Chevalier d’Eon the French powerful man, spy and Christian woman

The Chevalier d’Eon is an idiosyncratic figure in French history: a powerful spy and statesman who became an overnight celebrity after leaking confidential state documents to the British public, he would be exiled from France for a decade for his intransigence, only to return to France as a pious Christian woman.

Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart, 1792. Held by the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1777, the ill-fated King Louis XVI issued a bizarre decree: the Chevalier d’Eon, a decorated statesman and spy who had ten years earlier outsmarted Louis’ father in an early-modern game of realpolitik by leaking confidential documents to the British public, was to return to France immediately, and do so as a woman.

The decree, though, was neither some misogyny-drenched attempt to emasculate a treacherous noble by the king, nor was it viewed as particularly bizarre by anybody at the time. Rather, it had been the fruit of d’Eon’s own insistence that he was born female but had been forced into manhood by an oppressive father who yearned with lascivious desperation for a son. D’Eon’s alleged birth sex had, in fact, been for many years regarded as an open secret on both sides of the Channel, where people shared leaflets illustrating a hermaphroditic aristocrat like gossip-column press shots. A betting pool was even opened on the London Stock Exchange with 3:2 odds on the chevalier being a chevalière, while d’Eon had to hire armed security to stop a ravenous proto-paparazzi from tearing at his trousers whenever he stepped out his home. It all reads an eighteenth-century reimagining of those 2010s rumours that Lady Gaga was a man. Perez Hilton would have had a field day.

Eventually, though, D’Eon acquiesced to the king’s order. By then a sort of celebrity figure, that year he would at last make his return to an eagerly awaiting France and, after being given privy access to Rose Bertin, personal stylist to Marie-Antoinette, d’Eon presented herself to the king and his pelican-eyed court. Once all necessary peacocking was done, the newly recognised Mademoiselle la Chevalière d’Eon was swiftly banished to her Burgundian hometown for whistleblowing and insubordination, passing the remainder of her days there until her 1810 death, when a subsequent autopsy proclaimed that she had male genitals. The chevalier who had become a chevalière was, by contemporary medical standards at least, a chevalier after all, and the idiosyncratic figure was soon scrubbed from the already Pollock-esque portrait of France’s eighteenth century as a freak misnomer. But the question remains: why all this gender trouble in the first place?

D’Eon’s story begins where it ended, in the handsome Burgundian town of Tonnerre when he was born there to a minor but ambitious aristocratic family on 5 October 1728. A prodigious student and writer, his calibre soon outgrew its provincial surroundings and, in 1743, he moved to Paris to study law, further cultivating a reputation as a man of exceptional talent and charm in the capital. When he completed his studies six years later, he was poached into France’s diplomatic machine and, by 1756, he had won a move to St. Petersburg as secretary to the ambassador to Russia.

Empress Elizaveta Petrovna of Russia, dressed in male Cossack uniform at one of her crossdressing balls.

Russia was, at the time, a crucial ally to France. Its reigning monarch, Elizaveta Petrovna, had been installed on the throne fifteen years earlier in a French-instigated coup, the work of a secret cell of spies in King Louis XV’s personal service tasked with covertly advancing French interests abroad. This cell would afterwards develop into a privileged group of a couple dozen members known as the King’s Secret, serving to the king directly and often in missions that contradicted France’s official diplomatic aims. The Chevalier d’Eon, upon his dispatch to Russia, was to be trusted as its newest member.

D’Eon proved a fastidious member of the Secret, quickly inserting himself as a favourite in Elizaveta’s court and earning himself invite to her ‘metamorphosis balls’, decadent parties in which her most trusted advisors were made to dance in drag for an evening. As d’Eon’s stock grew, however, France’s spiralled into diplomatic free fall. A series of colonial scuffles with Britain across the Atlantic devolved into what would become known as the Seven Years’ War, a catastrophic affair for France only worsened by Empress Elizaveta’s death in January 1762. Her successor, the ill-revered Tsar Peter III, had something of a fetish for Prussia and ended Russia’s military alliance with France upon his coronation, preferring to chummy up to the British ally instead. The move, which left an already weakened France even more isolated, forced Louis XV to concede defeat and open peace negotiations with Britain. In an effort to try win the best terms possible from the treaty, Louis sent a core of his most talented diplomats to London, and D’Eon was one of them.

In February 1763, France signed off on the disastrous terms that were eventually negotiated, stripping her of most of her colonial possessions in North America, including in Canada and Louisiana. Despite this, however, D’Eon was recognised for having been a diligent member of France’s team and, that April, won the promotion of lifetime, appointed minister plenipotentiary to London until a permanent candidate could be found. The promotion effectively made D’Eon among the most powerful statesmen in Europe.

Senior members of the King’s Secret were quick to realise what this meant: one of their most talented spies was now France’s most influential diplomat in England, at the helm of the very nation that had just cost France both its empire and its dignity. And they were quick to strike. D’Eon was directed by his superiors to weaponise this influence, fraternise with King George III’s political enemies, bribe his supporters, and sway important parliamentary votes in order to destabilise the domestic situation. But Louis wanted more cutting revenge.

A 1787-9 portrait by Alexandre Auguste Robineau depicting a fencing match between the Chevalier d’Eon and the Chevalier de Saint-George.

On 3 June 1763, D’Eon received a letter from King Louis XV, instructing him that France was prepared to, using the peace settlement as a cover, launch a surprise invasion of England if he could help organise the necessary arrangements from the inside. D’Eon had now climbed the political ladder one step further still, privy to a scandalous plot that only three other men, the King included, knew anything about. Armed with this knowledge, he played a bold move. Having heard news that a permanent candidate for the minister plenipotentiary job had been found and that the plush salary that had come with the job would soon slip away, d’Eon appealed to the king and the Secret that he would not step down, even when the Foreign Office insisted. He became intransigent, sending a series of increasingly indignant letters back to Paris threatening retaliation: “I will always go my own way,” read one, “[…] Too bad for those who get splashed with mud or hit with pieces […] The devil take me if I retreat”. The king, however, backed the Foreign Office and insisted that d’Eon step down quietly as not to risk drawing excess attention to his role in England. So d’Eon played his trump card.

