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Cherchez la Femme

Monsieur d’Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade

by Gary Kates
Basic Books, 368 pp., $25.00

It had to happen. Now that gender studies reigns on many campuses as the queen of the social sciences and humanities, someone was sure to rehabilitate the chevalier/chevalière d’Eon, the man/woman who beginning in the 1770s led the diplomats of pre-revolutionary Europe on a merry chase through a series of intrigues that could have come out of The Marriage of Figaro. That Beaumarchais himself got caught in the subplots makes the story all the more interesting: a case of nature imitating art. Now it is available to the general reading public, packaged in a way that suits the times, as a heroic episode in the history of feminism.

Looking back across two decades, it seems that feminist history has passed through two phases: one empirical and triumphalist, an attempt to resurrect worthy women from oblivion; the other theoretical and expansionist, an attempt to map the shifting boundaries of gender.

The first feminist historians tried to create some room of their own within standard accounts of the past by concentrating on biography, especially in the field of early modern Europe. “Cherchez la femme,” they said; and they found her—exercising power, not merely on the throne (Elizabeth I in England) but also behind it (Mme. de Maintenon in France) and directing literature, not merely by perfecting the novel (Mme. de La Fayette, Jane Austen) but also by reviewing it (Mme. de Beaumer, Eliza Haywood). They discovered that Mme. d’Epinay wrote a great deal of the Correspondance littéraire attributed to Grimm and Diderot and that Mme. du Châtelet taught Voltaire to read Newton. They turned up enough women scientists—including feisty, forgotten heroines like Dorothea Erxleben, “Germany’s first woman M.D.” and Dorothea Schlözer, “Germany’s first woman Ph.D.”—to sustain the argument advanced by Poulain de la Barre in 1637 that “the mind has no sex.”1

In short, feminist history restored a great many women to their rightful places in the past. But in doing so, it raised questions about women’s places in general, and it sometimes undercut itself. For if the vindication of women depends on the discovery of an adequate supply of forgotten writers and power-brokers, what is to be done if the numbers turn out to be disappointing?

For my part, I have tried to identify all the women writers in eighteenth-century France. According to one source, a remarkably thorough survey by the police of every author they could locate in Paris from 1748 to 1753, women composed only 4 percent of the total. According to another, La France littéraire, a literary who’s who published at intervals throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, the proportion of women writers varied from 2 percent in 1757 to 3 percent in 1784. Whatever the bias built into the sources, however great the appeal of best-selling authors like Mme. Riccoboni, and with all due allowance for the genius of exceptional individual writers such as Mme. de Graffigny, one cannot avoid the conclusion that women contributed relatively little as writers to the Republic of Letters before 1800.2

To be sure, they contributed a great deal in other capacities, as patrons, readers, and sources of inspiration. They had helped set the tone of literary life in France since the early seventeenth century by establishing salons. There they developed the art of conversation, an important medium in itself and one that left its mark on literature, as in the dialogues of Fontenelle and Diderot, and even on painting, as in Watteau’s fêtes champêtres, which have recently been interpreted as “painted conversations” in feminist art history.3

There is no denying the indirect as well as the direct contributions of women to European culture, yet there is no way to build an adequate cultural history of women around an honor roll of authors and salon lionesses. As an organizing principle, cherchez la femme feminism will not do. Too many women remained excluded from the arts and professions by inferior education, lower literacy rates, and downright discrimination. As Olwen Hufton has emphasized, most women throughout most history lived in obscurity and died in misery after exhausting themselves in the inexorable struggle to put bread on the table.4

But all women, however obscure, had to find a way through contemporary codes of womanhood. Those codes varied according to time, place, and social position. If they could be teased from an adequate supply of sources, they would provide a beginning for a broader and more ambitious history of women. Hence the shift to the study of gender. For if sex is biologically determined, gender is culturally constructed: it can be rigid or flexible, clear or blurred, oppressive in some groups and negotiable in others, depending on what it means to be a man or a woman in a given society.

In a second phase of rewriting history, feminists have therefore tried to trace the dividing line of gender as it moved through societies and across centuries. They have not yet come up with a clear pattern, but they have located certain turning points. The most important seems to be the end of the eighteenth century, when, for the elite, a period of relative flexibility came to a close, Rousseauists and revolutionaries restricted women to the domestic sphere, and lawyers wrote the restrictions into legislation, notably in the Napoleonic code. Whereas Enlightenment philosophers had played with gender and enjoyed its ambiguities, Victorian moralists built it into a system of sexual segregation from which women have only recently begun to recover. Hence the interest in a reappraisal of d’Eon, who spent most of his life testing the line that divided men from women from the Old Regime to the Napoleonic era.

The life itself is well known. It has provided material for two dozen biographies and a vast amount of anecdotal trivia known in France as petite histoire. D’Eon lived the second half of it as a woman, dressed as a woman and proclaimed to be a woman by authorities on both sides of the Channel, notably in England, where £200,000—the equivalent of millions today—had been wagered in bets on the true character of his sex. But when he died, in 1810, d’Eon was found to be a man, male from tip to toe, with a normal sexual apparatus, which was inspected, sketched, and cast in plaster by a gaggle of experts.

The inspection of d’Eon’s life had gone on for years, by d’Eon himself in thousands of published and unpublished pages of autobiographical writing and by an assortment of police spies, diplomats, and journalists. No one ever turned up the slightest evidence of homosexuality, heterosexuality, or sexual activity of any sort. Why then did d’Eon, at the age of forty-nine, let it be known that he was a woman after having cut quite a figure as a diplomat and soldier? That is the question Gary Kates sets himself in the latest biography. It is also the best, not at all an exercise in petite histoire but a book built around questions of gender and narrated in a lively manner, which makes those questions seem anything but academic.

Although the parts of the story are familiar to specialists in the period, Kates rearranges them in a way that brings out the originality of his interpretation. He also divides it into very short chapters, which should be easy for nonspecialists to digest and which contain a great deal of artfully inserted information about diplomacy and literature. Instead of beginning at the beginning of d’Eon’s life, Kates starts with the discovery of his sex at his death. Then he skips back to d’Eon’s coming out as a woman in France in 1777, when Louis XVI forced him to wear women’s clothing—very much against the chevalière’s will, despite his self-proclaimed womanhood, a crucial point, which undercuts the argument that transvestism was the moving force in the whole business.

Eight chapters later, the narrative leaps back again to d’Eon’s childhood, and Kates confronts the possibility of a Freudian argument. The temptation must have been great, because in his own writings d’Eon passed himself off as a girl who was raised as a boy at the command of an oppressive father. Kates wisely rejects it, however, since nothing d’Eon wrote about himself can be taken at face value and little can be corroborated by other evidence.

In fact, d’Eon seems to have had a rather ordinary childhood. His father was a minor nobleman and administrative official in Burgundy. He studied law, then with the help of a Parisian uncle took a job in the office of the intendant for Paris, who in turn smoothed his way into the diplomatic service. D’Eon began as a secretary on a mission to St. Petersburg. He demonstrated enough discretion and wit to be initiated into the Russian branch of the King’s Secret, a clandestine foreign policy that Louis XV pursued behind the back of his own foreign ministry. D’Eon’s patron in the Secret, the comte de Broglie, got him a commission as a captain of Dragoons, an elite regiment, during the Seven Years War. He fought bravely enough to be made a chevalier in the Order of Saint-Louis, but he distinguished himself primarily as a secretary to the due de Nivernais during the peace negotiations in London.

After completing the negotiations, Nivernais wanted to escape the English climate. So he had d’Eon named minister plenipotentiary to the Court of Saint James, and the little chevalier found himself at the age of thirty-five consorting with ambassadors. He even received a letter written by Louis XV himself, charging him to prepare the way for a French invasion of England. When France’s full-time ambassador, the comte de Guerchy, arrived in London in 1763, he had no knowledge of this plan, which remained a secret within the Secret. D’Eon therefore developed a superior attitude toward his superiors, including the foreign minister, the duc de Praslin. And when they ordered him to give up the title of minister plenipotentiary, something inside him snapped.

He refused. Praslin ordered him back to France. D’Eon refused again. No one in diplomatic circles had heard of such a thing: a jumped-up secretary defying a foreign minister. D’Eon’s ascension had occurred at such a dizzying pace that it had gone to his head. Word spread that he was mad. But having been admitted to the innermost secret of the Secret, he considered himself invulnerable. Before long, he and Guerchy were trading insults in English style, by means of pamphlets. Guerchy tried to have him condemned for libel, extradited, and even, it seems, murdered.

D’Eon moved into secure residence, surrounded by swords and pistols on the inside and by a crowd of supporters on the outside. His defiance of the French made him a hero to the English. Londoners linked his cause with that of John Wilkes, the popular agitator for parliamentary reform. And while they demonstrated outside his windows, he tried to force the hand of Louis XV by means of blackmail: if the king did not compensate him adequately and call off Guerchy, d’Eon would reveal the Secret, invasion plans and all.

The plots and subplots continued for years. In the end, d’Eon got nearly everything he wanted: a generous pension, reinstatement as a spy for the Secret, and ultimately a guarantee of a safe return to France. But the question of gender stood in the way of a happy ending to it all, for sometime in 1770 d’Eon dropped a hint that he was really a woman.

Why he did so remains a mystery. Cross-dressing was no rarity among aristocrats in early modern Europe. Gentlemen frequently dressed as ladies and ladies as gentlemen in balls at the court of Empress Elizabeth in St. Petersburg. Horace Walpole kept a whole trunkful of gowns for masquerade balls in London, and the abbé de Choisy regularly exchanged his ecclesiastical robes for dresses in order to impress the précieuses in the salons of Paris at the end of the seventeenth century. Choisy even wore his jewelry to sessions of the Académie Française and decked his mistresses out as boys. But there was no trace of sexual coquetterie in the behavior of d’Eon, who apparently remained a virgin all his life and did not dress as a woman until ordered to do so in 1777 by Louis XVI. The king accepted the story that d’Eon was a woman, having learned of it through diplomatic channels where it had been planted by d’Eon himself, and he considered it unseemly for a former minister plenipotentiary who was actually a female to parade around in the uniform of a captain of Dragoons.

Gary Kates does not provide an explanation for this private masquerade, except to assert that d’Eon wanted to change his gender rather than his sex. That, however, is a way of restating the problem, not of solving it. The distinction between sex and gender is valid enough, but the transformation of gender is a puzzle that still lies at the heart of d’Eon’s biography.

Whatever his reasons may have been, d’Eon let it be known that he was a woman and kept the rumor running by indignantly refusing to deny it. Soon all of Europe was gossiping about his sex, and all of London was betting on it. D’Eon pretended to be outraged by this affront to his honor. He even burst into a tavern near the Stock Exchange and challenged one of the bettors to a duel. But he refused to provide proof of his male sexuality. And when some of those who had wagered on his womanhood took their case to court, they won. The case, argued before Chief Justice Mansfield at the Court of King’s Bench in July 1777, turned on the law of contracts (bets were contracted in the form of insurance policies), and the jury was convinced by the misleading testimony of a male midwife, who claimed to have treated d’Eon for a female disorder. As thousands of pounds changed hands, d’Eon began to look like the most important woman to seize stage center in European affairs since Joan of Arc.

Meanwhile in negotiating with agents of the French government, d’Eon confirmed the rumor that he had first planted. Beaumarchais, who was one of them, spread the word that he and d’Eon had fallen in love and planned to be married, while another, the pamphleteer Charles Théveneau de Morande, claimed to have fondled d’Eon’s vagina.

The newspapers could not get enough of it. But Louis XVI wanted to put an end to the scandal and to dismantle the Secret. So by the end of 1777 d’Eon found himself back in France, bought off with a pension but excluded from the diplomatic corps and, for reasons of decency, forced to wear a dress. After protesting that he would rather be in uniform fighting the British in America, and with the help of some lessons by Rose Bertin, Director of the Queen’s Wardrobe, he made quite a credible appearance as a lady. His flat chest and military stride only added piquancy to the story that he promoted: he was indeed a modern Joan of Arc.

That was the story that he tried to take to his grave. In 1785 he returned to London, ostensibly to settle some debts but probably to escape from his native Tonnerre, where he had been exiled by the king as punishment for his extravagant behavior. D’Eon remained in London through the French Revolution and most of Napoleon’s rule, still dressed as a woman, until he died, poor and obscure, in 1810. The truth about his sex did not come to light until his housemate, the widow of a British naval officer, began to dress the body for burial.

It is a great story, but what does it prove? According to Kates, it reveals the fluidity of gender in an age when gender lines had not yet hardened into a system for segregating women from men. D’Eon, one of the boldest negotiators in the old-world school of diplomacy, demonstrated that gender itself could be negotiated. His life provides a moral for us all, especially those in the front lines of gender battles in the new world.

Despite his skill as a biographer, Kates runs into difficulties when he carries the story beyond the limits of d’Eon’s life. He describes prerevolutionary Europe as consumed with “a crisis in its ‘sex/gender regime.’ ” “Literary transvestism” (the case of Samuel Richardson) and cross-dressing had become such a rage that it was sometimes impossible to tell the sexes apart, especially in Paris, “the capital of European gender bending.” Fashion brought out the effeminate qualities in men, and literature celebrated the Amazonian traits in women. “Across Europe, gender roles had become a burning subject of debate.”

Maybe. But there isn’t much evidence that Europeans had difficulty distinguishing men from women before 1789 or that they worried excessively about the distinction. Among the educated classes—and it should be remembered that d’Eon’s story concerns only the thinnest of upper crusts—their minds seemed to be set on other things: the American Revolution, the madness of George III, the disintegration of Poland, balloon flights, stockmarket scandals, and the Diamond Necklace Affair. For every reference to cross-dressing in the press, one could provide a dozen to Dr. Mesmer and the practice of animal magnetism. Dress itself does not bear out the theme of gender blurring. Plunging necklines and high-rise coiffures made it easy to tell ladies from gentlemen in eighteenth-century courts. And the male wig hardly serves as a measure of increasing effeminacy. The short “macaroni” style in the eighteenth-century song about “Yankee Doodle” was less ladylike than the long and luxuriant “curly locks” in the seventeenth-century jingle about Charles II, who seems to have been the original target of the Mother Goose rhyme.

Gender roles certainly were different two centuries ago from what they are today, but there is a danger in reading today’s concerns into the distant past. Kates makes a heroine of his hero. He claims that d’Eon tried to open up careers for women in the diplomatic corps and army. But no one seriously contemplated the possibility of making women ambassadors and soldiers in the eighteenth century, and d’Eon seems to have done nothing to promote the interests of anyone but himself. Nowhere in the longwinded rambling of his thirteen-volume Loisirs du chevalier d’Eon (1774) does he have a word to say about the cause of feminism. Never in his career as a self-proclaimed woman in England and France did he join forces with feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay or speak up in favor of Olympe de Gouges and her Declaration of the Rights of Women.

D’Eon was not a forthright feminist—and certainly not “the most pronounced male feminist in early modern history” (that title probably belongs to Condorcet)—but rather a man imitating a woman imitating a man. There was at least a grain of duplicity and a pinch of exhibitionism in this double masquerade. When he ran out of the fortune he had accumulated by means of blackmail and espionage, he put on performances as a female fencer. Dressed in a special costume, half male, half female, he toured England at the head of a troupe and took on all comers. Aside from fencing partners, the group included actors, singers, and musicians. It was a kind of traveling circus, and it kept d’Eon in cash, until he had to give it up at the age of sixty-eight after being wounded in a duel at Southampton.

Kates says nothing about the Barnum-and-Bailey aspect of d’Eon’s career. Instead, he concentrates on the chevalière’s “conversion,” after his gender switch, to a private kind of piety that can be identified retrospectively as “Christian feminism.” Insofar as it can be reconstructed from fragments in d’Eon’s manuscripts, it looks like an idiosyncratic variety of Augustinian Catholicism built on the hatred of men (especially Jews, owing to their emphasis on circumcision), a vision of a gender-free Garden of Eden (Adam seems to have been the first hermaphrodite), and moral insights, which Kates considers “exceptionally rich and original,” such as: “God created [woman and man], the one for doing good, the other for doing bad. So long as a man is a man, the earth is his; so long as a woman is a woman, virtue is hers.”

Kates culled these pensées from d’Eon’s manuscripts in the University of Leeds Library. They certainly demonstrate that the chevalière turned to piety in his last years. But even here the picture is blurred. D’Eon undoubtedly studied Saint Paul, but he read Horace just as avidly. In fact, the one section of his library that he could not bear to part with when he sold his books to support himself in his old age was his collection of a hundred editions of Horace’s Odes. Kates attributes d’Eon’s “conversion” to the influence of Jansenism, the austere, Augustinian strain of Catholicism that was persecuted as a heresy in eighteenth-century France; yet he also traces it to the influence of Christophe de Beaumont, the Archbishop of Paris and the archenemy of the Jansenists.

Similar inconsistencies can be found throughout d’Eon’s career. He identified with Rousseau, the apostle of the cult of domesticity for women, while he struggled as a woman to retain a role in the public sphere. He also identified with Joan of Arc, the epitome of female engagement in public life, while contemplating withdrawal to a nunnery. His asceticism as a Christian did not get in the way of his exhibitionism as an athlete. Nor did his contact with freethinkers like Voltaire and Paine disturb his commitment to the Catholic Church. He was an arch royalist and an early enthusiast for the French Revolution, a darling of the Wilkite crowd in London and the cynosure of the beau monde in Paris, a war hero and a blackmailer, a woman and a man—in short, a bundle of contradictions.

Kates smoothes out the story by trying to reconcile its inconsistencies; but it might have been more fruitful to treat d’Eon as a character who embraced contradictions, who reveled in them, played them off against each other, and used them to capture the imagination of his contemporaries. By doing so, the biographer could have penetrated deeper into the fault lines of Western culture, but at a cost: he would not have ended triumphantly, with a moral about the conquest of the borderlines of gender.

A less triumphant ending could actually be more interesting, for the challenge in the history of gender comes from the way it cuts across the categories of conventional history. In his politics, d’Eon was a monarchist; in his social life, a snob; in his religious convictions, a staunch Catholic. Yet he played at being a woman. Gender was his wild card, and he played it so well—bluffing, cheating, and constantly raising the stakes—that he modified the game itself. For anyone concerned with cracks in value systems, the chevalier/chevalière is a puzzle still worth pondering.

  1. 1

    See, for example, Nina Rattner Gelbart, Feminine and Opposition Journalism in Old Regime France: “Le Journal des Dames” (University of California Press, 1987); Ruth Plaut Weinreb, Eagle in a Gauze Cage: Louise d’Epinay, Femme de Lettres (AMS Press, 1993); and Londa Schiebinger, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (Harvard University Press, 1989).

  2. 2

    See Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (Basic Books, 1984), chapter 4, and “The Literary Revolution of 1789,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 21 (1991), pp. 3–26.

  3. 3

    See Benedetta Craveri, Madame du Deffand et son monde (Paris: Seuil, 1987), translated as Madame du Deffand and her World (Godine, 1994), and Mary Vidal, Watteau’s Painted Conversations (Yale University Press, 1992).

  4. 4

    Olwen Hufton, “Women, Work, and Family” in Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge, editors, A History of Women in the West (Harvard University Press/Belknap Press, 1993), Vol. III, Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, Chapter 1.

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