In June 2012 the National Gallery revealed its new acquisition. Discovered by the London dealer, Philip Mould at a provincial sale in a suburb of New York, the painting had been mistakenly sold as a portrait of an unknown woman. Philip Mould immediately recognised it as being a portrait of a man dressed in women’s clothing,
Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart, bought by the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery, London
“Even in its dirty state it was clear that this woman had stubble…basically he was a bloke in a dress with a hat”
Whilst visiting the National Gallery the other day, I came across the painting by accident. My friend glancing at it from a distance said “It is a woman?” Concentrating on the face I replied that I thought it was man or if not, a very unattractive woman, completely missing the low cut neckline and the hat with a large bow and feather. The name on the caption read “The Chevalier d’Éon”. Although I have read quite a bit on pre-Revolution France, I couldn’t recall coming across a cross-dressing spy and it is not something that is easy to forget. The painting piqued my interest and as soon as I got home, I began to try to find out as much as I could about this Chevalier but my reading threw up more questions; was the Chevalier forced to wear women’s clothing? Was he transgender or transsexual? How did he manage to convince some of the leading figures of the 18th century that he was in fact a woman? The story of the Chevalier is stranger than fiction, a fascinating and confusing character who was brave enough to live life as he wanted and whether as a man or a woman was acclaimed by his peers as a person of exceptional courage and fortitude.
Charles-Geneviève-Louise-Auguste-Andrée-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was born on the 5 October 1728 in Tonnerre in Burgundy to a poor but noble family. His name a mixture of male and female forenames bizarrely suggests that even his parents weren’t quite sure about the gender of their own child and wanted to hedge their bets! Later in his memoirs d’Éon revealed that his father’s determination to have a son at any cost resulted in him being raised as a boy, a subterfuge which his mother happily took part in. This version differs slightly from the explanation given to the French court when he claimed that his father was forced to raise him as a boy in order to receive an inheritance from his in-laws.
D’Éon apparently excelled at school and in 1743 moved to Paris to study canon and civil law at the College Mazarin. His first posting on graduation at the age of 21 was as secretary to Bertier de Sauvigny. Eventually his success and intelligence brought him to the attention of King Louis XV and his initiation into the “Secret du Roi”.
Maid of honour to the Empress of Russia
Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Secret du Roi, Louis XV’s personal undercover organisation functioned outside the French government often working on assignments contrary to official policies and treatises. Around 1756 D’Éon along with the Scottish Jacobite, Chevalier Douglas crossed the border into Russia. The aim was to meet with Elizabeth, Empress of Russia to convince her to collaborate with them in their intrigues against the Habsburg monarchy. At the time Britain in an attempt to prevent an alliance between France and Russia only allowed French women and children to cross the border. Although no actual documentation exists to support the theory it is widely believed that D’Éon disguised himself as a woman and calling himself Lea de Beaumont managed to sneak into Russia. If it is true then he must have been a brilliant actor and fearless as if he had been caught by the French, British or Russians he would have faced execution. Eventually in order to get as close to the Empress as he could, he arranged for himself to be chosen as one of her maids of honour. It is hard to imagine how a man would have achieved this. The Empress’s inner circle would have been fraught with intrigue and gossip and newcomers subject to intense scrutiny. If the story is true it really could only have succeeded with the support of the Empress. Whatever really happened direct communication between the two countries was re-established, Douglas became the French Ambassador to Russia with D’Éon employed as his secretary. A role he held from 1756 to 1760.
The Seven Years War
On his return to France, D’Éon was generously rewarded and granted a commission as Captain of the Dragoons. Famed for his bravery and acknowledged as one of the greatest swordsman of his time, D’Éon fought in the later stages of the Seven Years war and at the Battle of Villinghausen in July 1761. He was wounded later that year at the Battle of Ulstrop.
In 1762 D’Éon was sent to London to negotiate and draft a peace treaty which would end the Seven Years War. Eventually both the French and British agreed to the terms of the treaty, which was signed in Paris on the 10 February 1763. In recognition of his service to the French state, D’Éon was awarded the Order of Saint-Louis which permitted him to be called the honorary title of “Chevalier”.
An exile in London
D’Éon stayed in London after the peace treaty had been signed, acting as interim ambassador after the Duc de Nivernais returned home. Aside from his official duties he continued to act as a member of the Secret du Roi working with other agents to survey the British coastal defences and collect information for a possible invasion.
With the arrival of the new ambassador, the Comte de Guerchy, D’Éon found himself caught in the middle of the various French political factions. Finding himself put in an impossible position and clearing feeling vulnerable and threatened, D’Éon refused to obey when he was recalled to France. The British always happy to annoy the French, refused to extradite him.
Hostility between Guerchy and D’Éon reached breaking point when D’Éon in a letter to the Louis XV accused Guerchy of trying to poison him whilst he was dinning at Monmouth House in Soho Square. In order to gain the upper hand D’Éon published a series of letters about his recall whilst threatening to go public with the letters pertaining to the planned invasion of Britain. The French faced with the growing support of the British for D’Éon, a lawsuit for attempted murder and guaranteed war if the French invasion plans were revealed, recalled Guerchy and reinstated D’Éon’s pension. D’Éon kept his papers as an insurance policy and continued to work as a spy, living his life as a political exile.