In 1764, d’Eon published a 200-page document called the Lettres, mémoires, et négociations, containing his correspondences with several key French diplomats. Although d’Eon was careful not to include anything that exposed the King’s Secret or indeed his plot, his message was clear: stay back. The book was a sensation in England and caused international scandal, being talked about everywhere from Versailles to schoolhouse classrooms. D’Eon was made a celebrity overnight. Backed into a corner, meanwhile, the king was forced to compromise with the knight, and so d’Eon was exiled to London to satiate Foreign Office heads who wanted to see him punished for undermining their authority, but would be allowed to continue working for the Secret and would receive a generous pension in doing so.

It was during this London exile that rumours started to percolate. Although historians are divided as to their origin as d’Eon ambivalently fed the rotating rumour mill, refusing to pass public comment on his sex and challenging those who questioned it to armed duels, biographer Gary Kates insists the rumours may have begun with d’Eon himself as a means of moral generation following his estrangement from political life in France. D’Eon at the time possessed the largest library of proto-feminist texts and manuscripts in the world, including a deep genealogy of works that upheld women such as Joan of Arc as paragons of Christian virtue and that encouraged men to take on feminine characteristics. “Women are stronger in faith than men,” wrote d’Eon in one passage Kates uncovered, “and God loves each one more than all men put together”. It is then no coincidence that, during this time, d’Eon increasingly turned towards the Christian faith or that, by the time he had transitioned to womanhood in France, was fashioning himself as “La Pucelle de Tonnerre”, echoing Joan of Arc’s nickname, “La Pucelle d’Orléans”.

The surprising fluidity of gender codes and norms in the early modern period is important to keep in mind here. Already mentioned are the crossdressing balls of Tsarina Elizaveta’s court in Russia, affairs that she is said to have revelled in. However, contemporary accounts of twisted gender codes are abundant, from a Russian woman named Nadezhda Durova who disguised herself as a man to join the Russian army to Hannah Snell, an English woman who did the same to join the Royal Navy, to the Abbé de Choisy, an esteemed French noble who chose to dress in women’s garbs. Even Joan of Arc, d’Eon’s self-proclaimed idol, has been interrogated (albeit with a fair deal of controversy) as a trans figure by modern queer scholars due to her adoption of masculine clothing and social roles during her lifetime. “She was a transvestite,” argued trans trailblazer Leslie Feinberg about the saint, “an expression of her identity she was willing to die for.”

A pejorative 1778 engraving depicting the Chevalier/Chevalière d’Eon.

The point being, early modern understandings of gender were different from ours, as was their vocabulary. A language of trans-ness didn’t exist, and although what we may now understand as trans embodiment was not necessarily embraced by 18th-century Europe – “Object: Hail!” proclaimed one 1778 engraving depicting the Chevalier/Chevalière d’Eon, “Thou Production most uncommon, Woman half-man and man half-Woman” – there was an uneasy tolerance of gender fluidity that could spill into social acceptance and even commemoration at the time. The aforementioned Nadezhda Durova, for example, would personally be awarded the Cross of St. George by Tsar Alexander I because he was so impressed by her ‘amazon woman’ status (Durova, meanwhile, described herself in androgynous and arguably trans-masculine terms in her memoir), while d’Eon would be used by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges, and Mary Robinson as an example of what women could achieve if given the same opportunities as men: “We have several times seen women metamorphosed into men, and doing their duty in war,” reflected conservative philosopher Edmund Burke about d’Eon, “but we have seen no one who has united so many military, political and literary talents”. This quote above all else succinctly summarises two key points to take away: that gender was fluid in the eighteenth-century world and that women could be “metamorphosed into men”; and that d’Eon was not only accepted, but celebrated as a woman.

After her return to France, d’Eon lived a relatively quiet life outside the public eye, focusing on her Christianity and the compilation of a memoir that would never be published. The memoir was to be, in d’Eon’s words, her redemptive journey from a “bad boy to a good girl”. And, although d’Eon would make infrequent attempts before her death to return to courtly life, most notably by offering her services as a soldier to the government during the American War of Independence, she died a relatively obscure figure and would be called a man of “questionable gender” in her obituary. This seems hardly the ending she would have wanted, yet her reclamation in recent trans discourse, including a trans organisation (The Beaumont Society) named for her and a mention in a Sasha Colby interview, gestures towards the importance of finding breaches of the gender binary across history, of showing that it hasn’t always been like this. Maybe categorising the Chevalier d’Eon concretely as trans is problematic, especially since such modern concepts did not exist in such early modern times, however her divine rejection of dichotomised, immutable gender boundaries bears defiant witness to the fact that these boundaries aren’t immutable, that they have always been porous. As Kates concludes, “I think what makes d’Eon so historically significant and such an important pioneer for today is not what he did but the extent to which he thought about it and gave ideas to it”. Through his thought and action, d’Eon, if only quietly, revolutionised gender.

(A note on pronouns: in maintaining with the most recent academic scholarship on d’Eon’s life, he/him pronouns are used in reference to his life before returning to France when he began to live as a woman, while she/her pronouns are used to refer to her after that point. The question of pronouns is difficult since such debates didn’t exist in 18th-century discourse, however this reflects best how d’Eon chose to write about him/herself.)

Article by Jude Jones

Jude Jones is a staff writer at GAY45. He is also an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge primarily researching the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA.

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