in some satirical prints he’s accompanied by a wine merchant – but his expenditure also caused problems with the French Foreign Ministry, who were expected to pick up the bill. They’d already had to deal with his lavish expenses in Russia and now his spending was growing exorbitant. And so, with the arrival of the new ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy, they tried to rein the Chevalier in.

This is when the problems started. The Chevalier had been enjoying his new status and he was offended at the idea of being demoted back to being a secretary again. More to the point, he and Guerchy hated one another, to the point that the Chevalier started claiming that Guerchy was trying to kill him. He also began demanding that the Foreign Ministry repay his expenses. Over the next two years, there was a diplomatic stalemate. The Foreign Minister ordered the Chevalier to come back to Paris, but the Chevalier refused – probably because, as a spy, he only recognised the direct authority of the King.

Then, in March 1764, things came to a head. The Chevalier announced that if the Foreign Ministry refused to repay his expenses or recognise his service, he would go over to the English and give them various secret papers in his possession. And, to prove he meant it, he published some private diplomatic papers, which sent shock waves through Europe and drove the French government into a panic. The Chevalier had to be dealt with, and in his own panic he’d just effectively destroyed his future as a diplomat. He was now a political exile. And it seems that he realised he’d got himself into an impossible situation. Fortunately, he had an idea how to get out of it.

00073022_001-copy

Satirical print on the Chevalier d’Eon: “Chevalier d’E-n return’d or the Stock-Brokers outwitted”. Published 1 September 1771.

In early 1771, something odd happened. Rumours had been going around in the fashionable world for some months that the Chevalier was, in fact, a woman. We don’t know where these rumours originated, but it’s likely they came from the Chevalier himself. We know that since 1762 he’d bought an unusually large number of books and pamphlets exploring feminism and gender theory, and we know that he regarded women as especially admirable in a moral sense. He was particularly interested in women who had disguised themselves as men, either to serve as soldiers, like Joan of Arc, or to pursue a religious life, like several early saints. And it seems he was inspired to explore the idea of creating a new gender identity for himself.

The newspapers got to hear of these rumours and, predictably, had a field day with their speculations. And then the betting started. Suddenly everyone wanted to know whether the Chevalier was a man or a woman and, when he refused to get dignify them with an answer, people started suggesting that he was in cahoots with the bookmakers. In Chevalier d’E-n returned or the Stock-Brokers outwitted, the Chevalier appears on the left, greeting his pet bookmaker, who gloats about their success in fooling all the gullible speculators. This was too much for the Chevalier. On 23 March 1771 he strode into a tavern near the exchange, confronted one of the first bankers to offer bets, and challenged him to a duel. He was dissuaded in the end, but it’s interesting to note that he wasn’t offended people were speculating that he was a woman – he was offended that they were accusing him of being caught up in a scam.

The Chevalier d'Eon

Anonymous artist, Satirical print on the Chevalier d’Eon: “A deputation from Jonathan’s and the Free-Masons”. Published 17 July 1771.

And so the speculation continued. By May 1771, £60,000 is said to have been wagered on the question of the Chevalier’s sex and, by the end of the gambling in 1777, a total of £200,000 had been staked – that’s the equivalent of roughly £23 million today. It was a godsend for satirical printmakers. In one print from this date, we see the Chevalier being tried by a jury of matrons, who are there to determine his sex; while another, part of a whole series, recounts the adventures of Miss Epicene d’Eon. Here the Chevalier reclines on a couch wearing half female and half male costume, while speculators beg him to reveal his sex. On the left, two satyrs approach carrying a special examination chair; the lettering beneath the print likens it to the famous chair with a cut-out seat, formerly used to manually check that newly-elected Popes were indeed male.