Life as a woman
By Pierre Adrien LE BEAUd’après Claude-Louis DESRAIS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It is unclear when exactly the rumours began that D’Éon was actually a woman. It must have been sometime in the mid-1770s, shortly before his return to France in 1777. Did he start the rumours, and if not, who did? Had he already started wearing women’s clothing? Was it a pragmatic move to allow him to return to France and effectively disempower him, removing him as a threat to the French state? Did he actual believe he was a woman? Was he desperately short of money? Whatever the truth, in 1777 D’Éon had convinced the French government that he was a woman and was permitted by the new king, Louis XVI to return to France on one condition, issued as an edict (possibly the strangest edict ever written by a government)
“By order of the king: Charles-Geneviève-Louise-Auguste-Andrée-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont is commanded to leave off the dragoon’s uniform which she is wearing, and to dress according to her sex.”
D’Éon agreed to the condition, now called the Chevalière, D’Éon must have been extremely happy when the state granted her funds for a new wardrobe!
Banished from the French court (maybe she was considered an embarrassment), D’Éon returned to Tonnerre, where she lived for six years. With the start of the revolutionary movement, D’Éon’s property was confiscated and in 1785, she was allowed to return to England.
The Chevalier fencing By Charles Jean Robineau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For the next 25 years, D’Éon lived in Britain. With the diplomatic service closed to her as a woman (D’Éon did write to the French National Assembly offering to lead a division of women soldiers against the Habsburgs) and her pension stopped, D’Éon was forced to give public displays of fencing to earn a living. Wounded in a show in Southampton in 1796, D’Éon spent her last years living with a widow, Mrs Cole. Landing in a debtor’s prison, she eventually died in poverty on the 21 May 1810 aged 82.
D’Éon has often been celebrated as the first open cross dresser accepted in British Society. Personally I think that this is quite a simplistic view. From around 1775, D’Éon encouraged the rumours that he was a woman, forced by his parents to dress and act as a man, “I was born with a caul…and my sex was hidden in nubibus”.
Although Britain was used to eccentricity in its aristocracy, the fact that D’Éon was French might have made the British more inclined to accept his story, as many considered the French a strange breed anyway. D’Éon whether as a woman acting as a man or as a woman fencer was seen as an oddity, a one off, the fact that men might want to be a woman or just enjoy wearing female clothes would, I personally think, have been seen as against the rules of nature, something that just could not be tolerated in society at that time.
D’Éon’s sexuality caused confusion amongst his contemporaries. The playwright, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais who wrote “The Marriage of Figaro” was so convinced that D’Éon was a woman that he helped him in his dealings with the French government. Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft were also certain that D’Éon was a woman. Wollstonecraft so much so that she included D’Éon in her Rights of Woman, calling her one of the exceptional woman along with the likes of Sappho and Macaulay, “who transcend the limitations of their gender”. Even Mrs Cole with whom D’Éon lived with for a number of years never believed anything different. D’Éon was considered a feminine woman, always hitching up her skirts when she went up and down stairs.
Not everyone was so convinced, James Boswell stated that “she appeared to me a man in woman’s clothes” whilst Horace Walpole on meeting D’Éon commented that she was loud and noisy “her hands and arms seem not to have participated of the change of sexes but are fitter to carry a chair than a fan”
Confusion was such that men started to a pool on the stock exchange with more than £200,000 bet. The situation became so unstable that some of the English gamblers sued the court which led to the Chief Justice Lord Mansfield passing the verdict that D’Éon was a woman.
In May 1810, a body lay on the autopsy table of the surgeon Thomas Copeland. Around the table stood a number of men, possibly six or more. Maybe some of them were the gamblers who had risked so much on the stock exchange or simply curious bystanders. The final mystery was to be revealed, was D’Éon a man or a woman. Carefully Copeland removed the layers of petticoats and undergarments. The truth was there for them all to see, Copeland wrote
“I hereby certify that I have inspected and dissected the body of the Chevalier D’Éon…and have found the male organs in every respect perfectly formed.”
The D’Éon Legacy
D’Éon has left behind an interesting legacy. The word Eonism the tendency to adopt the costumes and manners of the opposite sex was derived from his name and his surname was adopted by the Beaumont Society, an organisation which was founded to support members of the transgender community. A number of books have been written about him and he is often included in articles on gender studies. There has even been a Japanese manga series called “The Chevalier D’Éon” which is set in the time of Louis XV and follows the lead character’s quest to find the murderer of his sister. The twist is that whilst he is searching the soul of his sister, Lia, enters D’Éon’s body. I would love to see the series but haven’t been able to get hold of a copy.
Whatever the truth behind the story of D’Éon, the fact is that he was a unique and brave individual who lived his life as he wanted. From his portrait in the National Gallery he seems to stare sadly but kindly at the viewer, maybe the greatest lesson of D’Éon is simply “be true to yourself”.
References and further reading
Charles, chevalier d’Éon de Beaumont, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/189379/Charles-chevalier-dEon-de-Beaumont
Man AND Woman: The Truly Peculiar World of Chevalier D’Éon, http://surviving-history.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/man-and-woman-truly-peculiar-world-of.html
Portrait mistaken for 18th-century lady is early painting of transvestite, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/jun/06/portrait-18th-century-early-transvestite
The Strange Career of the Chevalier D’Éon de Beaumont: Minister Plenipotentiary from France to Great Britain in 1763, John Buchan Telfer
The Chevalier D’Éon and His Worlds: Gender, Espionage and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, Simon Burrows
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft