From The Independent of London, England
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Chevalier d'Eon: The original transvestite
She came as a 'lady' to the Russian Imperial court, betrayed a French king and was the talk of every coffee house in 18th-century England. But it wasn't until she died that the greatest scandal of Chevalier d'Eon's life was revealed. Ian Herbert reports.
Wednesday, 19 April 2006
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In 1763 an ambitious French diplomat who answered to the name Chevalier d'Eon arrived on British shores with the same ambitions as any other: fast promotion and a steady supply of burgundy. But the fate that awaited him would lead him to become one of London's most extraordinary citizens: a man who for nearly half a century fooled the world into thinking he was a woman.
Such was the feverish debate about d'Eon's gender in the 1780s that a betting pool ran at the London Stock Exchange on whether he was a man or a woman, with the latest odds posted in all the best coffee houses. Only after d'Eon died in a shabby London bedsit, aged 81, did a post-mortem reveal all. A doctor, accompanied by 12 witnesses, found "the male organs in every respect perfectly formed".
So why did he do it? Academics are divided - but a clearer picture may emerge at a conference on d'Eon that opens tomorrow in Leeds, where many of his papers are retained at the Brotherton Library. The conference is expected to add to the growing body of evidence that the first high-profile transvestite should not be viewed as a sexually confused soul, but as a marginalised French spy, troubled by debt and powerful enemies, who "became" a woman to save his own skin - and actually found it fulfilling. D'Eon also appears to have used the experience to become one of the most ardent supporters of the feminist cause and is still celebrated as the first person to risk the consequences of a transgender lifestyle.
The patron saint of transvestites was born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée Eon de Beaumont and seemed destined for a different kind of fame. Born at Tonnere, Burgundy, in October 1728, he excelled at languages, was fêted for his memory and graduated in law from the Collège Mazarin in Paris. By 1756, he was inducted into Louis XV's espionage network, the Secret du Roi, where he first found success in a dress.
D'Eon had already cut a fine figure when appearing as a lady at a masked ball. Seeking a rapprochement between Russia and France, Louis sent d'Eon, disguised as a Mademoiselle Lia de Beaumont, to worm his way into the Muscovite court of Empress Elizabeth I. This was not as hair-brained as it sounds. The European upper classes were increasingly fascinated with the idea of men and women assuming opposite roles for society events, and d'Eon, who kept a scrapbook on hermaphrodites, was more interested in the concept than most.
The strategy worked to perfection. D'Eon went down a storm at the cross-dressing parties that Elizabeth held every Thursday, and by the time he returned to France in 1761, diplomatic ties with Russia were restored.
The Secret was pursuing policies for Louis that even his foreign ministers knew nothing about. A year after the Russian adventure, d'Eon was dispatched to London on another delicate spying mission: suing for peace with England while eyeing up whether a secret order to invade the country might be carried out.
Here, d'Eon's fate began to unravel. He had hoped to stay in England as French ambassador, so began running up debts in importing Burgundian wine to ingratiate himself with the English élite. But he was passed over in favour of the Comte de Guerchy, then demoted and recalled to Paris by the French foreign minister.
He refused - possibly because of his ambiguous position serving both the ministry and Secret, or because he feared he would not be reimbursed for all that wine. He threatened to reveal Louis XV's invasion plans, and published diplomatic correspondence including allegations that Guerchy had plotted to poison him.
It was amid all this intrigue, in 1770, that rumours began to circulate that d'Eon was a woman - and there is some evidence to suggest that the man himself, whose political training made him a master of the leak, may have planted them.
The strategy brought great personal benefits. The French agents were less likely to kill a woman - especially one so much in the public eye. But d'Eon also believed in the moral and intellectual superiority of women and may have craved the change as his diplomatic career fell apart. Gary Kates, author of Monsieur d'Eon is a Woman and a speaker at the Leeds conference, believes d'Eon needed to become a heroic female to "regenerate his soul". Yet it was only the psyche of a woman, not the clothes, that he craved, according to the writer Clare Harman. D'Eon wanted "to be considered a woman who passed herself off successfully as man [rather than] to dress per se as a woman", she says.
D'Eon could not have had the vaguest idea of the storm his "change" was to unleash. It was the 18th-century equivalent of Big Brother: his genderbecame the hot topic of coffee-house conversation, spawned several indecent caricatures in the city's papers and even inspired a play, The Female Chevalier. A financier offered d'Eon £30,000 to disrobe. He refused.
Britain's finest minds did not know what to make of him. In the words of Horace Walpole, "she" was a "noisy and vulgar individual whose hands and arms... are fitter to carry a chair than a fan". James Boswell concluded that "she seemed to me to be a man in woman's clothes".
D'Eon's fate was sealed when, to avert the shame that an éclaircissement would heap upon France, King Louis XVI agreed to pay off his debts on the proviso that he return to France and dress as a woman. D'Eon had earned his Chevalier title as a captain in the French Dragoons and was not best pleased. "My body is like my mind," he protested, "it cannot be contented with being embroidered in lace." In protest, d'Eon's garb became ascetic on his return. He sported black dresses, displayed stubble and eventually wore his Dragoons' uniform in his native Burgundy - an act that resulted in his imprisonment: a woman dressing as a man was considered indecent. With his father dead, only his mother knew the truth - and she seems to have been panicked into complicity.
As his life crumbled, d'Eon was almost persuaded to go quietly into a convent. "I am humiliated and depraved among men; I am elevated and exalted among women," he wrote. Eventually, he was able to return to England on the understanding that he would wear women's clothes. His refusal to adopt gender-appropriate behaviour gave rise to many extraordinary public appearances, and he became something of a circus performer.
He fenced in skirts for money (against the Prince of Wales, among others), took stairs three at a time, poured coffee for ladies (a role at the time reserved for men) and reached between his skirted leg to move his chair forward.
But for all the farce, many commentators - including Mary Wollstonecraft - considered d'Eon to be one of the pioneers of the feminist movement, articulating views about the female perspective from a unique position. The Brotherton archive reveals how he built up a library of 6,000 volumes and 500 rare manuscripts including a collection of radical feminist books which explored the 18th-century Querelle des Femmes (quarrel about women). Gary Kates suggests that these inspired his views about sexual differentiation and his adventure into womanhood. "God created man and woman, the one for doing good, the other for doing bad," d'Eon wrote. "So long as a man is a man, the earth is his; so long as a woman is a woman, virtue is hers."
Dr Simon Burrows is a senior lecturer in Modern European History at Leeds University and has organised the conference. He is the author of a forthcoming biography on d'Eon, and will argue that d'Eon's less admirable qualities should not be discounted, either. "His actions were also connected to his craving for publicity. We can't ignore that he was also a dubious figure who fabricated stories against his enemies," he says.
Whatever the private motivations behind his extraordinary life, d'Eon's 49 years as a man and 34 as a woman do not seem to have provided the one experience that someone who has enjoyed life on both sides of the gender divide might be expected to encounter. Documentary evidence suggests that Monsieur d'Eon may well have died a virgin.
The d'Eon exhibition will be held in the Brotherton Library, part of Leeds University Library, from today until Saturday. For logistical reasons, visits are by special appointment only; e-mail special collections.library.leeds.ac.uk or call 0113-343 5518