Now, just imagine what it was like for the Chevalier at this period. Not only did he think that his colleague Guerchy wanted to kill him, but he was afraid to go out in case he was kidnapped by people who wanted to strip him to discover his sex. In late May 1771, he solved the situation by disappearing from London for six weeks. The press, predictably, went wild. Some thought that the Chevalier had vanished in order to frustrate the bets that had been taken out. Others, tongue-in-cheek, came up with ideas about where he might have gone and several suggested that the female Chevalier had gone away to give birth. Here we have a print showing ‘A French Dragoon Captain Brought to Bed of Twins’. At the side of the Chevalier’s bed is John Wilkes, the radical politician who was his good friend and who, inevitably, was picked out in the satirical press as the probable father of the Chevalier’s fantasy children.

twins-copy

Satirical print on the Chevalier d’Eon: “A French Captain of Dragoons brought to bed of Twins”. Published by S. Hooper, 1 September 1771.

It’s almost a shock to see a completely straightforward portrait of the Chevalier, published later in 1771 – perhaps an attempt to counteract the satirical prints. We must remember, despite the satires, that there is no evidence that the Chevalier dressed in women’s clothing before 1777, and so this is how he presented himself to his contemporaries. But the questions had been raised, and they weren’t going to go away.

Even Louis XV was beginning to wonder if there was some truth in the story and, in 1772, the head of the King’s Secret sent an agent to London. Among his other tasks, he met with the Chevalier to ask for a firm answer once and for all. The agent’s report is worth quoting:

[The agent] can certify to me, after having examined and touched with much attention, that the so-called Sieur d’Eon is a girl and nothing other than a girl, that he has all the attributes of one and all of the regular inconveniences.

This is extraordinary – we don’t know what the secretary had seen but it’s clear that d’Eon wanted to be thought a woman, and it’s equally clear that Louis – who had known him since his twenties – was willing to believe it.

By 1774, when Louis XV died, more and more people were accepting that the Chevalier was actually a woman. The satirical prints died off and what we see instead is a new attitude to the Chevalier, who was admired as a woman who’d had the patriotic courage to fight for her country. There was an increasing tendency to present the Chevalier as a modern Pallas or Minerva, as in this print published in 1773. We know that the Chevalier himself rather liked this print, because he sent a copy of it to admirers in a French convent some years later.

But with the accession of Louis XVI, things had to change. The new king was young and ambitious and wanted to clear up the administrative mess that his grandfather had left. One of his chief concerns was to get rid of the King’s Secret and to bring the Chevalier back to France so that he was no longer a liability (remember that he still had those secret papers he’d been threatening to publish). And so Louis sent an agent to negotiate with the Chevalier. This was none other than the playwright Beaumarchais, author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.

Beaumarchais

Jean-Marc Nattier, Portrait of Beaumarchais, 1755, Private Collection, London (detail)

Beaumarchais’s negotiations with the Chevalier took place over the next three years and weren’t hugely successful – largely because Beaumarchais (who clearly believed the Chevalier was a woman) started a rumour that the Chevalier was desperately in love with him and wanted to marry him. This was bad enough, but the Chevalier then found out that Beaumarchais and his associate had used their ‘knowledge’ of the Chevalier’s sex to place vast bets, and they invited to cut him in on a share of the profits. Again the Chevalier went raging off to challenge Beaumarchais’s associate to a duel, but again he was refused – this time because the associate refused to duel with a woman.

Despite these upheavals, an agreement was made and, in late 1776, Louis XVI publicly announced that the Chevalier was a woman and that she could return to France and receive a pension for her services. This announcement sparked a resurgence of interest in London about those old bets, and one of the speculators brought a court case arguing that he should be paid out, as the Chevalier had been ‘proven’ female. The court of King’s Bench eventually agreed, ruling that the Chevalier was a woman and, by autumn 1777, the Chevalier d’Eon returned to France accepted on every side as a biological female. These two prints from about this date both marvel at the Chevalier’s remarkable ability to occupy both sides of the gender spectrum.

We know the Chevalier’s moment of transition very clearly: 21 October 1777. Until this point, the Chevalier was – perhaps strangely, to our eyes – resisting one of the key aspects of her agreements with Louis XVI. She wanted people to regard her as a woman, but she didn’t want to dress as a woman. She was desperate to have the right to continue wearing her Dragoons uniform, and to fulfil diplomatic and military roles for the French government. Needless to say, the government was having none of it. In their eyes, the Chevalier had revealed her true sex and now had to behave appropriately. She was already an embarrassment to them – how on earth had a woman disguised herself so convincingly for so long? – and they certainly didn’t want her to remain a public figure.

