15/11/2013 by noonobservation
So, The Great Labour is finally complete: I have purchased a house of my very own. My books are now safe from the damp miasmas of Oxford, and my immediate needs for power tools, broadband and William Morris wallpaper are temporarily sated. The hunt for respectable second hand furniture that hasn’t been artlessly defaced with Annie Sloan paint continues…
This month I have temporarily forsworn the fascinations of lighter-than-air aviation in favour of the fashionable academic field of Gender Studies. The gender I have been studying is that of the 18th Century French diplomat, the Chevalier(e) d’Eon.
What exactly lay between the Chevalier(e)’s legs was one of the great mysteries of the 18th Century. Like Schrodinger’s cat, it remained in a state of flux until directly observed, and D’Eon prevented direct observation during his/her life at the point of a sword.
[Note: Writing about a gender-ambiguous person is exhausting. This is probably why most people choose to have just one gender.]
I too shall coyly conceal the mystery to the bitter end so that you can play along at home with the popular Georgian pastime of betting your fortune on the true gender of the Chevalier(e) D’Eon.
An ambiguous upbringing
D’Eon was born in 1728 in Burgundy and christened Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont. As well as some ladylike middle names, little Charles had a petite figure, fair hair and blue eyes, leading to a local rumour that the Beaumonts were pretending that their daughter was a son so that she could inherit the estate. Madame de Beaumont may not have helped matters by dressing Charles in his sister’s clothes, initiating him into a convent, and calling him Mary.
A moderately masculine adolescence
At the age of 12, Charles went off to school in Paris, where as well as getting a law degree, he became a kick-ass ninja fencing master. This proved jolly useful against people who would otherwise have teased him for his hairless chin and tiny womanly hands.
Life as a spy/lady in waiting
After writing some very serious books about economics and the history of everything, D’Eon joined Le Secret du Roi. This was Louis XV’s secret service, set up to execute the King’s foreign policy (not to be confused with France’s foreign policy). D’Eon’s first mission was to reopen communications with the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, who had recently expelled all Frenchmen from the country.
Naturally, D’Eon whipped on a dress and turned up at St Petersburg as the glamorous Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont, where she secured a position as lady in waiting to the Empress.
As a result of Mlle. de Beaumont’s efforts, France was soon invited to resume diplomatic relations. Lia de Beaumont returned to France just as her brother, the Chevalier D’Eon turned up as the ambassador’s secretary. What a coincidence, everyone thought, and what a strong family resemblance.
Life as a soldier
D’Eon returned to France in 1760, just in time to catch the end of the Seven Years’ War. He obtained a commission as captain of dragoons and despite his slight frame and foppish appearance, managed several impressive military feats, including capturing 600 Prussians with a force of just 80 dragoons. The rest of the French army fared less well, stumbling to an ignominious drubbing at Villingshausen, despite having a 40,000 man advantage.
Mission to London
In 1762, D’Eon was dispatched to London to help with the peace negotiations. This he did by stealing the Under Secretary of State’s portfolio while he was drunk and sending a copy of his papers to Versailles. D’Eon was handsomely rewarded for the treaty with the Order of Saint-Louis.
D’Eon was sent back to London as Ministre Plenipotentiaire, where he ran up huge debts schmoozing the Court of Saint James (especially his BFF, Queen Charlotte) with splashy embassy parties. Unfortunately, the real ambassador eventually turned up and ruined all the fun.
The Chevalier(e) and Ambassador Guerchy did not get on – not only had Guerchy brown-nosed his way into office, but he also refused to clear the debts D’Eon had amassed as his stand-in, plus he was really bad at writing dispatches. The tiff quickly turned into a full scale handbag fight at the French embassy, much to the amusement of the British government.
The ambassador commissioned articles suggesting that D’Eon was a hermaphrodite, while D’Eon published a book about Guerchy’s diplomatic and military incompetence using classified letters he’d purloined at the embassy. Guerchy next tried to poison and/or kidnap the Chevalier(e), but without success. D’Eon moved to a new house on Brewer Street which he mined with explosives lest anyone try to take him or his papers alive.
The Ambassador’s next step was to hire someone to murder D’Eon, a plan which backfired somewhat when the assassin went straight to the Chevalier(e) with the tale. D’Eon was able to have the French ambassador indicted for attempted murder, and though the case never came to court, Guerchy had to beg to be recalled to France where he died of embarrassment two years later.
It was during his stay in London that the Chevalier(e)’s genitalia became a real problem to him/her. Several city bankers and aristocrats, intrigued by the controversial diplomat’s curvaceous figure, womanly voice and smooth cheeks, wagered large sums that D’Eon was actually a lady. There was in fact rather a lot of evidence. Princess D’Askoff had just turned up in London with stories about her friend Lia de Beaumont. Both she and the new French ambassador stated publicly that they thought D’Eon was female. Plus there was the fact that he never got it on with ladies (or indeed, men).
Another visitor to London at the time was Casanova: a man with a proven track record in sniffing out skirt, even when it’s disguised in breeches. His opinion was that “This Chevalier d’Eon was a handsome woman… In spite of her manly ways I soon recognized her as a woman; her voice was not that of a castrato, and her shape was too rounded to be a man’s. I say nothing of the absence of hair on her face, as that might be an accident.”
