This week in London’s gender-bending history: Chevalier d’Eon dies, Bloomsbury, 1810.

[NB: This should probably have been published on Sunday 21st, but it just wasn’t ready. So here it is, late. C’est la vie.]

Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Thimothée d’Eon de Beaumont (1728-1810, depicted above) lived the first half of his life as a man and the second half of her life as a woman. French diplomat, spy, freemason and soldier, D’Éon appeared publicly as a man and pursued masculine occupations for 49 years, although later claimed to have during that time successfully infiltrated the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia by presenting as a woman. For 33 years, from 1777, d’Éon dressed as a woman, claiming to have been female at birth. D’Eon’s ‘real’ gender became a matter of huge speculation at the time, sparking debate, bets and outrage. It was only after D’Eon’s death that doctors ‘settled’ the matter by announcing that the Chevalier/e had male organs. Which is in fact, not a final judgement that would be accepted today as defining the Chevalier/e’s gender.
The Chevalier d’Eon’s story is easy to read as a straight(?)forward case of a person born a man who came to feel they identified as a woman; it has been in fact so read in the light of the struggles, views and ideology of the modern transgender movement. But digging deeper suggests a more complex reality.

From a poor noble family, D’Eon grew up with androgynous physical characteristics, and developed abilities as an actor and mimic. In 1756, d’Éon joined a secret network of spies called the Secret du Roi, (‘secret of the king’), employed by French King Louis XV. Run by the king, kept apart from his government, this operation promoted policies that often contradicted official policies and treaties. d’Éon’s memoirs relate being sent a secret mission to Russia in order to meet Empress Elizabeth and conspire with the pro-French faction against the Habsburg monarchy. Since English and French were then at odds, the English were attempting to prevent French access to the Empress by allowing only women and children to cross the border into Russia. D’Éon claimed he had to pass convincingly as a woman or risk being executed by the English upon discovery. In the course of this mission, d’Éon was said to have been disguised as the lady Lea de Beaumont, and served as a maid of honour to the Empress. (however, recent historical study has found no independent evidence of this; the story dates from D’Eon’s own account, written forty years later.)

D’Éon followed this by enlisting as a captain of dragoons and fighting in the Seven Years’ War, and was then sent to London to first help draft the peace treaty that formally ended the Seven Years’ War (signed in Paris in February 1763), and then remaining as an interim ambassador and spy for the king. D’Éon collected information for a potential invasion – an unfortunate and clumsy initiative of Louis XV, of which Louis’s own ministers were unaware.

However, the arrival of a new ambassador, the Count of Guerchy, sparked a demotion for d’Éon. Humiliated, D’Éon was caught up in faction fighting both in the embassy and at the French court. Having disobeyed orders to return to France, d’Eon’s pension was stopped in February 1764. But d’Eon had learned much about the British press and public opinion, and skilfully manipulated the situation in print to garner local support.

Doing a carefully plotted Edward Snowden, he published much of the secret diplomatic correspondence related to his recall under the title Lettres, mémoires et négociations particulières du chevalier d’Éon in March 1764.

This breach of diplomatic discretion was scandalous to the point of being unheard of, but since d’Éon had not yet revealed all – holding back the King’s secret invasion documents and those relative to the Secret du Roi, thus holding some damaging blackmail material, the king and the French government became very cautious. d’Éon sued Guerchy for attempted murder; Guerchy sued for libel, and d’Éon was declared an outlaw and went into hiding. However, d’Éon had secured the sympathy of the British public: the mob jeered Guerchy in public, and threw stones at his residence.

Guerchy was recalled to France, and in 1766 Louis XV granted d’Éon a pension – basically a pay-off for d’Éon’s silence. D’Éon continued to work as a spy, protected by possession of the king’s secret letters but in permanent political from France.

Despite the fact that d’Éon usually presented him/herself as a man, and wore a military uniform, rumours started circulating in London that ‘he’ was actually a woman. A betting pool was started on the London Stock Exchange about d’Éon’s true sex, but the Chevalier refused a physical examination as dishonouring, whatever the result. The bet was eventually abandoned.

After the death of king Louis XV in 1774, d’Eon negotiated a return from exile while keeping the pension, but was forced to hand over the secret letters, and was ordered to choose a consistent gender presentation. Choosing to live as a woman, she was instructed to only dress ‘appropriately’ in women’s clothing (though the king provided a free wardrobe of fashionable women’s clothes, which presumably sweetened things), and to live in ‘internal exile’ from Paris. At this point it was apparently accepted in France that she was a woman, who had pretended to be a man in the past.

But the French Revolution eventually brought an end to the pension, and the Chevaliere lived by fighting (in ‘women’s clothes’) in tournaments. She died, bedridden and in poverty in London on 21 May 1810 at the age of 81.

d’Eon’s profile led ‘Eonism’ to become a euphemism for transvestism. More recently a British association for Transvestites, Transsexuals & those close to them was formed under the name of the Beaumont Society in 1966.

Can you baptise your ancestors? One of the tenets of the Mormon faith is that converts are encouraged to retrospectively baptise their long-dead (non-Mormon) ancestors, to adopt them as latter-day saints, er, long after their days had ended. When a Mormon friend first told me this it sent me into a rage – weirdly, more a violent reaction than the constant outrage of how this friend was treated day to day by the Mormon church hierarchy because he was gay. He chose to fight that battle to be accepted, was capable of holding his own, and that was that, (although Mormon theology remains repulsive on sexuality). But re-casting your forebears up to five generations back in the faith you had chosen, ignoring what they really believed or did, seemed to me a violation beyond words. The living can answer back. The dead are somewhat hampered (although I’d love to discover a fourth-generation scion of someone like Lucy Parsons, Dan Chatterton or today’s Tim Minchin trying this trick. Some people’s beliefs transcend their knowledge that their soul is not immortal.)

To some extent, though, anyone who looks backward into the past can fall into this abyss. You can’t always help looking at history through the eyes of now. The tendency to impose your ideas about the world onto your reading of bygone people, movements, events, beliefs, is not only common, but almost inevitable. It takes a monumentally objective viewer to avoid this… And maybe, up to a point, it isn’t desirable… Objectivity is possibly over-rated.

But history is a battle-ground, as much as the present, largely because, as some pontiff (icator) or another remarked,  ‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’
For the purposes of the following, the “he” in that sentence is ironically crucial.
And simplifying the past to fit your meme is often linked to attempting to bend others’ views and actions in the present to your own view of the world. From which it is a short step to abusing them if they don’t buy it.

Some transgender commentators today have adopt d’Eon as unambiguously one of their own – as “the first openly transgendered person in Europe”. Apart from the problem of the lack of the words ‘known’, ‘famous’ or remembered, which ought to figure somewhere, there is, also, however, a limit to the wisdom of this kind of back-projection.

The ‘truth’ (qu’est-que c’est?) will likely never be known, given the murkiness of the tale: espionage, self-promotion, the peculiarly eighteenth century nature of the celebrity culture that made the Chevalier/e such a public figure (more akin to now, perhaps, than 100 years before or 100 years later).

D’Eon’s motivations for living as a woman appear complex. In the beginning it could have been purely practical: enabling the mission in Russia (if it ever really happened) to succeed. Later the notoriety it engendered definitely helped in d’Eon’s factional struggles within the French diplomatic hierarchy. In the 1770s, when the true gender of the ostensibly male diplomat began to be whispered about, a certain foppish androgyny and what would once have been called effeminacy became fashionable in many of the ‘right circles’. There is also a suggestion that d’Eon only reluctantly accepted the female pronoun/cement when judgement was laid down in 1775, though it may have suited both the French court and D’Eon, who was possibly politically neutered by it, but also protected by female identity from further agro with rivals factions.

Some of d”Eon’s drive to re-present as a woman seems to have been about religion, funnily enough – as D’Eon aged, she became more observantly Christian; she also came to believe that the male gender was bound up with sin, while women were associated with virtue. Her adoption of a female identity was increasingly a particular kind of female identity – “Amazonian, pious, virtuous; a woman in the mode of… Joan of Arc.” (Bolich). Perhaps an especially French archetype (although, interestingly, some of the English suffragette movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century moved towards a similar position, declaring men to be sinful, sexual, linked to their oppressive position in power over women, who were naturally virtuous and pure.)

In this, there is an interesting parallel with some people transitioning today, who feel the need to adopt the most stereotypical persona they associate with their identified gender – to the bewilderment of many of us who grew up questioning the social construction of gender in the 1980s.

The case of the Chevalier d’Eon is fascinating (personally I’m intending to follow up this post when I know more and can express it better).

But it raises interesting questions which resonate today, and spark further questions: – How much can you rewrite the history of past struggles, events, individuals, in the light of your own present activities, ignoring what doesn’t fit your needs? How much can you denounce movements for social change in the past for not measuring up to your ideals in the present? You might also add – can you attack , and silence, anyone who raises any doubts, or even wants to just discuss about either the primacy or absolute acceptance of your agenda?


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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