So the Chevalier was instructed to give up her hopes of a political career, to live quietly and to dress as a woman – as a sweetener, the government paid for her new wardrobe, which was tailored by none other than Marie-Antoinette’s own dressmaker, Rose Bertin. From 21 October 1777, the Chevalier accepted this new future that was forced upon her, and it’s from this date that she begins to refer to herself using feminine grammar in her letters, rather than masculine. In this pair of prints, we see again the public idea of the Chevalier at this time, as someone who had convincingly inhabited two gender roles. On the left we see her in her Dragoons uniform as a man, while on the right we see her in her new role as a woman.

But gradually the representation of the Chevalier changed to reflect her new gender role. Indeed, some of the published portraits emphasised her femininity to such an extent that they were positively unrealistic. One key thing to emphasise is that, although the Chevalier now dressed as a woman, she made absolutely no effort to feminise her behaviour. Many people were amazed at how masculine she was but, remarkably, no one believed that she was a biological male. On the contrary, they explained her behaviour by the fact that she was an Amazon, a brave woman driven by masculine qualities such as honour, nobility and martial vigour. Note that even in portraits where the Chevalier is shown in women’s clothing, she continues to wear the Cross of St Louis, which Louis XVI agreed to let her keep as a sign of her distinguished service.

By 1785, the Chevalier was fed up of France. She’d been forced to return to her native Tonnerre, where she was effectively kept under house arrest to prevent her being an embarrassment to the government. She’d repeatedly asked them to let her serve in the military – she’d offered to fight in the American Revolutionary Wars – but she found herself stuck in quiet Burgundy, away from all the glamour and society she was used to. And so she managed to persuade the King to let her return to London.

Here she was accepted as a woman – a virile woman, no doubt, but still a woman – and she was able to enjoy the limelight again. Although she officially had a royal pension, this was often late and – from 1789 – wasn’t paid at all, so she made a living by giving fencing demonstrations and taking part in competitions. Male or female, she was one of the most brilliant fencers of the age and her British admirers were delighted to see her fighting in her black skirts. The British Museum possesses a card which may well advertise a fencing demonstration of this kind, noting that ‘Genevieve d’Eon‘ will be at Mrs Bateman’s in Soho on January 16 1793 at 12 o’clock.

The Chevalier’s most famous encounter in these years was a fencing match at Carlton House against the Chevalier de Saint-George, in the presence of the Prince of Wales in 1789. The newspapers reported it with relish, noting that

Mademoiselle d’Eon… though incumbered, as she humorously declared it herself, with three petticoats, that suited her sex much better than her spirit, not only parried skilfully all the thrusts of her powerful antagonist, but even touched him by what is termed a coup de tems… Nothing could equal the quickness of the repartee, especially considering that the modern Pallas is nearly in her 60th year.

The Prince of Wales was so impressed that he had this painting made of the fencing match, which is now in the Royal Collection and, of course, a print was made for those who hadn’t had the good fortune to be there.

Robineau: The Fencing Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d'Eon

Alexandre-Auguste Robineau (1747-1828), The Fencing-Match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Eon c. 1787-9, Royal Collection, London

As the Chevalier grew older, her financial circumstances became ever more difficult. She’d never lost her taste for a lavish lifestyle and, when the Revolution put a stop to her royal pension, she found herself almost penniless. Her friends in society tried to help her – the managers of Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens held a benefit night in 1791, where all the profits went to the Chevalier – but she needed to raise more money. And so, in that same year, 1791, she bowed to inevitability and sold her beloved library at Christie’s. The British Museum has a visiting card which she sent to her society friends, to inform them of the sale, with their names and other details filled in (presumably in her own hand).

I expect many of you will recognise the superb portrait reproduced a few paragraphs below, which the National Portrait Gallery acquired in 2012, showing the Chevalier in 1792. She wears the cockade of liberty – because at this date the French Revolution was still generally welcomed as a move towards a more constitutional monarchy, rather than the outright attack on aristocracy that it would become. And the neighbouring portrait, made by George Dance in 1793, is the last that we have of the Chevalier. It was used as the basis for a portrait print, but after this date she was forced into ever greater seclusion because of her financial problems, and ill health – particularly a serious injury received during a fencing match which prevented her from giving further demonstrations. In 1795 she moved in with Mrs Cole and increasingly fell out of the public eye. She seems to have spent the final years of her life reading, studying and preparing her own memoirs.

As we finish, let’s take a moment to think about those memoirs. The first biography of the Chevalier was published in the late 1770s, while she was in Paris, and it’s likely she had a great deal of input. It recounts the tale of her having been born a girl but raised as a boy, which had already become common knowledge, but everything else is more or less historically proven. A few years later, however, she’d begun telling the story of how she had already cross-dressed during her time as a diplomat in Russia, playing the dual role of secretary to the Ambassador and secret French tutor to the Empress Elizabeth. This has become a popular feature in many recent histories and stories about the Chevalier, but I hate to tell you that there’s no historical evidence for it whatsoever.

It was enshrined, however, in the Chevalier’s own memoirs, which were left unfinished at her death and finally published in 2001 as The Maiden of Tonnerre (a title that she herself gave them). These memoirs gave the Chevalier a chance to rewrite her past and create her own myth, showing herself not only as a woman but as an active and accomplished diplomat and soldier, transcending gender stereotypes and rendering them insignificant. They also give us a good insight into the Chevalier’s motivation behind becoming a woman, as they reflect her devout Christianity at the end of her life, when she sought to contextualise her existence as a woman as part of a virtuous, virginal life focused on growing closer to God.

But it isn’t only the Chevalier’s own reworking of history that makes this a tricky biography to discuss. In 1836, Frederic Gaillardet published a book called Memoirs of the Chevalier d’Eon, which presented itself as a history based on the Chevalier’s own writings. Written in the knowledge that the Chevalier was a biological male who lived as a woman, Gaillardet destroys the subtlety of the Chevalier’s real gender explorations and interprets his cross-dressing as a sexual masquerade adopted in order to secretly seduce women. He recounts a series of escapades, which you’ll find recounted as fact in many writings on the Chevalier that you find on the internet, for example – that he managed to bed the Empress Elizabeth, father a child on one of her ladies in waiting and, most remarkably, father the future George IV. Unsurprisingly, this is complete fiction. Most of this book is entirely made up by Gaillardet and it should be regarded as a novel rather than a biography. Needless to say, I’ll be writing dedicated posts on both these books in due course.

But this testifies to the enduring fascination of the Chevalier’s character. Both during her lifetime and after her death, she inspired, challenged and intrigued those around her. We cannot impose modern notions on her life without risking anachronism, but we are fortunate in that our current, more fluid understanding of gender allows us, perhaps, to appreciate the full brilliance of the Chevalier’s remarkable self-fashioning across the gender barrier.

5 thoughts on “The Swashbuckling Life of the Chevalier d’Eon

  1. Jon Chappell says:

    This was an excellent read. The story was riveting and the problem of marking out eighteenth century gender identities superbly dealt with. I often find discussions of gender identity and sexuality outside of a post-WW2 western context to be problematic because they assume that the categories produced in that context are the only possible ones. It strikes me as a remarkably limiting way of interpreting 5000 years of human relationships with each other and their own bodies.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Jon and thanks so much for the comment – and welcome to the blog 😉 You’re absolutely right about the gender / sexuality issues going on here. That was one of the things that really struck me when reading about the Chevalier. Lots of people and groups have tried to claim him / her as a forerunner, but I think that to apply our own labels is – as you say – to limit our understanding. As part of the same project for work, I’m researching the Ladies of Llangollen and it’s exactly the same case there – modern categories being anachronistically superimposed on lives which don’t really fit 21st century notions.

  2. justhistoryposts says:

    This was an engrossing read – I hadn’t heard of the Chevalier before, and they were certainly a fascinating character! I think the way you dealt with the gender issues here does the Chevalier a great service

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks so much! I’m glad that my decision re. the pronouns seems good to other people; and I’m very happy to hear you enjoyed the post. I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research too – now that I’ve done the lecture, I can afford to dip into less reliable books about the Chevalier and have a bit of fun, without worrying about errors creeping in…!

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