At the height of the gambling craze, there was as much as £120,000 riding on the answer. With fortunes in the balance, the Chevalier(e) had to hire protection to guard against the numerous plots to kidnap and strip him/her by force. D’Eon also took the step of publicly challenging all the gamblers to a duel, but owing to his/her reputation for lethalness, there were no takers. After several years of legal combat, the Chevalier(e) eventually managed to have the bets declared illegal on the grounds that the result could only be obtained through an act of indecency.
On the death of Louis XV, D’Eon, who was dependent on his/her diplomatic pension, had to come to a settlement with the new king. On the plus side, D’Eon still possessed some Extremely Naughty secret papers detailing Louis XV’s plans to invade England. On the negative side, Louis XVI thought he/she was a woman. This was somewhat D’Eon’s own fault as he/she had apparently shown an agent of the king “ample proofs” of womanhood just prior to the old king’s death.
Waving the naughty papers threateningly towards the British government, D’Eon asked for an absurd amount of money to clear all his/her debts. His/her demand was accompanied by a fluttering of eyelashes and the plea of a French woman in distress.
A series of officials were sent to negotiate with the Chevalier(e), who proceeded to flirt with them all in turn. After a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing and one proposal of marriage, an agreement was finally reached. One of the conditions laid down by the French government however, was that the Chevalier(e) agree never “to appear in France other than in the garments of a woman.” The main purpose was to prevent D’Eon from fighting duels with the many, many French nobles he/she had pissed off over the years.
On returning to France, D’Eon found the transformation difficult, and besides, lacked the money to buy the posh frocks her station required. At this point, her fairy godmother materialised in the form of Marie Antoinette, who sent her 24,000 livres concealed in a fan, along with the address of her own dress maker and milliner.
Adjustment to a new outward gender at the age of 49 was not easy, especially as court dress was at the height of its impractical silliness. At first the Chevaliere had a tendency to doff her triple tiered wig, forgetting that it was not a hat. After some practice, she finally presented herself at Versailles. As one observer noted “She looks more like a man since she has become a woman. How credit with the feminine sex someone who shaves his chin, has the muscular build of Hercules, gets into and jumps out of his carriage without the assistance of a groom and climbs steps by fours?” Mlle. D’Eon kept her spirits up by continually petitioning to join the navy so that she could fight in the American War of Independence.
Retirement in Britain
In 1785, D’Eon decided to return to Britain to settle her debts and rescue her library. Despite being allowed to live there as a man, D’Eon kept on as a woman. After a spell in society, building up some nice new debts, Mlle. D’Eon was thrown onto hard times. The new revolutionary government, having little sympathy for trans-gender, aristocratic ex-royal spies living in enemy territory, heartlessly stopped her pension. Now in her 60s, the Chevaliere was forced to live off handouts from the British aristocracy and the fees from exhibition duels, which she sometimes fought in dragoon uniform, sometimes in skirts, and once dressed as Minerva as a special treat for the Prince of Wales.
Her fencing career came to an abrupt end in 1796 when her opponent’s foil broke and wounded her badly in the side. The Chevaliere never recovered and spent the next fourteen years living as a poverty stricken invalid spinster in London, nursed by a poor French widow called Mrs Cole. She was forced to sell her Croix de Saint-Louis, but clung tenaciously to her huge collection of rare editions of Horace until she died in 1810.
The Big Reveal
Upon her death, everyone suddenly remembered the terrible fuss that had been caused in previous times by the old lady’s downstairs parts. Eagerly, everyone gathered round for a look.
Her priest, Father Elysee, made the following account: “The body presented unusual roundness in the formation of the limbs; the appearance of a beard was very slight, and hair of so light a colour as to be scarcely perceptible was on the arms, legs and chest. The throat was by no mean masculine; shoulders square and good; breast remarkably full; arms, hands, fingers those of a stout female…”
…and she has a cock.
Just to be totally sure, a cast was taken of the body, and it was thoroughly examined and dissected in the presence of the Prince de Conde, Sir Sidney Smith, the Earl of Yarmouth, some old regimental chums and a large number of surgeons and lawyers. Solemn declarations were drawn up and signed by the witnesses stating that “the body is constituted in all that characterises man without any mixture of sex.”
All this came as a bit of a shock to poor Mrs Cole who had been sure her best mate was a lady.
I really wanted D’Eon to be a woman – what could be more romantic than a sword-fighting, book-writing, super-spy, Ambassador-slaying lady-dragoon? Interestingly, 18th Century women thought the same and were absolutely thrilled when they believed he was female.
So as it turns out, he was just a transvestite. Or possibly (given his boobiliciousness), he had some sort of genetic oddity that left him rather ladylike, but with a beefy McManstick. Either way, being a woman seems to have made him pretty miserable for the 33 years he kept it up.
Lots has been written about the Chevalier, often by serious academics interested in the sexual abnormalities of historical aristocrats. The most popular interpretation of the story however, is the anime series, which I have not watched, but looks jolly authentic.
Memorability spectrum analysis
Red (hotness): 4? Very little interest in the opposite sex (which ever sex that was). Correspondence suggests possible impotency.
Green (eccentricity): 250 So eccentric, he had to resort to living in Britain.
Blue (violence): 199 So good with a sword that people were unable to wrestle him to the ground and cop a feel, even when there was £120,000 at stake.